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President accepts honorary degree

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Marquette bestowed an honorary degree to Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and heard her goals for improving the African nation in a ceremony Monday morning. Johnson-Sirleaf is the first democratically elected female president in Africa and the second sitting head of state to visit Marquette.

"I am honored by the opportunity to be here today to receive this degree and honor bestowed upon me by Marquette University," said Johnson-Sirleaf as she accepted the degree on behalf of the Liberian people.

After thanking the Marquette community for her degree, Johnson-Sirleaf launched into her mission and what she hopes to achieve for Liberia.

Elected in November 2005 and inaugurated in January, Johnson-Sirleaf said she is fully aware of the challenges facing Liberia after 15 years of civil war. Johnson-Sirleaf herself faced many challenges, including imprisonment and exile.

The gross domestic product per capita in Liberia currently sits at $163, which is a 90 percent decrease since the 1980s pre-war levels, she said. Liberia's exports are also down and the country faces an enormous external debt of $3.7 billion.

Johnson-Sirleaf described rampant corruption, children dying of curable diseases and HIV rates beginning to take effect. In addition to these problems, three-fourths of Liberia's people live below the poverty line at $1 or less a day.

However, Liberians are resilient and always look for new beginnings, Johnson-Sirleaf said.

"They are counting on me, they are counting on the U.S. to create the realization of their dreams," she said. "They just want the things we take for granted."

Johnson-Sirleaf said the Liberian people are thirsting for peace and education, and that the government cannot wait too long to implement policy changes or it will risk missing the best chance there is for ending the country's conflict permanently.

Liberia's national government must be enhanced and there must be structural reforms based on the principles of democracy and a respect for human rights, Johnson-Sirleaf said.

"Poverty reduction strategies are at the core of averting a return to conflict," she said.

Already Johnson-Sirleaf's government has taken steps toward improvement.

Liberian security forces have been troublesome in the past because of civil war, but Johnson-Sirleaf's government has completely deactivated members of the old army and has recruited, trained and equipped a new army.

The government has also facilitated the return of refugees to Liberia.

Johnson-Sirleaf emphasized a need to revitalize the country's economy so Liberia can compete in the international market. She said the country should focus on agriculture, its rubber market and increasing industries such as forestry and mining.

"We've taken an aggressive stance in collecting revenues owed to the government," she said.

A third goal of Johnson-Sirleaf's government is the improvement of governance by working through and implementing policy changes. Johnson-Sirleaf said her government is determined to fight corruption that "has eaten away the fabric of our society."

Her government is also determined to redistribute power, placing emphasis on empowering the people, especially the poor and vulnerable, she said.

Johnson-Sirleaf said she is also committed to revitalizing Liberia's social infrastructure, placing education for all at the center of this mission.

"We recognize that no nation can develop under a 65 percent plus illiteracy rate," she said.

Literacy programs have been introduced around the country, most of which target women, she said.

The improvement of health care throughout the country is also on the agenda.

According to Johnson-Sirleaf, only 10 percent of the population has access to health care. She said her government must address the growing HIV/AIDS problem and continue to fight curable diseases.

Other social infrastructure must be addressed, including the improvement of roads, water and sanitation facilities.

"In July, we were able to turn on electricity and water in the capital city for the first time in 15 years," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "That accomplishment is just the beginning. Our mission is to make the Liberian government work again."

In order to achieve all she seeks to do, Johnson-Sirleaf said there is a critical need for Liberia to build strategic partnerships and relationships internationally. She expressed her gratitude to the Bush administration, First Lady Laura Bush and the bipartisan U.S. Congress for their assistance to Liberia.

"In summary, Liberia is off to a good start," she said. Liberia's conflict will be put to rest with a speedy reconstruction and redevelopment process, with the help and support of the United States, she said.

"It is critical that Liberians in the next few months see steady and tangible progress," she said. "Liberia is not a poor country, but a country that has been poorly managed."

Johnson-Sirleaf thanked David A. Straz Jr., a member of Marquette's board of trustees and an honorary consul to Liberia, for his support and dedication to her country.

"You have come to our country, seen what it is and held out your hand in friendship," she said.

Provost Madeline Wake closed the ceremony, praising Johnson-Sirleaf for her efforts and work.

"Your leadership is a shining example for all women here today," she said.

Wake called for a renewal to Marquette's mission of service and said she was pleased at the forging of a strategic partnership between Marquette and Liberia.

To commence that partnership, Wake announced Marquette would give a four-year scholarship to a Liberian woman of Johnson-Sirleaf's choosing to enter the university in fall 2007.

University President the Rev. Robert A. Wild thanked Straz for his efforts in bringing Johnson-Sirleaf to campus.

"I think it is fair to say she herself has been a beacon of justice," Wild said. "Her fellow citizens elected her to their highest office in the nation hoping she'll establish justice, peace and harmony among them."

Wild said Marquette honored Johnson-Sirleaf for representing the wisdom of a world leader who has fought and continues to fight for basic human values.

Straz presented Johnson-Sirleaf with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

"President Johnson-Sirleaf became president to bring what she says 'motherly sensitivity and emotion' to the presidency," Straz said. "She is a role model to women around the world seeking political service."

Straz described Johnson-Sirleaf as "The Iron Lady," a term of endearment from the Liberian people referring to her strong will and her commitment to fighting corruption at all levels. He commended Johnson-Sirleaf for her commitment to Liberia, calling her "inspiring."

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President accepts honorary degree