Q & E with President Sirleaf on the Road

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 15, 2009


The event took place at the University of California at Berkeley Human Rights Center, in Oakland, California. Although it was in the middle of spring break, the International House was full to capacity and many people had to watch the program on television monitors in adjacent rooms. After receiving the Berkeley Medal – the Chancellor of the University, Robert Birgeneau said Berkeley awards medals rather than honorary degrees – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke on the topic: “Liberia’s Struggle for Peace and Justice.”

In her presentation, President talked about the challenges that faced Liberia right from its foundations until a few years ago. She spoke about the challenges of nation building, the injustices of a political system that led to the military coup of 1980 and then the failures of the military dictatorship of the 1980s which led to the war and the criminal government that followed the end of the first war under Charles Taylor.

The President said that Liberia could be turned around to become a successful post-conflict story. After a speech that was interrupted several times by loud ovations, Mrs. Sirleaf sat with Mr. Adam Hoschild, of the Berkeley School of Journalism to answer questions that had been submitted in advance by the audience.

The questions covered a wide range of issues, dealing with governance, Liberia’s recovery from the war and international politics. We tried to paraphrase as faithfully as possible both the questions and the answers from our notes.

1. Question: Among all the challenges that you faced when becoming President in 2006, which one loomed larger than all?

Answer: The fate of the former combatants and the child soldiers. T o demobilize the tens of thousands of young men and women who have been indoctrinated in warfare and re-integrating them into society has been our greatest challenge. Many of these kids never had a chance to attend school and all they knew, from a tender age, was to carry guns. We were able to disarm some 106, 000 and train some to be able to work, but the problem of idle young people is still there…

2. Q: What would you say gives you the greatest joy, looking at the past three years?

A: Seeing the children go to school, carrying their book bags. We have put in place compulsory education for all the young people. Enrollment has shot up 40 percent, especially among the girls, but this brings other sets of problems: not enough classrooms, not enough teachers, not enough textbooks and so on. But at least, we got the children into a learning environment, away from the streets.

3. Q: After violent conflicts such as the one that your country has experienced, some opted for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission while others went for a War Crimes Tribunal. So far Liberia has adopted the TRC format, what is your thought on the issue?

A: When we met in Accra, Ghana to hammer out a new plan and stop the carnage, we came face to face with that issue. Some people argue for a war crimes tribunal and other said that we must go through a TRC process which was finally adopted. Many of those who committed atrocities during the war were children, child soldiers who could not be held responsible for their actions. Many times than not, they were brainwashed, drugged or put under the influence of alcohol to commit heinous crimes.

However, the TRC is now completing its report and will make recommendations. If those recommendations call for a tribunal of some sort, or reparations, we will do that. But in the end, I believe that there has to be some form of justice to lead to national reconciliation.

4. Q: The International Court of Justice has indicted President El Bashir of Sudan over the issue of Darfur. What is your government position on the issue?

A: We are members of the African Union and the policy there is that the indictment does not help with the process of dialogue to resolve the crisis. We recognize that the African Union has been slow in acting and therefore the indictment could well serve as an inducement to move faster. Yes, AU says that the indictment is unacceptable and of course, the conditions in Darfur are also unacceptable and must be brought to an immediate end.

5. Q: There has been lots of talk about the US involvement in Liberia and other parts of the developing world. How do you see that relationship?

A: If I were to make a suggestion it would be that sometimes you think you “know what is good for us…” At times we want to reverse that, and be in the position to tell you what we need and what we think is good for us. That is the attitude our government has adopted in dealing with rural communities. We go and listen to them and ask them what are their priorities and we try and help them work on those priorities. I think between nations, the same is possible.

6. Q: There have been lots of treaties recently on the exploitation and exportation of natural resources, especially in conflict areas, such as conflict diamonds. How do you think these treaties help to stop conflicts?

A: Well, it helps a lot. I think for example the concept of “conflict diamonds” and the Kimberly Process to certify diamonds has been a positive development. We have also adopted what is called the extractive industry protocol, where people publish everything they spend, including to the money they pay to government or in the public. I must however add that the conflict don’t start because of the natural resources.

