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2006-01-17

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Sworn in as Liberia’s New President, First Elected Female Leader of Africa

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been sworn in as Liberia’s new president, making her Africa’s first elected female leader. In an hour-long speech after the ceremony, she vowed to tackle a national debt of $3.5 billion, fight rampant corruption and improve gender equality. We speak with Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies. She is originally from Liberia. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to Africa where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been sworn in as Liberia’s new president, making her Africa’s first elected female leader.

The open-air inauguration was attended by U.S. first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, founded in 1847 by freed slaves from America. Two US Navy warships were stationed off Liberia’s coast during the inauguration. At least nine African presidents including Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki were among those in attendance. Seated in the front row was George Weah, the soccer star who lost to Johnson-Sirleaf and refused to concede the election until last month.

Johnson-Sirleaf is a 67 year-old Harvard-trained economist who has held positions at Citibank, the United Nations and the World Bank. She is a veteran politician who was jailed twice and is nicknamed the Iron Lady.

In an hour-long speech after the ceremony, she vowed to tackle a national debt of $3.5 billion dollars and to fight rampant corruption. She added she would stand by a foreign donor-backed program that will oversee state spending. She also vowed to improve gender equality in Liberia.

  • Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf:
    "The administration must endeavour to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country. We will empower all Liberian women in all aspects of our national life. We will support and increase the weight of law... and deal drastically with crimes that dehumanize. We will enforce without fear of failure the laws against rape easily passed by the national assembly. We will encourage all families to educate all children especially the girls."

Johnson-Sirleaf becomes Liberia’s first elected head of state since the end of a 14-year civil war in 2003. The conflict uprooted half the country’s 3 million people and left up to 250,000 dead. Liberia is still reeling from the war. Its road network is in ruins, there is no national telephone network, no national electricity grid and no piped water.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In an hour-long speech after the ceremony, she vowed to tackle a national debt of $3.5 billion dollars and to fight rampant corruption. She added she would stand by a foreign donor-backed program that will oversee state spending. She also vowed to improve gender equality in Liberia.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: The administration must endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country. We will empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life. We will support and increase the weight of laws that restore their dignityand deal drastically with crimes that dehumanize them. We will enforce, without fear of failure, laws against rape recently passed by the national transitional legislature. We will encourage all families to educate all children, particularly the girl-child.

AMY GOODMAN: Johnson-Sirleaf becomes Liberia’s first elected head of state since the end of a 14-year civil war in 2003. The conflict uprooted half the country’s 3 million people, left up to a quarter of a million people dead. Liberia is still reeling from the war. Its road network is in ruins, there is no national telephone network, no national electricity grid, no piped water. For more on Liberia and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, we’re joined on the line from Washington, D.C. by Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is originally from Liberia. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Emira Woods.

EMIRA WOODS: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the inauguration of the first elected woman leader of Africa, in your country, Liberia?

EMIRA WOODS: I have to tell you, Amy, yesterday was a phenomenal day. As we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, we not only had the inauguration of Africa’s first democratically elected woman, but we also had, as your earlier segment indicated, this extraordinary election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Six years into this new millennium, Amy, we are finally entering a new era where women’s political leadership and openness in political processes, both on the African continent and in Latin America, are reaching extraordinary levels. And so it was really an exciting moment and a moment we should all be celebrating.

AMY GOODMAN: What does the President of Liberia represent?

EMIRA WOODS: She represents a complicated mix, you know. She was a political prisoner, in prison for seven months. She was raped in prison and has this history of being an opposition leader. Yet she rose to be senior loan officer at the World Bank, to be a senior officer at Citicorp, to be an administrator at the United Nations. She really has a checkered background with a combination of histories. And what we are hoping, as progressives, is that she will reach within herself for that reform-minded part of her and will uplift progressive values within her administration. We are seeing some interesting signs in the new announcements of her members of cabinet already. Some key human rights advocates from within the Liberian human rights community have already been nominated to post within the cabinet. So these are steps in the right direction that have to be supported and applauded and really kind of increased.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the program that will oversee state spending? How much control will she actually have?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, this is — it’s a complicated situation, and I have to back up, Amy, to say three years ago when we had two crises in front of us at the international community. We had the crisis in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, and we had the crisis in Liberia with Charles Taylor. The international community responded in completely different ways. In the case of Iraq, you had one member of the international community, the United States, going in in a mostly unilateralist way and pretty much militarily and economically occupying Iraq to exit out the dictator.

