Liberians voted Tuesday in the country's second presidential election since the end of a brutal civil war, choosing from a roster of 16 candidates that include a Nobel laureate, a nephew of a former president, a former warlord infamous for slicing off his foe's ears and a businessman-diplomat, among others.
Six years after she was elected Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 72-year-old incumbent dubbed the “Iron Lady” and “Ma Ellen" by her supporters, is seeking a second term in office.
A former World Bank economist and darling of the international community, Johnson Sirleaf's international credentials received a boost last week when she won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, sharing the award with a fellow Liberian women's rights campaigner and a Yemeni activist.
But back home, Liberia's Iron Lady is facing a tougher crowd.
In the lead-up to Tuesday's vote, her main rival, Winston Tubman, the Harvard-educated nephew of a former Liberian president, drew huge crowds at campaign rallies complete with traditional singing and dancing.
Tubman's running mate, George Weah, is a well-known figure in Liberia. A former football sensation who was voted Africa's player of the century, Weah lost the 2005 runoff against Sirleaf. The 45-year-old former football player-turned-politician is immensely popular among the country's burgeoning youth population, an increasingly disgruntled demographic in a country with an estimated 80 percent unemployment rate.
Some 1.8 million Liberians have registered to vote in Tuesday's presidential and general elections, with 15 senatorial seats and 81 legislative seats up for grabs.
Braving the pouring rain, Liberians lined up outside polling stations Tuesday in a testimony to their enthusiasm for the democratic process in a nation that still bears the scars of war.
Counting got underway shortly after polls closed Tuesday evening after a largely peaceful day of voting across the country, according to international observers.
Nearly eight years after Liberia emerged from a bloody 14-year civil war that killed around 200,000 people and left the West African nation in ruins, the stakes are high for Tuesday's election.
“This election is a test of Liberia's democratic credentials,” said Titi Ajayi, an analyst at the International Crisis Group in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Liberia. “It's also an opportunity to consolidate the nation's fragile peace and democracy.”
Founded in 1820 by freed American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia is Africa's oldest independent state. During the 1990s, the nation spiralled into a bloody civil war that saw child soldiers loyal to Johnson Sirleaf's predecessor, Charles Taylor, commit shocking atrocities, with mutilation and rape used as common forms of intimidation.
When Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005, experts openly wondered how long the 2003 ceasefire that brought an end to the years-long civil war would hold before the next coup, or the next warlord or “Big Man” rolled into town.
Six years on, the peace has held – albeit in a precarious form – maintained mostly by the 9,138-strong UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) posted in a nation with a dizzying array of ethnic rivalries.
But Liberia is a country that has still to come to terms with its violent past, Ajayi notes.
“There are families living next door to people who have killed their family members. There are so many issues to be dealt with, all the old names and faces are still around. It's a very fragile society,” said Ajayi.
While former president Taylor is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on war crimes charges in neighbouring Sierra Leone, most of his henchmen have yet to face justice.
One of Taylor's most notorious former cohorts, Prince Johnson, is one of the 16 presidential candidates for the 2011 presidential poll. A former warlord-turned-senator, Prince Johnson gained notoriety with a widely circulated videotape of him slicing the ears and torturing to death then Liberian President Samuel Doe in 1990.
The presence of characters such as Prince Johnson on the country's political scene underlines Johnson Sirleaf's failure to implement recommendations by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 2009, the TRC placed Johnson Sirleaf – along with about 50 other people - on a list of people who should be barred from public office for backing Taylor.
While Johnson Sirleaf has not implemented the TRC's findings, she has admitted to initially providing supplies and financing to Taylor, but she maintains she cut off her support as soon as she realised what he was doing.
Given the country's troubled history, peace and stability tops the political agenda for most Liberians.
"We are more concerned about peace and acceptability of the results by all parties," Rufus Yarmie, a resident of Tappita in Liberia's northeast, told the Reuters news service days before the poll.
But in a country racked by an alarmingly high unemployment rate, where the average income is around $300 a year, the economy has turned into an important issue in the 2011 presidential race.
“We need jobs in this country,'' Wilson Willie, a night watchman and phone card seller, sporting a Tubman-Weah badge told the Associated Press over the weekend. “We need change.”
A former finance minister, Johnson Sirleaf is credited with increasing civil servants' salaries, securing waivers for more than $4 billion in external debt, and building schools and hospitals.
But according to Ajayi, the Liberian president's track record has been a “mixed bag”. Stressing that Johnson Sirleaf “took on a very difficult task for a country shattered by war,” Ajayi noted that there has been progress in infrastructure projects such as electricity and water supply and that Liberians today “have a level of freedom of speech not seen in this country before and an improved human rights record.”
But the economic development, according to Ajayi, has been restricted to the capital of Monrovia. “There is a huge disparity between Monrovia and the countryside,” said Ajayi.
“Corruption is another major issue and many Liberians are critical of her approach to dealing with corruption, particularly with her political allies,” noted Ajayi.
Opposition candidates such as Tubman have criticised the Nobel Committee's choice of Johnson Sirleaf for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, coming, as it did, just days before the election. While admitting that she was “pleasantly surprised” by the timing of the award, Africa's first lady has maintained that the prize “sends a message to the Liberian people that peace must prevail as Liberians go to this critical event.”
It remains to be seen if that message is heeded by Liberians voting in Tuesday's poll. Under Liberian law, if no candidate wins an outright majority, the vote will go to a second round runoff.