MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia’s 19th president was overthrown and assassinated. His successor was executed by guerrillas who first cut off his ears. No. 21 won office after igniting a civil war but fled into exile amid a rebel assault on the capital.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — a strong-willed, erudite, 67-year-old former finance minister — wants to be No. 23.
If her commanding electoral lead is certified, she will become Africa’s first elected female head of state, one of the few in the world.
“It’s a big task. I’m aware of the enormity of this,” a bespectacled Johnson-Sirleaf said in an interview at her residence this week. “But I also think that I’m up to the task.”
With more than 99 percent of ballots counted Saturday, Johnson-Sirleaf was poised for near-certain victory in Tuesday’s runoff, racking up a solid 59.6 percent of the vote compared with 40.4 percent for her soccer star rival, George Weah.
Though international observers say the poll was fair, Weah has waged a formal complaint of fraud. On Friday, despite Weah’s call for calm, hundreds of stone-throwing protesters backing him marched through Monrovia and briefly skirmished with U.N. troops, who fired tear gas and wielded batons.
Though a return to war is unlikely with 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers on guard, memories of recent fighting, and fears of more, abound.
Weah’s supporters include tens of thousands of former combatants, as well as 1990s faction leader Alhaji Kromah and Sekou Conneh, who led the rebel war that ousted warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor in 2003.
Reaching out to opponents to ensure they do not feel excluded may be the greatest challenge Johnson-Sirleaf faces. She has offered Weah a Cabinet post — perhaps minister of youth and sports.
“I will appeal to him and invite him to come and work with us so that we can all work in the interests of the country,” Johnson-Sirleaf said. “We’re going to have a government of inclusion.”
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia was relatively prosperous and stable until an illiterate master sergeant named Samuel Doe ousted the country’s 19th president, William Tolbert, in a 1980 coup.
Johnson-Sirleaf was Tolbert’s finance minister. She escaped a post-coup purge that saw 13 Cabinet ministers tied to wooden poles in their underwear and executed by firing squad while cameras rolled.
She fled overseas but returned, only to be jailed by Doe for criticizing him in a speech while running for the Senate.
In 1989, warlord Charles Taylor invaded the country with a rebel army, kicking off civil war. Several factions fought to a standstill and elections were held in 1997.
Johnson-Sirleaf ran a distant second to Taylor, who many say won because Liberians feared fighting would resume if he did not. Her guts in taking on the country’s most feared warlord earned her the sobriquet “Iron Lady.”
Rebels took up arms against Taylor several years later, eventually sweeping into the capital. Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria, and his deputy, Moses Blah, briefly took office as the 22nd president before a caretaker government was set up.
The scars of war are easy to see in Liberia. Rebuilding will take monumental amounts of time and money.
At night, the city is lit only by candles, lanterns, and generators. It has no electricity infrastructure — something Johnson-Sirleaf says she has lined up private investors to fix within six months.
She also has other ambitious plans.
She wants to step up exploitation of mineral wealth — the country is rich in diamonds, timber and rubber.
She wants to make primary education free, critical when only about 55 percent of the country’s 3 million people can read and 60 percent of school-age children attend school, according to the United Nations.
She wants exiled Liberians, many of them in the United States, to return home and invest their money and expertise.
Crucially, she wants to win over skeptical donors with good governance, something she hopes will bring investment and economic growth, boosting jobs in return. Unemployment is around 85 percent, she said.
Liberia’s national budget is $80 million. Annual donor aid is about $300 million, most of it given directly through aid projects.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s critics see her association with past, failed governments as a severe drawback. She supported Taylor in the early days of his war against Doe, though she has since expressed regret for that.
Still, she draws support from everyone from market women to the educated classes who appreciate the fact she’s held top jobs in government, served as Africa chief of the U.N. Development Program, studied economics and graduated from Harvard University. By contrast, Weah dropped out of high school.
Campaign buttons proclaim “Ellen — She’s Our Man.”
“All the men who’ve tried to run this country have failed us,” said Edward Clinton, vice chairman of Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party. “The time has come to try one experienced woman.”