Liberia goes to the polls tomorrow in a tense contest that pits this year's Nobel Peace prize-winner against a former world footballer of the year in a country still recovering from a prolonged and savage civil war. The incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, must see off a strong challenge from an opposition counting on the popularity of its vice-presidential candidate George Weah, who has a passionate grassroots following.
Africa's only freely elected female president was boosted by the return of her compatriot and fellow Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee yesterday, who cut short a promotional tour of the US to come and campaign for her. She said Mrs Johnson Sirleaf had "done a great job" in the six years since winning the first post-war election and should be returned to office. "I cannot be a hypocrite, I am for women and peace and women in politics," said Ms Gbowee.
The prize jury in Oslo has faced criticism over the timing of such a high profile award so close to polling day in the West African nation but Mrs Johnson Sirleaf said that was "mere coincidence".
Ruling party supporters rallying in Monrovia yesterday waved banners proclaiming their candidate as a Nobel winner but she tried to play down the importance of the prize. "At the end of the day it will not affect our election," she insisted. "The Liberian people will choose on the basis of the many years of knowing who we are and what we have done, not because of any Nobel peace prize."
Her supporters were gathering last night at the national stadium for the final rally of an often acrimonious campaign in which both sides have accused each other of war-mongering. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters had thronged the capital on Friday braving torrential rain in a peaceful show of strength.
The opposition has cited Mrs Johnson Sirleaf's support for Charles Taylor during the civil war – which she now says she regrets – as evidence that the Nobel prize was a mistake.
Former football star Mr Weah accused the Nobel jury of getting it "all wrong" in calling her a peacemaker. "The Nobel prize is for people with credibility, with dignity," he told The Independent. "Not Ellen Johnson (Sirleaf)... who did not respect human rights. It baffles me."
Mr Weah said it was his opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) who were the real peacemakers before the last elections in 2005. The 1995 world footballer of the year lost that election in a run-off against Mrs Johnson Sirleaf, having led in the first round. This time he has handed the CDC leadership to Winston Tubman, the nephew of a former president, but he is still the opposition's star attraction.
"We gave her the opportunity to show her inability as a leader," said Mr Weah. "We don't care about the Nobel prize, it doesn't help the Liberian people and she doesn't serve their interests. All we care about is to vote her out of power."
International observers are concerned that there may be clashes between rival camps when the results of tomorrow's voting come in. Ruling party supporters have been told to expect the President to win outright in the first round.
Unity Party activists paraded through the capital yesterday with T-shirts reading "Operation No Second Round". But the opposition has told its backers that a one-round victory for Mrs Johnson Sirleaf would be evidence of a rigged election.