Oct. 11 (GIN) – Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, became the second and third African women to be awarded the Nobel peace prize on Oct. 7.

Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf were credited with transforming the image of Liberia from a pariah nation of brutal warlords and drugged child soldiers, to a country free of civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf was also acknowledged for strengthening women’s rights by endorsing an expansive rape law, protecting victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Criminal Court E was established to fast-track such cases.

Her Market Women’s Fund increased the profile of woman vendors, raising millions of dollars to build markets and support adult literacy for Liberia’s most visible local entrepreneurs.

Opposing Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf is the party of Winston Tubman and running mate George Weah, a popular former sports star. A run-off seems likely with 16 candidates competing, including a notorious former warlord, Prince Johnson, who presided over the videotaped mutilation and murder of the former military dictator Samuel K. Doe. Mr. Johnson is now a senator.

Commenting on the Peace Prize award and its unusual timing, Liberian student and activist Robtel Neajai Pailey rejected the view that it was an international ploy to manipulate the voters to re-elect “Ma Ellen.” The announcement, Pailey suggested, provokes Liberians to live up to the image that has now been projected internationally of a reconciling nation.

“It has placed the spotlight back on a country with a peculiar migratory history, a nation of firsts, a nation that has been resurrected. We Liberians have a responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to the giants on whose shoulders we now stand, who fought for peace and sacrificed their lives so that we may now boast of two Nobel laureates.”

Voting began Tuesday, Oct. 11 with preliminary results expected in the coming days, but with remote polling places difficult to reach in a country with bad roads and minimal infrastructure, some ballot boxes are likely to be delayed.