February 2, 2006

Liberia’s “Iron Lady” dismisses finance ministry

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's newly installed President
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, living up to her reputation as an "Iron
Lady," has dismissed all Finance Ministry employees in a bid to
curb the rampant corruption crippling her country.

Facing a herculean task of rebuilding a nation shattered by
14-years of civil war, Africa's first elected female leader
said her victory in November's presidential runoff gave her a
mandate to clean up Liberia's finances.

"All employees are sacked from their positions until a
screening exercise that is expected to commence at the ministry
is completed, and those qualified will remain," Johnson-Sirleaf
said during a surprise visit to the ministry on Wednesday.

"Those who are part of financial malpractices and scandals
must give way for those who are prepared to do the will of the
Liberian people," she told employees.

Endemic corruption was a key cause of Liberia's civil war,
which killed 250,000 people and devastated Africa's oldest
republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old Harvard-trained economist,
pledged at her inauguration last month before assembled African
and other world leaders to make the war on corruption a top
priority. Newspapers across the continent hailed the move.

She named former World Bank official Antoinette Sayeh as
Finance Minster, with a brief to root out graft and build
bridges with international donors, who have made further aid
reliant on weeding out corruption.

With a debt of over $3 billion, the West African nation is
reliant on aid from the United Nations, the World Bank, the
United States and Europe.

But the risk in dismissing the entire ministry staff is
that finances may be paralyzed, analysts say. A similar "root
and branch" approach in the army -- where all soldiers were
dismissed but could then re-apply -- sparked protests.

"This is quite a bold step to take," said Mike McGovern,
West African project director with International Crisis Group.
"It is a sign of the seriousness with which (Johnson-Sirleaf)
regards the problem."


Liberia was ransacked during the brutal rule of Charles
Taylor, who used government revenues to pay for militias whose
child soldiers raped and killed. Officials went unpaid for
months on end, fuelling corruption.

The stakes are high for Johnson-Sirleaf's two-week-old
government. Many people fear that desperate young Liberians
could return to arms if the situation fails to improve quickly.

The new government took its first major step toward
tackling corruption on Tuesday when it banned members of the
previous transitional administration from leaving Liberia until
they had undergone a financial audit.

Widespread theft during a two-year interim regime scuppered
Liberia's efforts to rebuild after a peace deal was signed in
2003. The capital Monrovia is still without state-supplied
electricity or piped water and many buildings remain derelict.

Johnson-Sirleaf said all political appointees and members
of the transitional government would be removed from their
posts. "No one should consider themselves as civil servants,"
she said.

Johnson-Sirleaf pledged to honor a donor-backed program
under which foreign experts will oversee state spending: the
Governance and Economic Management Program (GEMAP).