A Conversation with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

By: Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective

October 8, 2001

When I learned that Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was in town, I sought to speak with her. She has become known in the last few years as one of the most credible voices in the Liberian murky political arena. Like many who started their political career in the 1970's, she had to fight Sergeant Samuel Doe for a decade and now it is Mr. Charles Taylor. Although she only campaigned for three months in 1997, she achieved the greatest score among opposition leaders. Then, she was thrown into exile, like many who have opposed or voiced contrary opinions to those of His Excellency Charles Ghankay Taylor. Like many opposition leaders, and very ironically so, she once believed that the overthrow of the regime of Master Sergeant Doe would open the way for democracy in our country, a country where freedom of speech and assembly, the basic rights in a democratic society would be respected. Little did she know that she would again be forced into exile, like she was during most of the tenure of Samuel Doe. Ironically, the same people who advised Doe are now at the Mansion.

"Ellen likes to be in trouble," said a friend of hers a few hours after my conversation with her. She does not shy away from controversy. She survived the Tolbert regime because she was perceived as leaning towards the opposition. She stood up to Doe and went to jail before being freed after international pressure. She said that "Taylor was not foolish" to touch her and that made NPFL so angry that she had to postpone her return home. During the days of intense peace negotiations between the IGNU and the NPFL, many blamed her for siding with Mr. Taylor's faction at the UN. She was said to have been instrumental in the appointment of Mr. Gordon Somers, who, somehow, botched the peace process in favor of the NPFL. At the beginning of the war, she supposedly said that Taylor should flatten Monrovia and it would be rebuilt. A lot of time has passed. The conversation showed a mellowed opposition leader, pondering her words, hesitant at times. As if, after all these years, she is wondering if she should speak her mind as she used to ... or act like the man with his hand in the mouth of the tiger. This was my first ever conversation with her.

My first question to her was, "Where are we now?" "Socially, one can say that the gap between people has somehow been narrowed. The suffering of the past few years, the destruction of life and property that affected every sector, every tribe and social class of the population, has somehow been a unifying factor. Liberians are now more united as a nation than they were two decades ago. There is more a sense of nation than back then." Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said, describing the current situation in Liberia. On the economy, "we are worse off than we have ever been. People at home are absolutely destitute, living on handouts and remittance. There is no vision from the leadership. There is no confidence in the leadership. Liberians have not returned home to make any investment and the economy is run by the government that shows no interest in economic development. The country has become a haven for international criminals who go in to make a quick buck, with the complicity of political leaders. Since Liberians don't trust their leadership, international serious investors stay away. All this is a direct consequence of the current political system that seems to have no interest at tackling the most crucial issues facing the country, such as national reconciliation and respect for the basic human rights. Extortion for the most legitimate services is rampant at all levels and people take their cue from the top. Politically, the situation is critical. Many of the problems we face in governance are due to the absence of strong political institutions. Political parties are built around personalities rather than political concepts. Institutions that are supposed to safeguard democracy, such as the judiciary, the legislative, the press and others are weak. And now that people are in absolute poverty, things become even more difficult. All this allows the government to manipulate and control the system."

We talked about the sanctions. Her conclusion was that the sanctions were meant to "punish a very few people, mostly government people and close associates of Mr. Taylor with the travel ban and curb the sale of diamonds that fueled the war in Sierra Leone. But now, it is hurting the common people. Unscrupulous merchants are hiking the prices of basic commodities, for no reason at all. And this is hurting the most vulnerable people in the country."

I asked Mrs. Sirleaf about her recent trip to Monrovia and what she expected to accomplish: "I have always wanted to go home. Once I no longer had the treason charges hanging over my head, I saw no reason not to go to Monrovia. I wanted to visit with families and friends and also have a talk with President Taylor. We have been talking with ECOWAS leaders. The Executive Secretary of the organization [ECOWAS] had worked for this meeting to take place. If nothing else, it would have diffused the political tension in the country. Unfortunately, the meeting did not take place. But I am willing to go back and meet with Mr. Taylor as soon as a mutually acceptable time is set. I also wanted to report to political leaders the outcome of the Abidjan meeting. Which I did but instead of reporting a successful meeting, it was about damage control, because of the negative publicity that followed the meeting."

About the war in Lofa, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said, "It does not seem to effect the changes many people thought it would have. Now it is causing death and destruction, people are being displaced and that makes the task of reconstruction and reconciliation even more difficult." When asked if she had made any contact with leaders of Guinea and Sierra Leone to try to solve the conflict, she said, "I stayed away from those countries because of the previous accusations against me. All it would have taken was to see me in Conakry or Freetown and I would have been accused of fueling the conflict." On the issue of collaboration amongst political parties in Liberia, she referred to the recent meeting she had with some political leaders in Abidjan. "Because I couldn't go to Liberia, I invited some political leaders to join me in Abidjan for a reflection, in an attempt to bridge the gaps between political parties. Some came, including Cletus Wotorson, but others stayed away, afraid of being associated with the opposition. However, we had an open discussion. But in Monrovia, it was interpreted that I called politicians to make [them] elect me President. If we must achieve anything in the future we must find a way to work together. The dialogue has started and we will keep working at it, to find common grounds for understanding and cooperation."

"I have hope. I have lot of hope in the Liberian people. There is poverty but there is lot of courage and resilience. People are working hard to survive and they deserve better. There is so much to do."

At the end of our conversation, I asked Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf if she expects Mr. Taylor to change and allow an improvement of political and social conditions. "I hope it will be possible. Many ECOWAS leaders give him the benefit of doubt and they want us to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it's up to Mr. Taylor to prove to all of us that the current situation can and must change. There is a lot to accomplish and we must go beyond the personality issue, and bring some understanding on basic principles into the political arena."

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