Liberia's top two face off

The country's first postwar elections Tuesday pit a soccer star dropout against a Harvard-educated politician.

Among the tens of thousands of supporters at a rally for Harvard-educated presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, young men with megaphones fired up the crowd with a chant aimed at supporters of her top competitor, former soccer star George Weah.

"Do you see anyone with their trousers hanging below their butts?" they screamed, building off a stereotype of Mr. Weah's supporters as uneducated - even thuggish - youths. "No!" shouted the crowd.

Two days later, Weah rallied a massive crowd of more than 100,000 supporters packed cheek by jowl in the sweltering heat by emphasizing virtue over academic credentials. "An honest man is the only true noble man. Education does not mean accumulated and specialized training."

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank loan officer who also worked for the UN for years, and Weah, who grew up poor but became a world-famous soccer legend after playing for some of Europe's top teams, represent a deep divide between the highly educated and the uneducated in Africa's first independent republic. And Tuesday's Ivy League vs. Premier League matchup will reveal whether Weah's populist appeal can trump Johnson-Sirleaf's governmental experience and credentials.

Twenty other candidates are vying for the top spot, but either George or Ellen - as many call them here - will likely be elected president of this small, war-weary West African nation after all the ballots being cast in Tuesday's landmark elections are counted. The winner will face the daunting task of resurrecting a failed state - but one rich in resources - and regaining the trust of the international community after years of conflict and governmental corruption. Liberians hope the first presidential and legislative elections since the 14-year civil war ended two years ago will help bring peace and democracy, and with hundreds of former fighters still unemployed, the stability of the conflict-prone region could be at stake.

Locked in a dead heat throughout the past few weeks of campaigning, the two front-runners are opposites in almost every way. She worked as the country's minister of finance in the 1970s and more recently as vice president of Citicorp. Weah counts his nine years as UNICEF goodwill ambassador as his only political experience. He speaks Liberian English, in an honest and sometimes explosive manner. She is eloquent, with polished diction and a calm, measured delivery.

The most glaring difference between the two is formal education. Johnson- Sirleaf graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in public administration; Weah dropped out of high school after his junior year.

Weah's lack of college education stands out in a presidential race stacked with US-educated candidates. But he is tired of hearing about it.

Freshly showered and back from a game of soccer with a local team in a village near his house, he says soccer teaches tolerance, respect and "how to stabilize people" - all things necessary for a president. He becomes agitated when asked about his top competitor's educational credentials.

"You know how many presidents I've sat with in the world?" he says, irritated. "An educated man is one that is willing to develop people. Ask the PhDs (in the race) ... how many schools have they built?" He claimed that those with advanced degrees have done little to help the country, and sat in America as the country was destroyed.

Weah's "grassrooters" (as his supporters are called here) say they are fed up with the domination of Liberian politics by the small minority of "Congos" or Americo-Liberians, those whose ancestors were freed US slaves and have largely dominated politics since the country was founded in 1847.

In fact, his supporters have turned his lack of education into a rally cry: "You know book, you don't know book. We will vote for you."

At Weah's party headquarters, young men hold informal political debates. "We've seen no development from [educated Congos]," shouts Sylvester Panten, a 27-year-old man with a pair of glossy sunglasses on his shaved head and a crisp shirt with Weah's face on it. Mr. Panten says Weah always stood up for the common people. "[During the war] when we were sucking Kiss Me and eating leaves, George Weah went to the UN and told them our people are dying," he says, referring to the snail-like animal that many Liberians were forced to eat during the war.

Weah is proposing a National Reconciliation and Healing Program, which will provide academic, vocational, and career development opportunities for former combatants and other war-affected youth. His platform also calls for free primary education. Secondary and undergraduate education will be subsidized by the government.

Gibson Jerue, news editor at the Analyst newspaper in Monrovia, says Weah's popular appeal is widespread, but adds that people are worried that he could be "manipulated by the educated ones behind him."

Manipulation isn't what concerns voters about Johnson-Sirleaf; it's her former ties with exiled president Charles Taylor, who has been indicted for crimes against humanity by neighboring Sierra Leone's UN-backed war crimes court.

Johnson-Sirleaf has repeatedly said that she only supported Mr. Taylor early on in his bid to pressure former president Samuel Doe - who overthrew President William Tolbert in a 1980 coup - out of the government. When she realized he was after power himself, she says, she spent the next several years working to remove him.

Johnson-Sirleaf admits making a mistake by trusting Taylor, but calls him "a diminishing threat to the country." She says she is focusing on a platform to rebuild the shattered infrastructure, jump-start education, and provide opportunities for 15,000 war-affected children.

She says her platform sets her apart, because she places more emphasis on anticorruption efforts and engaging war-affected youth.

Her plan includes a sweeping revitalization of the education system, with the refurbishing of academic and vocational institutions, the introduction of farming practices to students, and after-school sports programs.

"That's where Mr. Weah comes in," she quips.

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