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Liberia's New President Faces Stiff Opposition in Congress


Liberia's newly-inducted President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf faces stiff opposition in Congress, which will make it challenging to set the economic and social reform agenda she promised on inauguration day.

Even as work was being done to renovate parliament grounds for the inauguration, newly-elected members of Congress took the oath of office inside the decrepit Capitol building.

They then elected an ally of exiled warlord Charles Taylor as speaker of the House, and a former rebel leader as president of the Senate.

Mrs. Sirleaf's candidate for speaker, Dusty Wollokolie, managed just 13 votes out of 63, an early indication of the president's weak power base in the lower house.

Monday, the national transitional legislative assembly was dissolved and Liberia's 52nd legislature convened to administer the president's own oath of office.

In her speech, Mrs. Sirleaf welcomed a vibrant opposition.

"This is important because we believe that our democratic culture and our nation are best served when the opposition is strong and actively engaged in the process of nation-building," she said.

The leading party in the lower house is the Congress for Democratic Change with 15 seats. But the lower house is fractured between 11 parties, lawmakers with shifting allegiances, and many independents. Mrs. Sirleaf's Unity Party has just eight seats.

Newspaper editor and political analyst Philip Wesseh believes this will make it challenging for Mrs. Sirleaf, as Liberia's system is modeled on the one in the United States, with a potentially powerful Congress.

"There will be pressure. It should not be the rubber stamp legislature [that it was] in the past, where the presidency had complete control over what we call the national legislature. But from what were seeing is those that are going there are going with the zeal, they are going there to make a difference so we don't see them as being subjects of the president, like in the past. So we see a strong legislature, in the coming few months, you will get to know what I am saying," said Wesseh.

But the new legislature is also made up of former warlords, like Prince Johnson, who oversaw the brutal killing of former military ruler, Samuel Doe, and Adolphus Dolo, a Taylor commander once known as "General Peanut Butter."

The new speaker, Edwin Snowe, is under a U.N. travel ban. All this makes some supporters of Mrs. Sirleaf fear the worst about the body's future. They believe many of its members will be there to protect their interests and their corrupt and war-tainted allies.

Wesseh agrees these fears are legitimate.

"There will be personal interests. You have people who are warlords, they are there. They will build a front, a common front to defend themselves. So it will be an interesting body, it will be an interesting body," predicted Wesseh. "But we pray that in the end Liberia will come first, Liberia will come first."

Taylor's soon to be divorced wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, is also a member of the new legislature, as a senator, but so far, she appears to be backing Mrs. Sirleaf.

She is one of the few, and it seems it will be much more difficult for Mrs. Sirleaf to swing votes her way in parliament, than in the second round presidential vote, where she defeated former soccer star George Weah by nearly 20 percentage points.

Right now, though, it seems it's still a time for sweeping speeches, with the lines of looming battles over nominations, budgets, laws and policies yet to be drawn.

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