Africa’s first female head of state, her country founded in 1847 by free slaves is Africa’s oldest republic. She took office in 2006 after more than a decade and half of war, destruction and dislocation so how is she faring at the task, the job of rebuilding?
Madam President, how is Liberia faring at your leadership?
We think we are making progress; we’ve come from a long way of destruction, institutions, infrastructure, and attitudes. But in the first eighteen months of this government we’ve clearly defined our vision and our development agenda and we are now working toward trying to accomplish these specific goals that we have set under that agenda, we call it our (not very clear), peace and security, economic revitalization, infrastructure and governance and the rule of law.
Are you getting anywhere with the pillars?
Yes we are, absolutely and each of the pillars we have made significant progress. If I am specific, we are training a new army and our police force and auxiliary security services are now being trained to be professionals, we’ve set our economic goals just about to the place where we will benefit from, that relieve for billion plus external debt that has not being serviced since the early 1980’s. We’ve met the requirements to the lift sanctions on our forestry and our diamond sector; we’ve qualified for AGOA (African Growth and Opportunities Act) as well as opened up Exim Bank and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee. We are re-negotiating some concession agreements, metal steel has been re-negotiated that should bring a billion dollar investment for the re-opening of one of our mines and we are now looking at proposals for the opening of other mines and our forestry sector should start, so we’ve done well we think. Infrastructure we are trying to re-build the schools, the clinics and the roads and the governance of the rule of law perhaps we’ve faced our challenge. Our civil service restructuring, we take all the arrears that we’ve inherited from several governments of the past.
It sounds like a huge task?
It is really, it’s awesome but it’s got to be done and we are just pleased that this government continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the people despite pockets of discontent.
Is the task at hand bigger or smaller or equal to what you had imagined?
In a way something bigger than I had imagined because I didn’t realize that the institutional decay was so deep rooted, that corruption was so systemic and those represent serious challenges the capacity so underdeveloped and we will take us some time.
But this is a republic that is more than a hundred and fifteen years old; had some of the best schools, is it because the middle class and the intellectuals have left?
There is a large part of it, don’t forget that we’ve been in economic decline for some twenty five years and in conflict for some fourteen years. During these periods much of our resources both human and capital fled the country, the destruction of infrastructure and institutions are so profound and so the task of trying to re-build and re-move is just enormous so a hundred and fifteen years to do you look at us and you say wow but what happened, what happened to the progress in those first twenty or three years of independence it’s all wiped out and that shows you how conflict can be so profound in this destruction and the processes of re-building is so difficult. But that’s where we are and our challenge is there, we’ve got to face it.
How are you going to ensure that the (not very clear) sanctions have been lifted and you getting debt relieved and all that, the resources of Liberia is benefit to all of the people of Liberia and not just a few?
the requirements for the lifting of sanctions with which we fully agree is quite clear, for example in the forestry sector we have a known forestry law that requires a bidding process for the granting of forestry concession it requires the involvement and participation of the local community in which the forest found requires clear benefits to go to those communities, and it requires that we track the forest products right from the ground until they are exported to the buyer to make sure those resources are put in the government’s coffers and used to support the government’s development, the same applies to diamonds. We believe and besides let’s face it this government is committed to accountability, transparency and to the management of our resources for the good of the people. So I think our political will is probably the strongest element in our commitment to do this.
Madam President you and a hand full of people in your cabinet maybe committed, but do you have a critical mass of people in the civil service, bureaucracy and provinces who are just committed to ensure that what you wish for will indeed happen?
To be very frank we have not yet got that critical mass the attitude that has pertained in the past two decades of now I am there let me get what I have to get because I may not be there tomorrow is still something that we are grappling with but we do believe at the grassroots levels people do want to cease back their future, people do want to have a stake in whatever we do and to take the initiative, now how do we build that little group, how do we get them to be as committed as the many other very good professional Liberians who are working so hard to achieve the objective. We are working on it, it takes a lot of education, sensitization, instruction and we believe that we will get there; it may take us another couple of years but we are on the path.
Recently the auditor general (not very clear) has said that your government is even more corrupt than previous governments, how do your react to that?
This is one of the things I find very perplexing, we have a young auditor general whom I personally encouraged and recruited into the externally supported program called the Government Management Assistant Program (G-MAP) to make sure that he remained independent, when I was at the government’s reform commission I changed the laws to make sure that the auditor general would be put on legislature and not to the executive again to make sure the auditor general remains fully independent and has the scope to carryout his function, but this is a young man who’s only being in the country for a month he’s not done a single audit and this statement just confounds us. Now we are trying to search the background to see if there is something we missed.
Are you suggesting that what he is saying is completely baseless?
Oh! But it is as I said he’s not done an audit for the previous government and he has not done an audit of this government.
Are you contemplating firing?
No I don’t want to go that far and I have said that very openly, we want to encourage all young Liberian professionals to come and work and to support the government. I was really looking forward to the young man working with me and as he said I am his no.1 supporter which is true and I wanted him to come in and have a good strategy to find out where the problems of corruption are to do some audits and to give me some evidences. And this blind side accusation just perplexes me.
