Government Must Protect the Rights of Citizens

By Musue N. Haddad

The Perspective

November 2, 2001

Editor's Note: Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was recently interviewed by Musue N. Haddad on a wide range of national and international issues. The interview touched on the Measuagoon Project, President Charles Taylor’s clemency granted her and three of the over two-dozen political prisoners in that country also charged with treason. The interview, transcribed below:

The government of Liberia claims there is corruption within your organization - Measuagoon, and you said the organization has some management problems. Can you clarify?

Mrs. Sirleaf: Look, the government’s assertion through this little group call Pakard is just sheer rubbish. I founded Measuagoon after elections on the basis of the conditions I found in my ancestral village, Korma and the needs of the people for some assistance in the absence of government assistance to enable them to get on with their lives to get back in productive endeavor. I put up personal funds; I encouraged other Liberians to support the village or community of their choice by giving cash or kind. We require the villagers themselves, the communities themselves to contribute through their labor, which is not paid for. It is a small operation supported by me. But because of my political affiliation, I have not been able to grow the operation to the place where it can be meaningful. Also because of the several attacks on it by the government, we have been ransacked, our coordinating office attacked several times with no investigation, we have not been able to expand the operation.

There is a website that was done by one of the supporters who operate in London. He did the web. He put a lot of potential projects that came to us from the different communities as a means of trying to attract support. This support was not forthcoming. I had expected that Liberians abroad would have taken interest and begun to adopt a village or villages of their choice.

I have never gone to the international community because their representations in the country have been afraid to help Measuagon for fear that they would be subjected to the wrath of the government if they supported something that I started. What we do in the low communities are strictly apolitical, we don’t require to know your party’s affiliations, your religious, ethnic backgrounds. All we ask is that you be able to work for what you want for the betterment of your life. And we give only small things to help them, such as seeds, tools and materials to help them repair their schools and clinics. The person who they have been lambasting in London is someone who, with his wife put up money [L$29,000] to support a small maternity hut in Nimba in Lorplay.

Who is this person?

His name is Rodney Wilson. I think he is of the ancestors of the Wilsons from Cape Palmas. One of the things that the government says we collected money for Pleebo market and there is no Pleebo market. Rodney Wilson and his wife [Juliana Obi-Wilson] - who is not even a Liberian, wanted to support Pleebo because he comes from Maryland. They sent someone to go and assess how they could help the market people to build a little market. As soon as they heard that people were there trying to assist, the superintendent wrote to the people in London and said "I am the government authority; if you do anything in Pleebo you must give me the money. In fact you must send 50,000.00." The people immediately dropped the project because they don’t have that kind of money. As a result, they sent a couple of thousand dollars to Nimba county and the maternity hut is in existence.

I urge these people who say there is nothing, to go to the communities themselves. Let them go and inspect before they talk. Let them ask. I dare anybody put a notice out to any of the international NGOs, to any of the bilaterals and ask them if they have given money to measuagoon.

The government should rather be encouraging people like me to do things for the communities, the things that the government ought to be doing and cannot do. Instead of encouraging us, because of political motives, they will try to assassinate someone’s character. The government will try to do everything to bring you down. They are not doing me any harm; I can stand the test of times. We are the only NGO that publish our full statement in the local papers. Our published statements contain operations we have, where we have them, how much money was put in each operation and the financiers, the results of the projects/ operations. Local journalists have visited our sites and published articles and photographs from our projects.

Are there other projects the people are engaged in?

Basically we try to encourage the people to do farming to have enough food to feed themselves. After that we try to tell them to generate a surplus so that they can sell some of the farm products to try to repair their schools. We have done some school repairs, we have done wells for safe drinking water and in Nimba county we built this maternity hut because that is what the community wanted for expectant mothers and their children. Basically it is farming; we’ve gotten more and more into schools. There are more requests for clinics because of the lack of health services.

The little money we have used has made big difference in the lives of many people. I have been pleased to do these things but I am sorry that instead of encouraging me our government is finding a way to vilify me for something that I do.

