Trial Verdict Undermines Peace, Stability and Reconciliation
Says Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
An Interview
By Jackson Kanneh

A leading Liberian opposition leader, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has warned Liberian government authorities against carrying out the 10-year jail sentence for 13 ethnic Krahn supporters of former warlord Gen. Roosevelt Johnson.

All 13-men, among them former senior government officials in the Samuel Doe administration, were convicted recently by a 12-man jury on charges of plotting to oust the government and overthrow President Charles Taylor.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said court arguments were not convincing for the conviction of the 13 so-called coup makers.

Below is the full interview with New York-based correspondent Jackson Kanneh:

Kanneh: What is your reaction to reports that Criminal Court A in Monrovia has found 13 men guilty of a plot to oust the Liberian government and subsequently sentenced them to ten years in prison?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, you know one has to feel pained and saddened by yet another in a series of events that undermine the peace and stability and the reconciliation which we know everyone wants for our country. So I'm quite sad about it.

Kanneh: Does this moment take you back to the 1980s when the country was faced with these same problems? Is there a pattern here?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Absolutely, this is again part of a continuing pattern of government repressive and intimidating behavior that we have all experienced in the past. We all know that in the past people were unjustly accused of serious crimes like treason and sedition. Many of us were subjected to and victimized by this, intensifying the intimidation of people and then making the government or the Head of State to look good by pardoning them ultimately. Like I said, it's a pattern in the country that has gone on for several years and we had hoped that this new beginning would have led us to much different behaviors and new methods of trying to approach the peace, development and stability that we all want. But once again we are looking backwards instead of forward.

Kanneh; You visited Liberia several times when the treason trial was going on. Did you ever expect such an outcome in which a guilty verdict would have been rendered?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Well, no because I didn't believe, nor was anything I read or saw or listened to in the argument of the case convinced me that these people were guilty. As a matter of fact, I may use my own example: as everyone knows in the indictment I was listed as having participated in a meeting in Freetown with some of those who are now being judged guilty. Well I immediately reacted, pointing out to the government that that was a totally false statement, that all it was meant to do was to intimidate me and frighten me away from the country, that I have never been to Freetown or been to any parts of Sierra Leone since early '97 before I even became a candidate in the 1997 elections. So if what was said about me was false then I must conclude that what was said about others were equally false. So I was never convinced and none of the arguments in the court convinced me. As a matter of fact, I was very impressed by the closing argument of Counselor [Benedict] Sannoh who I thought put the case quite rightly and again I don't know what's going on in the country. It is so disheartening because this was once again an opportunity to be different [But]... democracy, [and] freedom have just been put under the carpet. Here we go again, Dejavu.

Kanneh: What message do you have for the Liberian government, especially Mr. Charles Taylor, who is in the position to pardon those convicted?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Obviously my message to the government, to Mr. Taylor, to all of those concerned is to please think twice. Please do not do anything that will provoke counter--reaction, that will undermine their own desires and their own efforts for reconciliation and peace. Please don't make innocent people suffer and be victimized for political aims and political objectives. So I hope that Mr. Taylor will act wisely, that he will move swiftly to pardon them and to seek reconciliation among the parties. From what I read and from what I heard from the court arguments, I think it will be in Mr. Taylor's interest to find a way out of this by granting full pardon.

Kanneh: You said before that the government lacks the confidence within the international community. Does this court ruling undermines international confidence in the Liberian government?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Oh, no doubt about it. You see when these happen, people tend not to pay attention to them and subsequently when the government doesn't get the support that it wants, it then blames citizens including myself of lobbying against them. But that's not true. People take note; today the communication revolution means that any action on the part of any government is very quickly noted and known by the outside world, they formulate their judgement and their option on the basis of these. This action will only add to the feeling that the country is not totally stable; that their questionable acts could lead to undermining peace and reconciliation and that is going to [effect] the lack of confidence in the government and its commitment for peace. So we think hard to point out that these are not in the interest of the government, if indeed it wants to achieve its objectives of being able to demonstrate that they have the vision, and the capacity and the capability to not only manage the affairs of state, but to secure the human and economic security that we all seek. Clearly they have not measured up and this is just going to be another added dimension to their failure.

