Tue, Jan 17, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Liberia's female president takes office

NEW ERA Africa's first female elected head of state was to be sworn in yesterday, but fears remained that her nation could again slip into turmoil

AGENCIES , MONROVIA

A man drives down the streets of the Liberian capital Monrovia on Sunday holding a flag depicting Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the newly elected president of Liberia. Her inauguration ceremony took place yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was set to be sworn in to office in Liberia yesterday as Africa's first female elected head of state, in a ceremony many hope will mark the start of a new era of peace and democracy after years of war and tyranny.

Senior figures from across Africa and further afield were due to attend the inauguration, among them the US' first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

A US warship has been stationed off the west African country's coast.

Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, John Kufuor of Ghana, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone's Ahmad Tejan Kabbah are also among the expected guests, as is Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (李肇星), who is on a tour of west Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf, 67, won a second round runoff election on Nov. 8.

She faces the mammoth task of rebuilding one of the world's most failed states, one ruined by civil wars that raged from the 1989 rebellion launched by Charles Taylor until 2003, when Taylor, by then the elected president, stepped down and went into exile as part of a UN-brokered peace process.

A quarter of a million people were killed in the conflicts.

On the eve of her inauguration, Johnson Sirleaf vowed to restore hope to her country's people, half of whom have known nothing but war.

"We will make our children smile again, we will give them back their youth and their future. We will make, like, and be proud of Liberia," she said.

There are more than 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops stationed in Liberia and the mission has stepped up security along main roads and at the airport serving Monrovia.

"We're really, really excited to be at such a historic inauguration," Laura Bush told reporters on Sunday while traveling to Monrovia.

Johnson Sirleaf "ran on a platform of reconciliation and reconstruction and it's going to take the help of a lot of countries, including the United States, which has a special relationship with Liberia, for her and the people of Liberia to be able to do the reconstruction they need," she said.

Africa's oldest independent republic was founded by freed American slaves in 1847 and US-Liberian links still run deep.

"I want the US to help with reconstruction of this country because we have been in darkness for over 15 years ... America has a moral responsibility to this country," said street salesman Ben Sckor-Age, 39.

US officials say Washington spent more than US$840 million last year on Liberia as it emerged from a brutal civil war that ended in 2003 after killing 250,000 people and leaving the country's infrastructure in ruins.

But ordinary Liberians want to see even more US aid to restore crippled electricity and water systems, repair ruined hospitals and schools and train judges.

"America must help build our country because Liberia is an offspring of America ... If they fail to help this new government and this country, God will hold them accountable," said Victory Sieah, a 46-year-old mother of two children.

China, which is already competing with the US to tap West Africa's rich oil resources, is also angling for good ties with Johnson Sirleaf's Liberia.

Li, China's foreign minister, met the Liberian president-elect in Monrovia on Sunday on the eve of her inauguration.

"We have identical positions on many important issues, such as reform of the United Nations," Li told reporters.

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