The XX Factor

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Has Fanboys

A Johnson-Sirleaf supporter in Liberia.

Photograph by Dayo Olopade

The trio of Nobel Peace Prize laureates for 2011 makes a great case for global feminism. The activists—all three from developing countries—have changed the world for themselves and for other women. In turn, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman have received their deserved moment in the spotlight. Only Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf happens to be the sitting president of Liberia, up for reelection on Oct.11.

“Ma Ellen,” as she is known colloquially here in Liberia, is not assured a victory.

There’s neither Zogby polling, nor CNN focus grouping in Liberia, and so I have spent the last three days in Monrovia on foot and on the back of motorcycles or crammed into share taxis or in the marketplace, trying to take the temperature of a population just clambering out of what had been 14 years of hellish war.

Everyone is glad that the days of killing, which began with dictator Samuel Doe* in 1989 and did not cease until Charles Taylor was deposed in 2003, are over. (His assassin, famously, is also running for president this year). In 2005, the first democratic election since 1997 saw Sirleaf the winner after two rounds of voting. Her success is said to have come largely on the backs of women fed up with lives of violence and eager to exercise any agency that they could. Their turnout, the highest recorded for any election in Africa, appeared to make the difference.

This year, feminine solidarity appears to be strong, but not total. On the day of Sirleaf’s closing rally, I saw thousands of women whooping and hollering in her Unity Party’s green and white—while others were totally indifferent. I talked to an older demographic of women at the Waterside Market who barely registered a pulse when discussing Sirleaf’s campaign.

The most enthusiastic women I saw were actually younger supporters of the Congress for Democratic Change, one of many opposition parties. The generally celebratory atmosphere at rallies for what’s become known as an everyman party has been embraced by everywoman, too. Sisi Kumaya, a woman in her 30s who supports the CDC, cried, simply, “we need to make a change.” That’s as true in Liberia as elsewhere, but it struck me as strange to see a great many women supporting the leading opposition candidate. If she can’t count on young women, whom can she rely on?

Photograph by Dayo Olopade

It turns out she may be able to look to the opposite sex. I’ve been heartened to meet many younger men who are supporting “The Madam,” even though some of their older counterparts say they can’t vote for a woman. Tulay Hansford, a health policy worker living in Monrovia, said “I voted for her in 2005, I will vote for her now, and if there’s a runoff I will vote for her then.” 28-year-old Michael Doe rattled off ten reasons to vote for Sirleaf without batting an eyelash. When Ellen’s rally broke up on Sunday, it was a chain of young men who linked arms on the rain-soaked road to form a moving barrier around her vehicle as it made its way back to the city.

Emmett Wilson, a 26 year old in his final year at the University of Liberia, sees plenty of reasons for men to back Sirleaf. “A lot of young men, in addition to women suffered during the war. They were the child soldiers, they didn’t have the opportunities, and so stability is important to them, too.” The situation may also stem from basic generational shifts that suggest a future of more liberated political action in general. The younger women, not unlike those American women (like myself) who did not join Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, can’t be blamed for exercising their right of free choice.

So it’s good news after all.

Photograph by Dayo Olopade

*Correction, Oct. 11, 2011: The original version of this post got Samuel Doe’s first name wrong.