MONROVIA (Reuters) - President George W. Bush promised steadfast U.S. support for Liberia’s recovery from its crippling civil war as he wrapped up a tour of Africa with a visit to a friendly ally on Thursday.
At the end of what he called a “very productive” trip to the world’s poorest continent, Bush heaped praise on Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist who took office in 2006 as Africa’s first elected female leader.
Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic founded by freed slaves from America in 1847, was the final stop on the five-nation tour by the U.S. leader. He also visited Benin, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana in a trip that highlighted U.S. support for health, education and good governance projects on the continent.
Welcomed earlier by crowds of cheering Liberians who lined the streets of the war-damaged coastal capital Monrovia, Bush pledged U.S. backing to help Liberia heal the social and economic wounds of the 1989-2003 war that killed 200,000 people.
“The United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country,” Bush said in a speech before he and Johnson-Sirleaf watched a parade of U.S.-trained Liberian troops in Monrovia.
He later left for the flight back to Washington.
His visit was the first by a U.S. president to Liberia in three decades. To applause from his audience, Bush announced the U.S. government was donating one million textbooks and desks for 10,000 school children in the small West African country.
“Together with the help of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, we’re working to heal the wounds of war, ... strengthen democracy, and build a new armed forces,” he said.
There are still 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers in Liberia, helping to maintain security, but since 2003, Washington has spent $139 million on training the armed forces.
A U.S. defense contractor, DynCorp International, has been instructing the new army formed by former government soldiers and ex-combatants from the war.
Johnson-Sirleaf said the new Liberian army would eventually replace the U.N. peacekeepers, but asked that the latter not be withdrawn too quickly until local security forces were ready.
“We thank God that the guns of war are silenced,” she said, adding that her government would promote democracy, good governance and economic development, and fight terrorism.
Affectionately referring to Johnson-Sirleaf by her popular nickname “Ma”, Bush praised the Liberian leader as “a strong partner” of the United States. She and the other presidents of the five states he visited are seen by Washington as a new generation of modernizing, democratic African leaders.
Other African countries have spurned U.S. overtures for a greater military presence on the continent. But Liberia has said it would willingly host a new continental U.S. military command, known as Africom.
While backing efforts to solve crises in Kenya and Darfur, Bush used his week-long tour of Africa -- made in the final year of his presidency -- to promote multi-billion-dollar U.S. health, education and anti-poverty initiatives.
This support for Africa’s development earned him an unusually warm reception this week in a world which is widely critical of his policies in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
“Laura and I are thrilled to be here ... to end what has been a very productive trip to the continent of Africa. I can’t think of a better place to finish than ... with our dear friend, Liberia,” Bush said earlier at a formal lunch.
With its strong links to America, Liberia has long regarded the United States as its “big brother”. During the Cold War, it served as the CIA’s main listening post in Africa.
Ordinary Liberians had mixed feelings about his visit. Some complained that Washington ignored the country during the war.
“There is nothing we can show from the relationship. America only wants to promote its own interest,” said a newspaper seller, Sylvester Smith.
“I see it as a very important visit ... It will serve as a means to encourage people to come and invest in Liberia ... This visit will open this country to the outside world,” said Rebecca Togbah, a businesswoman.
Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood