Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Speaks on Governance, Elections and Other Issues

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 6, 2005


While she toured the United States in April 2005 where she delivered the keynote address at the All Liberia National Conference in Columbia, Maryland and met with Liberians in various states, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf granted an interview to The Perspective. Mrs. Sirleaf recently resigned from her post as Chair of the Governance Reform Commission after being nominated by Unity Party to be their candidate for the October 2005 presidential elections.

The Perspective: When we last spoke, you were in exile, accused of treason by President Charles Taylor. You have now moved back to Liberia. How are things at home?

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: We have come a long way. There has been a great change, in terms of people’s ability to exercise an enormous amount of freedom. Many of us in exile worked very aggressively to get us here. Since the conclusion of the Accra Peace talks, I have returned home permanently and I must say that things are much better than they were 18 months ago. There is a great amount of freedom; freedom of speech, freedom of movement and the political process is on. We must thank ECOWAS and the international community, and especially the combined leadership of Nigeria and the United States. We must also give credit to the Liberian people, for their courage, resilience and sacrifices. The transition may not have lived up to all its potentials but now we have a good chance to move forward and start the process of healing and reconstruction.

Out of Accra, you were appointed Chairman of the Governance Reform Commission (GRC). What was your mandate and what did the Commission achieve?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: We were to institute measures that would lead to the tenets of good governance, among others, transparency, accountability and sound financial management in government operations. We had an ombudsman function, which meant that we would respond to various complaints and issues brought up by the public. We put it into two streams, recognizing the limitations of the transition as a very complicated and delicate political arrangement.

Could you elaborate?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: One stream was to work within the Result Focus Transitional Framework (RFTF) where outputs were clearly stated in the areas of governance, justice and peace, and we undertook to work with all the agencies and ministries. This output included the ongoing civil service census and the formulation of a code of conduct for public servant that is nearing completion. We also put forward proposals to make the Auditing Bureau independent; we reviewed its status and made some recommendations to the NTLA. We tried to get a hand on the audit of the government but met lot of resistance. We wanted to review the accounting system of the government, but we didn’t get far enough.

The second stream was to build a constituency for reform and we did this by organizing workshops throughout the country. This exercise was meant to formulate the agenda itself around four key elements: constitutional reform, land tenure reform, judicial reform and civil service reform, with decentralization as a core issue, recognizing that throughout our history, the concentration of power at the apex, the ‘imperial presidency’ is the main reason why we need changes.

How sure are you that once elected, a new government would not brush aside all your recommendations and go on with business as usual?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf:There is no guarantee except that, as I said, we have built a constituency for the reforms. We believe Liberians will demand the kind of changes that would ensure people’s participation [as stakeholders in the society], people being involved in the decisions that affect their lives. We believe that any smart government would realize that these are the kind of changes that the country needs and would therefore incorporate these reforms in its agenda.

What impact has the work of the GRC had on the current government?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think it has had an impact on certain members of the government. There are many good people in the government who want to do the right thing, who want to be accountable and many of them have brought issues to our attention. In that respect, we expect this core of energetic and dedicated Liberians to take ownership of the work we have done, embrace it and make sure it is implemented. Have we instilled reforms in this government? No, we have not. In that respect we had many constraints and as I have told Chairman [Gyude] Bryant in my letter of resignation, there was a great potential for reform that has not been tapped into.

Two of the persons nominated to work with you on the Commission, Dr. Amos Sawyer and Dr. George Kieh, did not join you. Sawyer said the work of the Commission could not be substantive enough to impact the system and Kieh spoke of possible conflict of interest because of his presidential ambitions…

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I respect the position taken by Dr. Sawyer and Dr. Kieh. In a way the point made by Dr. Sawyer has come to pass. He said that nothing would come out of this because the conditions were not conducive for reform. I said earlier that we did not achieve the potentials of this transition, therefore he was right. Regarding the issue of conflict of interest stated by Dr. Kieh, I did not see it because we were working on a reform agenda for the future and that could present no conflict of interest. I am sure the work of the Commission will make a major contribution to change and reform in our country. We hope and believe that an elected government will take that body of work and use it, to bring positive changes in our country.

Where does the Commission go from here?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: It is said that the life of the Commission ends with the life of the transitional government. The work of the Commission should now be used by the institutions and agencies prescribed by the constitution and the laws. Whether there would be a special institution to ensure that the work is implemented remains to be seen. Our recommendations are meant to change the structure of the government and those new structures would have new bodies to carry out some of the things that we have included in the reform agenda. …We have the laws and in some cases we even had the constitutional provisions, [but] the shortcoming has been the respect for those things. There was never a will to implement and enforce the policies and laws on the book.

Do you foresee the possibility of a national conference prior to the October elections?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I see the need for a national conference… We discussed this with many [people] who have promoted the idea. The various conferences and meetings that were held here, especially the All Liberia National Conference where I gave the keynote address are all part of this idea for a national consultation. We want to see the two bodies here [in the US] come together as one and we want to see the GRC take the leadership for organizing a national forum, using the results of these conferences. The timing for such a conference is the issue. We believe that it should be held after the elections, maybe before the inauguration so that there is ample time for airing some of the recommendations and views to enlighten those coming into office. Before the elections, there is a concern as to whether the discussion might lead to issues that in effect could take away from concentrating on the electoral process. For that reason, we said, let the GRC do this and let’s do it after elections.

