16 January 2006

Liberia: Africa's First Female President Vows to Deliver a Better Future

Monrovia — Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf placed her hand on the bible and took the oath of office as Liberia's and Africa's first female president on Monday, promising peace and restoration for the war-torn nation.

Sirleaf told the largest gathering of regional leaders and international dignitaries to grace the capital since war broke out in 1989 that Liberians must work together to put 14 years of conflict behind them.

"It is time for us to come together to heal and rebuild our nation we must put Liberians back to work again and we must put our economy and financial house in order," said 67-year-old Sirleaf.

US first lady Laura Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among the 1000-strong audience attending Sirleaf's inauguration as Liberia's 23rd president in the parliament courtyard.

Sirleaf whipped retired international soccer star George Weah into second place to become Liberia's peacetime president after polls conducted late last year under the watchful eye of 15,000 UN peacekeepers.

Allegations of fraud from the Weah camp initially clouded Sirleaf's victory until regional heavyweights urged the football legend to acquiesce.

Sirleaf has promised rapid, tangible action for Liberia's war-tired population including restoring electricity to the capital within 150 days.

Corruption will be another key battleground for the former World Bank official.

"Corruption under my administration will be the major public enemy, we will confront it, and we will fight it," said Sirleaf, who was dressed in cream with a matching traditional head-wrap.

And news that all officials appointed to her new government will have to declare their assets before taking office was met with cheers.

"Any member of my administration who sees this affirmation as a mere posturing or yet another attempt by another Liberian president to play gaily on this grave issue must think twice," she vowed.

Concerns about corruption in government prompted Liberia's international partners and donors in September to draw up an anti-graft plan known as GEMAP or, the Governance Economic Management Assistance Programme.

Sirleaf has thrown her support behind GEMAP under which international supervisors will monitor key ministries and lucrative concerns such as the port, airport, customs office and forestry commission as well all state expenditure for the next three years.

The new president promised too to be tough on lawlessness, especially acts that could destabilise peace, but said reconciliation would not be a witch-hunt.

"There will be no vindictiveness and there will be no policies of social, political and economic exclusions. We will be inclusive and tolerant."

And breaking with the practices of Liberia's last elected leader, Charles Taylor, Sirleaf promised that the country would not be used as a launch pad for regional instability.

"To our sister republics - west, east, north or south of our borders - we make this pledge: under my administration, no inch of Liberian soil will be used to conspire and to perpetrate aggressions against your country."

UN peacekeepers beefed up security on the streets of the seafront capital and US warships prowled the horizon as helicopters watched from above.

Normal business activities ground to a halt to mark what Liberians saw as an historic day in the continent's oldest republic.

While some stayed at home to watch or listen to the ceremony broadcast live on radio and television, others flocked to central Monrovia's street bars.

"Now we can see our country getting back to normal again," said 50-year-old Ignatius Wreh who was celebrating with a bottle of beer. "The inauguration shows that the war is over and we are ready for peace!"

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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