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Liberia may inaugurate Africa's first female chief

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

MONROVIA, Liberia — A former finance minister and Harvard graduate claimed victory Thursday in Liberia's presidential election as a large early lead showed her poised to become the first elected female leader ever in Africa.

But her rival, former international soccer star George Weah, refused to concede defeat and maintained his allegations of fraud.

With just over 91 percent of the ballots counted, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had 59 percent of the vote and Weah had nearly 41 percent, the National Elections Commission said.

"It's clear that the Liberian people have expressed confidence in me," Johnson-Sirleaf told The Associated Press. "They have elected me to lead the team that will bring reform to the country and that will deliver development."

Weah, watching a soccer match on satellite television at his Monrovia villa just before midnight, slammed the poll as unfair.

"She brought in fraud, she brought extra ballots and stuffed them in the boxes," Weah said of Johnson-Sirleaf and her supporters. "Somebody must be disqualified instead of claiming to be the president . . . this is not about who wins or who loses. This about democracy."

Officials called for calm amid Weah's accusations of fraud, which Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign vigorously denied.

It could take days for the National Elections Commission to complete ballot counting and officially certify the results in Liberia's first election since the end of a 1989-2003 civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf earlier reached out to Weah, promising to lead "a government of inclusion" and saying she would offer her rival a post in government — perhaps the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

"We hope that Mr. Weah will get over his disappointment that has led to his rejecting the results, and that ultimately he'll accept it and we'll find a way forward together," she said. On Thursday, Weah met with Alan Doss, who heads the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia, and said he would press his formal complaint with the Elections Commission.

"We are seeking the advice of the international community and all the people that are involved to see if everybody can arrest this situation," Weah said. "While we are preparing ourselves for the legal side, we are also asking our people to be very calm."

Weah's supporters include many former warlords, rebel leaders and young men who fought in Liberia's 14-year civil war that killed up to 200,000 people and plunged the country's 3 million residents into abject poverty.

While international observers who monitored the poll said preliminary findings indicated it was fair, Doss said the fraud allegations were being taken seriously.

"Any allegation of any fraud is serious and we don't want allegations of fraud to mar the election," he said.

The U.S. State Department also said any allegations of wrongdoing in Liberia's election should be investigated.

"We also believe that during this period all sides need to remain calm and pursue grievances through established legal channels," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Thursday. He added that the overall U.S. view is that the process was orderly and efficient with few irregularities.

Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign denied the charges.

"It's all lies," said Jemima Caulcrick, a top official of Johnson-Sirleaf's Unity Party. "They just don't want a woman to be president in Africa. But she shall be."

David Carroll, leading a 28-person team from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, said that while "minor irregularities" had been noted, "none of our observers saw any serious problems."

Across the country's bombed-out capital, large groups of excited Liberians stood on crumbling street corners, listening to results as they were announced on radio. Some argued with each other, shaking fingers and shouting.

The winner will have to govern a country left in ruins by war, its buildings smashed and nearly one-third of its people in relief camps.

Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and has held top regional jobs at the World Bank, the United Nations and within the Liberian government. Her supporters call her the "Iron Lady," borrowing the nickname of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In elections in 1997, Johnson-Sirleaf ran second to warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who many claimed was voted into power by a fearful electorate. Taylor was forced from power two years ago and lives in exile in Nigeria.

Weah's ascent from Monrovia's slums to international soccer stardom had earned him much support in a dirt-poor country short on heroes. The 39-year-old is a high school dropout with no experience in government, but that is seen as a plus by many in a country long-ruled by coup leaders and warlords.

Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Liberia was once among Africa's most prosperous countries, rich in diamonds, ancient forests and rubber. Years of war ended in 2003 when Taylor was forced to step down as advancing rebels shelled the capital.

Elected women in high office are rare across Africa. Earlier this year, women were appointed deputy president of South Africa and prime minister of Mozambique. Liberia briefly had an unelected woman president, Ruth Perry, in the mid-1990s.

Contributing: Jonathan Paye-Layleh