After elections, you will have a government in the making and some people contemplating being in the opposition for the next 6 years… Would that be an atmosphere conducive for national consultations?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: After so many years of war and after the turmoil of elections, which are divisive in nature, a national conference could serve as a forum for all of us to regroup, take a breather and focus on the future through a dialogue on our future as a nation. This will help the new government. I am convinced that the Liberian people are enlightened enough to understand that we need to institute reforms if we want to create stability and peace and start the process of healing and development. It is the only way to ensure that our people feel as being part of the process so that nobody is so disadvantaged that they have to revert to taking up guns. I am convinced that a reform minded government would embrace these reforms to gain the kind of support and consensus needed to have a strong legacy, to leave Liberia better off than when it took over.

Would you say that your tenure at the GRC gave you an undue advantage over other presidential candidates?

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Yes I will admit that the GRC gave me some advantage. But you must remember that much of the GRC ideas came from us, from my colleagues, from our thinking. These were solutions that we have gathered from our many years of experiences in trying to find out and understand what was needed to set Liberia right. Yes, we benefited from the views of others and particularly from the technical staff and the general public. I must say that the experience has broadened my own perspective. I benefited from the workshops where I dialogued with my fellow Liberians at the grassroots level. The concerns expressed by the people enlarged and informed my vision for the way forward. But I think we gave something. Yes, it gave me some advantage but I think we made a contribution to the reform process.

Can we have your quick reaction to these words and phrases that might pop up during the electoral process?

1. Coalition

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf:That is a tough job, as our own negotiations have shown. We have been in talks with some political parties but failed to reach a full agreement. We may see some coalition but I think the stronger political parties will go to elections alone.

2. War Crimes Tribunal

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Liberian people will have to decide that. Some many people have been victimized! And there are those who committed the atrocities. But we will have to put the issue into some kind of referendum so our people can decide. But before we get to that, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is most urgent. The process of contrition and forgiveness is a major part of the healing process. I believe in justice but we will follow the people’s wish.

3. Charles Taylor to Sierra Leone:

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I think the international community feels very strongly about that issue. Now in the US Congress there are discussions regarding the fact that Mr. Taylor has broken the terms of the agreement of his asylum in Nigeria by continuing to interfere in Liberian politics. If indeed he has, he would have to bear the consequences.

4. Fifty Presidential Candidates

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: That whole thing is just not real. Most of these people are not real candidates. Many are positioning themselves for strong negotiating positions. In my views, there are really five strong candidates. I am sure you know them.

5. Recycled Politicians

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Well as I said in one meeting, leadership is never given on a silver platter, one has to earn it. People should not use our experience and wisdom against us. Regarding those of us who are referred to as “recycled politicians” – I don’t know if I am called that - we have the depth and breath of experience needed at this crucial time in the history of our nation. We need to utilize all this talent. We need young people to work with some of the older politicians so that they can learn from these experiences and be well prepared and well equipped to take over when the older generation passes from the scene.

6. Ethnic Politics

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: In that respect I am a Liberian. I bridge the gap. My own background, my heritage has different native backgrounds, both from my mother and my father side, yet both of my parents benefited from the advantages of the settlers’ culture. So that’s why I keep saying there is no basis for this divide. We are one people. We must all be Liberians first and everything else later. Ethnicity should enrich us; it should make us a unique people in our diversity and not be used to divide us.

7. Gender

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: I am proud to be a woman. Sometimes I like to tell people that I have a strong personality, that I am a technocrat, or a politician who happened to be a woman. I believe that there are certain attributes in a woman that give her some advantages over a man. Women are usually more honest, more sensitive to issues and bring a stronger sense of commitment and dedication to what they do. Maybe because they were mothers, and being a mother you have that special attention for the family, for the young, for children… All in all I am glad I am a woman and I think in Liberia today, it is time for women to show what they can do.

8. The three greatest priorities of a UP government:

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: 1. Job creation, to put people back to work; so that they can support themselves and stop begging; 2. Financial management, resources management, so that government resources are allocated and used properly; 3. Education, to rehabilitate our educational system and we must emphasize vocational training for our children who missed out on school.

You have the last word…

Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf: Our country is ready to move forward. Our country has the resources, both natural and human… Human resources may be scattered around the world, but we want to and we can create the environment to bring them back home, to participate in the rebuilding of our nation. We can make Liberia great, a model on the continent. We can show that after a war, we can rise out of the ashes and create a nation that we are all proud of, a nation that stands out as an example to show that conflict can only be a small digression and that one can rise above it and use it as a stepping stone. Liberian people are ready; they have been resilient, strong, and courageous and now we are hopeful for the future. I am happy to be part of this process…I hope I will have the opportunity to serve amongst those who will lead Liberia into the sunlight.