The many dignitaries who attended the inauguration in January of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Liberia could not have failed to notice, while being driven in air-conditioned luxury cars, the dreadful state of the capital, Monrovia. But Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African head of state, says she is up to the challenge of reviving the fortunes of a failing state.

Monrovia, like other parts of Liberia, is war-ravaged. There is no running water or electricity – except in hotels and the homes of the wealthy. Partly destroyed buildings are full of bullet holes – testament to a recent violent past. Between December 1989, when rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his insurgency against the regime of Samuel Doe from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, and August 2003, Liberians witnessed only two years of peace.

Taylor, who exploited the country’s huge timber resources to fund his rebellion, used his financial and military might to win the presidential election of 1997. Liberians who were keen to see peace in their country voted for Taylor because there was always the threat that he would return to arms if he did not succeed in his quest for leadership of the country.

Once Taylor came to power, he reneged on power-sharing agreements with his former allies who, ironically, included Johnson Sirleaf. As he entrenched his position, human rights abuses became the order of the day. A small coterie of Taylor supporters took charge of the financial resources of the country – particularly in the shipping registry business, which was providing an annual income of $20 million. A huge majority of Liberians were left to fend for themselves.

Tim A Hetherington / Panos /

It was in this atmosphere that new rebels emerged, recruiting disaffected young people to their cause. Most of these young Liberians had previously fought on the side of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia but they had been discarded by Taylor once he had achieved his political ambitions. This time, the rebels used neighbouring Guinea to launch their attack in 1999.

The fighting was particularly vicious. It led to hundreds of thousands of Liberians fleeing to neighbouring countries and some 500,000 being internally displaced. This time around, Taylor was unable to use the country’s natural resources to acquire weapons because the UN had placed sanctions on his regime for allegedly supporting rebels in Sierra Leone.

By 2002, Taylor’s Government was backed up against the wall and he decided to hold peace talks with the rebels in Ghana. But while talks were going on the rebels continued their assault and, with Monrovia under threat, Taylor decided to step down to halt further carnage. The Economic Community of West African States brokered a deal whereby Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in August 2003.

An interim government held power in Liberia until presidential and legislative elections took place in October and November 2005. This was how Johnson Sirleaf, 67, came to be elected president. Liberians had become so disenchanted with the political classes that they backed ex-footballer George Weah in the first round of the presidential election. But Weah, a former World Player of the Year who plied his skills in Italy and England, failed to get the necessary 51 per cent in the second round. Johnson Sirleaf cut deals with the 20 other candidates and this, plus the fact that there were more registered female voters than male voters, helped to secure her a place in history.

Now she faces the onerous task of reviving an economy that has gone for 16 years without investment. Liberians will hope that her background – she previously worked for the UN Development Programme and the World Bank – will help rather than hinder in the creation of jobs and the provision of basic services for a hard-pressed population.