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Liberia Could Boast First Female Leader in Africa

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

With 90 percent of the vote counted, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, is leading in Liberia's presidential runoff election. The balloting took place on Tuesday. Though no winner has been declared officially, the 66-year-old grandmother is outpacing millionaire soccer star George Weah, and is poised to become Africa's first female leader. The winner will face an enormous task: rebuilding a country largely destroyed over the course of a civil war spanning more than two decades.

Jeremy Levitt is an associate professor at Florida International University College of Law. He was in Liberia in early October for the preliminary election. He's also the author of "The Evolution of Deadly Conflict in Liberia." Levitt says the United States can play a vital role in that country's future.

Professor JEREMY LEVITT (Florida International University College of Law): I've spoken to the assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, who is an African-American woman, and the US has supported Liberia thus far. I think the Bush administration, to my surprise, has given more support to Liberia than the Clinton administration did in eight years. The US has provided $200 million in support. But the--you know, the Liberian people are suffering. There's no educational infrastructure. There is no security infrastructure. There's a need for vocational training. You have 80 percent of the population that is illiterate. The average income for the average Liberian is about $130 a year, and the people are suffering; it's destitute poverty of the most serious type.

I mean, the kids there want to be in school so bad that they're holding rallies. The young men who have been--young men and women who have been combatants have laid down their weapon because they want an opportunity for another way of life. If you look at the age cohort in that country, between 18 and 35, and look at the fact that the country's been at war for 25 years, the majority of the population know nothing but warfare. So the political culture there is one that is not developed, and Liberians want to take their own destiny in their hands.

GORDON: I think most people who are familiar with Liberia are only familiar, quite frankly, in the United States with the fact that it is a country that was established--founded by freed slaves. With that history, does it make it uniquely different than most countries there, or is there just a part and parcel of the same problems that most countries unfortunately on the continent suffer through?

Prof. LEVITT: Well, that's a great question. I mean, first, what I want to say is that it wasn't exactly established by freed slaves. There's kind of a myth with that. It was established by and funded by the United States government and a Southern association of slaveocrats called the American Colonization Society that actually wanted to rid the United States of free blacks because of their participation in supporting slave rebellions. So the Southern part of America was in a stage of red alert. At the same time, you had that free population. You had recaptive Africans that were settling in the US. These were blacks that were captured on the high seas after the United States outlawed the slave trade in 1808. And so these competing slaveocrat interests in the South and in the United States government--President Monroe, James Monroe--established a scheme to remove free blacks from the US. Some blacks, in fact, were manumitted only on the condition that they leave the country. Liberia is a part of American history. The people that were an integral part of its founding were Americans that weren't entitled to American citizenship.

GORDON: Let me ask you this as relates to former leader Charles Taylor and what will become of him. Will we see the International Criminal Court go after this man?

Prof. LEVITT: Well, what's happened with Charles Taylor is he's in asylum in Nigeria. The Nigerians took him in. They're trying to relieve the situation in Liberia. He's been indicted by the Special Court in Sierra Leone, which is a war crimes tribunal that's UN-backed but not established under the Chapter 7 powers of the United Nations, which means that there's not a compulsory responsibility of Nigeria to extradite him to Sierra Leone. My understanding is that as we're talking now the Security Council is actually deliberating a resolution that would prohibit Charles Taylor from returning to Liberia, and in the event that he did, he could be arrested and perhaps extradited to Sierra Leone. So if Charles Taylor ends up in unfriendly territory, if he travels outside of Nigeria or if the Nigerians decide to give him up, he'll be prosecuted before the Sierra Leone Special Court.

GORDON: And finally, what do you expect to see over the course of the next few weeks in terms of leading this country to the future?

Prof. LEVITT: I'm very concerned about Liberia right now because George Weah has the backing of the youthful men there, and many of them are ex-combatants. There's still 10,000 of them that need to be reintegrated back into Liberian society. And right now there is some discussion in Liberia, meaning that there are some allegations by the Congress for Democratic Change, which is his party, that there was some fraud involved in the election, and this could potentially trigger some civil unrest. So I'm hoping that whoever is the winner of the election, the other side allows that individual to come in free from fear to try and put the country back together again. And given Liberia's past of having probably 18 major civil conflicts--18 major wars since its founding, I'm not absolutely optimistic that that happened. But I hope that it will. There are currently 15,000 UN peacekeepers in the country that will maintain peace and order, but the problem is for the long-term security. And given Africa's very patriarchal culture, it's going to be interesting to see how these security forces, when they're developed, will respond to a female president...

GORDON: Jeremy...

Prof. LEVITT: ...if in fact she's elected.

GORDON: If in fact she's elected. All right. Jeremy Levitt teaches at Florida International University College of Law and is the author of "The Evolution of Deadly Conflict in Liberia." He joined us today from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida.

Thanks so much, Jeremy.

Prof. LEVITT: Thank you for having me, Ed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.