WASHINGTON – President Bush welcomed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the White House on Tuesday, calling Africa's first democratically elected female head of state "a pioneer."
"You're the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people," Bush told her in the Oval Office.
Sirleaf thanked the United States for its financial aid and interest in Liberia's future. Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee approved $50 million in new economic aid to the government.
"Liberia, we think, has the potential to become the newest success story in Africa," she said.
In January, first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the inauguration of the 67-year-old Harvard-educated former finance minister. She inherits a war-ruined nation of 3 million with an 80 percent unemployment rate, no running water and no electricity. Despite its diamond and timber wealth, Liberia is among the world's poorest; ranked 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list.
"We're confident that the Liberian people are ready to do what it takes," Sirleaf said. "They're back at work. Our country is open for business."
Neither leader publicly commented on U.S. aid to Liberia or Sirleaf's request for Nigeria to hand over exiled former President Charles Taylor, who is wanted on war crimes charges. Taylor has been indicted by a U.N. tribunal on charges of committing crimes against humanity by aiding and directing a Sierra Leone rebel movement and trading guns and gems with insurgents infamous for chopping off the lips, ears and limbs of civilian victims.
Taylor has lived in exile in southern Nigeria since being forced from power under a peace deal brokered in 2003 that ended the rebel assault on the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was credited with helping end Liberia's civil war when he helped arrange Taylor's asylum, is consulting with other African leaders on how to respond to Sirleaf's request.