“I appeal to all Liberians to start planning their return home to join hand with some of us who are over there to rebuild our country,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
In an exclusive interview conducted by
James Butty of the VOA Africa Program
Dr. Abdoulaye W. Dukule, Associate Editor at Theperspective.org
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia speaks about her maiden UN trip,
the state of affairs in Liberia and other issues.
|President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf|
Q: What is your view regarding the reform of the United Nations system, particularly the Security Council?
A: Well we were very clear in our statement to the assembly. That it is time for the Security Council to be restructured, to allow more representation by developing countries.
Q: By more representation particularly, do you mean Africa?
A: Of course, Africa and developing countries in general. Africa certainly, is one group of developing countries; there is also Asia, and Latin America. So we want to see an expansion of the Security Council with such countries.
Q: One of the issues that came up during the General Assembly was the issue of Sudan, and whether there should be United Nations or African Union peacekeepers to continue their work. What’s your view?
A: We were very clear about that in our statement also. Darfur is a serious threat and the beginning of a major catastrophe. It is time for intervention. The stalemate over whether it will be an African Union or a UN force has to come to a stop. We think the United Nations must now support the African Union peacekeepers first of all, so they can remain there, and then afterwards there can be an expansion into a U.N. force if that is necessary to bring the situation to a close.
Q: Madam President I must say that most women around the world particularly from Africa see you as a role model. What do you think should be the role of the United Nations in empowering the African women?
A: Again this is an issue we mentioned in our statement that it is time for the UN body to have either a Fund or an Agency that deals specifically with the empowerment of women. Women will improve naturally if we have such an institution, and it has the resources required. That empowerment will benefit African women more especially since they are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts.
Q: During the luncheon at the United Nations, you were sitting right next to President Bush. How would you describe your relationship with President Bush, in regards to US- Liberia relations?
A: I have a very warm relationship with President and Mrs. Bush. We enjoy their support. The relationship between Liberia and America is very strong. The US is one of our biggest supporters. Their bi-lateral program is more than all others that we have. I believe the US has already made a lot of sacrifices to bring Liberia to this point of peace; we would like to see our country succeed to bring the suffering of our people to an end.
Q: The last time you were here earlier this year, some money was promised to you, and there was also a donor conference held for Liberia. Are you pleased with the result so far? Did the money promised by the US come through?
A: Let’s be clear about something. The donor’s conference you are probably referring to was held in February 2003 during the Transitional Government when $520 million was pledged. Quite a bit of that money was spent on program like disarmament and demobilization, and the security sector. I don’t think all of that money was spent because the poor performance of our Transitional government brought about some interruptions in the flow of the money. July this year, we had a partnership meeting in Monrovia to discuss the essential elements of our development agenda. This is being formulated which is being put into our interim poverty reduction strategy. This will be followed a real partnership meeting or donor’s conference planned for early next year in Washington. The Monrovia meeting was really planned to get the donors involved in understanding some of our priorities.
Q: I am talking about the money that was promised you by the United States Congress when you addressed them in March this year. Is it coming through?
A: That money has been approved, but my Goodness the process is slow. You know there is a long road between commitment and cash; for all allocations through bi-lateral and multi-lateral institutions, the processes and procedures are so long. Yes, the money has been approved. Yes we have agreed on the allocation of the funds to different priorities. Has the cash been spent? No. But we hope that it’s going to start as soon as the dry season comes on in the matter of months.
Q: When you were here the last time you were at the US Congress, you appealed to them for the extension of the Temporary Protective Status for the thousands of Liberians who came to this country during the war. It has been extended till October next year. What do you think about the plight of those Liberians after October 2007?
A: We are pleased that we contributed in a small way to get the extension to 2007. Lets see what happens between now and then. We will cross that bridge when we get there. But for now lets be glad that we have been given more time.
Q: I asked the question because the Liberians are concerned that they might be forced to go home or be deported.
