Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize today, has been widely praised for her courage in fighting for democracy in Liberia, even braving a prison sentence and threats of rape. But she is also a controversial politician in a tough election race, and the Peace Prize could be a crucial boost to her chances.
The timing of the prize is already sparking surprise and anger from some Liberians. It comes just four days before the Liberian election on Tuesday, with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf locked in a difficult battle against a popular former football star, George Weah.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award today, faced questions from journalists who asked about the timing of the award to Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, so close to the election date. The committee members defended their decision, insisting that they always completely ignore all domestic political considerations when they decide the winners, and explaining that they could not postpone the announcement even by a few days.
The prize, however, could be a key factor in helping Ms. Johnson Sirleaf to victory in next week's election. While she has gained international praise for her economic reforms and her record as Africa's first democratically elected female president, many Liberians accuse her government of corruption and failing to alleviate poverty in the country. They also remember that she promised, in 2005, to stand for only a single term as president.
She has also faced questions about her past record during the long civil war that ended in 2003. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in a 2009 report, recommended that she should be barred from public office for 30 years because of her strong support in the 1980s for Charles Taylor, the rebel leader who became Liberian president and is now on trial in The Hague for alleged atrocities and crimes against humanity.
While in exile in the United States in 1989, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf was an enthusiastic fundraiser for Mr. Taylor. More recently, she has defended herself by saying that her fundraising for Mr. Taylor was aimed at bringing down the dictator at the time, Samuel Doe, who had carried out a brutal coup in 1980 and had later imprisoned Ms. Johnson Sirleaf when she returned to Liberia.
In the current election campaign, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf and her ruling Unity Party have been criticized for election violations. The Carter Center, founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, reported this week that it observed a number of incidents of opposition political parties being denied access to public buildings. It also observed the use of public resources for political campaigning, primarily by Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's party. These were "important violations" and should "cease immediately," the Carter Center said.