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By Lisa Vives
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf winds up her presidential career this month with a major record of achievements as Africa’s first female head of state.
The economy is four times its size when she took office in 2005. The national debt has been wiped out, schools are being built and enrollment is up. The country is no longer beset by hostilities or rampaging child soldiers trained by mercenary warlords during decades of civil war.
Informally known as “Ma Ellen,” her administration built or renovated hundreds of markets across the country for thousands of “market women” – the Liberian president’s largest voting constituency.
With help from the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, she drafted legislation increasing the penalties for rape. And in 2011 she received the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.
At her final address to the U.N. General Assembly last month she summed up her legacy: “Liberia has remained stable, peaceful and secured”.
But to her critics, these achievements were fragile gains or worse, woefully inadequate. A major dent to her legacy came in 2012 with the defection of her close ally, Ms. Gbowee, who accused the president of nepotism by appointing her sons to high positions and for not doing enough to address poverty.
“In her first term she developed infrastructure,” Gbowee said. “But what good is infrastructure if people don’t have enough to eat? The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there’s no middle class.”
She may have “broken the glass ceiling”, says Ruth Caesar, coordinator of the Liberian Women’s Political Forum, inspiring other women to enter politics, but how many will get elected?
In this year’s high-stakes elections, only 163 out of 1,026 approved candidates for local office are women, including one running for president in a field of over 20 men – a mere 2 percent increase since 2005.
Election observers are betting on two as the top contenders – George Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change, and Joseph Boakai, vice president since 2006. Final results to be announced on Oct. 25.
Meanwhile, the 78 year old Johnson Sirleaf says she will lecture, farm and read in retirement. She is also considering an offer of a fellowship from Georgetown University.