MONROVIA, Liberia — One hot night in 1985, soldiers loyal to Liberia's authoritarian president, Samuel Doe, hauled a group of political opponents into a military prison. When the male prisoners were taken outside to be executed, one woman remained alone in a cell.
A soldier approached, and the female prisoner, an outspoken opposition parliamentary candidate named Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, feared that she was about to be raped. Just then, another soldier appeared and barked an order: "As you were!" The man backed off and vanished.
Johnson-Sirleaf's protector was from her father's tribe, the Gola, and he told her in their common dialect, "I'm going to sit outside your cell gate for the rest of the night."
"Today I don't know him," Johnson-Sirleaf said recently, recounting the story. "He may have died in the war. He's never made himself known to me."
If the soldier is still alive, he certainly knows the woman he saved that night. She's now the president of Liberia, the first woman ever elected to lead an African nation.
In the year since Johnson-Sirleaf's historic inauguration, the 68-year-old, U.S.-educated economist has raised hopes in her long-suffering homeland on the West African coast. Liberia is trying to rebound from a 14-year civil war that killed 250,000 people—nearly one-twelfth of the population—and sparked violence across the region for much of the 1990s.
She's won confidence by fighting corruption and restoring electricity and running water to some of the seaside capital, Monrovia, whose infrastructure was devastated in the fighting. Refugees are returning home and the few businesses that survived the war are expanding.
Although Liberians savor the peace, 80 percent of them are unemployed with little prospect for jobs. The conflict corroded every aspect of public life, including government ministries, which barely function now after warlords used them as personal fiefdoms.
The factionalized, badly discredited army—which perpetrated some of the worst abuses of the conflict, including countless rapes—is no more. Sirleaf-Johnson disbanded it in July and turned over the task of training a new, 2,000-man force to the U.S. military contractor DynCorp.
Only 106 soldiers have completed basic training so far, and in the meantime 15,800 United Nations peacekeepers provide security.
With the government $3 billion in debt, Johnson-Sirleaf has traveled the world trying to drum up financial support. In appearances from the Oval Office to Oprah's couch, she's been hailed as a new hope for a continent that too often has been dominated by "Big Men" who stole enormous sums from public coffers and stayed in power by going to war.
At her January inaugural, with first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looking on, Johnson-Sirleaf referred obliquely to her struggles with "the inhumanity of confinement, the terror of attempted rape."
It was just an aside, and she didn't elaborate. But rape is a taboo subject in Africa, and for a leader to talk of it publicly—let alone acknowledge her own experience—signaled a change.
In an interview in her simple, tidy office in Liberia's Foreign Ministry—temporary quarters since a suspicious fire in July destroyed much of the presidential mansion—Johnson-Sirleaf said the attention paid to her gender was a mixed blessing.
"It allows me a platform from which I can promote Liberia's image and the changes that are taking place," she said. "On the other hand ... it puts me under a microscope, because I have to succeed on behalf of the women not only in Liberia and Africa but maybe even the world."
Africa's oldest independent republic, Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves; the capital is named for the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe, who helped sponsor their emigration.
The country's recent history is far less distinguished. The 1989-2003 civil war saw hordes of drugged-up child soldiers laying siege to Monrovia while officials and militia leaders plundered the country's resources, including large quantities of diamonds, iron ore and timber.
The road network largely was destroyed, and schools and health facilities reduced to bullet-pocked shells. Most adults can't read, and life expectancy has plummeted to 42 years, one of the world's lowest.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard, spent most of the war years abroad, working for the United Nations in New York and at investment banks in Washington and Ivory Coast. She returned to Liberia to join an interim government and, in November 2005, won 59 percent of the vote to defeat soccer star George Weah in the presidential election.
She's assembled a government of technocrats culled largely from Liberia's far-flung diaspora and set out to do the basic things that governments are supposed to do but Liberia's routinely hasn't, such as collect taxes. Government revenue is up 31 percent and civil servants have seen their pay nearly double, to $26 a month.
Under pressure from the U.S. and other foreign donors, she had former warlord and President Charles Taylor seized from exile in Nigeria and extradited to a special international tribunal for neighboring Sierra Leone, where he's charged with war crimes after he sent troops into the country during its civil war.
She launched a review of government contracts and, this month, arrested several former members of the interim government after an outside audit implicated them in the disappearance of millions of tax dollars.
Johnson-Sirleaf predicts that the economy will pick up next year with the ratification of a new logging law, the opening of new iron-ore mines and rubber farms, and the signing of a $900 million agreement with mining giant Mittal Steel, which is expected to add 3,000 jobs.
"The administration of President Sirleaf has made a lot of progress in convincing the Liberian people that this is a new government, this is a new day for Liberia," said the U.S. ambassador, Donald Booth.
But unemployment remains a constant source of social tension. Dismantling the army added 4,000 former soldiers to the ranks of an estimated 100,000 former fighters who find themselves jobless, destitute—and increasingly impatient.
"We fought to liberate this country from Charles Taylor. Now what have I gained?" said Abraham Kromah, 39, a former rebel commander who's getting by selling shoddy handicrafts in a village an hour's drive north of Monrovia.
Layoffs of thousands of civil servants—an effort to trim the ineffectual bureaucracy—also have been criticized.
"Everyone who takes home a paycheck has people depending on them," said Ezekiel Pajibo, a political gadfly and the head of the nonprofit Center for Democratic Empowerment. "In the absence of any kind of serious employment opportunities, it does not help to put people out of work."
One of her chief critics reminds voters often that Johnson-Sirleaf was one of the chief sponsors of Taylor's rebellion against Doe. "Today the president has central stage as an angel. And we in Liberia know that our president is not an angel," said Edwin Snowe, a smooth-talking young parliament speaker who's emerged as her chief rival.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who's known in Liberia's silky patois as "Ol Ma," a term of affection and respect, starts her days at 5 a.m.
Family members said she began the day with a Bible reading and meditation in her home on Monrovia's outskirts, a two-story bungalow fringed by palm trees. Official business begins soon afterward and usually lasts well into the evening.
"You have to push her out of the office," said her older sister, Jennie Bernard. "Usually I start calling her in the evenings to tell her to come home, but after a few times she turns the phone off."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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