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Sirleaf unveils first members of new peacetime government

[Liberia] Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is about to go down in the history books as Africa's first elected femal president. [Date picture taken: 11/12/2005]
The government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is preparing a new bidding process for logging concessions now that UN sanctions on the industry have been lifted. (Claire Soares/IRIN)

Newly inaugurated President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has announced the first ministers to join her 22-member peacetime government.

The key positions of Finance and Defence were among the first nine released by statement from the president’s office, late on Monday, and both were non-partisan appointments based on professional criteria.

Finance went to Sirleaf’s former World Bank colleague Antoinette Sayeh while the Defence portfolio was handed to one-time chief of police turned UN-worker Brownie Samukai.

Tackling corruption was singled out as a peacetime priority by Sirleaf at her inauguration on Monday. And the 67-year-old grandmother also promised neighbouring states that she would allow “no inch of Liberia” to be used to foment conflict as had been the case during the country’s 14-year civil war, that ended in 2003.

So far, the appointments have been well received in the war-blackened capital Monrovia, where citizens gave Sirleaf’s preference for technocrats the thumbs up.

“They are competent individuals who have vast experience in the areas they are being nominated to and I believe they are up to the task,” youth activist Mariam Zulue told IRIN.

Finance Minister Sayeh worked as a World Bank Country Director in Benin, Niger and Togo as well as with the International Monetary Fund in Asia. She follows in the new president’s footsteps, becoming the second woman to take the office of Finance Minister after Sirleaf in the late 1970s.

Samukai is regarded as a safe pair of hands for the crucial Defence Ministry. As chief of police in the mid-1990s Samukai pioneered a rapid reaction force to crack down on armed robbery. Since fleeing Liberia when former warlord Charles Taylor came to power, Samukai has worked for the UN in East Timor and Tanzania.

Only one opposition figure has made it into the cabinet so far.

Joseph Korto, one of the original 22 candidates who ran for the presidency along with Sirleaf, will use his decades of experience in teaching at the helm of the education ministry.

Korto turned his back on onetime football super star George Weah and threw his weight behind Sirleaf for the second final round of the presidential vote in November. Korto’s support is widely credited with securing Sirleaf’s victory, winning over Nimba County - the second largest electoral block in the country - where he is well known.

Varbah Gayflor, a well-known Liberian women’s rights activist, will take Minister for Gender and Development.

Human rights campaigner and a hard-line critic of Taylor, Samuel Kofi Woods, takes the portfolio for Labour, while Health goes to medical doctor Walter Gwenigale who worked for over 20 years at Liberia’s main rural hospital in central Bong County.

An environmental expert who chalked up over ten years with the African Development Bank, Eugene Shannon, takes the Ministry of Lands and Mines, which includes responsibility for Liberia’s rich diamond deposits.

Stalwarts from Sirleaf’s Unity Party have also earned posts.

Sirleaf’s campaign manager, former journalist and one-time speaker of the house in a previous transitional government, Morris Dukuly, will take the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs.

Willie Knuckles, who briefly toyed with the idea of running for president before opting to back Sirleaf, will be responsible for rebuilding Liberia’s battered infrastructure as Minister for Public Works.

Sirleaf, who is Liberia and Africa’s first female president, has promised a widely representative government made up of individuals chosen on merit and track record.

Each minister’s qualifications are checked and their track record vetted for human rights violations. Because of these checks, the full cabinet list is expected to take several more days to complete.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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