A: Oh, I think Liberians at some point should start planning their return. Obviously everybody cannot return at the same time because they have got a lot of roots they have put down here. But the rebuilding of Liberia will have to rest primarily in the hands of Liberians, and I appeal to all Liberians to start planning their return to join hand with some of us who are over there to rebuild our country.
Q: Do you have the capacity economically to accommodate these people when they return?
A: Of course we are certainly not going to have the same kinds of jobs and opportunities there as they have here in one year. But we hope that as things improve they will be accommodated. It will require sacrifices for Liberians as many others are now doing. As things improve in our capacity we will be able to give attractive compensations, and the kinds of incentives. And we do want people to come and help develop opportunities in the private sector.
Q: Talking about the private sector. You are appealing for foreign private investors to come to the country but the security climate does not seem quite right…
A: Well, the security climate is improving. You don’t come from 25 years of decline and 14 years of war, with lots of violence and expect an overnight solution. We do have pockets of remnants of the ripples of the conflict. We have high unemployment that causes most of our young people to engage in armed robberies and other criminal acts. But we do have a certain amount of peace now, we do have an environment that is open in a way that we are on the tract of being democratic, we are trying to bring the scattered violence under control, our security people are getting stronger, and as we move forward to begin to respond to the needs of the population, I think we can make a better head way.
Q: Some people are not comfortable with the way your government has chosen to deal with the violence especially by introducing the vigilante or community watch groups to confront the violence.
A: That’s a total misunderstanding of what the Minister of Justice was trying to say. She is trying to say that communities could take some responsibilities for their own protection. That means that they should be the watchdogs of the communities. They should watch to see those who do things that are not normal activities, unusual strange people, to make sure that they report it to the police. She certainly was not talking about people taking the law into their own hands. Liberia is a law-abiding nation and we cannot expect people to do otherwise.
Q: Is your government’s capacity good enough to handle the violence situations?
A: As you know the security of the state lies in the hands of the United Nations, or the UNMIL forces, and we have asked them to be a bit more aggressive and assertive to work with our police force. So you will see that in the last few weeks, the violence has reduced because the UN and our police force are now much more vigorous, and that we launched a program to increase more patrols at night, we have been able to search and cordon places in order to arrest people we find in places they shouldn’t be and creating problems in the streets. But we are making progress on that.
Q: You talked about the 150-days deliverables some time this year. What is the progress on these programs?
A: We put a report out which shows that we achieved about 70% of our goals. That plan was to help us focus and to have a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve in the different areas that we identified as the main priorities for moving forward. It was made to set quantifiable measurable goals. The fact that we achieved that much is quite satisfactory because the government has been in office for just 8 months. Since we have accomplished that much, we are now going to have an action plan that will cover July 2006 to December 2007. We should be able to do more, but we have national capacity constraints.
Q: Madam President, can you be more specific about what you have achieved?
A: According to our plans, we have 4 pillars. One is Peace and Security. As you know, the armed forces have been disbanded. The recruitment of what should lead to 2000 men army is on, we have training grounds at Camp Kessely have been virtually completed and the training is on. We have deactivated the whole police force and our target is to train at least 6000 men and women. Close to 2000 of them have already gone through the Police Academy training. The Special security service (SSS) has been restructured. Over 300 of them have gone through training programs in the US, Ghana or Nigeria. For the area of Economic Revitalization; we have reached an agreement with the IMF for a staff monitoring program that will lead us to the HIPIC program to tackle our debts; we’ve got the General System of Preferences (GSP) with the US approved; we’re on the way to eligibility for AGOA, We’ve put out our first budget; our interim Poverty Reduction Paper is being completed to give to the donor’s conference. For infrastructure, we have turned lights on for the first time since the war. It is not much, some street lights, in schools and hospitals, etc; but at least we have done something in that light. There is water running in certain homes and buildings in Monrovia today; something people have not had for 14 years. We have constructed as much roads as it was possible before the rains got heavy and that will continue. In the area of governance, the code of conduct for public officials has been completed; anti corruption strategy has been formulated and the law is now before the legislature. The new forestry law has also just been completed; you see we have done so much, and we will publish that report for the public.
