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Liberia's Historic Presidential Inauguration:
Carter Center Expert Q&A

 
Jan. 13, 2006
 
 
The inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president-elect of Liberia and Africa's first elected woman president, is set for Monday, Jan. 16, 2005, in Monrovia, Liberia. The Carter Center, involved in the West African country's peace and democracy efforts since 1991, actively engaged in the 2005 electoral process in Liberia, and organized an international observer delegation in partnership with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) to monitor the October election. In this Q&A, Ashley Barr, Carter Center/Liberia Country Director, and Tom Crick, senior political analyst for the Center's Conflict Resolution Program, discuss the country's future and the Center's continuing role in Liberia.
 
What is the significance of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's election as President of Liberia?

BARR: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who will be inaugurated on Monday, Jan. 16, 2006, as Liberia's new president, is the first woman elected as head of state in any African nation. Her election is an inspiration to women and men throughout the continent and around the world -- or as President Carter said in his congratulatory letter to president-elect Johnson Sirleaf, 'People everywhere are inspired by your success and will look to you as an example of how women leaders can alter the course of history.' She is well-prepared to lead her nation, which is emerging from more than two decades of conflict, into a new era of democratic governance and economic prosperity. Educated at Harvard University, she previously served as finance minister of Liberia and later as a leader at the United Nations Development Program. She has struggled alongside other Liberian democrats for two decades, having been imprisoned in the 1980s for speaking out against tyranny and coming in second to Charles Taylor in 1997 elections marred by widespread pre-poll intimidation.

 

What are the greatest challenges President Johnson Sirleaf will face?


BARR: The new government must quickly show progress in creating employment opportunities, especially for youth, many of whom had no opportunity to get even a basic education during the many years of conflict, but were drawn instead into taking up arms. These young people still have the potential to be recruited as mercenaries in other simmering conflicts in neighboring countries, which could continue a cycle a destabilization in the subregion. A 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission – the UN Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL – has disarmed and demobilized approximately 125,000 fighters in the last two years, but reintegration is a more elusive goal. Demobilization of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), is another unmet challenge to date, but the restructuring of the AFL is a central mandate of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in Accra, Ghana, in 2003, which initiated the current peaceful transformation of the country.


Liberia should be a wealthy nation, given its vast natural resources, including arable land, timber forests, gold, and diamonds. Conflict and endemic corruption have prevented the country from benefiting from these resources, but President Johnson Sirleaf has given assurances that tackling graft in the public and private sectors will be a key objective of her government. She intends to appoint a commission to assess all concessions and contracts granted by previous governments, and to reaffirm only those that serve the interests of the Liberian people. The international community shares this broad objective and has initiated an Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) to support the transparent management of all national resources.

 

What are the expectations of President Johnson Sirleaf's government in the first months and years?

CRICK: President Johnson Sirleaf is initiating a "Quick Impact" program to demonstrate her commitment to visible, measurable results at the beginning of her administration. Her priority is to address some of the basic needs of Liberians, including the restoration of pipe-borne water and electricity to the capital, and rebuilding the country's shattered education and health systems. With more than 80 percent unemployment, and an equal level of illiteracy, government projects will aim to put citizens to work rebuilding their own country.

 

Will The Carter Center play an ongoing role in Liberia?

CRICK: The Carter Centre UK, with its partner ERIS, will launch the final phase of its European Commission-funded project soon, including activities related to good governance and national reconciliation, and The Carter Center hopes to continue with similar programming in the future. A hallmark of the CCUK program, which began in March 2005, has been work beyond the capital city, building relationships and conducting events in all 15 of Liberia's counties related to civic education, strengthening political parties, and supporting Liberian organizations' efforts to monitor the elections. Tens of thousands of Liberians involved in these activities now represent a critical mass of democrats around the country who, it is hoped, will continue to make their voices heard during President Johnson Sirleaf's tenure as president. We expect that these citizens will find that their new president and legislators are highly responsive, for the first time in Liberia's history.

 

What must the new Liberian government do to succeed in overcoming the country's deep divisions, and addressing the corruption of the previous government?

CRICK: National reconciliation is a pressing priority. There is significant international pressure for Liberia to ensure the prosecution of former president and alleged war criminal Charles Taylor, but President Johnson Sirleaf may prefer to emphasize the importance of a planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is likely to be inaugurated early in 2006. Another aspect of the need for national reconciliation is that the new president has emphasized her desire to form a truly inclusive government, calling on all political parties, ethnic groups, and others to nominate talented Liberians of good will from all walks of life. She has promised to create a government of people who have shown a dedication to human rights, anti-corruption and integrity, regardless of formal educational or other qualifications.

 

Why were the Liberian elections of particular significance to The Carter Center?

BARR: President Carter's personal commitment to Liberia extends to 1978, when he made the first state visit by a sitting U.S. president to sub-Saharan Africa. The Carter Center has worked to foster peace and democracy in Liberia since March 1991, when invited by all sides in Liberia's civil war to assist in the peace process. The 2005 presidential elections represent the Center's shared goal with Liberia for a truly democratic society, moving the country beyond the shadows of the civil war.

 

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