Kanneh: Does this development affect your political work in Liberia? Would it deter you?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: No, I intend to continue my work. My work is peaceful; it is contributory to development and I wish I had more time to spend in the country to be able to do even more. But this will not deter me even if it is meant to intimidate and keep some of us out of the country so that the country is run like a little bush operation. I will continue my work, I will continue to do what I have to remain lawful, remain peaceful and continue to call the government to task when their actions and their policies are not in the best interest of the Liberian people. That's the crux I will bear. I know it! I am on the attack by them all the time for this, but as long I say what is true, what I do is legal, I will continue to do what I must do in order to be one of the few voices that say to the government if you want peace, if you want stability, if you want reconciliation, if you want development, you got to do things differently. You cannot move us back to the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1980s - that have not served our country right and this is why Liberia is in a rather dreadful situation,

Kanneh: Have we reached a situation where people not associated with the government, can now say enough is enough, We are out of it, and bye to Liberia. Or those out of Liberia could say they have had enough already and never again in Liberia. Is this the level we've reached already?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: We are reaching that level. In fact, I may say we have reached that level in the case of so many persons, and persons whose skills and abilities are really needed to help rebuild the country. Many people have just said: can't take it anymore, can't continue to make sacrifices, can't continue to suffer and can't continue to be worried, So let's leave it. Let the people do what they want to do. [We] can't tell you what's happened with [our] own families and closed friends who have said, "why you have to keep doing this? Why do you have to keep making sacrifices and putting your life and your safety and your resources at risk?" But we must continue. Not in my interest. My years are far spent, but in the interest of our children and our children's children, we must not let those who have made the great sacrifices of life and liberty; those who have made significant investment in order to see Liberia restructured and re-ordered, we must continue to do what we can to reach the objective of a [new] society.

Kanneh: What do you say to other members of the opposition community in light of this development?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: I must continue to encourage not only opposition leaders and oppositions, but all Liberians, to continue to support the efforts for peace and development in the country. I must continue to encourage people, as much as they can, to go home and join this effort. We are not opposed to the government per se, we are opposed to the wrong policies and practices of the government and we have to bring that to the attention of the government. And so I keep saying that the fact that we're in opposition does not make us enemies. People have said we criticize and we don't make suggestions. That is totally false. If they look at the statements that we make, they are quite balanced. Yes we criticized, but we also make suggestions. The unfortunate thing is that - those who lack vision never see the suggestions for what they are. But I will continue to encourage everybody to go home, to

support home, to support the people of Liberia in whatever they do particularly in their development efforts. And I do know that ultimately, good prevails over evil, because it's not the government we're fighting, it is the forces of evil that we continue to resist.

Kanneh: Finally Mrs. Sirleaf, if you had the opportunity to right a wrong in Liberia, what would that be?

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: In the first instance I think we need to re-emphasize the basic freedoms of people - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom from fear, [and] more importantly, the freedom of want. All of those fundamental freedoms that bring dignity to the human being. And, then one would also need to work on reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just talk and rhetoric. Reconciliation is recognizing our past and our history; its failures and its successes, finding those things that divide us and being able to identify whereby we can bridge the divide in bringing us together. We need then to concentrate on development to bring to our people, human security and economic empowerment, self empowerment. Those are part of what can form a national vision that will lead us out of this morass in which we find ourselves. I hope that the government was willing enough to give up its complete attention and control and misuse [of]resources and would try to achieve and formulate a vision that incorporate some of these new ideas.

Kanneh: Thank you Mrs. Sirleaf I appreciate your opinion.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf: Thank you also