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For Liberia's 'Iron Lady,' Toughness Part of Territory

Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with one of her campaign posters in the background, wrapped up a nine-day U.S. visit yesterday.
Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with one of her campaign posters in the background, wrapped up a nine-day U.S. visit yesterday. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

She credits her victory to a campaign that talked about education, which appealed to the women in the marketplace. "I owe them my victory," she says. "These were poor women who work in the markets, picking and selling vegetables. And they care about education for their children."

Sirleaf has four sons (two live in Liberia, two in the United States). Her husband died years ago of natural causes. (She notes that the widespread hyphenation of their last names is incorrect. She doesn't use a hyphen.)

High on her agenda will be tackling corruption, which has bedeviled many an African nation. "I will submit to a code of conduct, and will make sure that everyone who works for me, in a position of public service, accepts that code," she says. "For anyone who violates it, there will be a penalty."

She is delighted about a tougher rape law recently passed in her country. "I have teenage granddaughters, and when I think of the rapes inside my country, well, it makes me angry," she says. "We also want to take preventive action. Get the girls off the street into skills training programs. It would reduce their vulnerability."

She made stops up and down the East Coast during her visit. It left her feeling inspired. "There is a lot of goodwill for Liberia here," she says. "I think the administration and Congress is prepared to give us support to mount a major economic effort" at reconstruction in the country.

But to highlight the political land mines, a politician by the name of Jewel Howard-Taylor was elected to the Liberian Senate in the recent election. She is the wife of former president Charles Taylor, but political observers do not know the condition of their marriage.

"We hope she's broken her communications with him," Sirleaf says of Howard-Taylor. "We think she won the election in her own right. So we say we'll give her the benefit of the doubt."

Then the Iron Lady took on a more severe tone: "If she continues her links to Taylor and there is negativity, then we will have to make another decision."

There was another meeting to hop to. Someone helped her with her plain black coat. And the president-elect was gone.


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