Liberia's president was sworn in Monday for a second term in a ceremony attended by her bitter rival, whose refusal to recognize her victory had threatened to undermine this country's fragile peace.
The 73-year-old Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressed opposition leader Winston Tubman, thanking him for agreeing to attend the ceremony, where he was seated in a place of honor in the front row. The ceremony was also attended by a nine-member delegation from the United States, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Tubman had called for a boycott of the November vote, after it became clear that he could not beat Sirleaf, prompting many to accuse him of being a spoiler. His supporters repeatedly clashed with police and until this weekend, he continued to say he would not recognize Sirleaf and that he would lead a demonstration on the day of her inauguration. He changed his mind only after a private meeting with Sirleaf on Saturday.
“We inaugurate a new beginning — a rebirth of our democracy,” Sirleaf told the crowd of thousands, as supporters blew horns. “Today we can say with conviction that our country has turned the corner. Liberia is no longer a place of conflict, war and deprivation. We are no longer the country our citizens want to run away from.”
Sirleaf became an international symbol of women's empowerment when she became Africa's first elected female head of state in 2005, just two years after the end of the nation's disastrous 14-year civil war. Her popularity has continued to soar abroad, even as it plummeted at home due to endemic poverty and the country's crippling unemployment. Days before last year's election, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, further underscoring the contrast between her image inside and outside the West African nation.
Tubman's party accused the president of having done too little to end the country's poverty. Liberia remains one of the world's poorest nations, ranked nearly at the bottom of the United Nations' index tracking development.
Economists disagree, however, saying the country was on its knees when she took over. Nearly 80 percent of its schools were destroyed and almost all the roads were impassable. In the years since she took office, the government added nearly 3,500 miles of paved roads and people are earning double what they made when she was first elected, according to a report by the ministry of planning and economic affairs.
In her inaugural address, Sirleaf directly addressed those who feel she has not done enough to lift them from poverty.
“To all who have yet to feel the hands of progress touch your life, your time has come,” she said, as cheers erupted. “We have laid the foundations for peace and prosperity, and must now hasten our true mission: Putting people — especially young people — first. And lifting the lives of all Liberians.”
And she responded to the opposition's claim that she was not listening to the country's disenfranchised youth: “The youth of Liberia are our future and they have sent us a message,” she said. “Let me say to them: We heard that message. It is our solemn obligation to ensure that their hope will not be in vain.”