– An Interview with Prez Sirleaf
05/12/08 – Rodney D. Sieh, rsieh@FrontPageAfrica.com
ON BRIBERY ALLEGATIONS BEFORE HOUSE: “They can look at all my accounts from way back. I read some stuff in the papers that money was put up by the Chinese government. I am quite sure the Chinese Ambassador is grossly offended by this. They have not reacted but I am sure he is offended because they should know better and it was surely not put up by any other government.”
As Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf journeys through the midway point of her administration, antsy Liberians and international partners continue to pile on the pressure for the Unity Party government to fulfill its 2005 election promises.
To date, the administration has been somewhat effective in erasing most of the country’s debt as it aims to meet Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) guidelines. On the domestic scene, however, ordinary Liberians continue to struggle to make ends meet. While the President has shouldered most of the blame for the slow pace of development on the domestic front, many have pointed to the performances of some Cabinet ministers as a key reason why things continue to drag. Corruption remains a key issue of concern for international partners.
At the National Port Authority, the Ministry of Finance, the Liberian Petroleum Refinery Corporation and several other government agencies, red flags continue to be raised amid concerns that the government may not be aggressive enough in dealing with corrupt forces within its midst. Over the past week, FrontPageAfrica.com (FPA) spoke with a number of important players on the Liberian scene, gathering their impressions, suggestions and input on what can be done to alleviate the problems facing the administration. In this exclusive interview, FPA sat down with President Sirleaf to allow her to respond to some of the many concerns raised by some of her critics and a wide range of Liberians who shared their concerns. Here, the President discusses a host of issues including allegations by Rep. Edwin Melvin Snowe, Independent, 5th District Montserrado County, that she is not a uniter and has not done enough to reconcile the country as well as her impressions about the Cabinet’s performance. The President also addresses allegations by Snowe, of her role in Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front. Also, in the wake of recent praises showered on her trusted aide and confidante Mary Broh, director of Passport, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the President addresses speculations about Broh’s future destination amid recent Supreme Court ruling granting her right to appoint city mayors and why some officials in her government have been encountering problems fulfilling their deliverables.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Madam President, one of the things that concern people is the observation that a small office like the Passport bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been able to make visible changes on corruption, performance and the general effectiveness of its work while some government ministers and senior officials have not been able to deliver. In fact, many have been complaining that they do not have the resources to make visible progress at their institutions. But yet we have a case where Mary Broh has been able to perform wonders in such a short time without having a budget, while most government agencies, ministries and public corporations have been unable to make visible changes or effect actions on corruption and management. What do you think other areas of the administration can do to duplicate what Broh has been able to achieve?
SIRLEAF: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, there is the commitment of Ms. Broh herself. I mean she went there with strong commitment, work habits that were not the usual thing here. She worked extra hours to get things straight. The other thing is that because the overall leadership of the Foreign Affairs is relatively weak, we just pushed it. I just said she’s going to go there and clean things up and they just withdrew. Many of the other ministries do have very capable leaders, very professional, strong leaders – and we want that. And in the areas where they have brought their competency to bare, they are making progress but to go underneath them and do what is necessary to clean it up, they have been less than successful and less than effective in doing that. I too have been reluctant to just go and interfere in all of their ministries like what I did in the passport bureau because the passport bureau was beginning to be an international problem for us and our international credibility was at risk so I used that as an example. But to go into some of the ministries and say fire certain sections because I believe some of them need to be, I keep asking the ministers to take action and they have taken some action. Some people have been dismissed, some people have been sent to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution. Our justice system is slow so people don’t even know the little progress that has been made. But we know we have to double our efforts. I just discuss that with the Cabinet that they should know that their failure to act timely is beginning to hurt us now as a government and hurt us as a country and people are beginning to question our resolve to be able to fight this.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Still on this issue, FPA has received some positive feedbacks on the success story of the passport bureau with many readers and writers even going as far as to suggest that if the President can find about five, six or even seven people with similar attitude, work ethic and resolve like Ms. Broh, especially at the National Port Authority where corruption is very grave and other key areas like the Finance Ministry where voucher issues have been well document and others where corruption is blatant and where some officials are simply not doing their jobs – that might further bolster the administration’s image and silence some of its critics. What is your take on those suggestions?
