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Liberia's Next Congress Will Be Fractured, Controversial

While the presidential race in Liberia heads for a decisive second round, next week, the country's next two-chamber, 94-seat Congress has already been set. It will be fractured and headlined by figures associated with Liberia's recent conflicts.

As lawmakers from the outgoing transitional government mill about in the run-down parliament, talking about possible impeachment proceedings for corruption against transitional leader, Gyude Bryant, future occupants are also garnering attention; most notably, Prince Johnson.

The former rebel leader, who cut off body parts from former military leader Samuel Doe after he was captured by his fighters in 1990, will be the senior senator from Nimba County, as an independent.

In an interview with VOA, Mr. Johnson, who wore an African dress shirt and sandals, refused to be called a former warlord. "The terminology must be rephrased. I'm a freedom fighter. I'm a revolutionary," he said.

He says his main goal is main goal is decentralization, bringing development to remote but resource-rich areas, like Nimba County. He says, unlike other African rebel leaders, he is not seeking the presidency.

"I must represent my constituency. You know, how many people who are like that? John Garang [of Sudan] never went to the senate. Idriss Deby [of Chad] didn't go to the senate. Foday Sankoh [of Sierra Leone] never opted for that," reminded Mr. Johnson.

During the interview, Mr. Johnson slapped a member of his entourage who had forgotten to turn off his cell phone.

Many Liberians from outside Nimba County worry about how Mr. Johnson will act as a senator. Journalist Josiah Hallie is one person with questions.

"He might be taking the House to be like the rebel organization he was heading. Because, as [a] military commander, you take decisions before you think," said Mr. Hallie. "But over there [the Senate] you got to think before you take decisions."

Another controversial senator-elect is Jewel Howard Taylor, the wife of another former rebel-leader-turned-president, Charles Taylor, who is now in exile in Nigeria.

Speaking to VOA from her well-guarded home in Congo town, near the Nigerian Embassy, the former first lady explained her vision as a senator-to-be.

"As a young woman, I'm only 42 years old, I still have so much more that I can give as a servant of the people, of this nation, as a part of the new Africa, as a part of us showing that all of the negative things that come from Africa can be transformed," said Ms. Taylor. "I want to be an agent of change. I want to be an agent of development. I want to be an agent of hope and, as I go into this office, those are the things that I am going to take with me. And I'm praying that God will enable me to do those things that I must to create and be a part of this new Liberia."

On the issue of her husband, Mrs. Taylor says she does not believe he should be sent to face his indictment at the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, which she says is biased.

On this issue, one accountant in Monrovia, Emmanuel King, hopes Mrs. Taylor will not have her way in the legislature.

"I think she's just one person in the House. You have a lot of smart people in the House. So, I think if she will be doing things in the interest of her husband, when in that case she should be working in the interest if the Liberian people," commented Mr. King. "I think she might be exposing herself. But I think we have a lot of smart people in there. We have a lot of people who have the ability to stand up and to say 'no, this should not be.'"

Other senators in the new Congress will include more experienced lawmakers like Roland C. Kaine, who was re-elected. He does not believe the dozen or so parties represented in the legislature, as well as the variety of representatives, will be an impediment to effective reform.

"You're going to have the best parliament. You find the caliber of people and you find them coming from different political institutions," said Mr. Kaine. "This parliament, especially the Senate that I am a part of, you'll find a former chief justice, the former first lady. You'll find one of the oldest serving ministers in this country.

"You'll find, of course, myself, Roland, one of the political veterans when it comes to the parliamentary inner workings," he continued. "So, we can definitely tell you that the parliament, for now, will be quite one of such that Liberian people will appreciate and that will truly deliver and make sure that we stick to the point. The point is laws will be respected and we are people of credibility that will deliver goods and services."

Both candidates competing for Liberia's presidency, George Weah and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will have to build complex alliances with new lawmakers, if they are to push their agenda for reunification and development, as both their parties won only three seats, apiece, in the Senate.

The lower house can also wield considerable power in setting government policy, in a system modeled after the bicameral one in the United States. However, for that chamber as well, voting will be divided.