Liberia's presidential wait

Claims of fraud may delay Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's entrance into the history books.

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. "I hope that he can be persuaded to take that. I'm open to dialogue." Other analysts say that Johnson-Sirleaf must reach out beyond Weah. The future of former warlords and disgruntled ex-combatants - many of whom support Weah - is more pressing.

"Ellen needs to worry about the ex-fighters, generally, but she will also need to be worried about the ex-generals in particular," says Mr. Jaye. He says 60,000 to 70,000 ex-combatants haven't been successfully reintegrated into society. "[The former generals], for a long time to come, will be looked upon by the ex-fighters as their commanders. Therefore, the extent to which Ellen deals with them will give confidence to the young fighters about their future. Ellen will need to provide a balance between pursuing justice and reconciliation."

Johnson-Sirleaf, a former regional head of the United Nations Development Program, says rehabilitating the youth is a top priority. While with the UNDP, she was instrumental in working with Valentine Strasser, the 25-year-old military officer from Sierra Leone who overthrew President Joseph Momoh in 1992. She says she will take a similar approach to young - potentially disruptive - former Liberian rebel leaders.

She also intends to look at former post-conflict countries for lessons on how to successfully integrate opposition leaders.Steve McDonald, a project director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., who helped set up a leadership and rebuilding program in Burundi, says that country could offer a model. "Inclusion in the process is the key. Rogue elements need to be invited in from the cold. They do not normally want to be outside."

Mr. McDonald says it is important that not only Johnson-Sirleaf - but also the international community - reach out to them so they don't feel marginalized.

"I'm going to reach out to them, through telephone calls, personal visits, to assure them that I have absolutely nothing against them," she says. "They may not believe me at first, but ... [those] who have the requisite experience and education, I hope they'll accept some position in the government."

Before the January inauguration, she plans to hold a national conference - open to the public - to discuss everything from land reform to empowering county governments to the concept of national identity.

"A national identity, something that everybody feels that brings them together, we haven't had that," she says. "We've always been America's stepchild - never a truly Africa country, never an American colony. We've got to find that thing that binds us."

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