Maybe he is so stunned by the depth of corruption that he cannot possibly imagined that it could have been worse before!
But auditor generals do make utterances on the basis of their feelings, they remain quiet, they do their work, they investigate, they audit, they gather their evidences and then present them with recommendations as to what to do, to correct the wrongs where this has to be done.
But at least you’d have to credit him for him being bold and courageous?
When we credit him we creating a big stare in the country in weeks he becomes a star. Maybe that was part of the objective but that’s alright, we will require though, him to now calm down, go to work, do an audit, show us the quality of your professionalism, make some recommendations, assist the government to fight corruption we want that, we welcome that but we want him to abide by the code of auditors too. There is something like confidentiality between an auditor and his client, but he is going to have face a public that requires that having made such strong statement that may well have undermined some of the progress we’ve for example in our database that’s going to benefit the people of the country, those people may require that he now show evidence of giving apology and say that he spoke out of churl anyway these again are some of the challenges we face as we try to move along and we must just be able to accept them for what they are and see this as part of the long road to recovery.
Madam President, what does the trial of Mr. Charles Taylor in The Hague mean to you how important is it to the people of Liberia?
Well the people of Liberia will just like to walk into the future and put that past behind us, the trial goes on based upon an international indictment of Mr. Taylor and not based upon Liberian courts. We would like for it to proceed, we are glad that there is no influence in our sub region although the television coverage of this event has raised the tempo a bit and created some tension particularly amongst the group of loyalists that exists but I think majority of the people would like to put that ugly era behind us.
Does it destruct you?
Oh it does not destruct me personally I mean I know what my challenges are, I know what my mandate is from the people, my goals are quiet clear and I am very focused on achieving that, yes the tensions may again provide for us a means of finding proper responses but so far it’s not a major destruction for me.
Was bringing Mr. Charles Taylor to trial, court, justice a priority for you when you were running for president?
No I didn’t set that as a priority in my running for president, but it happens that Liberia is a member of the united nations, this was an action by the united nations Liberia was simply asked to be a part of that process to comply the requirements and we did what we were expected to do. We have always said in this process that Mr. Taylor would be given a free and fair trial; he would be given an opportunity to defend himself to the fullest, that his dignity would be respected in the process and we think that in The Hague those conditions will be met. Now it’s up to him to take advantage of the opportunity for his defense.
As a formal political opponent or foe do you feel a sense of triumph that Mr. Taylor is having his days in court?
I have no sense of triumph. Any time someone who has risen to prominence in African politics has to reach this level something that there is no triumph for anyone, it’s sad and the fact that Mr. Taylor had an opportunity to provide leadership in our country in that he did not do that and the sad part is that he left the country in ruins and people say they forget as they focus on the trial. What has happened to our people in this era, not only the destruction of our infrastructure but of our value system, the attitudes, the emphasis on violence rather than education, that kind of destruction is sometimes forgotten and this is why I say I think the Liberian people would like to put that ugly past behind them and then embrace the future that is full of promise.
Now that you are president, where did he go wrong?
Oh I think his whole nature was different from one of commitment to the principles of bureaucracy and good governance, frankly I think all his life he should be a rebel at heart.
Now even in South Africa after years of apartheid President Mandela came out of prison, became president and had truth and reconciliation and his bitterest enemies, foes of a black people all they were required to do was to just tell the truth and now they’ve got stability, what about a truth and reconciliation for Liberia?
We need that, we must support that and that’s why in the Accra peace talks it was agreed to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. The work of that commission has started they had some mistakes in the first months of their operation so we are trying to straighten that. We have a government that is largely inclusive, we lots of opposition politicians that are holding ministerial posts, some presidential candidates that I holding positions in the government including ministerial positions. But we need to do more to reach out and to promote the processes of reconciliation that’s very important in the Liberian context given the many years of division and warfare so we’ll continue to try to do more in that regard.
Some will say there’s a contradiction where you have truth and reconciliation going on at home and then you’ve got Mr. Taylor in court at The Hague!
There is no contradiction as I pointed out truth and reconciliation at home was the agreed approach to our problem. Mr. Taylor’s process of facing the court is an international action it has to do with crimes committed not in Liberia but in the neighboring state of Sierra Leone and so there are no contradictions there as we see it.
As the first female president of Africa, how is that important to you?
Well important to me and important to the women of Africa, I might say even to the world because in a way I represent the expectations and the aspirations of women that makes me humble because I know that is serious responsibility and my success will make a major contribution for the opening of doors for women who aspire to high political office, I am very mindful of that and so I must do all I can to succeed on their behalf.
How many women do you have in your cabinet?
Enough, we have five (not very clear) because we did not put the criteria on gender per say but the gender on character, competence, one who is not recorded on violating human rights and also the inclusion aspect of our commitment to bring into the tent political leaders of other parties, we do have women in what we call the strategic positions like justice, commerce, finance, youths and sports, and we even have for the first time in the history of our country an inspector general police who is a woman.
