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‘All the men have failed ... let's try a woman’

The “Today” show's Ann Curry talks to Africa's first female head of state, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in this NBC News exclusive.

First lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice traveled to one of the world's most dangerous places to witness a remarkable event — the inauguration of the first woman ever elected president in Africa. The “Today” show’s Ann Curry traveled to Liberia for an exclusive interview with the new president and she weighed in for the first time on whether al Qaeda has operated in Liberia and says publicly for the first time what she is going to do about her predecessor, Charles Taylor, who is wanted for crimes against humanity. 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, surprised even the U.S. when she was elected Africa’s first woman president.

What was her slogan? "All the men have failed Liberia; let's try a woman this time."

Ann Curry: Do you think that Liberia could teach the United States a thing or two about presidential elections?Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: (Laughter) Oh yes that I do. We've made it in Africa. So, hey, we've got something we can say, "Well hey, we beat you to it."Curry: The United States government believed your opponent would win. You were underestimated — any hard feelings?Sirleaf: No.  No.Curry: Why not?Sirleaf: They underestimated the passion and the power of women and that constituency was out there.

Liberia’s new president once waited tables in Madison, Wisc., to pay for college then went to Harvard for graduate school before coming home to enter the dangerous world of Liberian politics.

Curry: What was the worst moment?Sirleaf: That moment came in 1985 [when] I was picked up by soldiers from my mother's home and was put in a cell with about 15 other people. They took all of them out of the cell … there were gun shots.Curry: You heard them being killed?Sirleaf: Oh, yes.

She emerged from prison defiant, earning the nickname "The Iron Lady," in a struggle that 20 years later would result in her election.

Curry:  The people who think because you're a woman you're going to be a soft leader, you say?Sirleaf: Try me. You’ll be shocked.

She’ll need to be tough to fix Liberia. Twenty-five years of war and mayhem have left hundreds of thousands dead and the country without electricity or running water. More than 80 percent of the people are unemployed and 90 percent are illiterate.

Her predecessor, Charles Taylor, robbed Liberia of its riches and its children of their youth before he was forced out two years ago, indicted by a UN war crimes tribunal.

President Sirleaf says Taylor also supported America’s enemies.

Sirleaf: Terrorists were allowed to operate here.Curry: Al-Qaida?Sirleaf: Al-Qaida.Curry: What convinces you that al-Qaida was allowed by Charles Taylor to operate in Liberia?Sirleaf: What convinces everyone are the UN reports. The reports were very clear. Al-Qaida, the terrorists that have been here, have left. If any of them linger, I think they know what fate will befall them.

As for Charles Taylor, he's in Nigeria and will only be brought to justice if the new president of Liberia requests it.

Curry: All eyes are now on you.  What will you do?Sirleaf: Mr. Taylor has always said he wanted his day in court to defend himself.  We should grant him that privilege.

While that will be welcome news in Washington, some in congress say Liberia shouldn't receive U.S. aid until her words are met by action.

Curry: How long is it going to take?Sirleaf: We have to do it.  We will do it, when the timing is right. It will happen.

Timing is critical because Taylor loyalists are poised to destabilize her presidency and, the U.S. fears, threaten her life.  The Bush administration sent in an elite bodyguard unit to protect her.

Curry: In the end, if you lose your life, will it have been worth it?

Sirleaf: Yes, even if I have to make the ultimate sacrifice, which is my life — it will be worth it. We need only now to put our country on the course of renewal and I hope I’ll have enough time to get this started. If I don't, others will carry it on.

Johnson Sirleaf will serve a six-year term.