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Economist poised to become Africa's first female head of state

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NAIROBI, Kenya - A Harvard-trained economist was poised to become Africa's first female head of state Thursday as she built a nearly insurmountable lead in Liberia's runoff presidential election.

With about 90 percent of the vote tallied, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led ex-soccer star George Weah 59 percent to 41 percent. The election is Liberia's first since the end of a 14-year civil war.

Weah, the pre-election favorite, has challenged the results, claiming that ballot boxes were stuffed for his opponent. Election officials will conduct an investigation, but international observers said Tuesday's election appeared fair and downplayed Weah's charges.

"So far the level of fraud that he has indicated, at least publicly, would not seem to rise to the level that would challenge the results of the election," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Liberia.

The Weah campaign said it found evidence of poll workers at five polling places stuffing a total of 150 false ballots marked for Johnson-Sirleaf after voting ended Tuesday. Although the ballots represented a sliver of the more than 800,000 votes cast, Weah's aides suggested that they were part of a wider campaign of "cleverly systematically orchestrated ballot-stuffing" and that election officials were complicit.

Weah's aides said there was no other way to explain how Johnson-Sirleaf - who won 20 percent of the vote in October's first-round election compared with Weah's 28 percent - held such a commanding lead. She holds majorities in 10 of Liberia's 15 counties, including two that voted for Weah in the first round.

"We have to admit that in some areas, we are dumbfounded as to how she could be leading in areas that were traditionally our strongholds," said Sam Steve Quoah, Weah's campaign spokesman.

The fraud charges marred the climax of a largely free and peaceful election that represented a critical point in Liberia's transition from civil war, which left it among the world's poorest countries. Unemployment is estimated at 85 percent, and the seaside capital, Monrovia, lacks electricity and running water.

A national hero with a thin education and no political experience, Weah captured the support of young voters, including thousands of unemployed males who once wielded Kalashnikov rifles as child soldiers.

But voters in the runoff appeared to favor Johnson-Sirleaf's robust resume - she served as the country's finance minister and worked at the United Nations and the World Bank - and her reputation for toughness, which earned her the nickname "Iron Lady."

Although she struggled at times to explain her past support for the dictator Charles Taylor - who presided over Liberia's decline in the 1990s and is now in exile in Nigeria - Johnson-Sirleaf won over voters with her technocratic savvy and pragmatism, aides said.

"When it boiled down to a stark choice between her and Weah, the public realized that they could not entrust the future of this country to an unschooled footballer," said Harry Greaves, a top aide to Johnson-Sirleaf.

She's pledged to trim government bureaucracy, promote foreign investment and prioritize basic services such as water, roads and health care. Liberia is blessed with rich stores of timber, rubber, gold and other natural resources - much of which has been squandered by elites and despots since the country's founding in 1847 by freed American slaves.

"There is absolutely no reason this should be a poor country," Greaves said. "Ellen has contacts and enormous credibility in the international community. She can make things happen."

Throughout the election campaign - under the watch of more than 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers - Liberians voiced a desire to end a three-decade cycle of violence. Three-quarters of Liberia's 1.3 million registered voters turned out for the October election; that number stands at 60 percent for the runoff.

Since the 2003 peace agreement that sent Taylor into exile and created a transitional government, the massive U.N. presence and support from the United States and other international donors have brought a measure of calm. More than 100,000 former combatants were disarmed and the United Nations has started training a civilian police force.

Greaves acknowledged the immense challenges but said the election proved that Liberians were ready for peace.

"I think few African countries could do what we have done in such a short time," Greaves said. "Only two and a half years ago there were mortars raining down on Monrovia."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.



(C) 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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