So might there be more female appointments in the coming years of your presidency, maybe some kind of affirmative action for women in leadership?
Oh absolutely, I am looking everyday to define women that need our gender criteria because I do believe that women bring in extra dimension to the task.
Really, what do you bring that men don’t bring?
Honesty, stronger commitment and more sensitivity.
I thought men and women are all equal?
Yes we are equal in our aspirations and professionalism but women go one step beyond that adds to the dimension of being a mother that brings sensitivity to the task in that respect but equal and frankly we are part of that.
So do women make better leaders, does Africa need more women (not very clear)
I think so, just look around men are in dominance for all these years of Africa’s existence and independence and now of course women are challenging but doing it on the basis of competition and as I said, I always tell people that and I think this will apply for all women professionals who aspire to political office. I am a technocrat and a professional who happens to be a woman but in that respect if I bring to the task that extra dimension of the sensitivity of being a mother then I think I stand the chance of being an equal and better in performance.
Does it bring you a sought of an extra thrill as a woman to snap your finger and all the men in the cabinet jump?
No I don’t get any exhilaration from trying to impose dominance on men but I have operated in a man’s world in all my professional life and I have earned my stripes on the basis of competition, I have earned my stripes on the basis of what I bring to the task and I think I have excelled and I have gained the respect.
One of your ministers let you down Mr. Knuckles who had a sexual escapade which was publicized and you had to fire him, how disappointing was that?
That was sad, we had to let him go, we had certain management talents which was why he was appointed. It was sad that he didn’t measure up to the morality as expected of a minister so unfortunate, but that’s what happened.
What would you say to those who say that is his private life he was good at his job why don’t you keep him?
No, there are certain things that are required of anyone who takes high public office you must submit to and inscribe to certain standards of respectability and if you don’t you should not be in that position.
What do you make of the call for Union Government of Africa, where does Liberian stand on the debate?
We stand somewhere in the middle.
You’re playing it safe?
We are playing it safe, that’s correct because for one thing we agree with the concept of the United States of Africa as been proposed as the summit on the basis that the vocalization of Africa, the small market size that we all face we not allow us to be able to compete effectively with other blocks in the world. But on the other hand just at the top seeing you’re committed to this when you haven’t put and placed in the necessary building blocks on the process that will lead to true integration then you are just being political.
So is the Union Government of Africa a desirable objective in your view?
Yes it is and I think more progress should have been made with the regional economic commissions and now we must set specific time tables for the achievement of integrative goals. In the last few years much progress has been made in ECOWAS for example we now have an ECOWAS passport we have other kinds of integrated mechanisms to support integration but we haven’t really set some serious time tables and this summit should probably require all the economic commissions following reports that had been made on the subject, the most recent been the Obasanjo committee report, if time tables were set for the establishment of an African Central Bank well the Pan African Parliament has been set already but we need to follow that particular road map and I believe 2012 was the year established to achieve all of these integrated bodies and 2015 is the target day for the full political integration that has been envisioned now I think we should all work exceedingly towards those goals and we should take them seriously.
Have you always wanted to be president?
Oh, not in my early days, when I grew up I was going to be an English teacher like mother but I got thrown into politics when I got into the public service and one thing led to another and every success becomes another level of competition and success, finally I am there.
Do you feel fulfilled or does it feel like the task, the job is now starting; your life is now starting?
I have reached a point in my life where now I have the challenge, now I can make a difference, now I can be the model and I would like to see Liberia in model of a successful post conflict country one that can set the example that others can follow and say look from whence they have come and look how far they’ve gone and for me that’s my whole commitment right now, that’s everything I want for the rest of my life is to see Liberia succeed in this manner.
How does a president rest?
Well at the end of the day maybe you have sometime to catch up on the look of those or to read quickly some of your papers maybe on weekends and on Sundays I play table tennis sometimes with the Chinese ambassador to Liberia on Sunday afternoons.
It’s a tough one, (she laughs) there are times when I make him sweat and there are times when I get tired too. We play for about an hour, I wish I had time to do more things. One of the things I have always wanted to do is to swim but I can’t anymore It’s one of my favorites and I no longer have a pool. I like jigsaw puzzles those are the rarely good ones I have done over the years but again there’s no time to do that so I settle for what I can, the Ping-Pong on Sundays, a little bit of reading, a little bit of loose watching of TV.
When your six years are over are you going to run for a second term?
No I don’t even want to get into that right now I am concentrated on the mandate I have for the people to move Liberia forward in these six years and that’s exactly what I intend to do.
And when the six years are over?
We’ll cross that bridge from a (not very clear)
That‘s what politicians say when they are going to run for a second term!
No, no, (not very clear) I am not trying to be (not very clear) I really don’t want to get into that argument and I don’t want to give others any anticipation of what’s going to happen. I want us all to remain focused on achieving our goals in these six years, when we get to year five then we’ll sit down and see where we would go from there.
What would be the one achievement you would want to live behind, what would President Sirleaf want to be remembered for?
A hundred percent enrolment of our young people in schools.