Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Campaign flyers dropped from a helicopter rain down on the Red Light neighborhood as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf makes a campaign stop in the area on the final day of campaigning, in Monrovia, Liberia, on Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MONROVIA, Liberia — Violence broke out at opposition headquarters, killing at least one person hours before Liberia’s presidential runoff on Tuesday, a vote that tests the West African nation’s fragile peace after a devastating civil war.

Despite sharp criticism from the United States, the U.N. and election monitors, opposition leader Winston Tubman kept urging supporters to boycott Tuesday’s runoff.

Demonstrators clashed with police in one rally backing the boycott, leaving one young man dead inside the headquarters of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, or CDC, party. Nearby, four others were screaming in pain from what appeared to be bullet wounds in their legs.

Walking between the wounded, Tubman and running mate George Weah said the violence was further proof the runoff should not go ahead.

Tubman is trailing in the polls by a more than 10-point margin and the boycott is seen by many as an effort to tarnish Tuesday’s election in the face of his likely defeat.

The move will not stop incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, from winning, but it could undercut her victory.

Worse, it would also cast doubt on an election that was supposed to solidify the nation’s peace, just eight years after Liberia emerged from a horrific 14-year civil war that left its rolling hills and towering forests dotted with mass graves.

“This decision is unfortunate for the electoral process in Liberia, and for Liberia’s young democracy,” said Gilles Yabi, the director of the International Crisis Group West Africa. “It’s motivated by the fact that they [Tubman’s party] think they don’t have a chance. It’s a way to stain the election, to create a problem of credibility for the president.”

The 73-year-old Sirleaf made history in 2005 when she became Africa’s first elected female president and again last month when she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in stabilizing the country after a 2003 ceasefire.

The Harvard-trained economist is credited with luring hundreds of millions of donor dollars to her destroyed nation and getting $5 billion of its external debt wiped clean. Her critics, however, note that two out of every three Liberians still live in dire poverty and the country remains one of the least developed on the planet, according to World Bank and U.N. statistics.

Corruption and cronyism continue to erode institutions, and Tubman and Weah have complained that the country’s electoral process was stacked in Sirleaf’s favor.

The opposition party began threatening a boycott after the first round of voting on Oct. 11 showed that Sirleaf led with around 40 percent to the CDC’s roughly 30 percent. When the third-place finisher announced he was endorsing Sirleaf, her victory seemed assured.

To participate in the Nov. 8 runoff, the CDC’s demanded that the head of the election commission be replaced — and he was.

Then last week, Tubman said the changes did not go far enough and called for the election to be postponed. Then on Friday he called for a boycott when the government refused further concessions.

Outside observers said there was no reason for the boycott.

“Liberia has taken important steps to consolidate its democracy since the end of its civil war. Those gains must not be setback by individuals who seek to disrupt the political process,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.

The head of the Carter Center’s observation mission in Liberia, Alexander Bick, said his staff had traveled to all 15 counties in the Tennessee-sized nation and while small irregularities were noted, there was no evidence of systematic fraud.

Electoral law allows candidates to pull out before the start of the election, but once the election is already in progress, ballots cannot be altered, he said. So both Tubman and Sirleaf will appear on Tuesday’s ballot. The boycott will not result in the vote being canceled.

Printed on Tuesday, November 8, 2011 as: Liberia faces deadly riot day before vote

OSLO, Norway — Africa’s first democratically elected female president, a Liberian campaigner against rape and a woman who stood up to Yemen’s autocratic regime won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of the importance of women’s rights in the spread of global peace.

The 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award was split three ways between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee from the same African country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.

The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee told The Associated Press that Karman’s award should be seen as a signal that both women and Islam have important roles to play in the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, the wave of anti-authoritarian revolts that have challenged rulers across the Arab world.

“The Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it,” Jagland said.

He said Karman, 32, belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group “which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.” He added that “I don’t believe that. There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.”

Yemen is an extremely conservative society but a feature of the revolt there has been a prominent role for women who turned out for protests in large numbers.

Karman heads the human rights group Women Journalists without Chains. She has been a leading figure in organizing the protests that kicked off in late January.

“I am very very happy about this prize,” Karman told The Associated Press. “I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”

Jagland told AP it was difficult to find a leader of the Arab Spring revolts, especially among the many bloggers who played a role in energizing the protests, and noted that Karman’s work started before the Arab uprisings.

“It was not easy for us to say to pick one from Egypt or pick one from Tunisia, because there were so many,” he said. “And we did not want to say that one was more important than the others.”

Karman “started her activism long before the revolution took place in Tunisia and Egypt. She has been a very courageous woman in Yemen for quite along time,” Jagland said.

No woman had won the prize since 2004, when the committee honored Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who died last month at 71.

Liberia was ravaged by civil wars for years until 2003. The drawn-out conflict that began in 1989 left about 200,000 people dead and displaced half the country’s population of 3 million.

The country is still struggling to maintain a fragile peace with the help of U.N. peacekeepers.

Sirleaf, 72, 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.

Sirleaf was seen as a reformer and peacemaker in Liberia when she took office in 2005. She is running for re-election this month and opponents in the presidential campaign have accused her of buying votes and using government funds to campaign. Her camp denies the charges. The election is Tuesday.

“This gives me a stronger commitment to work for reconciliation,” Sirleaf said Friday from her home in Monrovia. “Liberians should be proud.”

Jagland said the committee didn’t consider the upcoming election in Liberia when it made its decision.

“We cannot look to that domestic consideration,” he said. “We have to look at Alfred Nobel’s will, which says that the prize should go to the person that has done the most for peace in the world.”

“Who? Johnson Sirleaf? The president of Liberia? Oooh,” said Desmond Tutu, who won the peace prize in 1984 for his nonviolent campaign against white racist rule in South Africa. “She deserves it many times over. She’s brought stability to a place that was going to hell.”

U2 frontman Bono — who has figured in peace prize speculation in previous years — called Sirlaf an “extraordinary woman, a force of nature and now she has the world recognize her in this great, great, great way.”

Gbowee, who organized a group of Christian and Muslim women to challenge Liberia’s warlords, was honored for mobilizing women “across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.”

Gbowee has long campaigned for the rights of women and against rape. In 2003, she led hundreds of female protesters through Monrovia to demand swift disarmament of fighters who preyed on women throughout Liberia during 14 years of near-constant civil war.

Gbowee works in Ghana’s capital as the director of Women Peace and Security Network Africa.

“I know Leymah to be a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare,” said Gbowee’s assistant, Bertha Amanor. “So fair and straight, and a very nice person.”

Long an advocate for human rights and freedom of expression in Yemen, she has been campaigning for Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster since 2006 and mounted an initiative to organize Yemeni youth groups and opposition into a national council.

During a rally in Sanaa, she told the AP: “We will retain the dignity of the people and their rights by bringing down the regime.”

Published on October 10th: "Nobel Peace Prize recipients emphasize female activism"