Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been sworn in as President of Africa's oldest republic, making her Africa’s first elected female leader. The ceremony was attended by Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, US First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among others.
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf says her top challenge is to maintain peace, law and order after 14 years of civil war in a country founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. President Johnson-Sirleaf admits knowledge of the fact that Liberians want change, peace and security and offers reassurance that she has heard them loudly. She vows to wage a war on Liberia's "major public enemy" – corruption. This will start by leading civil servants and ministers declaring their assets.
The President says her victory marks a new beginning for her country and for African women and promises to lead by example. Saying that women have shattered the glass ceiling theory, she hopes they will seize the moment to become active in civil and political affairs home and abroad.
The 67-year-old grandmother won 59% of the vote in November's run-off election, beating Liberian football star, George Weah. The former World Bank economist and veteran politician, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is nicknamed the Iron Lady but has promised to show a new, softer side as the president.
The challenges which lie ahead as she begins her six-year term are great. After a quarter of a century of war and misrule, Liberia's road network is in ruins; there is no national telephone network, national electricity grid and piped water. Unemployment runs at 80 percent. Many of Liberia's 3 million people are illiterate. Hundreds of thousands live in relief camps and many of the most educated are living overseas. A further challenge is to reintegrate the 100,000 ex-combatants, including many former child soldiers, into civilian life. “It has been a long, hard journey to this happy ending," she notes. "Today marks the beginning of a new era, the dawn of a new day for our nation after so many years of turmoil and instability."
In her blueprint for improving the sagging Liberian economy titled Liberia: A Framework for Change and Renewal presented at the Conference on the Liberian Economy on 4th November 1999, Johson-Sirleaf listed nine points of action to resuscitate Liberia.
They included the need to formulate an economic vision - the determination of economic goals, consistent with national endowment, regional and global dynamics; revisiting the system of land tenure so as to ensure that this fundamental resource is used in a manner that fosters the achievement of sustainable development goals; revisiting the privileges and benefits of concession activities; prioritizing of agriculture; restructuring and reform of the civil service pieces of paper; revamping education and health; economic infrastructure - roads, telecommunications, sea, airports and energy; security; regional cooperation and integration and gender empowerment .
The blueprint called for an environment of freedom, civil rights protection and the exercise of choice without penalty or repression and hailed a political agenda that rebalances power between the Presidency and the people. An imperial Presidency which has the power of life or death, wealth or poverty, success or failure for everyone and everyone in its hands, she observed, is an obstruction to progress.
She decried monopolization of power and privilege by any individual or ethnic group and proposed a rotational system which provides opportunity for all political subdivisions to have a chance at top leadership of the country.
Johnson-Sirleaf advised the opposition to be ready to play the role of what is called the loyal opposition, one which stresses loyalty to the nation, its people, laws, prosperity while strongly rejecting any course or action, particularly associated with violence that undermines the constitution, peace and stability of the nation. The civil society, she noted, also has a role to play in ensuring that economic, social and political systems provide the basis for growth and development.
“The real wealth of a nation is its people; and the purpose of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives," she noted.
"The year 2005 saw women taking grassroots struggles and transforming them into something bigger by developing a very considered political strategy," says Kavita Ramdas, president of the San Francisco-based Global Fund for Women, which provides grants to women's rights groups around the world. Worldwide, the number of female members of parliament reached a high of 6,960 (or 16.1 percent) in 2005, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.
In Afghanistan, Afghan women increased their voice in national politics in September, when 68 female candidates won seats in the 249-member legislature, the country's first parliament in more than 30 years. Two businesswomen, Lama al-Sulaiman and Nashwa Taher won election to the chamber of commerce board in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. This is a major step in a country where women cannot drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian. Angela Merkel took power in November as Germany's first female chancellor, two months after a fiercely contested election ended with neither major party winning an outright majority in parliament. In Iraq, women are guaranteed basic legal rights, such as voting and property ownership, under the country's new constitution. At least 25 percent of the new four-year Iraqi parliament elected Dec. 15 has been set aside for female lawmakers.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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