President Sirleaf on the Road: Book Launching and Debt Slashing

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 28, 2009


According to a fact sheet distributed during the press conference held by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Mr. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank at the institution’s headquarters in Washington, DC, the foreign debt of Liberia in June 2007 stood at a staggering US $4, 892,900,000, or almost five billions dollars. As President Sirleaf prepares to return home, that amount is today less then two billions dollars, at $1,708, 700 000. In other words, in just two years, Liberia has gone through the fastest and most significant debt restructuring preprocess any third world country has ever done. Most notably, the commercial debt went from $1.686 billions to a mere US $20 million dollars.

The remarkable aspect of this debt reduction is that the country’s economy has continued to grow, social services have improved and there has been no shortage or price hikes in strategic commodities such as rice and cement. The government has also been able to carry out its infrastructure development by repairing roads, building schools and health centers throughout the country as well as maintain a remarkable pace in building on its Poverty Reduction Strategy.

“This is a big day for Liberia,” said President Sirleaf, beaming with joy during the press event, adding, “This marks an important step on our road to recovery.” When she took over in 2006, she made debt reduction a hallmark of her international policy. The huge amount owed to international creditors was like a nook around the neck of the country and generations of Liberians yet born. Without resolving this lingering crisis, Liberia would have had much difficulty in attracting investors and accessing money in international financial market to carry out its development agenda.

A journalist from the Wall Street Journal asked why was it important to reduce the debt since Liberia was not capable of paying anyway. President Sirleaf responded that without the cancellation, Liberia would never be able to borrow money; investors would be hesitant to pour assets in the country because they could not put their trust in a country with so much debt. This is not much different from a person owing lots of debts in today’s modern world: no only you cannot get a good job, but you cannot get a loan either, and definitely you cannot buy a house or a car based on credit. Therefore, to access international money, Liberia must regain its credit worthiness. It is also a sign of responsibility to deal with debt owed others.

According to World Bank President Zoellick, Liberia should be debt free by 2010 when it completes the program it has embarked on since 2006. He said Liberia significant fight against corruption and its financial discipline makes it worthy of trust. It was noted during the press briefing by both President Sirleaf and Mr. Zoellick that Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States played an important role in slashing Liberia’s international debt. President Sirleaf used the occasion to underscore the vital part played by China, who, she said, “stood in and filled the gap whenever necessary, whenever we could not access outside funding.” She said China has now become an important development partner of Liberia. Just recently, China decided to invest some $2 billion dollars in the country.

Right after the ceremony at the World Bank, President Sirleaf headed for the Washington, DC historically Black college, Howard University where she held a discussion on her book, “This Chill Will Be Great…” When asked about what made her choose that title, the President said that it was drawn from a prophecy made by an old man, who visited the family when she was a baby. But as she grew older and went from one difficulty to another, she, her mother and her sister always laughed when they thought about the prophecy, wondering “where is that greatness…”

The discussion at Howard University was followed by another such gathering at Goucher College of the University of Maryland University in Baltimore, Maryland. The climax of the book launching took place at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, Dc, where more than a 1,000 people had bought tickets to participate in the event organized by the Oracle Group. Each participant received a copy of the book.

In every setting, the President expressed her concerns more about Liberia’s future than deal with her book, as if the book becomes meaningful when it addresses the problems of the nation. She always made mention of the four pillars of her reconstruction plan that would move this “rich but poorly managed country” into a new era. There were moments when the “Iron Lady,” was of the bring of shedding tears, especially when she spoke of certain intimate family details in her book, such as the abusive nature of her marriage, leaving the children at a tender age to go to school or being forced into exile every time she thought she had returned home for good.

Narrowing the gaps, be it between rural communities and urban areas in receiving social benefits, or between the boys and girls when it comes to access to education, or the historical divide between the “settlers” and the “natives” constitute, she says, the greatest challenges facing Liberia as a nation. In writing her book, she took all of that into account, with the hope that young Liberians will get to know a bit more about their country and its growing pains. “Ma family somehow epitomizes all the contradictions of the Liberian society; we have experienced every condition that exists there. We are from a native background but benefited from the settlers education. We were once among the elite and quickly found ourselves depending on a single mother and poor… At the age of 22, while my friends went to school, I was stranded in a bad marriage with four kids…”

The author spoke on the many themes in her book. Family ties, between her and her mother and between her and her sister Jennie on one hand and her relationship with her children and her husband stand out as the most important theme. The other theme is that of Liberia, a nation searching for its soul, aging but perpetually young as the author herself. The struggle to achieve maturity and stability in her personal life and Liberia struggle to national identity converge behind every word. The dichotomy between the Presbyterian belief in predestination and the scientific approach to life clash many a times in the story, making the title sound more like a play on an inside joke rather than a tendency to self aggrandizement.

President Sirleaf drew that parallel between her own life and that of Liberia going through the difficulties of growing up. “As the country went through turmoil, I too was going through all sorts of difficulties of self-searching and putting my life in order. Every national upheaval somehow put me on the road of exile.” She says grew stronger from every challenge. However, she says she does not consider being president a fulfillment of the prophecy by the old man. “The prophecy will be fulfilled when, with my colleagues and all the Liberians people together, we manage to put our country on an irreversible course to economic recovery and national reconciliation. The greatness is for the nation to achieve, it is not about me...”

© 2009 by The Perspective

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