In the case of Liberia, the past three years have been a complicated mix of the international community working together and working with Liberians. So what you had three years ago was a negotiation process led by African leaders from throughout the continent that successfully led to peaceful negotiations and the exit of Charles Taylor. You also had the United Nations sending in peacekeepers, first African Union peacekeepers, and then transferring their baton to United Nations peacekeepers to maintain security on the ground. You now have the largest peacekeeping force of the United Nations in Liberia today.

What happened, as well, on the economic end was that the international community has worked to set up an arrangement that, I have to tell you, I’m a bit skeptical about — right — where you have the United Nations, but, as well, the World Bank and other international actors, playing a lead role in overseeing the economic governance of the country. So you will have, within ministries, these international actors actually housed in these ministries. Some in Liberia see it as a way to kind of end corruption. Those of us here in Washington know that corruption is very much alive and well, particularly under this administration in Washington today. So there is no easy panacea.

What needs to happen to truly address corruption is not to bring people from Washington to sit in Monrovia, but actually to look at all of the actors, look at the corporations that have been involved in these corrupt practices, look at all of the pieces of the puzzle, and look also to the Liberian people who are so tired both of war and of corruption and are recognizing that this is a day of change.

AMY GOODMAN: Emira Woods is with Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. As part of the pledge to fight graft, the new president of Liberia has named the first members of her cabinet, including finance and defense, both of whom have international experience that’s likely to find favor with donors. Antoinette Sayeh, former head of the World Bank program in Benin, was appointed Minister of Finance, and Brownie Samukai, a former Director of Police, who has received training in the United States and Israel, was named Defense Minister. Your response, Emira.

EMIRA WOODS: Without a doubt, those are checkered backgrounds that are worrisome. So again, it is a mixed blessing. It is interesting that this is going to be the first woman Finance Minister and probably — very senior post by a woman, and people are commending that. It is worrisome that it is someone who has come out of very traditional World Bank-type experience. The more interesting post is actually the post of Labor Minister, which is now being held by a Reebok Human Rights Awardee, a former political prisoner himself, Kofi Woods. I mean, there are mixed blessings as you look through that cabinet, some that have very traditional institutional backgrounds and some that have very progressive activist backgrounds, where they have been the voice of the voiceless.

So it is a mixed bag, and what we, as progressives around the world, but particularly in the Liberian diaspora, have to do is to make sure that those progressive voices are strengthened, are supported, are actually moved from nomination to then actually being firmly in their post and that there are additional names from that progressive community that are placed within these senior posts.

But we have to recognize also that beyond government, there is an active civil society. That civil society has been awakened over these past three years, and they’re not going to just sit back and be quiet. They are actively fighting issues like the Firestone Corporation and its exploits of the labor and the environment in Liberia. They are actively pushing forward measures that will look at issues of the World Bank and the economic governance within the country. So the civil society is not going to go away. The level of political discourse, where you had radio stations set up in gas stations to interview people during these elections, that level of political discourse will remain, and you will continue to have an active citizenry, vigilant, engaged, and pushing forward and opening in the political process.

So, I don’t think that just stopping at the indications of the names is all that’s needed. We have to look at the bigger picture and recognize that there will be a push-pull, and the progressives will continue to push to make sure that the values of protecting the rights of people, the values of protecting the needs of citizens, the values putting people first, will continue to be heard in this new administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Emira Woods, the U.S. delegation led by Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, right before she left, Laura Bush said Condoleezza Rice would make a good president of this country. I think Condoleezza Rice got more applause than Laura Bush at the inauguration. Your response?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, clearly, as we celebrate women’s leadership, what we’re really celebrating is an open political space. But what we need is a political space where progressive values, where values that put the interests of citizens first, those values have to dominate, values that bring healthy communities. And I have to tell you, I don’t think that Condoleezza Rice represents those values. She may be a woman, but a woman within the Bush administration that has not necessarily represented either the interests of women nor the interests of African Americans. So what we need are not just women, but women like Michelle Bachelet that are going to usher in a new agenda, usher in a new day, where voiceless peoples have a greater opening and a greater political space.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally — we just have 30 seconds — but what will happen to Charles Taylor, who is wanted by a U.N. tribunal in Sierra Leone for war crimes.

EMIRA WOODS: Charles Taylor will be brought to justice. The Liberian human rights community, the Nigerian human rights community, the human rights community around the world will make sure that the rule of law is respected and that those that are guilty of war crimes — again, it’s Charles Taylor, but it’s also his entire machinery, all his cohorts — not only are brought to justice, but that the wealth that they stole from Liberia is actually tracked and returned to Liberia.

AMY GOODMAN: Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who, as part of a peace deal in 2003, went into exile in Nigeria. This is Democracy Now! DemocracyNow.org. Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus of Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, thanks very much for joining us.

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