|President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf|
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ‘s memorable speech before Congress will go down in history as a defining moment that signaled the end of the Liberian war and the beginning of a new and possible partnership between the US and Liberia. It was a coincidence of historical proportions that on the day President Sirleaf addressed the Joint Session the US Congress, Liberia was on national holiday, celebrating the birthday of its first president, J.J. Roberts, an American born and raised in the State of Virginia before traveling to Liberia, in search of dignity and freedom as many freed slaves of his generation did.
President Sirleaf delivered a speech that took her audience straight to the heart of the problems of Liberia. From the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of war-affected youth to the endemic corruption and from the Taylor issue to the devastated infrastructure of the nation. Liberia is not short of problems! But President Sirleaf did not just come to talk about problems; she spoke about the solutions she envisions. She spoke of the potentials of Liberia and spoke about the promises she made to Liberians as they voted for her.
The stars in heaven lined up for President Sirleaf and she is the only one who could have generated so much interest in Liberia today. Her presidency is symbolic on many levels, the least being that she takes over a country that the world had almost written off, because of its recent history of instability and barbarity, a country whose only presence in the news was the result of the most barbaric actions. From the public execution of government officials on a sunny beach in 1980 to the summary execution of innocent civilians by warlords and their drugged child soldiers in the 1990s, from on-camera torture to death of a president to a notoriously criminal kleptocracy duped government, Liberia has furnished its lot of dysfunctional image to the world, spanning a quarter of century. And prior to that, it was all but a functioning “Black on Black” form of apartheid, with its attendant exploitation, humiliation and almost slave-treatment of the majority of its people by a minority for than a century.
Has Liberia made a step forward? Is the peace at hand sustainable? Can this government or any leadership correct more than 150 years of corruption, nepotism and thievery? Can Liberians now sacrifice narrow personal and ethnic interests for the national good and forge a new path? Is reconciliation possible in a nation that has inflicted itself so much pain? Can President Sirleaf avoid being the re-incarnation of the Old Order and move Liberia into a new era of ethnic, religious and gender balance?
The answers to these and other questions form the basis of the great challenges that await President Sirleaf in the next few years. She would have to convince not only Liberians of their own worthiness and their dormant capacity to build a vibrant nation, but she would have to also make a dent in the pessimism that has hung over Liberia for more than twenty-five years in the eyes of the international community.
President Sirleaf succeeded in arresting the flitting attention of the world and specifically that America by emerging winner in a pool of candidates that included some of the biggest names of Liberian politics. She came to America and was accorded a reception rarely accorded any foreign dignitary. Every policy maker, political leader in the American capital and elsewhere wants to rub shoulders with her. The question is: how much of all this will translate into palpable gains for Liberia?
The Liberian leader, in her many speeches and as she intends to do when she meets her host, President George W. Bush, is not to “beg for long-term support.” She just wants “something, anything, no matter how small” that would help put her nation back on track and jumpstart the economy.
President Sirleaf has a very definite list of request. As the economist and the manager she is, she has a clear notion of what Liberia needs and how much help she wants from America and the United Nations. At a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post newspaper, she listed the welfare of former child soldiers and war affected youth as her number one priority. She said that during the campaign, she was told by the youth that what they needed most was education and she put that on tap of her priorities. She also said that it would take only a portion of America’s spending in Iraq to turn Liberia into a success story.
As she seeks help to restore the devastated nation, President Sirleaf promises that her government will be transparent and accountable. She promises to set a high standard at the top and she promises that the old ways of government of waste and corruption are gone forever. She promises a judicial system where the rights of the citizens as well as those of foreign investors will be upheld in the court. She promises to correct the injustices of the past without sacrificing national reconciliation. Her plate is full but she is confident that she can turn every adversity into opportunity. She has had many firsts, in her life and she is confident she can achieve all that she envisions. And she will, if her track record is any indication.
Liberia, the President says at every one of her many stops, only needs emergency aid to move on. She is not looking for long-term help from any foreign donor. “Liberia is well endowed by nature. We have enough qualified manpower to make this nation a shining star with opportunity for all. What we need now is help to get started and we will take care of the rest.”
Among her priorities, President Sirleaf is seeking debt relief and the lifting of the sanctions. The ratio debt-GNP is currently 920 percent. The national budget of the outgoing transitional government was around $80 million; the foreign debt is about $3.2 billion. Every day that goes by, the added interest is higher than the national payroll.
The international sanctions imposed on the criminal enterprise of former president Charles Taylor paralyze two important sectors of the economy that usually provide jobs to thousands and revenues to the government. The timber industry and the diamond trade have been some of the most dynamic areas of the Liberian economy in the past. The President said that Liberia was in the process of taking control of its forestry and making final preparations to adhere to the Kimberly process. Forestry concession agreements have been cancelled and subjected to review.
With the end of the wars in Sierra Leone and many diamonds exporting countries in Africa such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the issue of “blood diamonds” is becoming a thing of the past and the Kimberly Process may not be as important as it were a few years ago. As far as timber is concerned, the new partnership between the government of Liberia and the international community, including environmental groups, serves as a safeguard against inordinate exploitation of forest resources will come to an end.
The United States can and must take the leadership in all these areas and help Liberia tackle its immediate needs. If she gets a commitment from President George W. Bush that the US is ready to start into a new and responsible partnership with Liberia in place of the old paternalistic relationships, maybe these issues could be put on the front burner, in the international community and resolved diligently.
Liberia lent her support to the US whenever there was a need for support for American foreign policies, even when they went against Liberian or African interests. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations and helped to shape it. Both the US and the UN have benefited from Liberia and Liberians have every right to expect concrete actions from them at this time of need.
During a campaign speech at the University of Liberia, candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that her government would be able to deliver more than any other government emerging out of the elections. She would be able to do so only if she were given a push to jumpstart the rusted machinery.