While Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was attending the recent National Summit Conference on Africa in Washington, DC, editors of The Perspective (TP) newsmagazine sought an interview with her. Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is former presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Liberia, and former United Nations Administrator for Africa. Below is the transcript of the interview conducted by George H. Nubo, Siahyonkron Nyanseor, and J. Kpanneh Doe.
TP: Two years ago, in fact, just after the 1997 elections this paper interviewed you and at that time, you implored Liberians to keep hope alive. Judging from the last two years and with our entry in the new Millennium, what significant progress have we made? Having our situation becomes hopeless?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Progress on all fronts – security, economic, political – has been less than we all anticipated. Unexplained disappearances of people, the unwillingness of the government to investigate seriously and punish open and wanton violations of citizens’ basic human rights – the freedom to express oneself, including the freedom to criticize the government; the freedom to meet and discuss legally and peacefully whatever is on their minds without interference from government forces; all of those things which make it difficult for Liberians to exercise the freedoms which are supposed to be guaranteed to them under our constitution and which the president swore an oath to uphold. The economy remains stagnant, lacking the restoration of the most basic services needed to enable citizens to live and work productively: electricity, water, health and communications facilities. On the political front, constant intimidation and denial of equal opportunity to opposition figures, fraudulent or questionable electoral results that engender an unfavorable political climate. It is that kind of thinking and action which have led to situations such as the one we recently witnessed, where a whole community of people in Buzi Quarters were evicted from their homes – homes they built with their own sweat and have occupied for years – to accommodate a security detail. Is that the way for a government which claims to act in the interests of its people to behave? Despite all these problems, we cannot give up hope. Liberia belongs to all of us. Therefore, we must remain steadfast in hope and do our part, whenever possible, to make hope a reality.
TP: There is emerging evidence that the country is fast becoming a criminal and rogue state – serving as a conduit for drug trafficking, money laundering, gun-running – and a whole host of unscrupulous activities. Aren’t these ominous signs a dangerous trend for our country?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I have seen a lot of reports which provide disturbing accounts of illegal activities going on in the country. These fit the long standing characterization of a criminalization of the economy. If those reports are true, then all Liberians must be concerned about the implications for our nation’s future and prosperity. It is not enough for the government to simply deny these charges. It needs to present credible evidence to refute the allegations.
TP: How would you respond to the charges by the GOL that opposition politicians and Liberians abroad are discouraging the “international community” from getting involved in the economic recovery and development of the country? What exactly must the GOL do to qualify for international assistance or attract foreign investments?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: “Rubbish” is my response to the first part of your question. Only those ignorant of the way the international assistance system works would believe that any person or group or political party could prevent the international community from providing assistance to those countries which meet their requirements. In any case, where are the billions of dollars promised Liberia by Libya which contributed to the country’s destruction? Where is the massive aid promised by Taiwan? Certainly opposition politicians could not prevent these very rich allies from providing aid. Certainly, these allies have the wherewithal to have restored basic services such as power and water. Certainly Libya at the minimum could have rehabilitated the destroyed building of the Liberia Libyan Holding Company which serves as an eye sore on Tubman Boulevard.
Liberia’s qualification for international assistance is not very different from that which applies for most countries – a government which has a development plan that clearly shows the direction in which it wants to lead its people and a demonstrated commitment to implementing that plan; a government which is prepared to adopt and consistently apply sound economic policies; a government which promotes an environment of freedom, respect for human rights, accountability and transparency; a government which accounts for and utilizes its own resources in a productive and efficient manner; a government which encourages private enterprise: in short, a government at work and perceived to be at work. There are a number of African countries which are doing these things and are consequently receiving international financial support in the form of loans, grants and investments. Ghana, Botswana, Uganda, Mozambique (the last two, incidentally, came out of long and devastating civil wars just like ourselves) are examples which come readily to mind. The leaders of these nations didn’t just talk about development; they demonstrated their commitment to it. The international community has learned over the years that talk is cheap. Just talking won’t cut it any more. Political leaders and their governments have to show by their actions that they are serious. The minute they stop showing they are serious, support dries up. Some countries, such as Nigeria, enjoyed a great deal of international support in the 1970s and 1980s. Then they fell under the spell of leaders who adopted inappropriate policies (egregious human rights violations, rampant corruption, lack of accountability, bloated government bureaucracies, etc.). With that international support disappeared. Last year, Nigerians elected a new leader: Olusegun Obasanjo. From Day 1 his administration has been saying and, more importantly, doing the right things. So, guess what? Nigeria is now shedding its image as an international outlaw state and generating a lot of interest, support and investment. We Liberians need to understand that international financial aid and investment is not entitlement. It’s something a country earns by demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law, human rights, sound economic policymaking, accountability, and the promotion of private enterprise.
