December 16, 2005


For Liberia's 'Iron Lady,' Toughness Part of Territory (Wil Haygood, December 16, 2005, Washington Post)

The West African country has deep links to America. Black Americans -- both free and former slaves -- began making pilgrimages to the country in the mid-1800s. Their descendants referred to themselves as Americo-Liberians.

The capital, Monrovia, was named after American president James Monroe, and the country's currency has long resembled America's.

In the 1960s, many black Americans ventured to Liberia, believing it a kind of oasis. But its wars have shocked much of the world, and in recent years there have been scenes of U.S. Marines rescuing citizens from Monrovia.

Many credit Sirleaf's victory to shrewd politicking: Before the runoff, she dispatched buses throughout the country to ferry voters to polling places. Weah's supporters grew complacent, says Riva Levinson, who was accompanying Sirleaf on her rounds and who served as an adviser to Sirleaf when she ran against Taylor in 1997.

"She's a very strong lady," says Elwood Dunn, who served in the administration of Liberian president William Tolbert along with Sirleaf, and who now teaches political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. "She's always been focused and politically ambitious since the 1970s."

Dunn does not envy the task ahead of Sirleaf. "She will, without hesitation, walk into a political firestorm," he says. Her background -- including stints with the World Bank and United Nations -- will serve her well, he says. "The attentive part of Africa knows her well."

Liberia has flirted before with bouts of peace, only to have the country plunge into chaos. "There is one big difference this time," Sirleaf says. "These elections represent the first time Liberians voted in an atmosphere of freedom."

She credits her victory to a campaign that talked about education, which appealed to the women in the marketplace. "I owe them my victory," she says. "These were poor women who work in the markets, picking and selling vegetables. And they care about education for their children."

Sirleaf has four sons (two live in Liberia, two in the United States). Her husband died years ago of natural causes. (She notes that the widespread hyphenation of their last names is incorrect. She doesn't use a hyphen.)

High on her agenda will be tackling corruption, which has bedeviled many an African nation. "I will submit to a code of conduct, and will make sure that everyone who works for me, in a position of public service, accepts that code," she says. "For anyone who violates it, there will be a penalty."

She is delighted about a tougher rape law recently passed in her country. "I have teenage granddaughters, and when I think of the rapes inside my country, well, it makes me angry," she says. "We also want to take preventive action. Get the girls off the street into skills training programs. It would reduce their vulnerability."

She made stops up and down the East Coast during her visit. It left her feeling inspired. "There is a lot of goodwill for Liberia here," she says. "I think the administration and Congress is prepared to give us support to mount a major economic effort" at reconstruction in the country.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2005 12:00 AM
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