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Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Addresses Congress

March 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: The people of Liberia and the people of the United States are bound together by history and by values. We share a deep and abiding belief in the power of freedom, of faith, of finding virtue in work for the common good. The national motto of Liberia — founded, as you know, by freed American slaves — is: The love of liberty brought us here.

We became the first independent republic in Africa. Our capital, Monrovia, is named for your president, James Monroe.

Our flag is a star in a blue field and red and white stripes. Its one star make us the “lone star state” in Africa. (Laughter, applause.)

Our constitution and our laws are based upon yours. The U.S. dollar was long legal tender and still is used alongside the Liberian dollar today.But our ties greatly exceed the historical connection. I stand before you today as the first women elected to lead an African nation. (Cheers, applause.)

I was not born with the expectation of a university education from Harvard or being a World Bank officer or an assistant secretary- general of the United Nations.

When I was a small girl in the countryside swimming and fishing with twine made from palm trees, no one would have picked me out as the future president of our country. I graduated from the College of West Africa, a United Methodist High School. I waited tables to support my studies in the United States, college in Wisconsin and graduate school in Massachusetts. I went on to enjoy the benefits and advantages of a world-class education.

So my feet are in two worlds — the world of poor rural women with no respite from hardship, and the world of accomplished Liberian professionals for whom the United States is a second and beloved home. I draw strength from both. (Applause.)

We are not oblivious to the enormity of the challenges we face. Few countries have been decimated as ours. In the chaos of war, our HIV rates have quadrupled.

Our children are dying of curable diseases — tuberculosis, dysentery, measles, malaria. School lacks books, equipment, teachers and buildings. The telecommunications age have passed us by. We have a 3.5 billion (dollar) external debt, lent in large measures to some of my predecessors, who were known to be irresponsible, unaccountable, unrepresentative and corrupt. The reality that we have lost our international creditworthiness bars us from further loans, although now we would use them wisely.

Our abundant natural resources have been diverted by criminal conspiracies for private gain. International sanctions imposed for the best of reasons still prevent us from exporting our raw materials. Roads and bridges have disappeared or been bombed or washed away. We know that trouble once again could breed outside our borders. The physical and spiritual scars of war are deep indeed.

So of everything to be done, what must we do first? We must do everything we can to consolidate the peace that so much was paid to secure, and we must work to heal the wounds of war.

The people of Liberia know that government cannot save the country. Only their own strength, their determination, their creativity, resilience and their faith can do that. But they have the right to expect the essentials that only a government can provide. (Applause.)

They have the right to a government that is honest and respects the sanctity of human life. They need — (interrupted by applause) — they need and they deserve an economic environment in which their efforts can succeed. They need infrastructure, and they need security. Above all, they need peace.

That is the task of my administration. To meet that challenge, to do what is right, I ask for the continuing support of this Congress and the American people. (Applause.)

We do not want to continue in dependency. The benefits of your assistance must be mutual. Honorable members of Congress, much is at stake for all of us. Liberia at war brought misery and crimes against humanity to its neighbors, a toll that is beyond calculation. A peaceful, prosperous Liberia can contribute to democracy, civility, and development in West Africa and beyond.

We know that there is no quick fix for the reconstruction of our country, but Liberians, young and old, share their government’s commitments to work, to be honest, to unite, to reconcile and to rebuild. A nation so well endowed, so blessed by God with natural resources, should not be poor. We have rubber and timber and diamonds and gold and iron ore. Our fields are fertile. Our water supply is plentiful. Our sunshine is warm and welcoming.

With your prayers and with your help, we will demonstrate that democracy can work, even under the most challenging conditions. We will honor the suffering of our people, and Liberia will become a brilliant beacon, an example to Africa and the world of what the love of liberty can achieve.

We will strive to be America’s success story in Africa, demonstrating the potential in the transformation from war to peace; demonstrating the will to join in the global fight against terrorism; demonstrating that democracy can prevail, demonstrating that prosperity can be achieved.

The people of Liberia have already rolled up their sleeves, despite overwhelming obstacles, confident that their work will be rewarded, confident in the hope and promise of the future. The women of Liberia and the women of Africa, some in the market place and some in high level of Government have already shared their trust and their confidence in my ability to succeed, and ensure that the doors of competitive politics and professionalism will be opened even wider for them.

Honorable members, I will succeed. I will not betray their trust. I will make them proud – I will make you proud – of the difference which one woman with abiding faith in God can do.

God bless you.