TP: You are one of Liberia’s prominent politicians who have had your share of controversy as well. How would you respond to your critics who charged that you and others helped provide both the intellectual and resource foundation that helped create Taylor and ushered in the tyranny that now prevail in Liberia today. Could you comment?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: We must all stand accused in some measure – those, like I, who provided some measure of support for Mr. Taylor, at some point in time; those who voted for him; those who have joined and have remained a part of his regime. That said, I reject categorically the notion that we created Taylor and provided the resources that have led us to what we are today. As you have reported before, a few of us, members of the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL) then operating in Washington DC, with the strong persuasion of one of our members, Tom Woewiyu, did try to be of assistance to Mr. Taylor when his rebellious activities seemed headed in the direction of a strong response to protect people in Nimba County from an overreaction of the Doe regime to their invasion of the country. Anyone who knows what is involved in fielding an army and conducting a war on the scale Taylor did knows the costs run in many millions of dollars. Those millions didn’t come from us. You’ll have to look to Libya and elsewhere for that. We raised the grand sum of $10,000, hardly an amount that could do very much. In fact, it was a mere drop in the bucket. The fact that the sum was so paltry explains why we had so little leverage over Taylor and why he paid so little attention to us, especially when we started raising questions about reports of human rights violations by his troops. Initially, we had committed ourselves to try to do more. But within six months or so, i.e. around the middle of 1990, we had withdrawn any support and any connection with Mr. Taylor and his group on account of the serious atrocities which were taking place, some affecting long standing political allies of ours.
In my own case, I did not really know Mr. Taylor but admit to being easily persuaded by Tom whom I then held in high regard. Some may recall that he stood by me in strong testimony before the U.S. Congress when I was imprisoned by the Doe regime for the speech I made in Philadelphia in 1985 at a ULAA meeting when Tom was ULAA President. Others would have deserted me in my affliction. He did not. I owed him one. I was also encouraged by a then friend and political ally, Grace Minor, a long standing close confidante of Mr. Taylor.
As for personal relation with Mr. Taylor, to the best of my recollection, I have been in his company only four times in my entire lifetime – the first time in the capacity of Finance Minister when he along with other ULAA officials visited Liberia early 1980 upon the invitation of President Tolbert. The second time was when Tom brought Mr. Taylor to meet me at an Amsterdam hotel while I was transiting through Europe sometime in 1988. The third time was on the occasion of the 1990 Annual meeting of the ADB in Abidjan. I literally forced my way, uninvited, along with some international reporters to get to see this man at his base in an area accessed from the Cote d’Ivoire borders. The fourth time was in April 1998 when officials of Unity Party and I met with him and some of his Party officials to discuss possible means for working together in the national interest.
You know that today Mr. Taylor and I remain worlds apart in our vision for Liberia – not the rhetorical but the reality in policy and practices. That is why I get most upset when people try to reduce my commitment to our country in terms of a job in Mr. Taylor’s administration.
TP: Your critics have also charged that as one who espouse the values of human rights, you have remained silent or failed to condemn in vehement terms the action of your son, Charles Sirleaf (who currently served as president of the National Housing and Savings Bank in the Taylor government), who almost a year ago ordered the beating of his driver who allegedly stole his video cassette recorder (VCR). Could you comment?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: When the story of the beating of the Bank’s night guard stationed at Charles’ residence was reported in a local newspaper, I contacted Charles to express concern. He gave me quite a different account of the events. I have given him the benefit of the doubt and urged that he tells his side of the story publicly. To date, he has chosen not to do so. He is aware that I was brought up, as he was, to respect the dignity and equality of all human beings and that I do not condone the violation of anyone’s rights, certainly not any action which would subject someone to bodily harm. However, while Charles is my son, he’s not a minor; he’s a grown man. I have told him that he must be prepared to bear the consequences of his actions if he did act improperly. I guess he is already beginning to do so by the criticism to which he is subjected. If I ever do get the true story firsthand and it is not what Charles has represented, I would be prepared to condemn him publicly.
