Bush promises education aid for Liberia

United States President George Bush, winding up a trip to Africa, promised war-scarred Liberia that the US will see its staunchest ally on the continent out of ”days of challenge and sorrow”.

”It’s easier to tear a country down than it is to rebuild a country,” he said. ”And the people of this good country must understand that the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country.”

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman head of state, observed that Bush was the first US leader to visit in 30 years and said her country is recovering well from a civil war that ended in 2003.

”Mister President, as we welcome you and your entourage to Liberia today, we thank God that the guns of war are silent” after the 14-year fratricide, said Johnson-Sirleaf, who took office in January 2006.

”Our recovery process is under way, our people are beginning to sleep more soundly at night, our children are smiling again and Liberians at home and abroad are reclaiming their pride and national identity,” she said.

Bush vowed sustained US help to battle poverty and disease as well as an education initiative: one million textbooks and desks and seating for at least 10 000 students by the beginning of the next school year.

The US president was capping a week-long, five-country Africa swing with his stop in Liberia, a nation settled in the 1820s by slaves freed by the US, but battered by a series of civil wars that dulled its early promise.

Bush noted that the US, partnering with the United Nations, has been working to train a new Liberian armed forces after the latest gruesome fighting claimed about 300 000 lives.

”We’re working to heal the wounds of war, and strengthen democracy, and build new armed forces that will be a source of security for the Liberian people, instead of a source of terror,” he said.

Johnson-Sirleaf stressed that ”Liberia is on its way back to economic recovery” and that it favours ”trade rather than aid, investment and business partnerships rather than humanitarian handouts” — but the country is still struggling.

The road from the airport to downtown Monrovia is lined with tattered huts, unfinished cinder-block homes, dusty small villages, signs urging the population to battled HIV/Aids and at least one stark message against domestic violence that features an angry man threatening a cowering woman with a belt.

Before Bush’s arrival, blue-helmeted UN soldiers and police in riot gear could be seen at regular intervals, while Liberians lined the city streets, some clutching US flags and waving, other sombrely staring straight ahead.

Bush was here at the end of a trip that has taken him to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana, bearing more than $1-billion in aid as he tried to highlight US-backed ”success stories” and urged an end to regional conflicts.

He and his host did not publicly discuss Liberia’s offer to host a new US military command focused on Africa — Africom — combining efforts in three commands, none of which officially focuses on the continent.

Some African critics have tied Africom to the fact that by 2015 Washington expects that 25% of the oil it imports will come from the continent, basically from the Gulf of Guinea.

But, in Ghana, Bush denied any plans for new bases and said Africom ”is aiming to help provide military assistance to African nations, so African nations are more capable of dealing with Africa’s conflicts, like peacekeeping training”.

He cited the example of the joint African Union and UN effort in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

Bush also noted that Liberia’s red, white and blue flag, like that of his adoptive home state of Texas, has one star where the US flag has 50, and declared: ”Though we’re over 4 500 miles from the United States, I feel pretty much at home.” — Sapa-AFP

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