January 25, 2007


Liberians love their Iron Lady, for now: The woman who would heal the nation has no illusions and few tears (Robyn Dixon, January 25, 2007, LA Times)

Johnson-Sirleaf is under no illusions: A few more months or a year without bringing jobs and her people's love and admiration will themselves blink out. But for now she offers hope of a new beginning to a nation torn by war's atrocities, many of them committed by doped-up children who fought in drag and believed magic could protect them from the bullets.

When she changes into colorful Liberian costume for official functions, Johnson-Sirleaf seems to blossom like a tropical flower. Her raspy, charismatic voice rises powerfully as she addresses the crowds.

She is divorced with four sons and six grandchildren, and comes from a pious family. As a student, her only ambition was to be a schoolteacher like her mother. Both her grandmothers, one of whom had a market stall, were illiterate.

She played soccer with the boys, a rarity in those days. She was a lethal volleyball player, leaping up and whacking the ball two-handed across court, a shot that almost never failed.

After studying in the United States, she returned home to become finance minister under President William Tolbert in the early 1970s. After she was jailed by the regime of Samuel Doe in 1985 and was charged with treason under Taylor in 1997, she went into exile. She worked for the World Bank, Citibank, the International Monetary Fund and other organizations. [...]

Though few doubt that her toughness and piety signal a break from the theft and violence of previous regimes, her task is immense.

Liberia today seems a country of slogans, acronyms and good intentions. Crudely painted notice boards tell the population (more than half of which can't read) how to live: "Stop mob violence; use the law." "Say no to cigarettes, pipes and chewing tobacco." "Raped? Get help." Some are slapped up on walls by indignant residents: "Only dogs urinate here."

The acronyms of dozens of international nongovernmental organizations litter the country, proclaiming their intended sites for schools and clinics.

In Monrovia, the capital, a teeming population jostles and hustles. The smell of sewage pervades some streets. The city seems to exhale grime, leaving a grubby sheen upon the skin.

The hip-hop song about Johnson-Sirleaf is called "A Letter to the President."

Hello, Ma. See, what we need is change, a change from suffering, a change from poverty. You can make it, Ma. We trust you; that's why we voted for you.

To help jump-start the economy, Johnson-Sirleaf is relying on an end to diamond sanctions imposed by the United Nations, a revival of the rubber and timber industries, and an iron ore project by Mittal Steel offering more than 3,000 jobs.

A key donors conference is to be held in February. And moves to resolve the country's IMF debt are crucial if Liberia is to borrow from countries such as China, which wants to invest $1 billion thanks to Liberia's abundant resources. [...]

Johnson-Sirleaf has drastically cut the civil service, restored power and water to parts of Monrovia, pursued corrupt former officials and pressured the international community to help the country by lifting the diamond sanctions and forgiving its unsustainable level of debt.

Her government is admired abroad -- in Washington, she won a standing ovation at a joint session of Congress last year -- but is often lambasted in the independent local press. To her opponents, her famous tough exterior translates as vindictiveness; to supporters, it shows she's the only one strong enough to save Liberia from itself.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 25, 2007 8:01 AM

Another lefty?

Posted by: erp at January 25, 2007 8:37 AM