TP: The Liberian opposition appears demoralized and fractured, and has shown a debilitating incapacity to challenge the government policies and actions. How would you assess the current state of the Liberian opposition?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I have to agree with you on this – that the opposition is marginalized and demoralized – intimidated and contained to the point of being virtually invisible. The overall political climate contributes to this but we must admit to our own failures. We have not been able to rise above our individual selves in the national interest and we have not had the courage to speak out or strongly challenge the unacceptable policies and practices of a government which has led the country into a condition of free fall. Liberia, which just a few decades ago was a beacon of hope for the anti-colonial Africa and a source of moral and financial support to liberation movements throughout much of Africa, including the major movements in southern Africa, is now viewed by much of Africa as an outlaw nation. That is a stinking shame, and we must do all we can to regain for our country the prestige and international recognition it once enjoyed. We can start by supporting the efforts of the InterFaith Mediation Committee and the Press Union which speaks regularly and boldly about both the good and bad in our society. We need also to commend and find a way to support opposition politicians like Charles Johnson of Grand Bassa County who continues to fight a legal battle to expose the fraud which denied him the victory in the Senatorial by-elections. His case is similar to Sawyer’s of Unity Party who was denied victory in the Margibi by-elections.
Here again, I must hang on to hope, given that Liberia has never developed the institutions which provide the foundation of ideas, policy initiatives and actions beyond any one high profile individual. We must try again. I am reaching out, and I know others are too, to all the Liberian opposition leaders to plead for a coming together, through mergers, coalition or otherwise to build a strong opposition. I am personally committed to this and to a process that will allow for the leadership to evolve and to be selected by the partisans. I am committed to working with anyone – old or young – who succeeds under this process. I am committed to subjecting any personal ambition which I have to the building of a strong political party with a constituency that is able to develop the character, courage and commitment for nation building.
TP: The country is mired in 3 billion dollars debt, joblessness and poverty abound, there is a professional brain drain, the lack of roads and a decaying infrastructure have made many parts of the country inaccessible, and the social and moral fabric of the country is eroding. Please comment!
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: It is true that the Liberian economy is in dire straits on all the counts you mentioned – debt overhang, unemployment, poverty, poor capacity, underdeveloped and destroyed infrastructure. More importantly, daily activities and reports point to increasing moral decadence. To counter these trends, Liberia needs visionary and exemplary leadership at all levels throughout the society. We need freedom from fear to challenge the policies and practices which contribute to these trends.
TP: In your ten-point proposal for economic recovery and change which you recommended at a recently held Economic Recovery Conference last year November, you called for the review of various business concerns, including Firestone, etc. More significantly, you have called for transparency and accountability in these various arrangements as a way of ensuring or checking on unscrupulous business practices. What is it in the new Firestone agreement that the Liberian people ought to know, and that of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) – a Malaysian business concern that has generated much controversy in light of its business practices?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I do not know the provisions of the Firestone or the OTC concession agreements. That is exactly my point. We need to know; the public needs to know. The legislature needs to debate these provisions thoroughly and openly. We are told that the Firestone agreement represents a major improvement over that of 1926. Good! Tell us the details; guide us through the costs and benefits. I have seen reports on the OTC agreement which are truly disturbing in terms of the environmental damage and the resulting effect on the country’s future resource capacity. I have called for these agreements to be published openly. Is this not a reasonable call in a new Liberia?
TP: Among other things in your November economic speech, you seemed to have a predilection for the British Parliamentary system over the American Presidential system, and have called for a rotational presidential system – and the review of the Liberian Constitution. What would you consider as the principal weaknesses of our current constitution?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Yes. I wish that the framers of the 1983 draft constitution would have examined more carefully the benefits of a parliamentary system which, in my view, provides better checks and balances, better accountability in a system of weak institutions. A constitutional review would allow an opportunity to revisit this possibility. The approved revised draft constitution, changed by the Constitutional Advisory Assembly in Gbarnga from the one presented by the Sawyer Commission, also has provisions that protect the now defunct PRC Government. There are also some very enlightening provisions that protect fundamental freedoms and promote equality in constitutions recently adopted by countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Namibia. We might consider some of these provisions in a constitutional review. The residency requirement, which would bar many of you dedicated citizens now abroad from participating in the political life of the nation, is another undesirable provision in the constitution. The idea of a rotational presidency was suggested to stir debate on the subject. I am fully aware that it is controversial and could, as Harry Greaves Jr. has pointed out to me, run the danger of balkanizing the country, “substituting a narrow ethnic/geographic identity for a broader national polity”. Perhaps, there are better ideas to achieve the geographic balance in leadership which the suggestion represents. I hope others will propose them.