7. Q: Firestone, in Liberia. That company used to will lot of power and how do you deal with it?

A: Now, they don’t will that much power anymore… We have been negotiating with them to review their contract to make sure that our national interests are taken into account. In more than 80 years of exploiting and exporting rubber in Liberia, Firestone has not manufactured any rubber-based product in Liberia. There was never any added-value to the raw material and we are now trying to change that.

8. Q: Africa has made some strides in recent years in terms of governance but there seems to be lot of issues when it comes to implementing democracy. There is always this tendency or the possibility of things rolling back, such as in Kenya, or Nigeria…

A: Democracy is not strange to Africa. African societies functioned for a long time on the basis of consensus… In Liberia we call it the palava hut. The unfortunate thing is that in trying to adapt western style democracy too quickly, we abandon lots of good things from our own culture. I think there is a need for Africans to look into certain aspects of their traditions and see what they can use in their lives and in their governance process. I think we need to look more into our cultures and we could learn a lot.

9. Q: As a person who has worked a lot in the development policy making, how do you apply that experience now that you are president?

A: I think the most important thing in trying to develop the potentials in a country like ours is to look at the comparative advantages you have and strategize on how to maximize those advantages. In Liberia, we have what you call natural resources that our neighbors may not have, they have things that we don’t have. In other world, one has to take a regional and global approach to development.

10. Q: An African author has recently published a book calling for the end of all sorts of development aid, arguing that the funds did not serve the interest of the African people who are now much poorer even after receiving more than a trillion in aid.

A: I read that book and I think it comes ten years after its time. It is true that a decade or so ago, when Africa was struggling with governance issues and many countries were ruled by corrupt dictators, one could make the case that aid was being misused. But now, lots of progress has been made and in the majority of African countries, democracy is flourishing, good governance is taking roots and in the overall, economies on the continent have grown by more than 5 percent in the past many years. Under these conditions, I think, like in our case, aid can help jump start the economy and help social transformation.

11. Q: As a former banker, what advise would you give to us, in this economic crunch?

Stop the greed.

12. Q: One last question: you are now in the mid term of your tenure, are you considering a run for a second one?

A: I am always asked the same question and I always say let’s wait yet, there is so much to do. And of course, as a politician, I will let people keep guessing until I am ready to make a decision on that subject.

Earlier, in the afternoon, President Sirleaf held a town hall meeting with Liberians who had come from various corners of California. After the welcome ceremonies and a short speech, she accepted to respond to questions posed by the audience.

In Minnesota, at a similar meeting organized by the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota (OLM), the same issues were raised. Liberians seemed to be anxious about corruption, land issue and their immigration status.

Before the OLM meeting, the President attended a reception in her honor organized by The Advocates for Human Rights, a group working with the Liberian TRC and the Diaspora. The group is said to have raised close to $6 millions and has conducted hundreds of interviews and statement takings for the TRC in the US.

On the issue of corruption, the President said the government was putting mechanisms in place to fight the phenomena, using such institutions as the Anti-Corruption Commission, the General Auditing Commission and the Judiciary. She added that a culture of impunity in the society has led to the growth of corrupt practices in every part of society.

“It is not just in government, you see it every where… and what has changed now is that we have mechanisms to expose it through the great work done by the GAC and through a totally free press… people can now speak about it without fear. We are also working to strengthen the judiciary. Finally, government has raised the level of income, making people less vulnerable. In the long, all this will have an effect on curbing corruption.”

On the land issue, the President said the problem was a national problem and not just a concern for one or two counties.

“We have set up commissions that meet regularly with people in Nimba and wherever there are problems. We have created new roads so that people could have access to more lands. In many cases, we either have the land returned to its original owner, or if that is not feasible, we give the owner new land. Most of this is done through dialogue and consensus.”

In every setting, the President called on Liberians to consider coming home to visit, to see with their own eyes and make a decision as to stay or not. She said that Liberia now needs all hands on board, especially those with professional qualification and experience. She said that the lack of capacity if a serious hindrance to progress.

Finally, President Sirleaf called on Liberians to “be proud of being Liberians again…”

The President received another honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota. At the ceremony, a Liberian PhD student at the University of Minnesota said:

“Finally, a Liberian president who really deserves honorary degrees but does not care to wear it on her sleeves… indeed, things are changing.”

© 2009 by The Perspective
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