SIRLEAF: Well, I tell you. If any body can recommend or suggest to me who I can look at as another Mary Broh, I certainly would welcome the suggestion. But what I am certainly going to do is that Mary Broh is now going to become – you know she is my director of special projects in the Ministry of State – that is the role she has and that is how she did the Broad Street project. She is preparing her succession in the bureau of passport so that she can move on to something else that requires the same kind of action. So where it would be, some people have suggested City Hall, some say the port, some say birth registration because we have a big problem there. We do not know where it would be. But what she tells me is that the person she is training is ready to take it over and carry it on at the same efficiency level and then we would move her to tackle something else.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We have seen some activities at the Ministry of Labor and the Passport bureau. But why do you think some ministers are reluctant to be so aggressive in pressing their employees to perform and eradicate corruption in their various offices? It appears that in this post-war culture, most people would only respond to the kind of aggressive attitude that Broh has brought to the Passport bureau which so far has worked so well?
SIRLEAF: You know most of the ministers are stretched thin in the areas that they are concentrating on that they haven’t paid the attention. Take the Ministry of Finance. The Minister of Finance, excellent professional, I mean she has pushed our debt issue, she’s pushed our credit worthiness and our image out there in the international financial world to a point where we get all kinds of accolade, but she knows and I know that deep down we still have some of those same practices going on and she hasn’t had the time to pay attention to it and in a way her deputies who should be doing it for her have not given the time and attention to those issues. We were just discussing that in the Cabinet to see what we can do to take the real drastic measures because many of those ministries have a whole lot of their staff that were inherited, these were not people they put in place. It is the same people that have been there for the past five years, eight years, sometime ten years and during the period their values changed whereas before they carried out their functions for pay, over the more recent years they didn’t even get paid and there was the culture of pay yourself and so many of them, in order to survive, in order to carry on with their lives, they have to resort to extortion. Now, we’re trying to bring it to a place where, they do get compensation but they still have those same habits in some of them. Our choices are: Do we have a wide scale dismissal – that is an option, but in exercising that option you also have to have replacement. You have to have replacement of equal or better quality. Where will they come from? So that is why the gradual approach to restructuring and revamping has resulted from that. But I admit to you that it is a problem. When you fire massively, there would be all sorts of reactions in the public – you’re taking bread out of the poor people mouth when they have their children to feed and to send to school and so as a politician you also have to be a little bit sensitive to that. So we try to find the right balance.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How much of an impact is the pressure from Unity Party partisan having on the apparent difficulty in finding suitable replacements for government positions and perhaps your ability to make changes?
SIRLEAF: It doesn’t affect my ability quite frankly. I bear the burden because I told them that we said that this government is going to be an inclusive government and many of the minister are either of low political dispensation and many of them we recruited from abroad and many of them held high-level political roles in other parties and as long as they are performing and carrying on their functions and responding to their mandate to the Liberian people, I’m going to keep them and have them do their work and I will just have to continue to engage my partisans. Again, sometimes you find yourself between the rock and a hard place. On one hand we have opposition party members complaining about jobs. On the other hand, my own partisans feel that they never escaped being told that this is a Unity Party government and that’s a problem. We try to stay in between but I will not give up on my basic requirement for job competence, commitment to the job and an exceptional human rights record. I put that right from the start as the three requirements. But that one, I don’t care whether you are Unity Partisan or any other partisan, if you fall short on those in any significant way, you would just not be appointed by me because I will not let partisan ship my decision in that regard.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: On the issue of corruption, we have spoken to a lot of the auditors at the General Auditing Commission (GAC), both international and local helping the GAC conduct audits of various government ministries and agencies. The main challenge the auditors say they are experiencing are difficulties retrieving information and documents from the various ministries and agencies. Certain officials are reportedly not cooperating with the auditors by providing bank slips and statements which is really slowing down the process and completion of the audit which is a key component of your administration fulfilling the HIPC requirements. How do you hope to go about ensuring that there is 100 percent cooperation?