TP: If the current constitution is not amended, the ten-year residency requirement will not only affect the opposition, but current government officials as well. These people, including Mr. Taylor, have not lived in Liberia continually since 1993. Has there been any discussion within the government to amend the constitution?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Yes, I have heard and read statements from within the society and the ruling circle regarding the need to amend the constitution but I believe these have regard to the citizenship and land ownership provisions. These provisions are also quite controversial. In any case, I don’t think we need to dwell too long on this issue because any constitution, statute or any law is only as good as the respect given to it. Again, as Harry has pointed out in response to my November statement, “No constitution can enforce itself. Enforcement comes from the combined efforts of a nation’s citizens insisting in small and big ways that their rights be respected, and its the officers recognizing the limits of their power and obeying the laws they take oaths to observe. In that regard, we are all somewhat responsible for the good and bad governments we have had in Liberia because as citizens we have tolerated bad behavior on the part of our leaders.”
TP: How about the recent Sedition Law and the case of James D. Torh, a child rights advocate and the recent arrest of Father Boniface Golo Tye, a Roman Catholic priest whom the government has charged with the crime of sedition?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I am in full agreement with the position put forth by the Friends of Liberia regarding the sedition law and I join in the condemnation of any action against James Torh, Father Tye or anyone who is being penalized for exercising their peaceful and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. It is disheartening to me and others who have suffered similar fate under past regimes to see Liberia move rapidly toward the repeat of such malpractices. It is even more disheartening to note that this is being done by a government whose key officials come from an organization (ULAA) which had long put itself in the position of being the conscience of the Liberian society questioning malpractices in the past. The recently reported comments on security by Police Director Paul Mulbah in a legislative hearing should be seriously pondered by us all.
TP: Catholic Archbishop Michael K. Francis of Monrovia said that the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Conference held in July 1998 are yet to be implemented. Why do you think the GOL has dragged its feet in implementing these recommendations?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I really don’t know, other than to say that there is a lack of political will to adopt any policies or measures that represent positive changes in the way we do things. This is unfortunate.
TP: A Central Bank has been established, the GOL has announced a change in the fiscal year from July to June, and in the President’s State of the Nation Address, he called for the merger and the consolidation of some government ministries and agencies, including but not limited to the creation of a new Ministry of Women and Children. What is your view to these developments? Are these moves, adequate steps toward reforming government?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: We are in full accord with some of these measures, such as the rationalization of government ministries as we ourselves proposed these measures at the November economic conference. However, one would need a better understanding of the reasons for certain changes such as the change in the school and fiscal years to determine whether they are in the national interest. I hope that the legislature will provide us the opportunity of open dialogue on these proposals before they become law. We need to see the details behind these broad policy pronouncements. Which ministries will be eliminated? Which will be merged? Will those mergers result in cost savings, better service and improved efficiency? Will the changes in the fiscal and school years result in tangible benefits for the Liberian people?
TP: Observers of the Liberian economy have noted that Liberia’s current debt crisis cannot only be attributed to the lack of fiscal discipline on the part of the Taylor government but contend that it has its genesis in some of the unsound economic policies and programs pursued by previous governments. One such project that they point to is the lavish 1979 OAU Summit Conference (which among many others included a floating hotel) that you presided over in your capacity as Finance Minister in the Tolbert government. Please comment!
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: One needs to have a more sophisticated understanding of the details regarding our hosting of the OAU Conference in 1979 to pass judgment. The example you cited regarding the floating hotel is a case in point. The floating hotel or “boat accommodation” was indeed a sound alternative to building one or more hotels in Monrovia at high cost with a resulting debt burden. We rented the boat, the cost of which was paid for out of the government’s 1979 operating budget. Building a hotel is a capital expenditure. Had we opted to go that route in order to accommodate the many guests, given the inadequate hotel capacity in the country at the time, we would indeed have had to borrow money. But we didn’t. Let me also say that I returned to Liberia in 1977 to work for the Liberian government on loan from the World Bank (I was working for the World Bank at the time) – long after the decision had been taken to host the OAU. In fact, I had questioned this decision through communications with those in authority at the time. Incredibly enough, they were open and willing to debate the pros and cons of that decision. As you also know, I was Finance Minister in the Tolbert Government only from August 1979 (after the rice riots) until the coup of April 1980.
