ACCRA, Ghana – First lady Laura Bush smiled broadly and applauded the historic swearing in on Monday of Liberia's new leader, the first woman ever elected president in Africa, who exclaimed that the future belongs to women "because we have taken charge of it."
On her second trip to Africa, Mrs. Bush joined Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Liberia's capital at the inauguration of President-elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who pledged to restore peace after a 14-year civil war in this nation founded by freed American slaves.
"I think it's really important worldwide," Mrs. Bush said about Sirleaf's inauguration, which falls on the day Americans honor civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "I think it's particularly important on the continent of Africa, because traditionally women have been excluded in many African cultures -- not all of them, but in many."
Mrs. Bush was the formal head of the U.S. delegation, but it was Rice who was greeted with hoots of approval by the crowd during introductions.
The outdoor ceremony, held on a muggy overcast day, was informal by U.S. standards. The platform was simply decorated with red, white and blue bunting and balloons. Members of the local media shouted at diplomats on stage to move out their camera shots.
The new president said Liberians who voted for her were casting a ballot for national healing, leadership and freedom.
"We know that your vote was a vote of change, a vote of peace, security and stability. We have heard you loudly," Sirleaf said in her speech, which both Mrs. Bush and Rice attended.
Sirleaf's victory in a run-off election in November raised hope that Liberia would move past a war that devastated the West African country. The 67-year-old grandmother has vowed to end the period of corrupt-male-dominatd rule in Liberia, still reeling from a brutal 1989 to 2003 civil war that left some 200,000 dead.
"The United States has already invested a lot of money over the last two years through the election period," Mrs. Bush said Sunday just before landing in Ghana. "We have a commitment for the year 2006, as well, to help them in their reconstruction as they start to try to have electricity again and potable water and all the things that are so crucial for basic survival in Liberia."
Mrs. Bush and her 24-year-old daughter, Barbara, who recently worked on AIDS in a pediatric hospital in South Africa, spent Sunday night in Accra, Ghana, at the home of the U.S. ambassador. They were up before dawn Monday to fly to Monrovia, named after President Monroe.
On her more than hour-long drive to the capital, Mrs. Bush's motorcade passed checkpoints manned by U.N. peacekeeping soldiers and she got a close-up look at the pervasive poverty in Liberia. A few residents waved, but most looked on curiously at the motorcade from thatched huts, some with roofs covered with plastic held down by rocks.
Mrs. Bush landed at Roberts International Airport which U.S. Marines controlled in August 2003 to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid into the country and stop the flow of arms to former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor fled into exile that month, paving the way for a transitional government that is handing over power to Sirleaf.
"Charles Taylor is out of Liberia," Rice told reporters on a flight to Monrovia. "He is through raping and pillaging this country, and the Liberian people are trying to look forward."
Taylor is in exile in Nigeria but is wanted on war-crimes charges in Sierra Leone, where he supported a brutal rebel group during that country's 1991-2002 civil war. Nigeria says it won't hand Taylor over to a U.N.-backed tribunal unless a democratically elected Liberian leader makes such a request. Rice said she's confident that Sirleaf will work to bring Taylor to justice, and that he ultimately will end up before the special court in Sierra Leone.
"This will happen," Rice said. "It's what the international community wants. The international community wants justice. I think the Liberian leadership wants justice."
Sirleaf defeated George Weah, a soccer star who first claimed that the election was fraudulent, but then conceded defeat after international election observers deemed the presidential elections largely clean.
Mrs. Bush's motorcade passed lingering reminders of the election -- a billboard that said "Vote George Weah," faded blue campaign posters for Sirleaf and a banner hung over a street that said "Let's join hands in development. No more guns. No more violence."
Liberia faces great challenges: poverty at 85 percent and illiteracy at 80 percent, as well as high unemployment, serious health problems, poor public services and weak public institutions.
"She ran on a platform of reconciliation and reconstruction, and it's going to take the help of a lot of countries, including the United States, which has a special relationship with Liberia, for her and the people of Liberia to be able to do the reconstruction they need," Mrs. Bush said.
Congress appropriated more than $840 million last year to help reconstruct Liberia. Of that, more than $520 million has gone to support a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
The United States currently is working on quick-impact programs to help rebuild courthouses, high schools and hospitals and provide skills training to youth and ex-combatants. The U.S. government also is helping finance efforts to rebuild Liberia's army.