Let us turn to the clemency. Clemency is like a pardon; forgiving an individual for his or her crime. When an individual is pardoned, the record is not destroyed; the information can be disseminated. Being pardoned can also mean that you have been guilty for a crime. Mrs. Sirleaf, you were among several persons - most of who are still in exile - recently granted clemency by President Taylor after being charged with treason. Can you comment on the clemency and the treason charge?

I have said and I will repeat that I committed no pardonable offense. You cannot pardon me for a crime I did not commit. I am not a part of the Lofa rebellion or the Lofa war. I have said that and I will continue to say that because that is the simple truth. Mr. Taylor put a bogus charge on my head, I resisted it, I protested against it. When he felt good and ready, he removed the bogus charge enabling me to go home and I went home.

People say I must say thanks for the pardon. I say, yes I am grateful that I am able to go home but I can’t say thanks for pardoning me for something I did not do. But the fact that the bogus charge was lifted, and it enables me to go home to meet with my families and friends and do little things for the country, in that respect I am grateful for that.

So did the charge prevent you from going to Liberia?

Oh, absolutely! Mr. Taylor was very clear on the open radio that if I put my foot on Liberian soil, I would be arrested. He wasn’t ambiguous. His statement was very clear. So I would have been foolish when someone like Mr. Taylor, who has the power in his hand, someone who has the power to allow you to live or die, to eat or to starve, I would have been foolish if I had gone home under those conditions. But when the charge was lifted and I was told that I could go home and be safe, I went home and I am glad I did.

On the release of Gbai Gbala, his brother David Gbala and James Chelly, analysts believe that President Charles Taylor’s clemency to the three while the others are still behind bars is unjust. That is because the Gbala brothers and James Chelly and the others were charged with the same crime - treason - and went through the same court "trial", received the same sentence and the recent 10-year increment of their sentence, although without any new evidence to their case. Could there be any political motivation for the partial clemency –granting clemency to the three while Charles Breeze and the rest are still behind bars?

I have to say on that one I don’t really know. I believe that he should have released all of them because they all were charged with the same crime or the same accusation they were all subjected to. They all went through the same legal process and if he has now decided that he thinks those charges should be cancelled, I think they should be cancelled for all. I also think it would be in the interest of Mr. Taylor, in the interest of the country and in the interest of reconciliation for him to release everybody. I don’t know why he did it only partially, I don’t know the motivation, and I don’t know upon what basis he would be prepared to release the rest. We can all just call on him to say in all fairness, in the name of justice, in the name of reconciliation and national unity, he should release the rest of them.

Our constitution guides against torture in prison and the confinement of non-military persons in military prisons. Our constitution also speaks against the abduction, arresting and detaining of a person or persons without charge for over 48 hours. In recent times, Charles Breeze, Gbai Gbala and several other persons suffered ill treatment during their arrest and detention. There are other cases of persons arrested during the Sept. 18th incident who were not charged or taken to court far beyond the stipulated 48-hour period - almost two years. There may be several other persons whose situations are yet to be publicized. These constitutional provisions are also supported and strengthened by various international instruments on human rights. How do you see issues being resolved – the rights of the people respected?

Let me first say I don’t know the conditions to which Gbai Gbala and others were subjected. I don’t have any information on that. So I can’t say something relating to that. I can just say that Liberia has had a long history of inhumane treatment to prisoners. Liberia has had a long history - particularly in recent years - of serious violations of human rights, people being arrested without being charged, people staying in prison without going to courts, recourse of the justice system is very limited and the functioning of justice itself has come under serious scrutiny and serious questioning. Something needs to be done because in Mr. Taylor and his government’s own interest, unless Liberians have confidence in their own safety, unless they have confidence that their rights would be protected; and rights carry responsibilities so we know that when people exercise their rights they must also be held responsible. But unless they have that confidence, you are not going to see them do anything to improve the situation - like repairing their homes, starting their farms and businesses and when Liberians don’t do it, they send signals to the outside world that says ‘we don’t have confidence’ and the outside people say if the Liberians don’t have confidence in their own government and their own environment, we also cannot trust it.

