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Liberian President Greeted by Supporters in Chicago
by MARIE-JO PROULX
2006-06-01

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in Chicago on May 9 to meet the many business, political and private supporters of her national reconstruction plan. When she won the Liberian election in November 2005, Sirleaf became the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa. She inherited a country of 3 million people ravaged by many years of civil war. She will need the international community's help if she is to put Liberia on the road to peace and prosperity. This spring's trip was the latest chapter in an evolving story of cooperation.

Sirleaf's busy schedule took her to a South Side school where children had raised funds to be sent to their counterparts in Liberia; to a local hospital where a young Liberian girl who lost an arm in the civil war is getting treatment; to Abbott Laboratories where she accepted 25,000 HIV test kits for adults; to Oprah's studio where she taped an interview that aired May 17; and, finally, to the Palmer House Hilton where 600 guests of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations ( CCFR ) came to hear her talk about her strategy for economic recovery and development.

Sirleaf's rise to power was neither sudden nor readily predictable. She was trained in public administration at Harvard and, over the last 40 years, has held a number of high-profile positions at a variety of financial institutions ( e.g., Hong Kong Bank Group and CITICORP ) and in international organizations ( e.g., International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank ) . With Liberia's economy in tatters and the entire country's infrastructure needing to be rebuilt, many observers consider her an expertly qualified leader.

Initially opposed to legal retributions against her predecessor, Charles Taylor, she ultimately requested the handing over of the former dictator to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in April. Taylor had been in exile in Nigeria and it is widely believed that the UN ( who helped set up the judicial body ) and the U.S. exerted significant pressure on Sirleaf to assist the efforts of the tribunal. Several of the questions from the evening's audience touched on Taylor's destructive rule; the human-rights abuses and war crimes he has been indicted for; and the prospect of a long, divisive legal battle on the international stage. Interestingly, Sirleaf's responses were noticeably more articulate and forthcoming when discussing economic reconstruction than when commenting on her country's violent past.

As one of seven individuals mandated by the Organization of African Unity ( now the African Union ) to investigate the Rwanda genocide, and after being selected by UNIFEM to investigate and report on the effects of conflict on women, Sirleaf has considerable first-hand experience with the aftermaths of war. But at the CCFR event, the main message was that Liberia needs to start looking forward if it is to attain the stability required for the implementation of new economic, health and educational programs. Sirleaf presented what her government has termed the 'Four Pillars of National Renewal': expanding security, revitalizing economic activity, providing basic services and strengthening governance and the rule of law.

Stressing the vital role international institutions are playing in Liberia, Sirleaf spoke of collaborative initiatives in the areas of resource management, anti-corruption campaigns with a zero-tolerance policy and the introduction of strict accountability measures, including a code of conduct for public officials. To American citizens who are wondering how they can help, Sirleaf suggested working with non-governmental organizations ( NGOs ) like the Liberian Education Trust, or volunteering with the Peace Corps.

She also applauded the input of the private sector and touted Liberia's 'long tradition of free enterprise.' The East African country is rich in natural resources such as rubber and lumber. The level of local and foreign corporate investment will depend on her administration's ability to foster an open and fair business environment. Because of the rampant corruption of past decades, the valuable diamond trade is currently under a moratorium following the imposition of UN sanctions. Sirleaf said she was confident those would be lifted in June when the UN Security Council announces the results of its review.

Pressed on how she intends to deal with the thousands of child soldiers who were forced to take up arms and commit unspeakable atrocities, Sirleaf admitted that a return to normalcy will be very difficult. She acknowledged that they will struggle to move past the trauma, reintegrate society and be accepted by their communities.

In a specific reference to Charles Taylor, she declared, 'We would like to think that his shadow is no longer over our country … because of the death and decadence he represented.' But she added that a number of his sympathizers are still around to pose 'lingering risks and threats.' Always with a view to the future, Sirleaf repeated her preference for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled after the post-apartheid process in South Africa, to oversee criminal proceedings. 'When we finish this Truth and Reconciliation process, we can move to justice,' she affirmed.

Finally, to a man who asked how she would manage to accomplish the long list of tasks she set for herself after promising she would serve only one term, Sirleaf answered, 'I have the capacity and political will to make the hard decisions. When I have made them and put the country on course, I will have deserved to rest.'

On May 15, The United Nations Department of Public Information released its annual list of what it considers the top ten underreported stories. The developmental challenges facing Liberia as it begins to reinvent itself as one of Africa's model-nations made it onto the roll—which is, perhaps, proof that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has more traveling to do to promote the latest social transformations and looming business opportunities in her beloved country.


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