Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's inauguration as the president of Liberia marks a watershed in the country's tumultuous history.
Twenty-five years of misrule and civil war under Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, and successive interim governments have left the country in ruins. Nearly 300,000 Liberians lost their lives, average income is one-eighth what it was in 1980, and large majorities of the population subsist in dire poverty.
Since United Nations and US troops ousted Taylor in 2003, a fragile peace has taken hold, supported by 15,000 UN peacekeepers. With free and peaceful elections under their belts, Liberians are feeling new optimism and hope. Markets here are bustling, stores are freshly painted and open for business, and newspapers and radios feature lively debate.
The new government is a clear break from a past characterized by rule by force, extensive corruption, and a culture of impunity. Sirleaf, the first African woman elected head of state, has been an outspoken champion of accountability, transparency, and good governance for decades, a stance that landed her in jail twice and was a hallmark of her opposition to past governments and campaign for the presidency.
Already change is underway. She has instituted a code of conduct and full financial disclosure for senior officials, and endorsed a program that will install internationally recruited financial controllers in several state enterprises and create a strong anticorruption commission. Her government plans to publish financial accounts on the Web, make it easier for whistleblowers to report infractions, and rewrite Liberia's outdated constitution to firmly establish participatory democracy, decentralize power, and install robust checks on the executive.
Recovery from deep conflict in Africa is not easy, but we know it is possible. Mozambique was destroyed by civil war in the 1980s, but its democratically elected government led the way to peace, stability, and a doubling of income in a dozen years. Sierra Leone suffered a blood bath in the 1990s, but the 1999 peace agreement and 2001 elections brought stability and economic growth of 7 percent a year. Rwanda's genocide was followed by a recovery that few could have imagined.
But Sirleaf faces a daunting task. Liberia's recovery will depend mainly on Liberians themselves, but it will require strong international support, just as in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda.
West Africa's civil wars have spawned widespread smuggling of diamonds, transshipment of drugs, and easy money laundering opportunities for global terrorist groups. Liberia's historic moment provides the U.S. administration a chance to show it is serious about supporting nascent democracies, creating stability in a volatile region, and providing economic opportunities for Africa's poorest countries.
First, the United States must continue its crucial role in the demobilization of combatants and commit to long-term rebuilding of Liberia's police and army. The new government must be able to maintain and enhance security to begin to recover.
Second, the administration should support rapid and comprehensive forgiveness of Liberia's debts, which were mainly undertaken and wasted by the rapacious Doe government. It makes no more sense to stick today's Liberians with the bill, including 20 years of accumulated interest, than to force today's Iraqis to pay Saddam Hussein's bills.
Third, and perhaps most urgent, Congress should approve supplemental funding of $50 million to $100 million to support the new government. Unfortunately, Congress recently cut the administration's initial request for Liberia, a short-sighted step that sent the wrong signal to a struggling democracy and old ally at a crucial turning point. These funds would build critical infrastructure, put kids back into schools, and continue vital training for security forces. It would give Liberians their best chance of securing peace and basic freedoms.