MONROVIA, Liberia — On the bright Saturday morning of Oct. 8, three days before the Liberian elections that saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf take a significant, but not commanding, lead for November's runoff election, I rolled into the normally quiet city of Tappita in Nimba county. It was crackling with an energy that, these days, can mean only one thing. "PYJ! PYJ! PYJ!" chanted a ragtag army in the center of town. They were awaiting their hero, Prince Yormie Johnson: presidential candidate, former warlord, and now, perhaps, queenmaker.
Following the inconclusive first round of elections in Liberia, Sirleaf now faces a fraught run-off to continue her presidency. She received 44 percent of the vote, while second-place challenger Winston Tubman received 32.2 percent. Prince Johnson was a strong third-place finisher with 11.8 percent, and his endorsement may now prove to be vital.
Outsiders who know Sirleaf only from her international reputation may be surprised that Africa's most feted leader since Nelson Mandela -- and the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize only four days before the election -- should find herself in such a precarious position, dependent on the endorsement of one of her country's most internationally reviled figures to keep her in office. To learn more about how Liberians view their government and their famous president, I spent the 10 days prior to the election traveling the country by motorcycle, speaking with voters, officials, and even the infamous Johnson.
In Tappita, Johnson wore a bright scarlet kufi-style hat and waved a stark white handkerchief, grinning broadly at his followers. Though he now wears a politician's hat, he was once the most feared of Liberia's warlords. In 1990, he oversaw the torture and killing of then-President Samuel K. Doe (captured on video), declaring himself president before retreating to ignominious exile in Nigeria. Upon his return, he defied expectations by being elected senator of his home county, Nimba, by a record margin.
A genial minder with a glinting gold tooth ushered me into the modest hotel where Johnson had slept the night before, on the crest of a hill outside the town. He sat serenely, gospel music playing in the background. Johnson, who rarely speaks to Western journalists, seemed tickled to hear that a young Scottish man in grubby shorts had motorcycled all the way here just to talk to him. I asked him about the devotion he inspires in his followers, who mainly come from his native Nimba.