Liberia President Vows To Continue Fighting Graft

Published January 16, 2012 1:45PM (EST)

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberia's president says tackling youth unemployment and fighting corruption are her top priorities after she took the oath of office Monday and begins her second term in the West African nation.

Chief Justice Johnny Lewis administered the oath of office to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Vice President Joseph Boakai at noon, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

The 73-year-old president, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize shortly before elections last year, first came to power in the country's 2005 elections and promised to serve for a single term. She went back on her word, saying that the constitution gave her the right to run again and that six years was not enough to tackle Liberia's postwar challenges.

Africa's first democratically elected female president won re-election in Liberia's November vote, but her victory was at first rendered hollow because the opposition boycotted the poll. They threatened to stage a demonstration on the day of her inauguration and vowed not to recognize her presidency.

After opposition leader Winston Tubman met with Sirleaf over the weekend, however, he said on Sunday that he would now congratulate her on the presidency and attend the inauguration.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Liberia early Monday to attend the swearing-in of the Harvard-educated Sirleaf, who has become a symbol of women's potential in Africa. Although she is lionized abroad, Sirleaf faced a tough re-election battle at home because the nation is still reeling from heavy unemployment following a disastrous 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.

Hundreds 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 morning and hoisted the flag at the presidency.

In her inaugural address six years ago, Sirleaf also vowed to make graft "Public Enemy No. 1," but the Harvard-trained president said she soon realized that Liberia's corruption-endemic society could not be changed in one term.

"We now will move very quickly on the punishment side through our judicial reform, taking cases to court," Sirleaf told The Associated Press in a pre-inauguration interview.

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 set back."

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.

He said Sirleaf will be recognized by his party as the president, and that they have called off a planned demonstration on Monday.

"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.

Liberia has come a long way since the end of the 14-year war, a conflict that killed up to a quarter of a million people in a country only slightly larger than Tennessee. When the fighting finally stopped in 2003, 80 percent of the country's schools were in ruins and nearly all the roads were impassable, according to a report by the ministry of planning and economic affairs.

In the years since Sirleaf took office, the country added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads. Children under the age of 5 are dying at half the rate they were before, and people are earning almost double what they made when she was first elected, according to reports.

Still, the country remains one of the world's poorest, and the nation's fragile peace has been mostly held together by the presence of thousands of United Nations peacekeepers still stationed in Liberia nine years after the war.


Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.

By Salon Staff

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