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Liberia's President Outlines Programs, Decries Divisions

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf delivered her State of the Nation address Monday before a legislature deeply divided by the controversial firing and rehiring of its speaker. Ms. Sirleaf set out the government's agenda for the next year, meanwhile calling for the branches of government to settle the power struggle that has hampered the work of the parliament. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

In the address, President Sirleaf laid out plans for reforming security, creating a viable farming industry and establishing greater self-reliance as international organizations begin to pull out of the country.

She also lauded her administration's efforts to combat corruption in a nation still reeling from decades of civil war.

"We have tried to bring a new approach to local governance and administration, infusing it with a sense of accountability and transparency unheard of in our country," said Sirleaf.

Ms. Sirleaf delivered her speech amid brewing tension between the legislative and judicial branch over the ousting of House Speaker Edwin Snowe.

Just hours before her speech, the Supreme Court ruled Snowe's ousting was unconstitutional. Snowe's removal caused a split in the legislature, creating two rival bodies, each claiming legitimacy.

The court said a group of legislators who have been conducting state business without the speaker in a suburb of the capital are doing so illegally.

Despite the court's ruling, the President's address was held in that facility.

House spokesman James Jensen says many lawmakers, including Speaker Snowe, did not attend the President's address. "It is more like a slap in the face for those who are in the practice of law," said Jensen. "We just pray that this situation will be corrected and intervention by our national partners will call the parties together and see how they can uphold the rule of law in our country."

Liberian journalist Jarlawah Tonpo says critics of Ms. Sirleaf point to the recent upheaval in the House to support their claims she does not have firm control of the government.

"People see [the government] as divided in two," said Tonpo. "So people are saying she should be able to take the lead and reconcile the country."

Journalist Prince Collins says many are concerned the fighting could distract the government from its reconstruction agenda. "The president said her government is actually looking at the improvement of the nation, especially in the health sector, the education sector and improving the living conditions of Liberians," said Collins, "but with this kind of ongoing crisis among lawmakers, she has the fear it might retard the development of the country."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power a little over a year ago. She was the first elected president of Liberia following the regime of Charles Taylor, who is now in The Hague awaiting trial on war crimes charges.