Can the Peace Prize Help Liberia's President Win the Home Crowd?

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is running for re-election, speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington on June 24, 2011

As a political slogan, "monkey still working, baboon wait small" is never going to set the world on fire. But as a metaphor, it's a fine summary of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's central pitch for Liberia's Oct. 11 general election: that she is clever (like a monkey) and just needs more time to complete her revival of Liberia and that her 15 rivals are inept (like baboons) and should have the patience to wait until the next election to run for President. It is a message of continuity and stability, and it resonates in a country that elected Johnson Sirleaf as it emerged from two devastating civil wars. On Sept. 17, when "Mama Ellen" launched her bid in the capital, Monrovia, for a second presidential term, 100,000 supporters took to the streets. Allison Foday, 42, a teacher, said he was voting for the President "because she wiped away my tears." Such a strong, emotional show of support would seem to confirm Johnson Sirleaf's high international standing as Africa's first elected female head of state. But in reality, she is locked in a close race with her nearest challengers, Charles Brumskine and Winston Tubman. Johnson Sirleaf tells TIME she was taken aback by the turnout. "I knew we had support," she says. "But the level of the support, the enthusiasm ... was a pleasant surprise."

For centuries West Africa was a prime slave-raiding ground for Europeans, Arabs and Americans, but Liberia was unique: it was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves — who stunned their liberators by immediately enslaving the locals. Johnson Sirleaf was feted worldwide in 2005 when she won the presidential election, but in Liberia her reputation remains mixed. If in the West she is known as a Harvard-educated former U.N. and World Bank official, some Liberians identify her as a scion of that enslaving American-Liberian elite.

The election campaign has only underlined the gulf between the differing opinions of Johnson Sirleaf. Abroad, she continues to be celebrated. At home, her integrity and judgment are under attack. On a continent where leaders have a history of overstaying, she is accused of being power-hungry: a promise to serve only one term was a key part of her 2005 campaign. Her appointment of three sons to senior government positions has prompted allegations of nepotism, which she denies. And her opponents can choose from a number of scandals. Late last year Johnson Sirleaf dissolved her Cabinet in the wake of corruption allegations. Meanwhile, her appointees have done little to help her reputation. A Justice Minister decided to patent the new national code of laws under his name, so any organization that wanted a copy — a court, an embassy — had to pay him for it. And then there was the chief justice who greeted a delegation of foreign funders while drunk, then demanded that an American woman with the group sit up straight or "get your ass out of here."

Most damaging, while Westerners see Johnson Sirleaf as the woman who rescued Liberia from the warlord Charles Taylor — an accused war criminal now on trial in the Hague — Liberians know her as a former Taylor supporter. In 2009 the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that she be banned from public office for 30 years for being among "the financiers and political leaders of the different warring factions" in Liberia's conflicts. The nation's Supreme Court later ruled any such ban unconstitutional, but the allegation that she backed Taylor has stuck. "It's a dead issue for me," Johnson Sirleaf says angrily. "The contribution to Taylor was [from] an institution in the U.S. of which I was a part. Yes, I made a personal contribution. But so did hundreds of other Liberians. And the minute we found [out] Taylor's motives ... I came home. I fought him."

There is no doubt Johnson Sirleaf has done many things right. She has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, mainly in mining and rubber production. Though unemployment remains high, Liberia's GDP has grown 5% to 9.5% each year on her watch. The International Monetary Fund has canceled most of Liberia's $4.7 billion in foreign debt. Johnson Sirleaf even made the environment a cornerstone of her revival strategy: timber is sustainably farmed, and her plan to address Liberia's chronic energy shortage focuses on biomass power stations.

Even her opponents Brumskine and Tubman admit they have little objection to the incumbent's vision for Liberia's future. It's her past they question. "We fought 14 years of war," Brumskine told an election rally in the northern Liberian city of Voinjama in August. "We destroyed our country. We killed almost 10% of our population. We remain an unreconciled people." Johnson Sirleaf, Brumskine says, can never reconcile Liberia because she is "part of the problem." Johnson Sirleaf may be capable and hardworking enough to rescue Liberia from its history. What's less certain is whether she can escape her own.