President Sirleaf Speaks At Georgetown University: “We Delivered on Our 150-Day Promises … But Time Is Not on our Side.”

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 18, 2006


Introducing her at the Sachs Goodman lecture at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Dr. Chester Crocker noted President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s reputation for directness. Indeed, the audience of foreign policy students, faculty, and lawmakers did not have to wait for long to hear a new type of speech, a frank assessment by President Sirleaf of the challenges that Liberia faces, and considerable departure from her buoyant optimism before the joint session of Congress months ago.

The President was similarly frank in challenging international engagement with post-conflict Liberia. In past speeches President Sirleaf has generally not confronted the international community on the issue of sanctions, at times even expressing agreement with the sanctions. In today’s speech, however, the president called for the lifting of the sanctions on diamonds, acknowledging the need for Liberia to cooperate with international norms, since Liberian diamonds were used to finance the conflict. But she went on to emphasize that responsibility also lies with the West, saying that “diamond-importing countries must better ensure that they are not customers for conflict diamonds.”

This has always been a crucial problem for developing countries. How to share responsibility for the illegal arms trade, corruption and other negatives that impede the development process? The issue of “conflict diamonds” and the associated sanctions on Liberia are today obsolete, since the conflict has ended. And instead, the sanctions deprive Liberia of an important source of much needed revenue. But, as it often happens, a new system of control put in place by the consuming nations penalizes poor producing countries while leaving the buyers free of responsibility.

If the “Kimberly Process’ was brought into existence because warlords in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and DRC among others used diamonds to fuel conflicts, why must the system continue after the conflicts have stopped? Why should Liberia be forced to put in place a mechanism of certification – with imported new technologies and expensive experts – to prove that diamonds from Lofa are really from Lofa? Why does the international diamond trade still need Kimberly when the conflicts are over? Of course, there has to be an NGO somewhere making money out of the process.

The President also, for the first time sounded an alarm on the possible cost of failure in Liberia. She warned that “failure will be more costly than we can contemplate. And in Liberia, that failure would be catastrophic…if we cannot deliver on the promise of peace, we cannot claim surprise at a slide back into war. The record on this is clear. If we do not deliver tangible results in the first year, the risk of descending back into chaos is very high.”

President Sirleaf appears especially proud of the fact that she has brought hope to the Liberian youth who embraced her campaign after she made education the central theme of her march to victory. Said the President, “there has been a restoration of hope, and we’re glad for that. Our children are smiling again. We’re glad for that.” Education remains a critical priority in rebuilding the war-torn country. “Ask a former child soldier what he or she wants,” said Sirleaf, “The answer is always, ‘I want to go to school.’ Schools must be staffed now. These scarred children are our responsibility and our future. We must not let them be victimized twice.”

Prior to her last trip to the US, President Sirleaf had a mild confrontation with the press. She now reads through the reporting – biased or not – as a message from the people. After joking about her open relationship with the media – “they tell me how I should do my job, and I tell them to check their facts,”-- she acknowledged that behind the “negative press,” there is another message, from the people of Liberia. “To the extent that criticism in the media reflects a growing impatience among Liberians,” said Sirleaf, “we should be concerned. Our people voted for change, and visible change has been too little and too slow.”

President Sirleaf, who is slated to meet with US officials as well as those of the IMF and the World Bank during her stay, did not shy away in pointing to the deficiencies of the aid system. President Sirleaf, thanked the many NGOs working in Liberia, but admonished: “Support must be transparent – just as recipient governments and agencies must operate transparently. Those who disburse aid assistance must be as accountable for the use of those funds as those on the receiving end.”

The Bush administration has so far welcomed the Sirleaf government with considerable fanfare and high-profile engagement. First Lady Barbara Bush attended President Sirleaf inauguration, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Barely a month after that, the Liberian president was in Washington, offered a red-carpet reception, meeting at the White House followed by a luncheon and a speech at the Joint Session of the Congress, the third in the 170-year history of the Liberian-US relationship. Just three weeks ago, the International Republican Institute toasted President Sirleaf while she received accolades from Barbara Bush and Senator John McCain among others.

All this honor and high profile visibility has yet been translated into any substantial aid to get Liberia on its feet. There is the ongoing restructuring of the security forces, although many Liberians consider that a low priority. There is the huge humanitarian support the US provided in the tone of billions of dollars over the years. But now comes the time to pull Liberia out of the hole and Liberians have somehow expected a bit more from the US.

President Sirleaf noted in her speech: “five months ago the U.S. Congress voted an additional 50 million dollars for urgent rebuilding projects. We are enormously grateful and we look forward to seeing the money on the ground very soon.” For many Liberians, the amount in itself is a very small one, not that aid, in any form can be small. But Liberia and the United States have a special history. Sometimes, one has the right to expect more from friends and so far, Liberia has received little for what many policy makers in that West African country as our “traditional partners.”

In closing, President Sirleaf quoted a Liberian human rights activist who last month sounded a warning in Monrovia “Time is not on our side,” said the president. “Discontent can escalate into civil action, capable of breaching the peace, unless the Liberian government and its international partners manage to deliver basic social services.”

The President, who had arrived in Washington, DC just a few hours earlier, will continue her visit with meetings at the IMF and officials of the US government. If she manages to obtain the cancellation of Liberia’s debilitating debt, her frequent travels to the United States may prove well worth it.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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