- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

MONROVIA, Liberia — Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, was sworn in yesterday and promised to make a break with Liberia’s violent past and rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

“It is time for us, regardless of our political affiliations or persuasions, to come together, to heal and rebuild our nation,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, said in her presidential inaugural speech.

The inauguration was witnessed by dignitaries from around the world, including first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the presidents of Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Togo, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Also on hand were representatives of China, Egypt, France and Finland.

Founded as a settlement for freed American slaves in 1821 and established as an independent republic in 1847, Liberia was prosperous and peaceful for more than a century. But back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 brought the country to its knees, killing 200,000 people and displacing half the nation’s population of 3 million.

It is now one of the world’s poorest countries. Not even the capital, Monrovia, has running water or electricity. The unemployment rate is 80 percent.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf acknowledged that the task of rebuilding would be coupled with high expectations, but called for patience.

“The task of reconstructing our devastated economy is awesome,” she said. “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 that Liberia remains peaceful will be Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s most pressing and perhaps most difficult task.

George Weah, the soccer star who lost the November runoff, was backed by most of the country’s top warlords and faction leaders. He grudgingly accepted defeat and attended the inauguration.

Several lawmakers in the new legislature, including the House speaker, are under a U.N. travel ban and assets freeze. Some are allies of one-time warlord and President Charles Taylor, who was forced from power in 2003 as rebels shelled the capital.

Many see Mr. Taylor as one of the biggest threats. Exiled to Nigeria, he has been accused by some U.N. officials of trying to meddle in Liberian affairs.

Mr. Taylor is wanted by a U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone on charges of fueling that country’s civil war, but Nigeria has refused to hand over custody.

Mrs. Bush said Mr. Taylor should be brought to Sierra Leone to face trial.

“I know that the president of Liberia will work to do what’s best for Liberia, and also to bring Charles Taylor to justice,” Mrs. Bush told The Washington Times. “This is a time of reconciliation right now in Liberia … following the … very contested election.”

Born in Liberia in 1938, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1971 and worked for Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Twice imprisoned in Liberia in the 1980s, she returned during a break in fighting in 1997 to run for president. She lost to Mr. Taylor, but tried again in the fall, emerging victorious.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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