SIRLEAF: I had a long meeting with the auditor general last night and he pointed out to me the progress he’s made and the fact that documents have not been forthcoming with some of the audits he is doing. One of the things I think we agree on is that in many cases our system has not been used to accountability and into auditing and in some cases those documents are not even there because they have never seen the importance of having it because most of the transactions they do across the table without proper documentation because that enables you to feed corruption. You know documentation and the trail that leads to accountability is something that when you have a system that is corrupt it doesn’t feed into that and so in some cases the system is not in place. Now what we have to do and we spoke about it in Cabinet is to urge everybody, please go now, don’t wait for the auditor general to come and start the audit before you start gathering the papers. Please go get your comptroller, get your internal auditors, get your documents and do an internal audit yourself, discover your own deficiencies so that by the time the auditor general comes you have a means of getting a collaborative approach in correcting the deficiencies, but accountability has not been one of the strong points of governance. Much of that we inherited but I don’t use it as an excuse, I tell the ministers that we’re into the third year of this administration and no longer can we talk about inherited problem, because by this time we must now begin to address those problems.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Still on the issue of accountability, when you first took over you received a lot of applause from the international community for making your ministers declare their assets. Two years later, some are suggesting that you remind them or maybe revisit the idea in a bid to find out who have been naughty and who have been nice. What is your opinion?
SIRLEAF: You know those declarations had no legal basis. I mean anybody could say anything they wanted to say in declaring those assets. For me it became an exercise that did not provide you with information for being able to assess changes in that and this is why I sort of slowed down on it because it was becoming a meaningless exercise. When it is required that you have to swear to it by law you have to do an affidavit that this information I’m signing is true and correct and you hold the liability if you have given false information – that comes under the code of conduct and so I slowed down on that and said let us try and get the code of conduct passed. Once it passes then all of us have to abide by the code of conduct because in there everybody would have to declare assets immediately and declare it under oath. Then you will have the means to assess whether people have done it. So, we still encourage people to do it but our biggest thing is we need to press for the code of conduct.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How far has the code of conduct process gone?
SIRLEAF: It is still before the two houses but I must admit we have taken the pressure off them on those because there are other bills before them that are more urgent like the concession agreement that they have to ratify, so we’re concentrating on that, the anti-corruption commission has now made some good progress so as soon as they declare those hopefully within the next month or so we would start to move on that. It has not gone very far.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let’s move onto the reconciliation issue. Some of your critics, one of the Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe has put out a laundry list of things that he claims you have not done in a bid to bring the country together, things he says are affecting progress. How do you respond to those issues?
SIRLEAF: Except for the issue which he pointed out in the interview you had with him, that we talked about a national conference, I have not received from him or anybody, specific suggestions. I think the way many people see reconciliation is let bygones be bygones, let’s drop all these corruption cases, let’s drop all the laws that stress accountability. Now, we have a problem here with impunity. I have been in the country for years, I see my mandate from the people as a mandate for change, to change some of those old habits and to change it would mean we would take some hard decisions that people will not like, by taking people to justice for their violation of the public trust, misuse of funds, other than that I will admit to you that maybe I should do more to visit people, I have tried to put opposition people in the government as a means of reconciliation. We have tried to hold consultations with them from time to time but a national conference we think will come when the governance commission has concluded some of the consultations they are having. I am not opposed to it; I just want to make sure that it is going to be resulting because we have had so many in the past. But I am opened to any suggestions that would improve reconciliation. I know that it is an important part of being able to achieve our objectives.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Mr. Snowe seems to think that you have something against him, that there is some friction there. Is there any friction between you and the former speaker?
