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Hillary Clinton, in Liberia, targets good government

The country, led by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has made significant strides since its brutal civil war ended in 2003.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waves as she boards her plane in Abuja, Nigeria August 13. Clinton departed Nigeria for Liberia on Thursday.

Sunday Alamba/ Reuters


Johannesburg, South Africa

Until a few years ago, Liberia was not the sort of place a US secretary of State would generally visit. Riven by a brutal civil war from the late 1990s until 2003, that killed nearly 250,000 and maimed countless others, Liberia was the poster child of senseless conflicts.

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But protected by a United Nations protection force, and led by a woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, since 2006 elections, Liberia has begun a healing process that makes it a cause for celebration, if not exactly a model for resolving other African conflicts.

There are plenty of African countries that have more resources than Liberia, larger populations, more strategic positions close to oil routes, and the like. But the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Liberia today is meant to illustrate that America puts as much importance on good governance as it does on pure natural resources.

Highlighting the fact that President Sirleaf is a woman is "very important," and Mrs. Clinton's visit to Liberia "has symbolism," says Richard Moncrief, head of the Dakar, Senegal, office of the International Crisis Group.

Sirleaf's experience at the World Bank and in private banking gives her a leg up in handling a country that is still pulling itself out of war debt, but Mr. Moncrief says it is her personal qualities of honesty that set Sirleaf apart from other African leaders.

"She's a decent person who wants to do the country some good," he says, "when previous leaders left the country in complete ruins."

A cold-war ally

While in Liberia, Mrs. Clinton is likely to focus on Liberia's recovery from civil war, and its strides toward good governance and democracy building. While military ties are not necessarily on the agenda, Mrs. Clinton will almost certainly also discuss America's continuing military relationship with Liberia.

America's ties to Liberia, of course, go back to the 1840s, when freed slaves from the United States came to carve a new nation-state out of the West African coast. A powerful minority of Liberia's ruling elite comes from this lineage of American slaves, and some – including members of Sirleaf's cabinet members – have family ties within the US and maintain US passports.