That said, I admit to being a full member of the financial management team at the Finance Ministry at the time of the OAU hosting. In fact, I was Deputy Minister in charge of Expenditure, Debt and Banking matters. So, I was directly involved in OAU expenditure. We all did the best we could to keep the expenditure in check while meeting this political commitment. The details of this, I have already provided in the Liberian Studies Journal, Volume XIV, Number 2, 1989. We had also hoped that we would have capitalized on the benefits expected from the later hosting of the ADB Annual Meeting the following year. A back-to-back hosting of high profile conferences like this provides the opportunity to discuss support for the country with bankers, financiers and investors which participate in the ADB meetings. Liberia was preempted from pursuing such benefits as the coup d’état took place in April, 1990, one month before the ADB Annual Meeting was to have been held.
TP: In its article entitled, Liberia Reformable, The Economist magazine alluded to the fact that there appears to be a rather cozy relationship between the current Ambassador, Mr. Bismarck Myrick, and Mr. Taylor. The Ambassador’s diplomatic approach at engaging the Taylor government suggests a radical departure from his predecessor, Mr. Milan. UN Representative Felix Downes-Thomas who started in similar manner is now said to be in Mr. Taylor’s pocket. How would you characterize the Ambassador’s approach and current U.S. government Policy towards Liberia?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: There is a world of difference between tolerance and support. I believe that the current US position, which is an understandable one, is that until there is a credible alternative to Mr. Taylor, he is the one they will have to tolerate. But as everyone can see, there has been very little tangible support given directly to his administration beyond lip service. The bulk of US aid is being channeled through NGOs, not directly through the Liberian government, which is actually a sore point with Mr. Taylor. Once we, the Opposition get our act together and present that credible alternative, I think you will see US policy taking on a different complexion. It happened before, in the run-up to the 1985 elections, when US Ambassador William Swing used the considerable leverage of his office to keep Doe’s feet to the fire with regard to the electoral process. Had Swing not been abruptly recalled just before the elections, I don’t think the elections results would have come out the way they did. On a general note, let me simply say that when the overall environment repels the best and the brightest, a country can easily become a dumping ground for international minimalists whose relevance comes from bowing and scraping to the powers that be.
TP: At its recently held National convention, the ruling National Patriotic Party (NPP), passed a Resolution which called for more than three quarters or over 75 percent of all government jobs to be occupied by its partisans. This has followed mass firing of many occupying political appointive positions. Would you consider this as a move towards establishing a one-party state?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: This is a sad development and one rightly described by the headlines of the February 10th issue of “The News”: “Is Liberia Headed for a One-Party State (as Party supersedes Government)?” The chairman of the ruling party recently said that Liberia cannot afford the luxury of democracy. So there you are. What a pity, what a degeneration, how quickly our worst fears are coming to pass. What a lost opportunity to change Liberia and set it in an exemplary path of democracy, openness and economic prosperity. However, let’s be perfectly clear here. Our constitution explicitly forbids the establishment of a one-party state.
TP: In September, 1996 the major International Financial Institutions (IFS), including the IMF and World Bank, launched their latest debt relief strategy, called the “Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt Initiative”. The stated aim of this initiative is to help each of the 41 nations classified as heavily indebted poor countries, 32 of which are in Africa, to achieve debt sustainability within 6 years. Since then many African countries, such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, and Uganda have qualified and participated in this program. Mrs. Sirleaf, although you are not a member of the current Liberian Government, are you aware of any efforts, if any, that the Taylor government is making for Liberia to qualify for the HIPC?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I don’t have any specific details but I am quite sure that efforts are being made to qualify Liberia for the HIPC initiative. However, it will be a tough call because the initiative carries strong economic performance conditionalities, many of which depart from the current policies and practices of the Government. For example, soundness and consistencies in economic policies are required including liberalized markets without monopolies, etc. Fiscal responsibility and accountability are measures to be taken into account. That said, I believe that it is recognized that even under the best of circumstances, certain countries (Somalia, Sudan, Liberia) will be unable to repay their debt. I believe that for such countries, particularly those like Liberia, post conflict will be able to qualify for specific forms of debt relief and assistance that are being developed.
TP: What message do you have for Liberians at home and abroad at the dawn of this new Millennium?
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: My concluding message is not different from that given in 1997. Even under the present difficult circumstances, Liberians must still hang on to hope. But hope is not enough. Each of us will have to do our part, no matter how little, if we are to change our country, if we are to leave it a better place for our children, grandchildren and generations unborn. I hope that we all have the courage to rise to this challenge.
Published on the 2000 Edition of The Perspective.
2000: From Siahyonkron Nyanseor’s Archive