16 January 2006

Liberians Welcome President's Pledge to Curb Corruption, Create Jobs

Monrovia — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf walked home today, through cheering, crying crowds that parted reluctantly as security officials cleared a path. Along the boulevard leading from the capitol, where she was inaugurated as Liberia's president, she periodically got into her car, only to alight again to the delight of well-wishers.

Miles and hours after taking the oath of office, she was still paying her respects to "ordinary citizens", whom she specifically addressed in her inaugural speech. Acknowledging the hard times created by 15 years of war that killed over 200,000 people, displaced a majority of the population and destroyed virtually all the country's infrastructure, she pledged an administration committed to reconciliation, education, health, jobs and dignity.

Acknowledging the suffering that Liberians have endured, she pledged to "create the social and economic opportunities" to restore dignity and self-worth. "We will make the children smile again," she said. Speaking directly to young people, the president gave her word that she would work to respond to their needs and to empower them.

Leaders from around the world took part in the inauguration of Africa's first elected woman head of state - and Liberia's first peace-time transition in more than 25 years. They included the presidents of Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and prime ministers from Guinea and Tunisia. Representing the United States was First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who received an enthusiastic reception from Inaugural attendees.

Among the people lining and spilling into the streets of the Sinkor district of Monrovia, two issues dominated conversation - corruption and employment. Jobs are on everyone's mind in a nation where unemployment exceeds 80 per cent. But corruption is what prompts the most impassioned outbursts, partly because there is a widespread sense that economic development has been stymied by dishonesty among government and business officials.

At the invitation-only inaugural events, mentions of corruption have stirred similar responses. When the United Methodist Bishop of Liberia, the Reverend Dr. John Innis, said at Sunday's national Thanksgiving Service that corruption must be fought, a swell of approval rose from ththousands of worshippers.

Liberia's two-year-old transition government, formed to unite warring factions and organize elections during a peace guaranteed by seven thousand United Nations troops, has been plagued by charges of mismanagement and theft among officials. Members of the newly elected legislature last week selected as speaker Edwin Snowe, a man who is banned from international travel by the United Nations for suspected financial crimes.

The new president, in her inaugural speech, called corruption "the major public enemy," saying, "We will confront it. We will fight it." She promised to declare her assets and said every high government official and the heads of public corporations will be required to follow her example. When she challenged Speaker Snowe, as well as the president pro-tem of the Senate to do the same, inaugural guests roared their approval, many leaping to their feet in the largest applause of a well-received speech.

As forcefully as she spoke about combating corruption, developing the economy, fighting HIV/Aids and achieving national reconciliation, President Sirleaf spoke most personally about the legacies of poverty and war for women and children. Women, she said, "bore the brunt of inhumanity and terror," being conscripted, gang-raped and forced into domestic slavery. And to Liberian children she said, "I love you very, very much. I shall work to give you hope and to give you a better future."

Everybody along Monrovia's Tubman Road after the inauguration seemed to have listened to the speech on the radio. "Ninety per cent of the people in the city heard it," said one man. "There were radios everywhere."

"This is the first time in this country that you have an election where the ballots were counted in public," said Daniel Newland, 45, a graduate of the University of Liberia and an assistant magistrate in Bong Count, where he served as an election official. "Liberians are so moved that we have a president we are confident in. As you can see from the happiness, Liberians are embracing what came out of this election."

"I'm happy, happy, happy, happy, happy," that Sirleaf was elected, said Esther Campbell, a market women. "God brought her to help us."

Happy was an often-heard word on Inauguration Day, particularly among women, both in the capital and in reports from around the country of three million people. In her address, the president credited the votes of women with guaranteeing her election and the support of women from west Africa and beyond with sustaining her through the rigorous campaign.

"There's been a lot of women jubilating in the streets," a correspondent for Star Radio reported Monday from Grand Gedeh county, where President Sirleaf's opponent, George Weah, carried the November poll with 96 per cent of the votes. "Everybody is in a joyous mood."

If there is a danger of unrealistic expectations, as some observers say, and if there will be no quick fixes, as the new president warns, nobody seemed to want to dwell on those realities. For inauguration day, at least, Liberians wanted to celebrate an end to war, a free and fair election and the hope that new possibilities are before them.


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