Johnson-Sirleaf shines in revitalising Liberia

One year after taking the helm of a country torn by 14 years of war, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is winning praise for her efforts to restore the rule of law in Liberia, and for standing up to world steel giant Arcelor Mittal.

There will be no fanfare to mark the swearing-in on January 16 of Africa’s first female president in Liberia, a small West African country that was engulfed in successive wars from 1989 to 2003.

The swearing-in of the Harvard-educated economist was witnessed by United States First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South African President Thabo Mbeki in an atmosphere of high expectations.

The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch says Johnson-Sirleaf has not disappointed her supporters and is slowly but steadily restoring hope to the nation of 3,5-million people.

”Liberia has made tangible progress in transitioning from a near-failed state to a democratic state governed by the rule of law,” said Human Rights Watch in a report released this week.

”As 2006 ended, solid grounds for optimism existed,” it added, notably in the government’s effort to fight corruption, retrain the police and the army and gain control of the country’s wealth in natural resources.

In her first year in office, Johnson-Sirleaf has also set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after South Africa’s effort to deal with apartheid-era atrocities, and 40 000 refugees have returned home.

On the economic front, her most notable achievement was winning a revised contract with the world’s largest steelmaker, Arcelor Mittal, that promises to pour more than $1-billion in investment into Liberia.

About 3 500 jobs will be created directly and up to 20 000 indirectly through the opening of new mines, railways and ports needed to extract Liberia’s iron ore.

Johnson-Sirleaf took office with a vow to ”wage war” against corruption, and at least one diplomat in Monrovia, speaking on condition of anonymity, singled out her fight against graft as ”one of her great achievements”.

Less than a month after taking office, Johnson-Sirleaf sacked all 300 employees of the Finance Ministry, declaring that they had ”embarrassed” the country because of their corrupt practices.

With backing from the US, she scored a master stroke by convincing Nigeria to hand over her predecessor, Charles Taylor, the architect of the wars in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone, to stand trial for war crimes.

Taylor, who has been exiled in the south-eastern Nigerian city of Calabar, is to go on trial in April for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

Expectations are running high as the 68-year-old former World Bank economist begins her second year in office. ”I think she has been doing her best. But there are still lots to be done,” said local businessman George Walker. ”We cannot have an excellent business environment in the absence of electricity supply and good water.”

Only 3% of the capital, Monrovia, has street lights and the use of power generators is costly.

”Our president has spent more than 90% of her time in the air going from country to country, asking for support. But where is the result?” asked student Daniel Mongor at the University in Monrovia.

”Poverty is on the increase, prices are hiking, our parents are being put out of jobs, and the international community, especially America, keeps promising but no concrete result. Where are we going?” — Sapa-AFP

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