Aid on the Agenda as Liberian President Visits the U.S.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is on an official visit to the United States. The country's three million people were uprooted and its infrastructure demolished during 14 years of fighting. President Sirleaf hopes to secure reconstruction aid during a lunch visit to the White House.

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President Bush also meets today with an African political celebrity. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf just became the first woman elected to head an African government. She addressed a joint session of Congress last week. Sirleaf is the president of Liberia, which has suffered from years of civil war.

Tammy Hultman reports on the problems the Sirleaf faces when she gets back home.

TAMI HULTMAN reporting:

Men with guns competing for power demolished roads and bridges, electrical facilities, hospitals, and schools and businesses all across this country. More than 250,000 of its 3 million people were killed. More than half fled across borders or tried to survive in the bush. In the town of Gata, on Liberia's far Northeast border, a school operated by the United Methodist Church was overrun four times in 12 years. Principal John Gabalia(ph).

Mr. JOHN GABALIA (School Principal, Liberia): Early morning, we heard the rebels were coming, we just took our hills, leaving everything behind.

HULTMAN: For 10 months, fighting raged across campus. Staff and students lost everything, and so did the school. Such destruction is everywhere, and the wounds of war are deep. One of the president's first acts was launching a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She also is working with West African leaders to see that former warlord Charles Taylor faces war crimes charges.

In an interview, she said her government must address the inequities that fueled the fighting.

President ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF (Liberia): They're going to be looking at the root causes of our conflicts and the cleavages that have existed in our society historically, because they had to do with exclusion, they had to do with the monopolization of power and privilege.

HULTMAN: Avoiding past mistakes, says President Sirleaf, requires using Liberia's natural wealth: its gold, its, diamonds, timber, rubber and vast water resources to create jobs. Her new Investment Commission Director Richard Tolbert spent 25 years in exile after a coup killed his uncle, the president. He says the private sector must be the engine of growth.

Mr. RICHARD TOLBERT (Director, Investment Commission, Liberia): Obviously, the last 25 years there has been complete disruption, but for those looking for an opportunity, business opportunity, you can come and get in at ground zero right now. And I think the upside is far, far in excess of the downside at this point.

HULTMAN: At a reception in the capital, Monrovia, President Sirleaf appealed for help to develop Liberia.

President SIRLEAF: Specifically, for those of you from the business sector, I would ask you to invest.

HULTMAN: The president has repeatedly pledged to curve rapid corruption, and she tried to reassure potential investors that Liberia's business climate is changing.

President SIRLEAF: The period of tax avoidance and tax evasion is over, because we are going to ensure that we get the resources that out country needs and rightfully should have to be able to carry out our development agenda.

HULTMAN: Back in Gata, Mary Zigboa(ph) administers the church-run hospital that is the only such facility in the region. Although 70 percent of the buildings were destroyed, she says creativity and community support sped the hospital's reopening.

Ms. MARY ZIGBOA (Hospital Administrator, Liberia): The people here are very proactive. They might not be able to afford a bag of cement or a bundle of the roofing.

HULTMAN: But they are bringing in buckets of sand and gravel to mix with the cement for rebuilding the school and hospital. So far, the Liberian people seem willing to join their president in a campaign for reconciliation and reconstruction.

(Soundbite of congregation singing)

HULTMAN: At a recent National Conference of Methodists on the Gata campus, President Sirleaf asked for help to deliver on her promises to meet basic human needs, and to preserve the optimism prevailing in Liberia today.

For NPR News, I'm Tami Hultman.

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