Liberia president vows to continue fighting graft

AP News
Posted: Jan 16, 2012 10:15 AM
Liberia president vows to continue fighting graft

Liberia's president was sworn in Monday for a second term in a ceremony attended by her bitter rival, whose refusal to recognize her victory had threatened to undermine this country's fragile peace.

The 73-year-old Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressed opposition leader Winston Tubman, thanking him for agreeing to attend the ceremony, where he was seated in a place of honor in the front row. The ceremony was also attended by a nine-member delegation from the United States, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Tubman had called for a boycott of the November vote, after it became clear that he could not beat Sirleaf, prompting many to accuse him of being a spoiler. His supporters repeatedly clashed with police and until this weekend, he continued to say he would not recognize Sirleaf and that he would lead a demonstration on the day of her inauguration. He changed his mind only after a private meeting with Sirleaf on Saturday.

"We inaugurate a new beginning _ a rebirth of our democracy," Sirleaf told the crowd of thousands, as supporters blew horns. "Today we can say with conviction that our country has turned the corner. Liberia is no longer a place of conflict, war and deprivation. We are no longer the country our citizens want to run away from."

Sirleaf became an international symbol of women's empowerment when she became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005, just two years after the end of the nation's disastrous 14-year civil war. Her popularity has continued to soar abroad, even as it plummeted at home due to endemic poverty and the country's crippling unemployment. Days before last year's election, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, further underscoring the contrast between her image inside and outside the West African nation.

Tubman's party accused the president of having done too little to end the country's poverty. Liberia remains one of the world's poorest nations, ranked nearly at the bottom of the United Nations' index tracking development.

Economists disagree, however, saying the country was on its knees when she took over. Nearly 80 percent of its schools were destroyed and almost all the roads were impassable. In the years since she took office, the government added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads and people are earning double what they made when she was first elected, according to a report by the ministry of planning and economic affairs.

In her inaugural address, Sirleaf directly addressed those who feel she has not done enough to lift them from poverty.

"To all who have yet to feel the hands of progress touch your life, your time has come," she said, as cheers erupted. "We have laid the foundations for peace and prosperity, and must now hasten our true mission: Putting people _ especially young people _ first. And lifting the lives of all Liberians."

And she responded to the opposition's claim that she was not listening to the country's disenfranchised youth: "The youth of Liberia are our future and they have sent us a message," she said. "Let me say to them: We heard that message. It is our solemn obligation to ensure that their hope will not be in vain."

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

Clinton, who led the U.S. delegation, urged Sirleaf to focus on "the cancer of corruption" that continues to plague Liberia, another charge often levied by Tubman's party. She told reporters at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new embassy that she had spoken with Sirleaf earlier on Monday about fighting corruption.

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 setback."

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, adding that Sirleaf will be recognized by his party as the president.

"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.