Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been sworn in as president of war-battered Liberia, promising a clean break with the west African nation’s violent past and pledging to rebuild.
With US Navy warships offshore for the first time since the war’s end two years ago, and US first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on hand in a rare show of support, the moment was greeted with thunderous applause from thousands of guests.
“It is time for us, regardless of our political affiliations or persuasions, to come together to heal and rebuild our nation,” 67-year-old Sirleaf said in an inaugural speech yesterday.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered congratulations, saying in a statement that Sirleaf had a “historic mandate to lead the nation toward a future of lasting peace and stability”.
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia was prosperous and peaceful for more than a century, bolstered by abundant timber and diamond wealth.
But back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 brought the country to its knees, killing 200,000 people and displacing half the tiny nation’s population of three million.
Today, not even the capital has running water or electricity. The rich rely on generators, the poor on candles. Unemployment is at 80%. “We have all suffered. The individual sense of deprivation is immense,” Sirleaf said.
She called for patience. “The task of reconstructing our devastated economy is awesome, for which there will be no quick fix, yet we have the potential to promote a healthy economy in which Liberians and international investors can prosper.”
Ensuring Liberia remains peaceful will be Sirleaf’s most pressing – and perhaps most difficult – task.
George Weah, the soccer star who lost the November run-off, was backed by most of the country’s top warlords and faction leaders. Weah grudgingly accepted defeat and attended the inauguration.
Several lawmakers in the new legislature, including the new house speaker, are under a UN travel ban and assets freeze for constituting a threat to peace.
One newly-appointed senator ordered his troops to hack off the ears of a captured president in 1990. Others are allies of one-time warlord and president Charles Taylor, who was forced from power in 2003 as rebels shelled the capital.
Another crucial task will be to assure the future of 100,000 ex-combatants who laid down arms last year. Many of them now prowl the streets, unemployed.
For now, Sirleaf’s government is backed by 15,000 UN troops. A similar UN force pulled out of neighbouring Sierra Leone in the final days of 2005, completing a successful, five-year mission that restored peace, at least for now.
Many see Taylor as one of the biggest threats. Exiled to Nigeria, he has been accused by some UN officials of trying to meddle in Liberian affairs, mostly by telephone.
Taylor is wanted by a UN-backed war-crimes court in Sierra Leone for his role in fuelling that country’s own civil war, but Nigeria has refused to hand him over.
In an interview with the US network NBC’s Today show, broadcast yesterday, Sirleaf suggested she would like to see Taylor tried. “Mr Taylor has always said he wanted his day in court to defend himself. We should grant him that privilege,” she said.
Rice was also confident Taylor would be handed over to the Sierra Leone court. He “is through raping and pillaging this country, and the Liberian people are trying to look forward”, Rice told reporters on a flight to Monrovia early yesterday.
In her address, Sirleaf promised to stamp out corruption – a key step to win over sceptical foreign donors.
She also called on Liberians abroad and refugees in west Africa to return and rebuild. The UN says nearly 400,000 Liberians are still displaced, both inside the country and the region.
Born in Liberia in 1938, Sirleaf worked her way through college in the US by mopping floors and waiting tables. She graduated with an MPA from Harvard in 1971 and later took top jobs in Liberia, including finance minister, and senior positions at Citibank, the World Bank and the UN.
Twice-imprisoned in Liberia in the 1980s for political reasons, she returned during a break in fighting in 1997 to run for president. She lost to Taylor, but tried again last autumn, emerging victorious in a landslide vote.
Yesterday, standing in front of a one-starred Liberian flag with her left hand on a Bible, Sirleaf took the oath of office in a ceremony attended by thousands of Liberians and scores of foreign dignitaries, including Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki.
Armed UN peacekeepers surveyed the scene from atop surrounding buildings with binoculars.
“We know that your vote was a vote for change, a vote for peace, security ... and we have heard you loudly,” Sirleaf said in her speech. “We recognise this change is not a change for change’s sake, but a fundamental break with the past.”