Liberia's Sirleaf: getting down to business

MONROVIA Sat Nov 12, 2011 4:40am EST

Liberia's President and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at her office in Monrovia November 11, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Liberia's President and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at her office in Monrovia November 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is hardly celebrating her impending election victory that secures her a second term in office as Liberia's president.

"What's there to smile about?" she said, posing for a photograph in the presidential office on Friday just before the election commission results gave her an unassailable lead. "It just means there's work to be done."

The Nobel Peace laureate, whose landslide win was marred by violence and an opposition boycott, has set ambitious targets for her second term.

It will start with an effort to reconcile with an angry opposition and end with a 50 percent reduction in poverty, years of double-digit economic growth, and job creation on the back of investment in Liberia's resources, she said.

The task is huge. Liberia still bears the scars of 14 years of intermittent civil war that claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. Few people have access to electricity or running water, and more than half the population lives on less than 50 cents a day.

But the foundation is there, she said.

"The general prosperity of Liberians and the living conditions of Liberians will be sharply enhanced by the end of my next and last term," she told Reuters in an interview.

"We've already done all it takes to build the foundation for that, and now is delivery time."

Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa's first freely elected female head of state after winning elections in 2005 and has won international plaudits for maintaining peace and slashing the country's debt burden during her first term.

But her critics have said the pace of rebuilding the country from its 1989-2003 conflict has been too slow and that she has neglected the nation's poorest, including its thousands of former fighters.

The criticisms grew harsher after security forces cracked down on an opposition protest on the eve of the vote, killing at least two people.

The vote was also marred by an opposition boycott in protest over alleged fraud in the first round, which may have contributed to a less than 40 percent turnout in the run-off.

TOUGH START

Johnson-Sirleaf denied the violence and low turnout in the election was a threat to her ability to govern in her second term.

"I think my credibility has been established over many years. What it does, is it did undermine the country's victory," she said.

"The support I got from the elections demonstrated to me that I still carry a lot of popular support and I still have the confidence of the people."

"My task initially will be a bit harder because I now have to reach out to many of those who, particularly young people, may feel disaffected and may feel marginalized. But I intend to do that, to reach out to them to understand some of their needs and concerns and to respond to it," she said.

Her efforts to reunite the country will include reconciling with rival political leaders -- including, potentially, her chief rival, former U.N. ambassador Winston Tubman, who called the boycott of the second round.

"He has to first accept the election results. Then we go from there," she said.

Tubman told Reuters on Saturday that it was his party's position that he will not recognize Johnson-Sirleaf as president or work with her, but added his party planned to review its position soon.

"If, hypothetically, Madame Sirleaf decides to try to reconcile with my party, I will not block that," he said.

Johnson-Sirleaf said she would seek to create new jobs in the short-term with public works projects and would aim to develop longer-term jobs by supporting vocational training aimed at employment in the minerals and agricultural sectors.

Liberia's top export industry is rubber, but international mining companies have been drawn to its vast iron ore reserves. ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steel maker, started iron ore output from Liberia in September - the first company to do so since the end of the war in 2003.

"Many of those young men, many are ex-combatants, many have been child soldiers, many have been bypassed on their education and their skills. That's what we have to address." she said.

The government was also in the process of reviewing revenue management laws for the resources sector but she stressed the changes would not necessarily alter the contracts of firms already operating in the country.

"We will respect the sanctity of contract," she said.

Resources development, including potential oil projects offshore, will drive robust economic growth, help fund badly needed infrastructure projects and form the backbone for new employment, she said.

"I will maintain our double-digit growth rates. I will build a lot of infrastructure, paved roads - more neighborhood roads and market roads," she said.

"I'm confident that the benefits of our natural resources will show results in terms of improving the lives of our people," she said.

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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