The woman trying to heal a broken Liberia

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The Independent Online

It is a country of three million people with no national telephone network, no running water, no electricity grid and no professional army. It has debts of $3.5bn (£1.8bn). Corruption is rife, 85 per cent of the population are unemployed, there are no bookshops and no cinemas.

After many years of war and misrule, Liberia, the west African state founded by freed American slaves, is a shattered nation. Its 67-year old president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who beat the football star George Weah to become head of state in the first elections since the civil war ended in 2003, admits that she has a tough job on her hands. Her government is struggling to carry out a development programme that provides for rebuilding the country from scratch.

"Even in the capital, electricity, water, road systems have completely deteriorated, bridges are destroyed," she said during an official visit to London yesterday. "Telecommunications, ports, airfields - everything you can think of - all of those require huge amounts of capital to restore."

However, economic problems are not all that Africa's first elected woman president has to deal with. The presence of Charles Taylor, the former president who plunged Liberia into years of civil war, still overshadows the country's future.

Some of his supporters are members of her government but Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf has said, depending on the outcome of a truth and reconciliation commission in Liberia, Taylor's former allies may have to face justice for their role in the wars that left 200,000 people dead between 1989 and 2003 and took a generation of children out of school and placed them on the battlefield.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf is among those who are calling for Mr Taylor, who is facing trial before a UN-backed court in Sierra Leone for allegedly funding rebels, to be tried outside Africa. "We just think a little bit of distance gives us a little more comfort," she said.

She argues that it is more appropriate for him to be judged in The Hague than in Africa, "simply because there are too many risks associated with an overbearing presence".

"We are very anxious to put the Charles Taylor thing behind us. Three million people are more important than one man," said Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist.

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf is "cautiously optimistic" that an EU country would agree to end a deadlock over his trial by offering to jail Mr Taylor if he is found guilty. Denmark, Austria and Sweden have refused such a request from the UN secretary general Kofi Annan. A Foreign Office spokesman said Britain was considering the request but "no decision has been reached".

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf also said she was satisfied with the British Government's promise to support the lifting of a UN trade embargo, depending on the conclusions of a UN sanctions review, which is due to be published next month.

The sanctions were imposed during the Taylor era in 2001 when the then president was accused of carving up the country by using diamond and timber revenue to fund violent rebellions in west Africa.

Guus Kouwenhoven, an arms dealer from the Nertherlands, is awaiting a verdict in his trial at The Hague after being accused of crimes against humanity in Liberia. The eight counts against him include breaking the UN arms embargo to deliver arms and logistical support to Mr Taylor in return for illegal rainforest timber and blood diamonds. Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf said Mr Kouwenhoven, known in Liberia as "Mr Guus", "did great harm to our country".

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf hopes to show Liberians that there is an alternative to war after her first 150 days in office at the end of next month. She estimates it will take another two years for the army and police to become professional enough for the UN peacekeeping force to pull out.

But she recognises that Liberia remains fragile. "There's always the chance of a coup attempt," she jokes. "The real answer is to address poverty and make people think they have a stake."