Today’s world is open. People are in the country making regular reports. The government blames us on the outside saying we are the ‘bad mouth’ for the government. The government is doing it to itself; the international community sees everything in these places through business people, visitors, through diplomatic missions, through NGOs. All of these people make reports. Our government needs to really do a self-appraisal, a serious self-appraisal - stop blaming all the ills on everybody else. The government should look within themselves and see what’s going wrong and try to correct it because if they don’t, they will not leave a legacy. They will not be successful.

Mrs. Sirleaf, let’s look at the coming 2003 elections. What do you think are some of the problems or constraints political parties and voters may face since it is evident that President Taylor is gearing up contest again?

Oh, I just think of what you call a level playing field, some of the same problems we faced in the July 1997 elections. Will there be access to radio by all the parties? Will the opposition partisans feel free to associate with their parties? Will the media feel free to cover events and campaigns by all the parities? Will we have the management of the election process itself? Will we have honorable people of integrity and neutrality that are going to deal with it? If there are legal cases, will we have a fair and independent judicial system that can adjudge if it becomes necessary? Those are all issues.

Presently you are working on global issues. You are a part of a UNIFEM assessment team assessing the impact of conflict on women and women’s role in peace keeping and nation building worldwide. That takes you to the Balkans, Latin America, Central Africa and probably to the home front. What other activities are you engaged in on the African continent and what is your assessment on their impact on you?

I am a part of the team of the ex-president of Botswana to promote peace, stability and development for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those are the things that have established my credibility, my integrity and competence in doing things. I must say that in most of these places I get a whole lot respect for the work I do in promoting African development. In my own country, I take a lot of abuse. I have been working in development for 30 years with an unassailable reputation and character even in the roles where I served in government. Today some little group stands up and accuses me of embezzling millions of dollars. If our country was not the way it is, our government itself, all these people who engage in character assassination, for the millions of people on the outside, they just make themselves lose even more credibility. They make themselves look bad and it is shameful for them to try to attack the integrity of people who have worked for the continent. Unfortunately, it plays on the home front but just to a segment of society who are being kept uninformed.

How do you reconcile working to restore and sustain peace in other countries when in your country, Liberians are still aching for some amount of peace, let alone development?

Our government is not ready for peace, not ready for reconciliation, not ready for national unity, not ready for national development. We work with the other African governments which themselves have had conflicts and devastation but are ready. We work for them. When our government finally gets ready, we will also be ready to join their processes and to work for them.

What is your image of a better Liberia?

A government that has a national vision and agenda, supported by a strategy that gives the people equal opportunity and equity, a government that is honest, accountable and dedicated to service to the people. We don’t have it yet. We all keep praying that circumstances will enable the Liberian people to benefit from a government of vision, commitment, and honesty. One committed to reconciliation and unity. When that happens, I think Liberia will make great progress on the bases of its best assets, which are its people - its people at home who are suffering but still very resiliently making ends meet under difficult circumstances and all these great talents abroad, this great experience of Liberians in the Diaspora. If you can bring a fusion between the people at home and the talents abroad, in the process of nation building, I dare say Liberia will make great strides and it will be an example of how progress can be made in a short period of time on the basis of dedicated people ready to serve their country.

Anything else you would like to add Mrs. Sirleaf that we have not touched in this interview process? Probably the power of the president and his influence in different institutions of his government and the Liberian society?

Actually on the constitutional issue and the NGO issue, I think I have said enough. All I can add is that sometimes we Liberians are the ones that hold ourselves back, our inability to rise above our personal ambitions. Our constant wanting to pull other people down because the person is perceived to be successful. To put nation above self, to just promote dialogue even where there is a difference, if we can just sit and dialogue. Our first inclination is to criticize, to demean, to vilify anyone who does things that doesn’t conform to what we think it ought to be. I hope all of us can rethink, can do better and try to redirect ourselves. Some of us get tired; the battle or the struggle has been long. But Liberia remains the number one priority. So don’t tire, don’t fatigue, we should try to continue and hope for the best.

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