January 9, 2007


Ma Ellen, General Peanut Butter, and Liberia's Quest for Normalcy: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female president in African history, has had a successful first year. By Liberian standards. The street lights in Monrovia are back on, but a parliament full of warlords makes governing difficult. (Jan Puhl, 1/09/07, Der Spiegel)

A spark of life has returned to the ruins of Liberia since Taylor's ouster. About 16,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops are stationed in this nation of 3 million, together with a gigantic UN support operation. Symbolic of the new hope, the streetlights on Tubman Boulevard have gone on every night since the summer -- after having been dark for a decade and a half. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, the country's new president switched on the generator in a festive ceremony that amounted to a minor miracle. [...]

The first elected female head of state in African history faces the daunting challenge of cleaning up a huge mess. According to UN statistics, Liberia is currently one of the world's three poorest countries. Monrovia, with its wrecked streets and railroads, is like a ghost town. In the parliament former warlords debate the future of a country that, until recently, they had done their utmost to destroy.

One-hundred-thousand decommissioned soldiers, many hardly more than children, are the most burdensome relic of the slaughter John-Peter Pham, an American expert on Liberia, has called the "prototype of a failed state." With all this baggage Ma Ellen has her work cut out for her.

Johnson-Sirleaf, the granddaughter of a German businessman and a Liberian woman, clearly feels up to the task. She grew up in the country and rebelled against its corrupt and dictatorial rulers. She was forced to flee and went to the United States to study business administration. She acquired experience in international politics and a good reputation as a manager while working at the World Bank.

Now she is back in Liberia. But even as a head of state, Johnson-Sirleaf never trades her traditional, colorful West African dress -- a long skirt, blouse and brightly colored headscarf -- for Western business attire. A mother of four grown sons, she spends as little time as possible at her office across from the beach in Monrovia, instead preferring to spend as much time as possible with her enthusiastic supporters. She shakes hands, listening to the concerns of teachers in Greenville and nurses in Buchanan.

But Ma Ellen, this friendly looking, round-faced mother of a nation, is just as adept at playing it tough. Shortly after taking office she marched into the finance ministry and promptly fired every official in the building. Only those who could prove without a doubt that they were not corrupt were allowed to return to their jobs. The message she is clearly conveying to international donors is that her administration is serious about "good governance."

The new president's energetic drive has tugged many Liberians out of political apathy, including Maruyah Fyneah, the chairwoman of the country's women's association. Fyneah believes that Johnson-Sirleaf is the best thing that could possibly have happened to her country. "The men truly drove this place into the ground; just take a look around." Fyneah waves her arm in a wide arc toward the window. Her office in downtown Monrovia is in a building that consists of little more than a concrete skeleton, with rusty metal framing elements protruding from the walls and crumbling stairs.

The country's newfound optimism could very well be justified.

This is the sort of optimism that folks like Mr. Beinart apparently oppose.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2007 1:00 PM
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