SIRLEAF: Absolutely not! Of course I get very frustrated when I see things like FPA interview with him when Mr. Snowe said that I have said that I am a member of NPFL. I am not a member, I have never been a founding member, I have never said it. I don’t like that. I don’t like for people to attribute to me things that are not true because there is no evidence to support that. But to say that I have something against him, absolutely not! Why? He has done nothing to me personally to say that I would have something against him. It is true that he sees himself as an opposition leader and to show relevance he must take the government to task on every issue, but it’s right of course that we do think it is important for us to have a spirit of collaboration, to have a common agenda, to move the country forward, but that was his style. But to say anything else is wrong. When Mr. Snowe was speaker, if he wants to be fair he would say that he came to my office anytime with any issue, we would sit and talk. I would not agree on everything but I don’t have anything against him.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: One of the concerns Mr. Snowe has raised is that even though he is the Fifth District representative you have never invited him to any program held in his district, notably the opening of the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex and the issue of the Kendejah land sale. Were those deliberate or simply an oversight on your part?
SIRLEAF: No! No! No!. I mean there were certain times when he blamed the protocol for not giving him proper attention, proper place. Again, if he wants to be fair to me, just the other day there was an event that we went to the launching of this peace park in Paynesville and I saw him there with Representative Dorbor, we were on one side. I called him, I said Speaker Snowe you shouldn’t be there, you should be here with us and they came. I would not intentionally neglect him. When President Bush came, we invited him. As a matter of fact people were accusing me of having introduced him to President Bush as the speaker which of course was not true. He just happened to be in close proximity as I was trying to get speaker Tyler to come and he was there. In fact, I do still call him jokingly – speaker. So when I see him in public I say speaker how are you? So I hope he would disabuse himself of the notion that I have anything against him because I don’t
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We have been all around the city and a lot of people have praised the efforts the administration is doing to improve Liberia’s image as well as the paving of the roads even though some parts of Monrovia are still in need of repairs. But they also feel left out when they see some officials riding around Monrovia in two to three cars and numerous luxury vehicles at a time when many cannot afford to get by. How do you allay their fears and their concerns?
SIRLEAF: Well, let’s put it this way. Our obligation there is to improve public transport. Obviously we’re not going to be able to give cars to everybody on the street and we’re trying to work with the Monrovia Transit Authority (MTA) and I must commend the MTA management because they have done very well with limited resources and we are trying to expand their fleet to keep transportation cost down. In the case of the ministers, many of the ministers they see riding these cars are people that we have persuaded and recruited from high-paying jobs to come and work for a little over two thousand dollars a month. Or we can to make up for their efforts is to give them non-compensation benefits. It is temporary, they no it again and we are all aware that when the code of conduct passes that vehicles would be used only for official purposes. But then we must also create the circumstances and the policies and conditions for people to have the means to purchase it you know from their own compensation. And if we don’t then we will lose a whole lot of professionals and they will say well, I’m going to go back where I can find a better-paying job. We have lost some of them already. So I grant you that we don’t have all the solutions, we’re trying as we go to find corrective means to make sure that we have the resources to respond more adequately to the needs of the Liberian people, for jobs, for better services and that which will bring more light, more water, better roads. We think that is where we need to respond to the public and we must do so.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let’s move on to the bribery issue currently before the House of Representatives. There have been a lot of speculations and denials that the Executive branch was part of the efforts to oust Mr. Snowe by bribing some lawmakers to enforce his impeachment as speaker?
SIRLEAF: First of all, people should know that the resource it takes to be able to put up that kind of money to bribe people like they say is the resource I don’t have, personally. They can look at all my accounts from way back. I read some stuff in the papers that money was put up by the Chinese government. I am quite sure the Chinese Ambassador is grossly offended by this. They have not reacted but I am sure he is offended because they should know better and it was surely not put up by any other government. So, I have asked the Minister of Justice to institute any kind of internal investigation that would help. I have tried to stay away from it because the Executive has been accused, so I have tried to not get involved in the controversy of it and for the House to carry out their own investigation to the fullest and if it gets to the place where they have taken their decision based on their investigation and they say they want the Executive to probe further or to put up some kind of inquiry, then we would do so.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: But madam President, could it be possible that perhaps some of your aides, unknowingly to you may have taken it upon themselves to do this without your knowledge?
