"I Am Not Seeking A Public Exchange With Mrs. Johnson- Sirleaf," Says Ambassador Streeb

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted May 23, 2002

Former U.S. Ambassador to Zambia and an executive of the Atlanta-based Carter Center's African Governance Program, Gordon Streeb has reacted sharply to recent characterization of his remarks in a CNNI interview by Liberian opposition politician Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as comparing both the electoral processes of Liberia and Sierra Leone and leaders of the two countries, Charles Taylor and Tejan Kabbah.

In a letter to The Perspective, Ambassador Streeb said: "Upon my return to Atlanta following observation of the Sierra Leone presidential elections, I found a letter via email from Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf severely criticizing me regarding remarks I made during an interview with CNN International's Q&A program," and explained that he had been informed by a colleague that the content of the letter had been published in The Perspective.

"Although I am not seeking a public exchange with Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf on this matter, I believe it [is] incumbent upon me to ensure that your readers are not left with only her version of my interview," Ambassador Streeb said, clarifying that the interview in question was conducted by CNN International and not BBC as Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf had alluded in her letter to him.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf had told the Ambassador in her letter that there was no comparison between the 1997 Special Elections in Liberia that brought Charles Taylor to power and the May 2002 General Elections in Sierra Leone in which incumbent president Tejan Kabbah was re-elected, nor could the personalities of Taylor and Kabbah be compared.

"Unlike Tejan Kabbah a gentle and respected man with many years of international service to mankind, the prime contestant in the Liberia elections was Charles Taylor, a warlord with nothing but murder, mayhem and dishonesty in his life experience. Unlike Tejan Kabbah a man whose lifestyle depicts concern for the conditions which have made his country poor, in Liberia Charles Taylor's ostentatious and rather vulgar life style demonstrates no concern for the plight of his people. Unlike Tejan Kabbah a man trying to promote regional harmony and collaboration, Charles Taylor has done everything to destabilize neighboring countries with the sole interest of putting himself in the position to exploit their resources for self gain," Johnson-Sirleaf said in her letter to Ambassador Streeb, in reaction to remarks attributed to the Ambassador in his now clarified CNN International interview.

"I would like by this note to take strong exception to your BBC interview a few days ago by which you made comparison of the ongoing Sierra Leone elections and the Liberia general elections of 1997. I believe you said, inter-alia, that you hope that, unlike Liberia, the Sierra Leone people (and the contestants) will accept the results of the elections and move on with their lives," Johnson-Sirleaf wrote while reminding the Ambassador that "Jesse Jackson once likened Foday Sankoh to Nelson Mandela and your BBC interview implied a likening of Tejan Kabbah to Charles Taylor. The Sierra Leone people condemned Jesse Jackson for this preposterous comparison and the Liberian people will similarly condemn you for yours".

But in his letter of reply to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, copy of which he also sent to The Perspective, Ambassador Streeb told Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, "I am very perplexed by your comments on my interview as they do not reflect what I said. I have retrieved the transcript of my remarks. While the syntax and precise words used in my oral interview are not exactly what I would have chosen had I made my comments in writing, they nevertheless accurately reflect my views."

Ambassador Streeb explained that in answer to a CNN Jim Clancy's question asking him to describe the Sierra Leonean voting process, and whether or not the ballot casting was free, he said he indicated that there was a "real parallel" about how the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone went about trying to solve their problem after many years of civil war, in so far as using the ballot box and thousands of people standing in line to vote.

"Where the parallel breaks down is the candidates in Liberia were all faction leaders, warlords, so to speak. The leaders here of the parties are mainly people who have been in business and in the civilian sector, in the government sector, and I agree that the real challenge here is that people will accept the outcome of this vote and move on. Find below excerpt from the transcript of the interview sent to The Perspective by Ambassador Streeb:

CLANCY: "Describe the voting in our view. When you look at the way the ballots began to be cast, was it free?"

STREEB: "Well, Jim, you know, I have to be reminded of five years ago when I led the Carter Center team to the elections in neighboring Liberia.

"Circumstances very similar. The end of a civil war, using the ballots under the supervision of the West African forces and the United Nations to bring an end to that equally disastrous and horrendous war.

"Thousands of people also standing in line. There was a real parallel about how the people in these two countries went about trying to solve their problem.

"Where the parallel breaks down is the candidates in Liberia were all faction leaders, warlords, so to speak. The leaders here of the parties are mainly people who have been in business and in the civilian sector, in the government sector, and I agree that the real challenge here is that people will accept the outcome of this vote and move on.

"Unfortunately, in Liberia that didn't happen. They have slipped backwards. And so I think if Sierra Leone has a real challenge, it's to look at the Liberian example and move beyond that, and put all this behind them.

"But at the same time, deal with the fact that there a lot of angry people out there, and they are looking to what is in their future for them, and that's going to be the challenge for anybody that is elected president."

