Liberian leader gets red-carpet welcome in Washington

WASHINGTON—The nation's capital rolled out the red carpet Wednesday for Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, applauding her as Africa's first elected female head of state.

The American-educated Johnson-Sirleaf kicked off her first U.S. visit as president by addressing a joint session of Congress, an honor usually reserved for royalty, war heroes, pioneering astronauts and more seasoned heads of state.

Barely three months in office, Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, becomes only the fifth African leader—and the first since former South African President Nelson Mandela nearly a decade ago—and eighth woman to address House and Senate members.

"I am deeply touched by the honor bestowed on my small but proud West African Republic of Liberia ... and on myself," she said to a standing ovation. "By this invitation, you have paid one of the greatest tributes there is to those who laid down their lives for my country to be free and democratic. I can only say a big thank you."

Johnson-Sirleaf's speech, her address on Friday to the United Nations Security Council and her meeting next Tuesday with President Bush all honor her personal success story and reward Liberia's transition to democracy after 14 years of civil war and iron-fisted rule by exiled ex-president Charles Taylor.

Her political ascent and strong-willed focus have earned her the nickname "Iron Lady" at home. She ran for the Liberian Senate in 1985, during which she criticized the country's military regime, which first imprisoned, then exiled her. She returned and ran for president against Taylor in 1997, but lost. Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003.

Last November she scored an 18-point victory over popular former soccer star George Weah, campaigning as a reformer who would trim a bloated government, end corruption and rebuild the country's war-scarred infrastructure.

"She's an extremely bright woman with great experience, and she's tough," said Lester Hyman, an attorney who represented the Liberian government from 1997 to 1999. "She's not perceived at all as being weak. She will be the breath of fresh air Washington is looking for."

Her U.S. visit is largely symbolic. But between speeches and lunches, Johnson-Sirleaf is expected to talk to administration officials about increasing aid to Liberia and the prospects of extraditing Taylor to face a special court in Sierra Leone on war crimes charges, Africa experts say.

Liberia is burdened with crippling poverty: 80 percent of its 3.24 million people live below the poverty line. Yet the country has an abundance of timber, gold, rubber and other natural resources. Unemployment is estimated at 85 percent, and Monrovia, the seaside capital, lacks electricity and running water.

"This is a crucial time for her," said Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Clinton. "There is a window of opportunity in this post-conflict era to demonstrate to the people who elected her that democracy can put bread on the table. ... If she can't deliver from here, she'll be off to a bad start."

Aid to Liberia has dropped from about $520 million in fiscal 2004 to $350 million the next year and only $250 million this year. Administration officials say aid has dropped because they've reduced funds for peacekeeping as stability replaced civil war. A bipartisan group of 14 House lawmakers, led by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., is pressing for more aid to Liberia.

"We are concerned that the president's supplemental request does not include critically needed assistance for Liberia in fiscal year 2006," the lawmakers wrote this week in a letter to a House subcommittee. "Unless the newly elected administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf can quickly access essential resources now, Liberia's hard-won progress to date could be imperiled."

Johnson-Sirleaf may be new to her office, but she's an old hand when it comes to dealing with the United States. Born in Monrovia in 1938, she earned a degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree in public education from Harvard.

After serving as Liberia's assistant finance minister, she worked in Washington from 1973 to 1977 as an economist for the World Bank. After a stint as vice president of Citibank's Africa regional office, Johnson-Sirleaf served as vice president of Equator Bank in Washington from 1986 to 1992. In 1992, she became director of the U.N. Development Program's regional bureau for Africa.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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