New Jersey teacher chosen to run Liberian police force

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A New Jersey school teacher is swapping a career in special education for the challenges of becoming chief of police in the war-ravaged west African country of Liberia.

Beatrice Munah Sieh, a native of Liberia, was appointed by the new administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became Africa's first elected woman president in November.

Ms Sieh, 48, spent 18 years in Liberia's police force, rising to deputy chief, but fled the country during civil war in 1996 after clashes with the former chief of police left her fearing for her own safety. In a police force riven with corruption and political divisions, her departure was prompted by a public dispute over whether a peaceful demonstration should be allowed to continue. She argued unsuccessfully that it should.

"My life was in danger," she said in an interview from her home in Trenton, New Jersey. "They started shooting at my house and I knew I had to leave."

With her three children, now aged 24, 19 and 17, she relocated to Trenton, where she has been a special education teacher for the past nine years. She plans to move to Liberia with her youngest child in the next fortnight. She said she will miss her students but has been drawn back to her native land by a desire to help rebuild the country that has been devastated by years of civil war, the latest of which ended in 2003 after claiming about 200,000 lives.

Ms Sieh, who believes she will become Africa's first female chief of police, said the new President was trying to appoint more women to top positions and was looking for someone with "good character, competence and a respect for human rights".

She concedes that Liberia, where unemployment runs at 85 per cent and which has an increasing crime rate and a devastated infrastructure, is particularly challenging for police. Yet she argues that an administration aiming for a third of its officials to be women may be better at restoring the rule of law than its predecessors: "We're not saying we're better than men, we just want our voices to be heard."

Ms Sieh plans to increase the size of the 2,000-strong police force - which is about 90 per cent male - to a re-equipped and better-trained force of about 3,500. "We need to be able to patrol in every corner," she said.

Ms Sieh hopes the international community will provide money and expertise to help. She predicted that Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in 1837, will rise again and she relishes the prospect of playing a prominent role in rebuilding the nation.

"One day you always think you are going to return home," she said. "I'm happy to go back and help bring peace to my country."