A Day With President Sirleaf In Chicago


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 10, 2006


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 schools.

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 together."

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 possible time.

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
E-mail: editor@theperspective.org