Liberia's Sirleaf takes oath for second term, promises reconciliation

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stressed national reconciliation at her second inauguration ceremony today in Liberia, a nation still emerging from years of war.

Larry Downing/AP
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (r.) and Liberian Vice President Joseph N. Boakai (l.) attend Sirleaf's second presidential inauguration at the Capitol in Monrovia Monday, Monday. Sirleaf is Africa's first woman president.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pledged to work harder toward achieving national reconciliation at her second inauguration ceremony today in Liberia, a nation that emerged from civil war nearly a decade ago.

The ceremony itself showed some progress toward that goal: The top leaders of the main opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), agreed to attend the inauguration after striking a deal with the ruling Unity Party over the weekend to recognize Ms. Sirleaf as president. The CDC had boycotted the second round of elections due to claims of electoral fraud. 

While the show of unity augers well for Liberia's reconciliation efforts, challenges remain. Negotiations are still ongoing to determine what role the CDC may play in the upcoming government. And there is plenty of unhappiness with the opposition's decision to recognize Sirleaf among the rank and file, particularly unemployed youth and ex-combatants from the 14 years of civil war who feel they have not benefited from her government.

“The decision offers prospects for building political coexistence between the opposition and the Unity Party,” says Dan Sayree, director of the Liberian Institute for Democracy in Monrovia. “It offers hope for Liberian democracy and political stability.” 

But he added that Sirleaf needed to address some of the concerns of CDC supporters many of who feel they haven’t benefited from the nation’s development.

“Her focus on youth and whether this will take the form of legislation that can be handed on between governments or whether it will be a means for recruiting young people into the party remains to be seen,” Sayree says.

Sirleaf: youth sent a message

Sirleaf’s inaugural message was directed at the youth in particular, many of whom rioted in the streets of Monrovia last month to express their anger at the government's late payment of casual workers' wages. 

“The youth of Liberia are our future and they sent us a message,” said Sirleaf. “They are impatient, they are eager to be rid the years of conflict and deprivation, they are anxious to know that their homeland offers a ground for hope. Let me say to them, we heard that message. It is our solemn obligation to ensure that their hope will not be in vain.”

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and numerous presidents of West African states attended the ceremony in the capital of Monrovia. They were joined by the CDC chief Winston Tubman, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and his No. 2, soccer legend George Weah.

A commitment to reconciliation

When asked why the party leadership had decided to attend the event Mr. Tubman said the party leadership was there to demonstrate its commitment to reconciliation and political unity.

“We were invited and this whole exercise is to bring about unity among the Liberian people and because the CDC contributes to that we felt it was the appropriate thing to do,” Tubman said. “Of course as you know we are having discussions with the government on how we would be included,” adding that those in the CDC leadership were being considered for ministerial positions. 

But not all are satisfied with the party’s decision to support Sirleaf’s government. Tubman was chased by dozens of CDC supporters out of party headquarters after his decision to recognize the government, according to a Reuters report.

The CDC headquarters in Congo Town was desolate and empty on the day of the inauguration. Around 20 people sat on benches beneath trees. Many of them spoke of their disappointment with their party and sense of betrayal.

Paul Garbo, a 29-year-old CDC supporter who sells shoes for a living says he would no longer support the party.

“I feel hurt,” Garbo says. “They told us only two days before the inauguration. I don’t support them any more. It’s not good they are supporting the Unity Party because on November 7 they came and killed CDCians. They betrayed us.”

In November thousands of supporters had gathered to demonstrate against alleged electoral fraud the day before the second round vote, in a protest that quickly became bloody when shots were fired by police, killing at least two CDC supporters. 

Sirleaf won the second round vote by 90.8 percent, with a low voter turnout of 38 percent, as compared to the first round, which saw a 71.8 voter turnout and a narrower gap between the Unity Party and the CDC. 

Sarta Kerta, a 39-year-old secretary, says she resented that CDC supporters were not consulted before the decision was made. 

“They could have consulted partisans,” she says. “They should have come back to us and told us what they were going to do. You are our leaders, but you equally cheated us,” says Kerta referring to allegations of electoral fraud the CDC made against the Unity Party.

Sirleaf's task: expectations management

As for Sirleaf and the challenges she faces ahead, Sayree argues that expectation management will be one of her toughest tasks.

“One of the big challenges for the country and the government will be high expectations for jobs and where the $16 billion of [foreign] investment will go,” Sayree said. “If people do not feel like they are economically benefiting and getting jobs the people will agitate.”

Mark Naftalin, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo says Sirleaf’s challenges are similar to those she faced in the nation’s first post-war election in 2005, but says the expectations of her to be able to deliver on her promises to distribute development evenly and foster further economic growth are now much higher.

“She will be increasingly judged by her ability to provide long-term development for Liberia and Liberians,” Naftalin said. “This will be even more challenging than 'simply' consolidating the peace – particularly so if Liberia sees a dramatic decrease in foreign contributions to the government’s budget.… How Sirleaf manages this shift in the country’s changing post-conflict environment will be critical.”

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