January 15, 2006

High hopes and tight security for new Liberia leader

By Katharine Houreld

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Three years ago, Prince More was part
of a rebel army fighting to control Liberia's capital,

But he has swapped his automatic rifle for a paint brush to
help spruce up the city for Monday's inauguration of President
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected a head of
state in Africa.

The 67-year-old Harvard-trained economist who beat soccer
millionaire George Weah in a presidential poll carries the
hopes of her country for a future of peace, reconciliation and
recovery after decades of civil war, poverty and chaos.

"Now we are all working together, all the different
factions, because we know changes are coming," said Varney Teh,
an ex-pro-government militiaman as he painted alongside former
rebel enemy More.

To mark the swearing-in, U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will join several
African presidents at the ceremony, protected by heavy

Two U.S. warships have taken up positions off the coast of
this small West African state, Africa's oldest independent
republic which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

U.S. secret service agents have flown in to join hundreds
of UN peacekeeping troops who have set up extra checkpoints in
Monrovia, while white-painted UN helicopters patrol overhead.

The security is understandable in a country hardened by
bloodshed and in which two out of the last four heads of state
were murdered, one tortured to death after he was abducted from
the protection of international peacekeepers.

In a civil war that saw drugged child soldiers kill and
maim civilians, more than a quarter of a million people were
killed until international intervention forced a 2003 peace

As they repaint buildings pock-marked by bullet holes,
clear up rubbish and plant new trees in Monrovia's streets,
Liberians hope that "Mama Ellen" can draw a line under these


"It is my hope that Liberia will change ... we trust our
President to lead the way," Jallah Anthony, the principal of
the Elwa Skills Training School in Monrovia, told Reuters.

Liberia has had no mains electricity or piped water for
years. Schools and hospitals barely function although
politicians in the notoriously corrupt outgoing transitional
government found millions of dollars to buy themselves new

Johnson-Sirleaf, a former Finance Minister who has worked
with the United Nations and the World Bank, has promised to
live up to her nickname "Iron Lady" to tackle corruption and
resist any attempt to drag the country back into war.

"I have made no deal with anyone who might compromise my
ability to act as President," she said recently.

Nevertheless, as a precaution, the UN Security Council last
month renewed diamond and timber sanctions on Liberia for
another six months, and extended an arms embargo for a year.

Johnson-Sirleaf's interim predecessor also signed Liberia
up to an international oversight scheme, the Governance and
Economic Management Programme (GEMAP), in which foreign experts
will check state spending and keep an eye out for corruption.

But analysts said these safeguards could come to naught
unless international donors like the United States make good on
promises to deliver aid and help train judges and a new army.