President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf In Paris
Courtesy of Jeune Afrique, Paris, May 27, 2007
Translated by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
Spending less than 48 hours in the French capital on May 24, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf barely had the time to pay courtesy call at Jeune Afrique and to be the first African head of state to meet with the new tenant at the Elysée Palace, Nicholas Sarkozy who used the occasion to express his will to maintain new relations with the continent. Sarkozy was preparing to receive the Gabonese President Omar Bongo Ondima a day later.
After her inauguration on January 16, 2006 – after defeating the very popular football player George Weah at the second round of the presidential elections- the former official of the World Bank found herself at the helm of a nation on its knees, battered by 14 years of civil war and looting (1989-2003): no electricity in the capital, damaged roads, high level illiteracy, spiraling unemployment, a weak government… “An ocean of priorities,” the former militant likes to repeat.
Since then, there have been signs of substantial improvements. Parts of Monrovia now have water and electricity. Sanctions on the diamonds imposed on Charles Taylor and his militia who used the trade to buy arms, have been lifted. Sanctions on timber also have been lifted. Not much, but very important. “The problem we are still confronted with is unemployment”, says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. One needs a pragmatic approach to move from a state of total poverty. This woman that Liberians have nicknamed both “Ma (“Ellen” is a mother of four and grandmother to 7) and “Iron Lady” does not mince her words. Yes, the Liberian private sector is very weak and we need to make it attractive. No, like the rest of the continent, Liberia cannot allow to refuse Chinese aid-money. Yes, we must reward talents to keep them home. No, the president does not have a majority in the parliament… well, that is politics.
Without cynicism, this pragmatism is also applied to her foreign policy. The first female president of the country is well aware of the effects she has on the big powers of this world. With a new feminist tendency sweeping through the world, standing next to an icon of modernity and moral inflexibility can always have some positive political fallout…. So, in Germany, the Liberian president is received by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will be hosting the next G-8 meeting scheduled for June 6-8. A few days earlier, in the US, she was with Hillary Clinton, a candidate to the US presidential elections. In Paris, she meets Nicholas Sarkozy, even though the visit at the Elysée was not scheduled. In March 2006, while preparing for his campaign, Sarkozy managed to meet with the Liberian president and went to the Liberian embassy to do so. The people around Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remember that move.
During her many travels, she always succeeds somehow in getting people to make promises: the cancellation of the Liberian debt would be on the agenda at the G-8 summit. Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel both promised their support. Without any doubt, she can count on the support of the US, the number one partner of Liberia.
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