- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Bush welcomed Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the White House yesterday, calling Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state “a pioneer.”

“You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people,” Mr. Bush told the Liberian president in the Oval Office.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf thanked the United States for its financial aid and its interest in her country’s future. Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee approved $50 million in new economic aid to Liberia.

“Liberia, we think, has the potential to become the U.S. success story in Africa,” she said.

In January, first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the inauguration of the 67-year-old Harvard-educated former finance minister. She inherits a war-ruined nation of 3 million with an 80 percent unemployment rate, no running water and no electricity. Despite its diamond and timber wealth, Liberia is among the world’s poorest; ranked 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list.

“We’re confident that the Liberian people are ready to do what it takes,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said. “They’re back at work. Our country is open for business.”

She said, however, that her nation can’t move beyond its years of civil strife until exiled former President Charles Taylor is given his day in court.

“I wish we had the luxury of time on this issue, but it has become an impediment to our being able to move forward — to being able to pursue our development agenda,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said after her meeting with Mr. Bush.

She has asked Nigeria to hand over Mr. Taylor, who has been indicted by a United Nations tribunal on charges of committing crimes against humanity. Mr. Taylor is accused of aiding and directing a Sierra Leone rebel movement and trading guns and gems with insurgents who mutilated civilian victims.

“It is a known fact that Mr. Taylor continues to have people operate in our country — that he does, in fact, have business operations in our country,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said.

Mr. Taylor has lived in exile in southern Nigeria since being forced from power under a peace deal brokered in 2003. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was credited with helping end Liberia’s civil war by assisting in arranging Mr. Taylor’s asylum, is consulting with other African leaders on how to respond to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s request.

“When they have reached a decision on the timing and the method, that will communicated, and we hope action will be taken not only to ensure Mr. Taylor the day in court, which he has asked for, but to ensure that he does so in an environment that is free and fair to him and that enables him the full right of self-defense,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said.

“President Bush only said that he, too, would consult with the African leaders so that a fair decision is taken,” she said.

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