Africa's new leading lady brings hope, but her task is daunting

May 16, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

CHICAGO -- A reporter asked Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf why she had come to America. She responded with five words that open doors, launch jetliners and move motorcades almost everywhere on the planet:

"I was invited by Oprah."

Of course, it is important to note that Ms. Sirleaf also was drawn by a humanitarian mission. She brought with her Musu Gertee, a 9-year-old Liberian girl who was fitted with a prosthetic replacement for the right arm and hand she lost in a rocket attack three years ago. Oprah Winfrey's staff alerted Ms. Sirleaf's government to Musu after the child was featured last year in a Chicago Tribune report about Liberia's young war victims. A Chicago prosthetics maker donated the new limb after he was approached by members of the local Liberian community.

It is only appropriate that Africa's first democratically elected female president have a sit-down with America's first lady of talk shows. Just as Ms. Winfrey's achievements offer hope for other aspiring women and nonwhites, Ms. Sirleaf's advancement from Harvard-trained public administrator to president offers new hope for Africa, not only in how she came in to office but also in how her predecessor, the thuggish Charles Taylor, went out.

Ms. Sirleaf's biography is a breathtaking saga of wars, threats, political imprisonment and exile when she was not breaking glass ceilings in international banking and development. Yet, during a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board, she displayed not a particle of self-pity about any barriers that sexism may have thrown in her path. Quite the contrary, she offered that being a woman gave her a distinct advantage with Liberia's voters: "Men had ruled the country for 100 years, and it failed."

You could say that about quite a few African countries that are ruled by "kleptocrats," a word that resulted in Ms. Sirleaf's imprisonment when she applied it to President Samuel K. Doe's dictatorial rule in the 1980s.

She initially supported Mr. Taylor's bloody overthrow of Mr. Doe in 1990, but she later ran against him unsuccessfully in 1997. Mr. Taylor won 75 percent of the vote, partly out of widespread fear that he would start a new civil war if he lost.

After a 2003 peace agreement ended a war that had killed 200,000 and displaced almost half of Liberia's population, Mr. Taylor fled to Nigeria, where he was arrested this year in a car loaded with large bags of cash. A United Nations court has indicted Mr. Taylor on 11 counts in connection with conflicts in four other countries.

Remember those horrible news photos of children in Sierra Leone whose arms or legs had been chopped off by rebels? Mr. Taylor's charges include the use of child soldiers, often drugged, to commit those atrocities and terrify Sierra Leone's population while Mr. Taylor traded guns to Sierra Leone's rebels for pilfered diamonds.

He is the first deposed African leader to face trial for his alleged abuses, instead of instant retirement to a luxury resort - another "first" that offers new hope for Africa's future.

Yet Ms. Sirleaf's window of opportunity is too narrow for her to spend much time celebrating. For the moment, she enjoys a lot of good will from her country's population, for whom she embodies hope. The international community also provides about $300 million in aid, including a recent $50 million aid package from the Bush administration. A U.N. peacekeeping force of 13,000 helps keep order while a new army and police force are organized.

But many of Mr. Taylor's old cronies are still around. Some of them are in Ms. Sirleaf's government. Others move back and forth across her country's porous borders. After years of devastating war, she must meet a long list of priorities for her country. Her list includes cleaning up corruption, building accountability, educating children, helping war veterans, fighting a growing AIDS crisis and getting electricity restored in the war-torn capital, Monrovia.

For Ms. Sirleaf's new era, celebration can quickly turn to despair. Young people can become disenchanted, lose faith in the value of democratic processes and fall prey to whatever new warlord comes along with an attractive speech.

In that sense, Ms. Sirleaf embodies the future not only of Liberia but also of Africa and every other developing region where democratic hopes teeter precariously. This woman's work is only beginning.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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