Liberia's 'iron lady' pledges reform

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The Independent Online

Africa's first elected female head of state has promised a rapid peace dividend to the war-weary people of Liberia in an inauguration ceremony marked by a display of backing from Washington.

Cheering Liberians danced through the streets to the beats of traditional drumming as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, promised to restore electricity to the capital, Monrovia, and tackle the high unemployment rate in an attempt to unite the country behind her.

She won a presidential run-off against George Weah, the former international footballer, in November. Now the former World Bank economist faces the challenge of unifying a country shattered by 14 years of civil war.

Laura Bush, the American first lady, and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, were in the audience at the inauguration.

Ms Johnson Sirleaf said maintaining peace, law and order would be the priorities for her presidency as the country drew a line under its bloody history. "This is not change for change's sake but a fundamental break from the past," she said.

Lighting up the capital and putting Liberians back to work, she continued, would be her priorities. "Our strategy is to achieve quick and visible progress that reaches significant numbers of people to gain momentum, consolidate support and establish a foundation for sound economic development," said the woman who has become known as Africa's iron lady.

Yesterday's jubilant atmosphere was a reminder of how far the country has come in the past two years, when gun battles raged between rival militias vying for control of the capital.

Mrs Bush said on board her US Air Force flight that the new president faced a huge task. "She ran on a platform of reconciliation and reconstruction and it's going to take the help of a lot of countries, including the United States - which has a special relationship with Liberia - for her and her people to be able to do the reconstruction they need."

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