Liberia President Sirleaf Vows to Continue Fighting Corruption and Youth Unemployment

Ellen Johnson SirleafLiberia’s president says tackling youth
unemployment and fighting corruption are her top priorities after she
takes the oath of office Monday and begins her second term in the West
African nation.


The 73-year-old Ellen
Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize shortly before
elections last year, first came to power in the country’s 2005 elections
and promised to serve for a single term. She went back on her word,
saying that the constitution gave her the right to run again and that
six years was not enough to tackle Liberia’s postwar challenges.

Africa’s
first democratically elected female president won re-election in
Liberia’s November vote, but her victory was at first rendered hollow
because the opposition boycotted the poll. They threatened to stage a
demonstration on the day of her inauguration and vowed not to recognize
her presidency.

After opposition leader
Winston Tubman met with Sirleaf over the weekend, however, he said on
Sunday that he would now congratulate her on the presidency and attend
the inauguration.

Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton arrived in Liberia early Monday to attend the swearing-in
of the Harvard-educated Sirleaf, who has become a symbol of women’s
potential in Africa. Although she is lionized abroad, Sirleaf faced a
tough re-election battle at home because the nation is still reeling
from heavy unemployment following a disastrous 14-year civil war that
ended in 2003.

Hundreds of people, many of
them dressed in colorful ceremonial garb, gathered hours before the
start of the noon ceremony in Liberia’s capital. The military fired two
cannons Monday morning and hoisted the flag at the presidency.

In
her inaugural address six years ago, Sirleaf also vowed to make graft
“Public Enemy No. 1,” but the Harvard-trained president said she soon
realized that Liberia’s corruption-endemic society could not be changed
in one term.

“We now will move very quickly on
the punishment side through our judicial reform, taking cases to
court,” Sirleaf told The Associated Press in a pre-inauguration
interview.

Liberians are expecting more this term.

Benedict
Korlubah, a peace and conflict studies student of the University of
Liberia said “given and judging from where we’ve come the government’s
first priority should be peace and reconciliation.”

Fayia
Kanteh, a pastor, wants the government to prioritize the restoration of
lights and running water because “in our world today to have a nation’s
capital without electricity is a major set back.”

The opposition also claims that Sirleaf did not do enough to open up to her critics.

“In
the cabinet I had presidential candidates, vice presidential
candidates; throughout the government we had people from the opposition,
maybe not in the numbers they wanted,” she said. “But I feel satisfied
that we had an inclusive government in the first term; and in this term
we will do the same.”

Sirleaf is already
negotiating with opposition leader Tubman. After their meeting Saturday,
the former U.N. envoy to Somalia said “We have reached a point of the
discussion where we can say the negotiation has gained fruition.”

Tubman
said his Congress for Democratic Change party still did not think the
president had won the election fairly, even though the international
community felt the president won.

“We realized
that we couldn’t fight all of that, so we thought the best thing would
be for us to negotiate our involvement in a government of inclusion,” he
said.

He said Sirleaf will be recognized by
his party as the president, and that they have called off a planned
demonstration on Monday.

“We hope that this will defuse the tension and that there will be stability, cooperation and atmosphere of peace,” he said.

But
Sirleaf’s pledge to reach out to her opponents, including all 15
opposition parties that ran against her in the first round of voting,
could also cause Sirleaf to make deals with those directly responsible
for dragging the country into war.

Among them
is Prince Johnson, who gained notoriety for being videotaped as his men
tortured Liberia’s deposed ruler Samuel K. Doe in 1990. The image of
Johnson drinking Budweiser as his men cut off the ex-president’s ears is
emblematic of the hell from which Liberia is still attempting to
emerge. Currently a senator, Johnson was one of Sirleaf’s rivals in the
October election and endorsed her before the Nov. 8 runoff between
Sirleaf and Tubman.

Sirleaf’s spokesman said
she had made no deals with Johnson, who has tried to bury his past as a
warlord and draws strong support in his native Nimba County.

Liberia
has come a long way since the end of the 14-year war, a conflict that
killed up to a quarter of a million people in a country only slightly
larger than Tennessee. When the fighting finally stopped in 2003, 80
percent of the country’s schools were in ruins and nearly all the roads
were impassable, according to a report by the ministry of planning and
economic affairs.

In the years since Sirleaf
took office, the country added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads.
Children under the age of 5 are dying at half the rate they were before,
and people are earning almost double what they made when she was first
elected, according to reports.

Still, the
country remains one of the world’s poorest, and the nation’s fragile
peace has been mostly held together by the presence of thousands of
United Nations peacekeepers still stationed in Liberia nine years after
the war.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.

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