Ellen Talks About Unemployment, Fight Against Corruption, Chinese Cooperation & the trial of Charles Taylor
Interview Conducted By Interview conducted
By Marianne Meunier
Translated by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
Courtesy of Jeune Afrique, Paris, France (2007). Published in Jeune Afrique # 2421, June 3-9, 2007, Paris
June 14, 2007
Interview conducted by Marianne Meunier
Translated by Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
Since she moved into the Executive Mansion on January 16, 2006, in Monrovia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf goes around with her small womanly steps to the four corners of the world. China, Japan, US, and recently again in France, Germany… To her colleagues who open their doors to her, she repeats, with the same pragmatism and the same smiling face that her country of three million people brought to its knees by 14 years of wars, need help. Her reputation of honesty, straight talk and her age-old militancy has something to do with it all. “Ma Ellen” as she is known to many of her compatriots in deference to her 68 years of age, inspires confidence. During the Donors’ conference in February 2007, donors multiplied promises. Because it looks good to help Liberia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf knows it.
Abandoned by the international community at the height of massacres committed by Charles Taylor and his child soldiers, the country can now find solace and make amend. Mentoring a good case of developing nation is much more worth than helping an oil dynasty. And what’s more, when that new student is lead by a political leader with great experience and is the first democratically elected female president of Africa.
Nicholas Sarkozy, the President of France understood it well: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first African head of state to be received at the Elysée. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did not miss the occasion either: she managed to get from Sarkozy a promise to get his support at the G-8 meeting. From one trip to another, the message of this woman on a mission never varies: “We need everything! Help us and you will not be disappointed!”
When you took over as President in 2006, you said everything was a priority: health, education, infrastructures, security… How are things today?
Some issues have evolved in the right direction. We have been able to set a program of education for all and the school attendance has risen by 40 percent. Most of the new pupils are girls. We made some progress in infrastructures. There is water and electricity in Monrovia and the renovation of roads is on going. On the economic aspect, the embargoes on diamonds and timber have been lifted; we are eligible for AGOA [Africa Growth and opportunity Act] and we fulfilled our engagements within the IMF. We have also gotten some promises in regard to debt cancellation and hope to join the HIPC in the next 12 to 18 months. I have asked President Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel to help us in that regard.
There is the problem of unemployment, a major issue…
Yes, of course. Unemployment is a chronic and worrisome problem. We have a great number of youth in need of employment. In order to find jobs for them, we have to create a conducive environment for private investment. That will take some time, because we have renegotiated all mining and forestry concessions contracts. We have even cancelled many. But we are also entering new ones. I am hopeful that by the end of the year, the agricultural, mining and forestry projects will create jobs.
How do you create a friendly business atmosphere?
The judiciary is one of our weakest points. We need more judges and we must attract them by offering attractive incentives. We also have to take a look at our legal system. We have laws that are obsolete and which no longer make sense and some are redundant. We have set a commission to work on these issues.
China announced recently that it would invest $20 billions in Africa in the next three years. Are you planning to reap some benefit from that?
Of course, we need that money. We hope some of it would get into the mining sector. We already have cooperation with China. We have discussed the possibility of a free zone to transform and add values to our raw materials.
In general terms, what do you think of China’s presence on the continent?
China brings additional resources to Africa. It also allows the continent to have more partners and this is needed. We have to go away from the exclusive one-on-one relationship. Every country must be left to use this relationship to its own benefit, such as in the area of employment. Sometimes when Chinese companies come to Africa, they bring their own manpower. We must make sure that we gain the maximum in exchange for our resources.
Do you feel handicapped by the fact of not controlling a majority neither in the House of Representatives nor in the Senate?
Of course not. Not having a majority means that one has to permanently negotiate and make compromises, which is sometimes difficult. But that is life and we have to make with it. We try to work with everyone and move on.
What is happening to the thousands of former combatants who have no other life experience but warfare? Is DDRR moving smoothly?
We have had some problems with DDRR. Disarmament and demobilization went on smoothly. But reintegration and reinsertion have been more complex, because we have to train former combatants and provide them with the means to reintegrate their communities. We are also encountering funding problems. We still have a bout 30,000 people who have yet to undergo any form of training. We are looking for solutions.
The trial of former president Charles Taylor is scheduled to open soon in The Hague. Is his ghost still haunting Liberia?
That is almost something of the past. There is still a small group of loyalists who put up posters, organize media debates. We expected that because Taylor has dominated our national life for such a long time. But I am sure most Liberians want to turn the page and move on. We are not really worried about these nostalgic.
How are your relationships with your neighbors, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire?
We have very good relations with all our friends. We are now trying to reactivate the Mano River Union with Guinea and Sierra Leone. We recently held a summit meeting in Conakry. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was in attendance and he indicated that Côte d’Ivoire could join the Union. That would be a great opportunity for the four countries to work together for regional cooperation and integration.
Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are both going through difficult times. Are you worried that their problems could affect your country?
When there are tensions in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, there are risks of conflicts and when there are conflicts, we are bound to be affected somehow. Our borders are porous and we have the same populations on both sides. In Conakry, we have decided to establish more formal relationships between our security and intelligence agencies so that they can meet regularly and exchange information to deal with threats.
The issue of Darfur will be prominent again at the next African Union Summit. What is needed to make that institution (AU) more efficient?
We all agree that Africa must find ways to resolve her conflicts; therefore we must define mechanisms for workable solutions. We must have military forces ready to intervene whenever necessary in any AU country. But we also expect our partners to bring the necessary logistic support, for these interventions. The AU sent some under-equipped 7,000 troops to Darfur. Why are we wondering that it is not working? Africa wants to head on its responsibilities but she must have the means to do so. As we speak, the deployment of the AU force depends on the goodwill of donor countries. In general, the AU relies on the resources of countries such as Nigeria and South Africa for its budget.
There are some worrisome conflicts and democracy is hardly on the move in such places as Zimbabwe. How do you see post-Mugabe era in Zimbabwe?
There will be elections and a new president in Zimbabwe. We hope that President Mugabe would be more attentive to the needs of his people and would help to usher in a new and more open and democratic society to pull the country out of the pit. President Mugabe needs an honorable exit, as an elderly statesman. This is a problem we have in Africa and that is not limited to Zimbabwe. In my own country, we need a framework where power is transmitted peacefully and legally from one government to another. Once we resolve that issue, many problems linked to power tenure will be solved.
Are you planning to run for a second term?
Let me finish the first one. It is too early to speak of a second term.
Do you think a woman comes to power with more maturity than a man?
Women give life, so they have a different sensibility. They are more attentive, and more open to sharing. But to be president, a woman must possess the qualities of leadership, the same level of competence, commitment and courage as a man, maybe even more than a man. That is the basis. Then, the feminine sensitivity gives another dimension to the function and that is a good thing.
How are your relationships with the US?
Our relations with the US are very good. The US is our number 1 partner. They are involved in the training of our new army and helping us in our development programs. I have a good relationship with President George Bush and met him twice in this year and also met his wife Laura Bush. We also have good rapports with Congress. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has been to Liberia. It was thought her efforts that I was able to address the joint Chamber of Congress last year. We are happy to have that kind of partnership in US. We also have very good relationships with the European Union, notably with France, The UK and other members of the EU. I think our leadership and the competence of our team are well appreciated. I believe there is a good will towards the people of Liberia. Our people have suffered enough and they deserve better. I am sure our partners also understand it.