Women lifted Ma Ellen to president in 2005. Will they do it again?

Maima Sackie has lived here in Memeh Town, a collection of mud and thatch-roof houses 30 minutes from Monrovia, for fifteen years, selling potato greens to take care of her four children.

Maima Sackie, 46 years old

The stout 46 year-old, wearing a dark t-shirt and flowery lappa, says incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hasn’t done enough to improve women’s lives.

“I don’t think I will vote again because any time we vote for the people in this country, there is no improvement going on in the the country,” says Sackie. “The food, rice and gas prices are too high for we the country people. I won’t vote for her because things are hard on us in the country, and the the prices are too high on the market.”

In 2005, women’s support was critical to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election win over opponent George Weah. More than half of the voters in the election were women, the highest turnout of women in any African election and almost certainly the key factor in her election as the first woman president in Africa.

Now that the president has a five and a half year track record on which women can judge her performance, some women are withdrawing their support.

Sackie was among a few dozen women gathered in Memeh Town’s modest town hall for a recent panel discussion on women in leadership hosted by the Ministry of Gender and the Norwegian Refugee Council. The women, wearing black T-shirts with the inscription, “Wise women working together,” had mixed views on the president’s performance.

Many are farmers. They say they are dissatisfied with the president’s inability to control the rising price of food and oil. (President Johnson Sirleaf has argued political instability in the Middle East and droughts – forces outside her control – have been behind the price rises.)

Despite their unhappiness over price rises most here said they would cast their votes to send her to the highest office for a second time.

“The only bad thing I see in Ellen’s government is the food business, prices are too high and you can’t play with the country people food business so we want for Ellen to bring things prices down on the market,” says ? (sorry i lost her first letter here) yatta Singbeh, 27, is a single mother with three children.

Like many women here, Singbeh’s decision to support Johnson Sirleaf is driven less by support for the president than fear of what would happen if another candidate wins. She voted for Johnson Sirleaf’s rival, footballer Weah, in 2005, but this time she says she’ll cast her ballot for the president.

“I voted for Weah, but now I will vote for Ma Ellen because I want for my children to get a bright future. If Weah sit in the chair, we are hearing rumours that the international community will turn their backs on us and our children will suffer again just like Charles Taylor’s time when we were running up and down.”

On Mechlin Street in Monrovia amidst the crowd under a blazing sun stands 41-year-old Elizabeth Nmah. She sells hot food on the street to support her four kids. Nmah frowns when asked about the president. Like the women of Memeh Town, Nmah blames the president for the hike in prices on the market.  “I believe that Ellen is already out, I won’t vote for her this coming elections, because our Country never used to be like this before. Even when we were in war, prices were not as high like they are now, we are suffering during her administration,” she says, gesturing to a set of clay bowls. “I used to buy this bowl set L$400,  but now, I am buying it for L$600. I am praying that the next president who will get in the chair, will bring prices down, because Ellen is out.”

Other women say the president has not done enough to improve the lives of women in Liberia. Eight years on from the war Liberia still has some of the highest rates of rape, child prostitution, maternal mortality, teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion and female illiteracy in the world. Though the president has put many women in top jobs, that has not trickled down to the rest of society where women still face widespread discrimination and fewer opportunities.

Mariah Faniah, the operation manager of a shelter for abused women and girls, and the secretary general of the opposition Liberty Party, says women had great confidence electing a female president would shine a light on the plight of women in Liberia’s male-dominated society. Instead, she says, President Johnson Sirleaf has proved herself not “gender sensitive.” “From the begining, women felt that it was their time when President Sirleaf was elected but unfortunately what we expected from our leader, leaves us to wonder as to if she is gender sensitive….For me I would say, Madam Sirleaf has failed the Liberian people miserably.In the past, women were used to vote Ellen into power but now many are praise singers but they won’t vote for Ellen this time.”

But Ellen retains the support of many women. Most of those interviewed by FrontPage Africa, be they women leaders or market women, are still behind the president.
At a women’s leadership summit at City Hall, Miatta Fahnbulleh, a popular entertainer and the founder of a local charity for young girls Obaa’s Educational Outreach, says she is optimistic President Johnson Sirleaf will be reelected.

She says having a woman president has improved Liberian women’s self-esteem and standing around the world.

“Though she falls sometimes below our expectations, I am happy to tell women that men were in control of our country for over 159 years and they made lots of misakes, and they continued to govern us,” says Fahnbulleh. “We are the only country in the entire Africa to have a female president and all of our sisters in other African countries are looking up to us to maintain that. We have given a lot of inspiration to women in other African countries. If she does not win, it would send the message that it was fleeting and we could not make it, and that would be a very depressing situation.”