"The one regret I have is that I had intended to say that "many of the candidates in Liberia" (were warlords) and it came out as "all" which was certainly not the case. My point was that leading candidates in Liberia were warlords while in Sierra Leone there was only one who would fit that description," Streeb assured Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf.

"You will note that I mentioned no names. In fact, it would have been inappropriate for me to do so as a neutral international observer since I did not know the results of the election. It escapes [me] how you inferred from my CNNI comments that I was in any way drawing comparisons, parallels or whatever else between Presidents Taylor and Kabbah. In fact, if there was any inference at all, it was to the contrary by my references to "warlord" versus "government sector" candidates. Your attempt to malign me by some far-fetched comparison with Jesse Jackson's comments on Foday Sankoh and Nelson Mandel is totally unwarranted by the facts and should be retracted,” Ambassador Streeb protested to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf.

"I intentionally drew on the Liberia parallel because we are one of those organizations focusing on the issues, which cross borders in the Manu River region. I wanted to illustrate by example the fragility of these attempts at peace unless an all-out effort is immediately initiated to find outlets for ex-combatants and to begin the process of national reconciliation. Furthermore, since our delegation included five leaders of civil society from Liberia and two from Guinea we as a delegation wanted to reflect the Manu River context in our statements. As I am sure you are aware, the sixth member of our team, Tiawan Gongloe, was not allowed to leave the country to join our team, which I personally protested to the Government of Liberia. I am fully aware of the contents of many human rights assessments of the Government of Liberia and we have been directly impacted by some of the abuses cited," apparently referring to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's enclosure in her letter to the Ambassador, the 2001 State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in Liberia.

"While you have contrasted the peacemaking/elections processes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, there is one thing most observers believe these processes had in common, i.e., time was too short to organize them well. This was certainly less true for Sierra Leone than Liberia, but opposition parties in Sierra Leone were very critical of the short time in which they could organize and to campaign since the state of emergency was not lifted until April 5. The problem is that when and under what circumstances to hold an elections is always an issue, even under the best of circumstances, but in the cases of these two countries, the international/regional players engaged decided the time had come to secure a peace by having a post-conflict elected government," Streeb explained.

"The Carter Center in particular believed that the elections timetable in Liberia in 1996/97 was unrealistic but we were not the ones who were providing the forces on the ground. I can say that neither election would have come off had it not been for the presence of international peacekeeping forces and their logistical capabilities.

"If I were to generalize about the atmosphere surrounding these two elections and their outcomes, I would say that the majority of voters in Sierra Leone believed President Kabbah, based on his record, was the candidate most likely to lead them forward to reconciliation and rebuilding whereas the majority of voters in Liberia believed Charles Taylor was the most capable of reigniting the fighting had he lost. You know very well what the slogans were in Liberia in 1997," he said.

"Aside from your misinterpretation of my CNNI comments, what concerns me more about your comments is that they seem to reveal a more deep-seated determination to associate the attempt by The Carter Center to work with all parties in Liberia, including President Taylor, with what you believe to be my personal views and perhaps those of the Center as well. In fact, I don't even know how you would know my personal views. But no matter what my views may be, The Carter Center must deal with the realities in the country if we are to play any role at all. As we are frequently reminded by representatives of other organizations (including one you worked for) and some governments, like it or not, Charles Taylor is the elected President of Liberia.

"We, of course, have the choice of doing nothing. We could stand back as do some organizations with a different mandate and criticize and condemn. But if we are to live up to our mission of building peace, we must work with those elements that must be part of the peace process. Unlike the UN, ECOWAS or others with the capability of enforcing solutions, we are not in that position. I therefore caution against leaping to conclusions about what our personal views may be regarding those individuals who must at the moment be part of the solution. If another solution is found, so be it, but as long as we are engaged we can not be seen as neutral if we are speaking out in public against one or more of the parties. When we got to the point in November 2000 where we believed we could no longer be effective, we said so in public," Dr. Streeb said.

"By the time of November 2000 when we closed down our office in Monrovia, we had come to the point of no longer seeing a way out given the climate existing there. Liberian civil society organizations continue to express their regrets that we took this step. When you came to The Center in January 2001 to meet with President Carter, he accepted your request to reengage on the belief that perhaps there was yet a way to push forward with the process of reconciliation. Our activities since January 2001 have all been toward this goal. When I met with Foreign Minister Captan last August I explained very clearly the conditions that have achieved almost universal acceptance as signifying a transparent election that will reflect the will of the voters. I noted that unless President Taylor was prepared to initiate steps immediately toward establishing those conditions, the international community was unlikely to accept the legitimacy of another Taylor government. Changes at the last minute to placate the international community would not suffice, not to speak of their unacceptability to Liberians. Our intention is to continue stressing this message and to work with all other interested parties to ensure it is heard. The ECOWAS meeting of last Saturday may have been a step in that direction," Ambassador Streeb stated.

"...I would hope that my comments above address your concerns and that we can all work together for a brighter future for Liberia. I can absolutely guarantee you we have not picked a favorite," the former Ambassador concluded his letter to Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf.

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