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One year with Africa's first female president brought some light, work far from finished

Published on 16th January 2007

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) - One year after Liberia swore in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa's first elected female head of state, three young women braid each other's hair under a streetlight that didn't exist six months ago. 

"Before we would have been using candles," said Latifa Fofana. In the war-destroyed capital, many still do. The street is one of just a handful here to which the government has managed to restore electricity and power lines knocked out during the country's 14-year civil war.

Such progress may be a small, but it's a giant leap for Liberia -- and it's won Sirleaf praise. "I'd congratulate her for doing well," said 27-year-old Fofana, a shopkeeper.

The Liberia that Sirleaf inherited in January 2006 lacked roads, water, electricity and a proper army. The Harvard-educated former finance minister promised sweeping change -- lighting up Monrovia, bringing back pipe-born water, putting children in school and stamping out corruption. Progress has been made on all those fronts, but its been slow.

In December, dozens of members of the newly trained 2,500-strong police force received weapons for the first time in a pre-Christmas push against crime in the capital.

National security is still dependent on a 15,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission that ended the war in 2003. A new 2,000-strong army is being trained. A program for disarming 100,000 former combatants is long over, but many ex-fighters are still without jobs.

"We got the country functioning again, and we changed the image of Liberia from a failed state to a potential post-conflict success," Sirleaf told The Associated Press in an interview at her office in Monrovia late Monday.

Still, Liberia is very much in the "potential" stage. Unemployment is rampant, and many returning refugees just add to the number of people without jobs.
Rape -- used as a weapon during the war -- continues to be widespread. Graphic billboards condemning rape dot Monrovia.

"Big, big problem," Sirleaf said, sighing, of the prevalence of rape. "Part of it has to do with a breakdown in family values. The families have disintegrated. 

Women are heads of households. They have to go out of the home sometimes to do marketing or to do jobs ... so many of the children don't have the right supervision. The school has not been there to absorb all of these people."

The war still colors much of daily life -- from burned out building occupied by squatters to the U.N. roadblocks -- but Sirleaf has largely stayed away from debates about how to mete out justice in a war that left much of the country of 3 million as victims, perpetrators or both.

Sirleaf said the man many blame for kicking off the bloodshed -- former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor -- does not need to be prosecuted at home because he is already being tried by a U.N.-backed court for his role in atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Taylor led a small rebel army that invaded Liberia in 1989, plunging the nation into a bloody years of fighting that continued sporadically until 2003.

"He doesn't need to be tried here," Sirleaf said. "Let him go through the due process that has already charged him on so many counts."

Taylor's trial by the Sierra Leone court is scheduled for later this year in The Hague, Netherlands. He has pleaded not guilty.

Instead of focusing on Taylor, Sirleaf has cracked down at home on corruption, ordering investigations of government officials accused of stealing from state coffers and publicly disclosing the cost of trips she's taken. In a statement of the administration's accomplishments in its first year, the information ministry highlighted the amount of money she returned, unspent, from each state visit abroad.

Yet local papers have been intensely critical, saying Sirleaf has not acted quickly enough.

Comfortable and dignified in a violet robe and headwrap, Sirleaf during the interview was very much "Mother Ellen," as Liberians have nicknamed her. That's very different from the "Iron Lady" tag she received when she first ran for president in 1997.

Her current title is "both an accomplishment and a very serious challenge," said Kenneth Best, owner of the Daily Observer newspaper, one of Liberia's oldest. "Because they expect her to be motherly in every way, and sometimes you have to be tough."

Liberia has set up a countrywide Truth and Reconciliation Commission to compile testimony by both victims and perpetrators in the West African country's 14-year civil war and that group may eventually make recommendations to the government to try certain serious offenders.

If the process results in Liberians insisting on trials, then "due process will take place," Sirleaf said. But she cautioned against taking legal action against former child soldiers, saying many were drugged or threatened into compliance.

"There are thousands and thousands of youth that committed atrocities, sometimes not under their own control," Sirleaf said. "If we put them into a war crimes tribunal, what would become of our young people?"

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