Interview with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

[Liberia] Presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at her home on polling day, 8 November 2005. [Date picture taken: 11/08/2005]
President in waiting, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will have her work cut out rebuilding Liberia (Claire Soares/IRIN)

In a special interview with IRIN, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talks about the challenges of justice, reconciliation and economic revival after 14 years of civil war and how it feels to be Africa’s first woman president.

QUESTION: What do you think about the upcoming trial against former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who has been accused of war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone?

ANSWER: “The trial is not a Liberian problem, it’s a UN problem. Charles Taylor was not indicted in a Liberian court. He was indicted by a UN Special Court for crimes committed in Sierra Leone. As far as we are concerned, we just didn’t want the trial to be held in our region because it brought risk to all of our countries. We just hope that the trial will be free and fair, and that he’ll be given the right to defend himself.

Q: But do you think the trial of Charles Taylor will help bring durable peace to Liberia?

A: “It allows Liberia to move forward. As long as the threat of return was there, it held certain risks for us. For us, that settles the matter, no matter what the final verdict is. Liberia can move on and break from the past. That is very important for us to try to achieve our development goals and reconcile our nation.”

Q: The Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was officially inaugurated last week. Some representatives of civil society say it is not enough to just have a TRC. They say Liberia should have its own war crimes tribunal. What is your opinion on that?

A: “You know, we discussed this during the peace talks in Accra [Ghana]. Thousands and thousands of young people, many of them children as young as 10 years old, were forced into violence. They were drugged, they were put on alcohol, and they did bad things. We said, what are we going to do? Take these young people to a war crimes tribunal? What we agreed was, as a first step, we need to put in place the process of contrition and forgiveness. We can have these young people face their accusers, have them say they are sorry and try to have them make a new life. When these accusers say they want more than forgiveness, they want justice, the TRC must recommend justice for them. Then, we can talk about who should face a court. So it’s a two-step thing. But our first step is to find the means to rehabilitate those who were conscripted into war. It’s not a question of undermining justice. We are trying to find a balance between justice on the one hand, and reconciliation on the other.”

Q: The International Crisis Group recently issued an elaborate report detailing the problems of Liberia’s justice system. Do you plan to implement the reforms the ICG recommended and are you getting help from the international community to do so?

A: “We are getting some help but it is not enough. Our entire judicial system has broken down because of the many years of lawlessness, indiscipline and warfare. We need more training to get more qualified judges. We need infrastructural reforms. All of our laws need to be re-examined by a law reform commission. We had so many interim governments, and they passed so many laws, that some of them are duplicating each other, while others are contradicting each other. But it is not enough to just talk about bringing in people to make assessments. We are getting some help but it is not enough. One of our difficulties is that the international community will not support local costs such as salaries. Our salary scales are so low that our judicial system has become corrupt over the years. Now, we need to do some things ourselves. Liberia has to take primary responsibility for its own reform agenda. But our resources are limited. We have to attract the private sector to get jobs to our people that will enable us to raise the government revenue, but to do that we have to build infrastructure. It’s a very complex problem of development we are facing here. Anyway, we are putting together a broad development agenda. We are having a partnership meeting here in July, and we’ll put all these things on the table and see how we can work out a programme of collaboration with our partners.”

Q: After more than five months in office, how successful have you been in attracting foreign investors to Liberia?

A: “Investment proposals are still being discussed. We’ve undertaken to review all concessions and contracts that were signed during the interim government as many of them were not signed in the interest of our country. That process is ongoing. We have also been under sanctions, although sanctions on forestry were lifted just last week. The ministry is now looking at proposals along with our national investment commission. This time, we want to be very careful in giving out a concession and making sure it benefits the local community. It must also bring adequate resources to the country. So we don’t want to be hasty. Some 20 proposals on [forestry] investment are now being looked at. We expect that by October, when the rainy season is over, we will have several concession agreements signed.”

Q: Apart from sanctions, what has been your main stumbling block to attracting the private sector?

A: “Our main obstacle is infrastructure: the lights, the water, the roads. Companies can’t operate without those things. And even though we have commitments from our partners, it takes time to turn commitments into cash.”

Q: What do you believe is your biggest achievement so far?

A: “We have set our financial house in order quite a bit. As a result, our revenues were up thirty percent in this fiscal year. We’ve taken all the strong measures that have enabled us to lift sanctions, which meant cancelling more than eighty contracts and agreements. We’ve already met the qualification for the general system of preferences so that we’re now trying to qualify for AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act]. Exim Bank has reopened its facilities in Liberia. Our code of conduct has been concluded and is going to the legislature. We’ve restructured the government and brought in what we think are a lot good Liberians with qualifications and integrity. So I think we’ve taken all the good first steps. But we haven’t done everything. Electricity – we hoped we could have done more but the resources and the technical assistance just weren’t there. Our infrastructure remains largely undeveloped. But we’ve been able to get the World Bank to give us some 60 million dollars in grants that will be used to fix our roads when the rains stop. We also have a staff monitoring programme with the International Monetary Fund, so we hope that we can look for debt relief maybe within a year or so. The big challenge that remains for us is job creation. We want young people to work or go to school. That is our main preoccupation right now.”

Q: How good is your relationship with the opposition, especially with former presidential candidate George Weah, your rival in the second round of elections [in November]?

A: “We still have some problems with the main opposition. We don’t have a very strong relationship with Mr Weah and his people. We’ve forged a relationship with the young people who were largely his constituency and we are trying to respond to their needs. We don’t think it’s political for them. It’s a question of them getting engaged, getting a job, putting them through schools. But we are still trying to find the means to improve the relationship with the leadership of the main opposition.”

Q: You recently raised alarm over the fact that the percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS has gone up dramatically. Are you considering special measures to combat the spread of the virus in Liberia?

A: “We know the incidence has gone up from four percent a few years go to about twelve percent now. And yes, that is alarming. The ministry of Health has come up with an AIDS programme which has a lot to do with sensitising the public and trying to change people’s behaviour. The response to those who have AIDS, of course, requires resources. This month, we’ll have a team coming in from a laboratory in Chicago to train our people on how to administer anti-retroviral drugs. But our biggest concern is sensitisation. Don’t forget we have peacekeepers here from all over the world, from all over Africa, so the potential is very high.”

Q: Have you met particular obstacles on your way since you were elected due to the fact that you are a woman president?

A: “I don’t face any particular problems as a woman president because I have been a professional for a long time. I keep telling people: I am a technocrat who happens to be a woman. I earned my professional credibility a long time ago in a male-dominated world. I just hope that as a woman, I bring in an extra dimension to the job. I bring in the sensitivity of being a woman and a mother, and that means I pay more attention to women, children, and the social needs of society. Other than that, I don’t really face any obstacles. As a matter of fact, I see it as a positive [thing] because I get support from women. They are my main constituency. But I don’t run a woman government. I run a government of people. Of course, I am the first democratically elected woman president in Africa, and that raises a lot of expectations. Because I represent the aspirations of women all over Africa, I must succeed for them. I must keep the door open for women’s participation in politics at the highest level. That is both humbling and exciting.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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