The United States is sending a high-ranking delegation, including First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to next Monday's inauguration of Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, will be Africa's first elected woman president.
The United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars for peacekeeping and reconstruction in Liberia since civil warfare ended with the departure of former President Charles Taylor in 2003.
The presence of the first lady and Secretary Rice at the inauguration is intended to underline U.S. hopes that Liberia is now on a stable, democratic path after years of turmoil.
Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria as part of an agreement to end 14 years of Liberian civil warfare, even though he was under indictment by a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone for crimes against humanity for assisting a brutal rebel movement in that country.
Taylor at one point vowed to return to Liberia and U.S. officials say he has remained in touch with followers there.
However, at a news briefing Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said Taylor's influence is waning and he had no perceptible effect on the November election won by Johnson-Sirleaf.
"At every point in this transition, there's been fear of Charles Taylor, and at every point this transition has succeeded," she said. "So I think that whether he's trying to influence or not trying to influence, he hasn't been successful in doing so. I think that the Liberian people have voted for freedom, they voted to have a voice in their government, and Charles Taylor represents the exact opposite. And so I think his influence on the progress of Liberia is extremely limited, if nil."
Assistant Secretary Frazer said the United States continues to seek the handover of Taylor to the Sierra Leone special court, and considers it positive that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made a pledge to do so in his U.N. General Assembly address in September.
Despite the lack of action on the Taylor case, Frazer said President Obasanjo has been a good partner on Liberia and that she expects him to do the right thing with regard to Taylor at the right time.
Under questioning, she said consultations with Nigeria on the issue are continuing and that in the U.S. view, now is the right time for Taylor to be handed over.
Following the Monday inauguration in Liberia, Secretary Rice will return to Washington while Mrs. Bush makes two additional African stops, in Ghana and Nigeria.
Assistant Secretary Frazer will travel on to the Horn of Africa on a mission aimed at helping ease tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which have erupted anew in recent weeks over their border dispute.
The two countries fought a three-year war that ended in 2000 with the signing of a peace deal that required them to accept a new border demarcation by an international panel.
The border commission's decision in 2002 to award the key border town of Badme to Eritrea has not been fully accepted by Ethiopia and tensions heated up in November with both sides moving troops to the border area.
In U.N. Security Council consultations last week, the Bush administration said it would send Assistant Secretary Frazer and retired U.S. Marine General Carlton Fulford, an African affairs expert, to the border area to discuss how to move the demarcation process forward.
Under questioning here, Frazer said her initial priority will be to inspect the border to better understand the background of the conflict:
"The purpose of it is quite limited frankly and it's for me to see the border," she said. "One of the problems in the Ethiopia-Eritrea impasse over demarcation is that the international partners actually have to have the expertise to be able to assist them to find a solution to get that border demarcated. And I want to state that that is the U.S. objective: to see the boundary commission decision implemented. And I think that as the least I can do as a first step is to actually see the boundary, to actually go to the boundary to understand what exactly we're talking about."
Though Frazer said the boundary issue is the main reason for her visit, she said she also expects to discuss the human rights situation in Ethiopia, where thousands of perceived opponents of the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi have been arrested since November with more than 100 facing treason charges.
The State Department last week said it was gravely concerned about the crackdown, which stems from unrest spawned by disputed parliamentary elections in May of last year.