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Rising from conflict, women in charge
Liberia: A new start

Monrovia, Jan. 16 (Reuters): Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office as Africa’s first elected woman President today, backed by a strong show of US support and vowing to fight graft and rebuild her country after years of war.

As well as several fellow African leaders, US First Lady Laura Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice attended the inauguration in a sign of Washington’s backing for Africa’s oldest republic, founded in 1847 by freed slaves from America.

Johnson-Sirleaf, wearing a cream and gold dress, was sworn in at a colourful open-air ceremony to loud cheers from hundreds of foreign dignitaries and Liberians, including women wearing dresses emblazoned with their new President’s portrait.

“Let us begin anew, moving forward into a future that is filled with hope and promise,” Johnson-Sirleaf said in her first address as leader of a nation that lacks basic services like water and electricity after a devastating 14-year civil war.

“Oh yes, God has answered our prayer,” said Teresa Smith, a businesswoman attending the ceremony with her six children.

Johnson-Sirleaf vowed to fight rampant corruption, which experts say has fuelled decades of instability, and to uphold a foreign donor-backed Governance and Economic Management Programme (GEMAP) that will oversee state spending.

“We will accept and enforce the terms of GEMAP. We will ensure competence and integrity in the management of our resources,” said the Harvard-trained economist who is 67. She pledged to “wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists or by whom it is practiced”.

A US official travelling with Bush said Johnson-Sirleaf’s inauguration was “a clear example of women’s empowerment across Africa”.

But the official acknowledged “the President-elect will have to show results rather quickly”.

Weary of their country’s recent history of conflict, chaos and destruction, Liberians have high expectations both for the new President they call “Mama Ellen” and for the superpower across the Atlantic they look upon as a kind of Godfather.

“The US has a long and special relationship with Liberia which we will continue,” the US official accompanying Bush said.

Washington spent more than $840 million last year on Liberia as it emerged from a brutal civil war that ended in 2003 after killing 250,000 people and leaving the country’s infrastructure in ruins. US officials say helping the country is a priority of President Bush’s administration. US secret service agents mingled with UN peacekeepers in the ramshackle capital.

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