This was supposed to be
a vacation of a sort, a short private family visit, with
a stop at the Oprah Winfrey show and a flight back home,
all in three days. Her delegation was the smallest any
Liberian president has ever traveled with: a total of
6 person, including security, press and protocol. But
rather, it turned into one of those excruciating day long
campaign adventures that the Iron Lady has accustomed
her followers and staff to during the campaign for the
presidency a few months ago.
President Sirleaf in Chicago
It was 7:30 AM when the president left her hotel room
for her first public event of the day a breakfast with
legislators and city leaders - followed by a celebratory
service at the at the DuSable Museum, named after the
African-American who started the settlement that became
known as Chicago. By the time she arrived at the Museum,
the line of guests was circling the building. The breakfast
hosted by Congressman Jesse Jackson kicked-off at 8:00
AM on the dot and lasted about an hour.
At 9:00 AM, the auditorium of the African-American museum
was filled to capacity. Accompanied by Congressman Jesse
Jackson, President Sirleaf made her entrance on the stage
to a thunderous applause. The ceremony was themed a "Celebration."
The President and Chief Executive officer of the Museum,
Antoinette Wright asked the audience to join her in celebrating
the unique ties between Liberia and the United States.
Congressman Jesse Jackson said in more than one way that
there was nobody more suitable than Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
to fix the problems of Liberia. Speaker after speaker
on the podium underlined the uniqueness of the bounds
between the US and Liberia and insisted on the need to
strengthen relationship between Chicago, a city founded
by a Black man in search of freedom and dignity and Liberia,
a nation founded by freed slaves seeking dignity and freedom.
From Congressman Jackson down the line to the choirs and
singers who graced the event, everyone, including President
Sirleaf spoke about the celebration of a moment in history.
At 10:30 AM, the president and her convoy arrived at the
State of Illinois Health Facility Center specialized in
HIV/AIDS. The president toured the facilities, spent some
time talking to patients and doctors. The Center gave
her a consignment that would help to test and administer
preventive HIV/AIDS medicine to unborn babies.
12:15 PM, the president and the Mayor of Chicago, Richard
Daley met at the Daniel Hale Williams School, a public
institution in the Chicago educational system that was
closed just two years ago but has now turned around to
be a model in the city. The event provided the president
the opportunity to speak about the children of Liberia
who have been denied the opportunity of an education and
have borne the brunt of the suffering of the war. She
talked about the future of those children, who, from Monrovia
to the most remote areas in the country, told her that
all they wanted was to go to school and learn. The students
launched a citywide drive to collect books for Liberian
After two hours of speeches, songs and dances, the presidential
convoy left the school and headed for The Chicago Tribune
for another two-hour conversation with the editorial board
of one of the largest national daily newspapers. The president
fielded questions about the future of Liberia, press freedom
and on every issue a newspaper could write about on a
country like Liberia, devastated by 14 years of war and
destruction but offering one of the most hopeful signs
on the continent, if "we managed to pull everything
After the Tribune, at the Palmer House Hilton, President
Sirleaf met with the Global Donors Network who wanted
to know what the donor community in Chicago, mostly drawn
from the private sector, the academic community and non
governmental agencies. It was 4:00 PM. The break for a
private lunch had lasted less than an hour. A group of
lawyers asked what they could do for Liberia and the president
responded that with government's intention of reviewing
all contracts and concessions agreements signed in the
past few years, there would be many litigation and the
country would stand in need for much needed pro bono work
from lawyers. She also used the occasion to underline
the four pillars of her reconstruction plan centered around
security, economic development, education and governance.
At 5:30, President Sirleaf met with the Board of Directors
of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The photo-op
was followed by a public presentation. At 6:35 PM, Mrs.
Sirleaf sat with Dr. Richard Joseph, a former Director
of the Africa Program at the Carter Center and once a
broker in the Liberian 1990's muddy peace negotiations
and now heading the Council, to share her vision for Liberian
with close to 2,000 people.
Among other things, the president said that insisting
now on the establishment of a War Crimes tribunal in Liberia
while the TRC has yet to start functioning could make
the task of reconciliation and national unity more daunting.
She said Liberian peace brokers in Accra had agreed on
the TRC formula and she would try to play out the process
and see what kind of recommendations the commission would
make at the end of its two year mandate. She added that
the fact that many children were conscripted against their
will to commit atrocities or had joined the fighting to
avenge loved-ones killed in their presence made the issue
of a war crimes tribunal even more delicate.
When asked about what motivated her when she requested
that the Nigerian government turn over former president
Charles Taylor to the UN Special Tribunal in Sierra Leone,
the president said it was simply the supreme interest
of the nation that guided her actions. She added that
the era of destruction, corruption and decadence that
characterized the reign of Charles Taylor was gone for
ever, even if there could still be pockets of followers.
"The only thing that guided my request to the Nigerian
government to turn Taylor over to the tribunal was the
security of Liberia and our future as a nation."
Regarding corruption in Liberia, the president said that
it is so endemic that stopgap measures would not solve
the problem. From right sizing of the bloated civil service
to creating a dependable justice system, Mrs. Sirleaf
said they would be no quick fix but her government was
up to the task.
The president expressed confidence that the United Nations
would lift the economic sanctions by June because much
progress has been made both on the requirements of the
Kimberly process regarding diamonds and the control and
streamlining of the exploitation of the forest.
She said that Liberia was no longer looking for patronage
and dependency but rather a mutually beneficial partnership.
The president ended her remarks by saying that Liberian
adults, in their search for peace and stability could
learn a great lesson if they took example from the children:
"they only want to be children, a street to play
on and a school to go to and an environment to grow healthy."
Many questions were posed by the audience and the president
responded, with her usual wit.
The dinner started around 10 PM.
During a break and when she was asked what the city of
Chicago could do in the near future for Liberia, such
as sending a fact finding mission, president Sirleaf,
in her usual straightforward talk, asked that the city
facilitate the shipping of the two garbage trucks given
to Monrovia by the city of Chicago. She added: "Later,
you can ship to us all the computers and machines you
are no longer using." Mayor Daly, sitting between
his wife and Mrs. Sirleaf promised that Chicago will make
sure that the trucks land in Monrovia in the shortest
At our table, was seated 6 year old Musu whom the president
had brought on her trip. Musu is a smart little girl who
lost part of her right arm as a baby when a rocket dropped
on her house, during the war while she and her parents
were sleeping in Monrovia. After the smoke subsided, her
parents found her covered in blood and half on her right
arm was severed. She had taken pictures with dignitaries,
students and others throughout the visit with the president.
She was served a sirloin steak with a yellowish mountain
that was supposed to be a potato. She did not touch her
plate. Finally, we asked her why she was not eating. "You
not hungry?" we asked her. "Yes, I am hungry
but I want rice." Indeed, you can take us out of
Liberia, but you can never take Liberia out of us!
And this was a day with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
on a private visit in Chicago. It was just like being
on her campaign trail, when staffers vanished every other
day, because nobody could ever follow her for three days
in the row.
Liberia has elected a person that seems to ignite lot
of passion, hope and inspiration wherever she goes. Maybe,
beyond diamonds, timber and gold, she could be another
great export commodity for the nation that could attract
confidence in Liberia and bring in investment and goodwill.
Liberians will have to get used to the idea that their
president will be on the road and in the air a lot, because
she seems to be a rare commodity in a sad world in search
of novelties and new values.
2006 by The Perspective