SIRLEAF: Where would they get the money? I mean it is possible, I won’t deny that it is possible, but where would they get the money? I mean, that is the big issue.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We also spoke with Ms. Ellen Loj, the Special Representative of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and she was very concern that there should be more – not just from the government but also Liberians should do more to curb the abuse of women especially in the wake of so many reports of rape and abuse. How do you think the administration can address this issue?
SIRLEAF: This is a serious problem it is a shameful circumstance in which our country finds itself where young girls, sometimes as young as eight years old. In fact we have seen some one-year-olds violated, this is shameful. What do we do? We have the rape law that is very tough, to implement it is another problem because, again, these people have the right for bail and the same thing happens, they take an allege rapist in, they go to jail for 48 hours, sometimes Habeas Corpus they get release and they go. We have met with women’s group and told them let’s perhaps adopt a name-and-shame approach where we would put their pictures in the papers so that when they go into communities they would be identified as rapists, but the lawyers tell me that the person is accused and until they have gone through the legal process and found guilty you cannot exposed them because they are supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The only recent suggestion that came to me is perhaps we put in a law making rape an non-bailable offense as we did in the case of armed robberies. Maybe if we do that it might send a strong signal. Someone suggested that to me and maybe I am going to pursue that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What about death by hanging, is that an option?
SIRLEAF: Liberia is a member of UN resolution that says we would not engage in capital punishment. So we are a party to those resolutions so we have to be very careful. We have to find a way out of this because life imprisonment? Yes, that we would advocate. But capital punishment? Is something that is not on the table now?
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: You have a clean bill of health for the third year running. Thus, a lot of speculations, gossips and talk are going around about whether you will be a participant in the 2011 elections. You are now in the third year mark of your presidency, are you contemplating running for reelection? The last time we spoke with you, you said it was not an option as you was concentrating on the work before you now, fulfilling your pledge to the Liberian people. Has anything changed?
SIRLEAF: I am right now focusing on my mandate for the six years and if the opposition wants the seat to be free, then they must join me so I can succeed because my success is an incentive for me to give them opportunities.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What is going on with the rice and rising price of commodities dilemma. How is the government planning to address those problems?
SIRLEAF: We are working on it. Starting Monday. I know you won’t be here perhaps but your colleagues are here. Starting Monday, the Minister of Agriculture will be on the radio, going over all the measures we are taking short-term measures to reduce the cost. We are looking at port charges to see if those charges can be reduced or removed. On the medium to long term we know we have to grow rice ourselves and so we have some private investors that will do large scale mechanized rice. We have gathered the entire surplus in order to distribute to people to encourage people to farm. We are getting in touch with some of our bilateral partners and encouraging them to and we’re getting indication of support from some of these facilities by the U.S., by the World Bank and others who are trying to engage the rice producers like China to see if we can get them to put us on the priority list to assure us of continuity in supply. But all of those actions I hope the minister will detail them in his press conference that he will have on Monday.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How far are we with the Human Rights Commission?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: We have now sent the amendments to the law because the law has serious flaws and we couldn’t do it without the amendments. As soon as they past those amendments, then the commission would be able to move. Starting the next fiscal year July 1, I hope they would be appointed in order for them to start their work.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: There has also been some misinterpretation of your statement on the verdict of alleged coup plotters Col. Andrew Dorbor and General Charles Julu in which you said: “Go and Sin No More’: What did you mean by that?
SIRLEAF: I was trying to remind people of the Ten Commandments. They need to read the Ten Commandments again. But let me just say to you that the information that I saw and the evidence that I saw clearly pointed to a strong case for the government and we had to go through the legal process so people know that we have it. Our deterrent is not to abuse people’s rights as was done in the past. Our deterrent is to put people through the process and we know we take risks that when you go to the legal process that you will win or you will lose. But that it what the law requires. I was convinced when they went forward with the case. People said why you left one person off and you didn’t let the other person off. The cases were quite different – it was not the same case. There was one case based upon one testimony of one person, not in the country, who accused and send emails to all of us. We started the case because it was true that the email was substantiated through evidence that was gathered and so we started the case because we know that once that particular witness was willing to come here and testify that the case was going to go no where. In another case the government was accused of torture which was not true. We were accused of bribery which was not true, so we had to take its course. So the legal system has taken its course and we lost. I say that’s democracy. That’s the rule of law. But I know people have their conscious and I was just pointing out that at the end of the day, they know. In their conscience, in their heart of hearts, they know. That is why I told them, “Go and sin no more because the evidence was clear. They sinned, but it is finished. I just hope they will become loyal citizens, that they will become productive citizens once again and we will not hold it against them.”
