Liberia's Presidential Wait ; Claims of Fraud May Delay Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Entrance into the History Books

Article excerpt

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stands on the doorstep of history - as Liberia's president and Africa's first elected female head of state.

But her entrance could be at least temporarily sidetracked by allegations of fraud by her disgruntled opponent, former soccer star George Weah.

With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Ms. Johnson- Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank official leads the race with 59.6 percent of the vote while Weah trails with 40.4 percent. International observers say the vote was fair. But Weah has lodged a formal complaint.

Cognizant of the violent uprisings that have often preceded - or followed - the rise to power of Liberian leaders, Johnson-Sirleaf knows that her biggest immediate challenge is to placate Weah and his agitated followers.

"Weah could be making legitimate claims here," says Thomas Jaye, a Liberian research fellow at Britain's Birmingham University. "If these claims are true, then the international community [has] to reconsider the results of the elections. And even if Ellen was approved legally as leader, she could remain illegitimate in the eyes of the Liberian people."

Johnson-Sirleaf, however, disagrees. She says the people voted their conscience and she is personally stung by the allegations of fraud.

"Frankly, it's the recent advisers to Mr. Weah that are coming up with this," says Johnson-Sirleaf, sitting in the palaver hut in her yard, wearing eggshell-white jeans. "They are just giving him bad advice. I don't think Mr. Weah himself understands the implications of what he's doing."

But Weah and his youthful supporters are certain that the international observers who declared the elections fair are mistaken. Weah has presented to the media with pre-marked ballots and has issued a formal complaint to the European Commission, which is part of a team that will investigate the claims. The National Elections Commission says it will announce final election results Tuesday.

On Saturday, Liberian riot police and some of the 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers stationed here blocked a small group of Weah demonstrators from getting too close to the UN headquarters. Josephus Eric Kennedy, a political science student atthe university, and says he came to the protest out of curiosity. He says many of the demonstrators took part in the 14-year civil war. If the fraud allegations aren't given credence, the situation "could degenerate into chaos. It warrants an investigation," he says.

Johnson-Sirleaf says that if the National Election Commission certifies her as president, she will invite Weah to join her government. "I'll have to see what he wants," she says, adding that he would make a good Minister of Youth and Sports. …