Q: Before you left Liberia for this trip to the UN General Assembly, it was reported that you had said you had information that some people trying to overthrow your government. If you said it, who do you know is trying to overthrow your government?
A: I did not say that. I did not even use those words. What I said was that some elements in the society, some disgruntled elements were trying to feed upon discontentment and causing some problems. We don’t call names in such instances. We just warn everybody in our society that its time for peace, its time for reconciliation, and that those who are disgruntled to find a peaceful way to express their grievances and dissatisfaction, so that we can find way to solve it.
Q: Are you like jittery about your security?
A: No. Not, at all. If I get reports and have to say something to the nation, I do it. But I am not jittery. You know how long I’ve been going through these kinds of things in my life? This is no time for me to be jittery about that kind of little malcontent.
Q: But I was informed that your Unity Party has sent people to Libya and China for security training just to protect you.
A: No one has gone to Libya. We have a training program in the United States, we sent people there; also in Nigeria and we sent people there; we had a training program in Ghana and we sent people there also. We now have a training program in China and we have just sent people there. Those are the only four countries.
Q: But you have not sent them specifically to protect you?
A: Absolutely not. The government sent them to be trained to form part of the security forces; whether it is the police, the army, or the Special Security. Just as we trained them in the US, Ghana and Nigeria, China also offered us some training opportunities. And we are taking advantage of that. Where they will be placed will be determined when their training is complete, their expertise will dictate where they will serve. We don’t want people’s imagination to run wild. Liberians should be happy that for once we want to give our security men and women real professional training.
Q: Madam President! What is your relationship with the media, especially the local Liberian media?
A: We have a lovely relationship. Sometimes we like each other, and sometimes we don’t. But in recent times I told them that we needed to diminish the Kato business; we have to make sure that we check our facts properly before we report on issues. The media is an important element in our society and we need to work together at all times. The recent brouhaha came about because I was trying to tell them that they needed to act a little more professionally. They criticize me, so I criticize them too. It’s mutual. I think the media is free in the country. The say and write what they want. I just ask them to speak the truth and check all their facts, and be more professional.
Q: Before we leave you, there has been a controversy brewing about the rice issue? There is scarcity on the market and prices are raising high! Do you think your government made a hasty decision in trying to break decades old monopoly?
A: No, the record shows that the two suppliers that dominated the market created artificial shortages during the rainy season and then manipulate the price. We are determined to break that so that the market is truly opened. The current orchestrated strategic and price increase is already being addressed.
Q: Senate has adopted a resolution calling on government to open the rice market, which goes along the lines the rice commission you headed two years ago recommended? Are you going to maintain that 6-month monopoly or reverse the decision by your Commerce Minister?
A: I support the Commerce Minister fully! She will move quickly to implement the Rice Committee Report in the New Year with the Commerce Ministry getting out of this business other than to ensure proper arrangements.
Q: Before we close, can you tell us some of your greatest challenges in the past 8 months and what would have done differently?
A: Communicating the message and progress to population organized and appointed more youthful and aggressive information and communications team.
Q: Finally, do you have a special message for Liberians in the United States, or in the Diaspora in general?
A: All Liberians are grateful for support in remittances to family and friends. Do not be distracted by chat room rumors; prepare to come home to join hands in national renewal.
Q: How would you react the following phrases?
a. Charles Taylor: The nation is glad to move on toward a better future.
b. Relationship with the Legislature? Generally, good and cooperative except for intermittent high political profiling.
c. The opposition? Needs to be defined; more mutuality in effort is required.
d. Corruption now? Still with us in certain places; good progress made to address this.
e. Big government? Need to scale down for efficiency and effectiveness.
f. Running for a second term? Successful first term will ensure campaign commitment.
Thank you very much madam President for the opportunity to talk to you at this time.
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