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Madam President, on the issue of the road construction. We spoke with a lot of people and they think that the renovations are going quite slow, especially with the Jallah Town Road people are very concerned about the slow pace of the renovation. What is your take on that?
SIRLEAF: Many people will recall that I called Jallah Town in my annual message, my learning experience. That statement is justified. Although Jallah Town provided a useful service because if we had not had that during the work on the Tubman Boulevard, we would have had a complete disaster, complete chaos but Jallah Town was done by our own engineers from Public Works, they wanted to do it on labor intensive basis where as they would hire people in the community in order to build the sidewalks and build the roads. It hasn’t produced the full results that they want. We just discussed that today and what they are going to do now is they are going to complete the sidewalks and we may have to convert to contractual arrangements for someone to come and redo the surfacing of the road again. We will now be hampered by the rains to be able to finish everything, so things may come to a halt in another month or so. We are also trying to recruit new companies because there is only one company building the roads, the Chinese government Chico and they came with enough equipment for the one project they had. So we have been trying to give them new projects but we have to wait until they can bring new equipment in. We’re also trying to bring new companies to come in so we can give different segments of the roads to different contractors that would speed it up like Monrovia streets, we have resources for Monrovia streets but we have no companies with the capabilities to do that. So we have to wait for Chico to free up what they are doing. So that is where we stand.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Is there final thought you care to address to your critics out there amid recent reports which spread like wild fire that you were dead, that you had cancer and was pretty much knocking on death’s door?
SIRLEAF: I think this is unfortunate because rumors like that hurt the nation and it creates tension in the society and it gets people speculating about what would be the reaction if it were true? It gets some of our potential investors wondering if there will now be no continuity or even a period of chaos once again. It is just unfortunate that something like this would happen. You know I have tried to tell the media about trying to be responsible. Don’t publish information that is so easily substantiated – even if they receive it from sources other than their own, it doesn’t take much to take up the telephone and call the person if it is true. But we do believe again when we talk about reconciliation then it must work both ways you know. We do believe that a sector of the opposition may be working with the media to keep these tension up, may be providing resources, maybe certain people who we are about to hold account for some of their misuse of public funds or undermining of their interest which is another way for them to respond. I don’t know. I keep saying that these are the consequences of a difficult transition and I tell people that this is the real transition. Two years of transition was not a pacify situation and in a real transition you really want to attack those long-standing structure deficiencies and hard decisions that would affect people out there because of some of what they are accustomed to would be changed, they would lost power and resources and they are resourceful people and they have money. What we have to do is stay the course, try to protect ourselves as much as possible. I think by and large, the public supports what we are doing in fact they want us to move even faster – in some of these areas and we aim to do that. My message is for all to not only support but also get engage. The government is for the people, of the people and by the people. Everybody has to determine their role to play and do their little part. If they do it, our progress will be even greater and we all will benefit.
You in the media I urge you to continue to be a positive force without undermining your integrity and your autonomy as guaranteed by the constitution. I applaud you and I said it to you following my arrival at the airport following my return home that FrontPageAfrica has been doing recently some investigative work. It is not necessarily complimentary of the government but it is getting more and more balance. We know the things that need to be corrected and pointed out and we have to do something. On the other hand in the places where progress is being made, it is also being pointed out. I was very thankful for those people who wrote articles pointing out some of the problems with our tax system. I took it and send it to all the concerned ministers and said I believe this is insightful and you ought to find responses to it so we can take measures. So we continue to do what we do, we will stay the course in spite of all the difficulties and all the criticisms, we believe in the end, it is in the national interest.
Culled from FrontPageAfrica