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Bern welcomes Africa's "Iron Lady"

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged to rebuild Liberia Keystone

Africa's first elected female president, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is in the Swiss capital, Bern, for talks with ministers.

This content was published on March 7, 2006 - 07:46

Described as Liberia's best hope for stability, Johnson-Sirleaf met her Swiss counterpart, Moritz Leuenberger, on Tuesday.

The two discussed the present situation in Liberia, as well as bilateral relations between the two countries. Regional and international topics were also on the agenda.

The Liberian president later attended a working lunch with Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Johnson-Sirleaf is Liberia's first elected head of state since the end of the civil war in Liberia in 2003.

The 67-year-old Harvard-educated economist won 59 per cent of the vote in November's elections, beating football star George Weah.

The veteran politician, who is known as the "Iron Lady", has said her top challenge is to maintain peace and law and order after 14 years of civil war in the West African country.

Conflict

At least 250,000 people were killed in the conflict, which also drove almost one million people from their homes. The country has been left in economic ruin and is overrun with weapons.

About 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers are still ensuring calm in the country.

Last week, the UN's special adviser on internal displacement, Dennis McNamara, said Liberia had a "real chance of being a success story for Africa in 2006".

But he warned that the next six months would be critical, and said several hundred million dollars were needed to help stabilise the country.

"If Liberia can really be stabilised it can be the centre of a regional stability process... If we don't stabilise Liberia, the instability factors is bound to spread."

Swiss ties

Over the past ten years, Switzerland has donated around SFr25 million ($19.3 million) in humanitarian emergency assistance to Liberia. This year SFr4 million has been set aside.

According to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the money goes towards supporting partner organisations such as UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which are working in the field.

Particular emphasis has been placed on the children and the young. Liberia has the world's fifth highest child mortality rate, according to the UN.

However, the SDC says that although there is still a need for emergency aid, the focus is now on reconstruction and reintegration.

Switzerland also supports projects to help war refugees integrate back into Liberia.

swissinfo

Key facts

Liberia has a population of 3.6 million.
Life expectancy is 41 years for men and 43 for women.
Illiteracy and unemployment are estimated at 80% (UN).
The country's main exports are diamonds, iron ore, rubber, timber, coffee and cocoa.
Per capita income is $110 a year.

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In brief

Over the past ten years, the SDC has given SFr25 million in humanitarian emergency assistance to Liberia, with a particular emphasis on children.

The budget for Liberia for this year is SFr4 million.

The SDC has coordinated its programmes for the sub-region through a regional coordination office in Freetown, Sierra Leone, since October 2001.

Part of the SDC's contributions to Liberia goes to UN agencies (the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme) and to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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