Washington, DC — Two years after the end of more than a decade of civil war, Liberia is preparing for a vigorously contested election. Campaigning begins officially August 15, and Liberians will go to the polls on October 11. In the race for the presidency, 27 candidates have been nominated and will be reviewed by the election commission. Only approved candidates will qualify to run. The status of George Weah, the former football star whose name recognition has pushed him into the forefront of the presidential race, remains unclear after a complaint filed by a coalition of 18 political parties says his assumption of French citizenship to play for the French national team makes him ineligible. When Weah called for massive street demonstrations in response to the challenge, transitional Justice Minister Kabineh Janneh banned all public demonstrations for the duration of the election season to "guarantee an election free of violence." Liberia's National Elections commission has not yet ruled on the complaint against Weah but will announce the list of qualified presidential candidates next week.
Another leading candidate is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 66, a Harvard-trained former finance minister, banker and senior official at the United Nations Development Fund. During Liberia's transitional period, she chaired the Governance Reform Commission to tackle corruption within the government. She unsuccessfully opposed then-president Charles Taylor in the country's last election in 1997, in a ballot widely viewed as flawed by intimidation. This year she is running again as standard-bearer for the Unity Party. A July 30 article in the Times of London said her regard by the public places her second to Weah in a "two-horse race." This month Sirleaf visited the United States to speak at Harvard and meet with Liberian supporters living in the United States. She spoke with AllAfrica about her candidacy and her hopes for her country's future. Excerpts:
After your recent travels around Liberia, how do you assess the security situation? Is it going to be possible to conduct a free and fair election?
We're not going to have a perfect election. It's going to have all kinds of problems. In the countryside people are just returning to their villages from displaced and refugee camps. Many of them can't even stay in the villages, because there is nothing to come back to. Home are destroyed, farms are destroyed.
But wherever we are, there is great enthusiasm for these elections. People want to give a mandate to somebody. People want to see a government that will respond to their needs, is accountable to them, and that's what is driving the elections. The number of registered voters, 1.4 million, has surpassed all of our expectations. We thought if we got anywhere near a million we'd be doing great.
We got 1.4, and that's a great story. Fifty percent are women, and that's a greater story. We're quite pleased with the results, and I think it reflects the enthusiasm and the commitment of the Liberian people to this process of democratic change.
Why are you running for president?
I want to change the country. We have a small country with ample resources and a small population, and we remain undeveloped compared with so many African countries. The potential is so large. Good leadership can make Liberia a model country, both in terms of development and democracy. We need to come out of these elections with a good leader who has the capacity and the experience to lead the team that overtakes the processes of reconciliation and development.
After the destruction that Liberia has experienced for several decades, how can it possibly become a model country?
That's the challenge. Our endowment is rich, our resources, both natural and human, are quite sufficient to meet the needs of our population. If we use our resources well and if we can forge the requisite reconciliation and unity, I believe that we can make very, very demonstrable progress in a relatively short period of time.
There are those who say you can't win because you are a woman. What makes you think you can win?
It doesn't mean it isn't a big challenge, but we think Liberia's on the verge of making history. Liberia's going to have the first African woman president, and the women in Liberia are resolved to make this happen. Anyone who tells you I cannot win because I am a woman is just way, way off course.
How has this campaign differed from your earlier efforts?
This time there's competition - minus the participation of any warlords, minus the guns and the conflict. That makes a big difference. There's a lot more freedom - freedom for individuals, freedom for the media. You see that we have many candidates. It's because for so many this is a first experience at attempting to be part of a democratic process, and that in itself attests to the suitability of the environment for this.
How do you respond to the charge that you supported Charles Taylor when he began his rebellion and therefore have to take some responsibility for atrocities he committed?
I just get surprised at the media and how they get locked into one idea. Look at what happened: I fought to get Charles Taylor out of Liberia. It took three years convincing African leaders and the international community that Charles Taylor was bad news. Many of us supported Charles Taylor in the beginning. Six months into his movement we realized that he was nothing but a power hungry person after personal enrichment, and we fought him ever since. Yet the media fails to see that! Charles Taylor belongs to the dustbin of history. Will you people please stop keeping him alive?
Do you think Taylor should be extradited from Nigeria to face trial before the Special Court in Sierra Leone?
Taylor had a deal with west African leaders that he would go into exile and would not interfere in Liberia or west African politics. If the evidence is true that he's broken the deal because he's been trying to influence the Liberian elections and also may have supported some destabilizing action in neighboring countries, then he's broken the deal. And if he has, he should bear the consequences, which means, he should go to the Freetown Special Court. My understanding from reporters is that the three presidents of the Mano River countries (Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone) have in effect requested Nigeria to extradite him on the basis of this evidence.
You've been critical recently of the interim government. Why are you disappointed in their performance?
Well, simply because the level of corruption has intensified, we have had so much failure to protect human rights, and we have had religious tensions in society that, in my view, have not been properly addressed. But the major reason is the mismanagement of our resources.
At all levels, corruption has been a problem. It's been a problem with us for a long time. I'm not saying the transitional government introduced it, but the transitional government was committed to trying to bring some of those bad practices to a stop, and in fact they have participated in it and the public is just so disenchanted. We also have had evidence of the nation's assets being given out in the form of contracts and assession agreements, which we think is not appropriate for a government which does not have the legitimacy that comes out of elections. Those are the reasons - the lack of accountability and transparency.
How can you achieve political unity in a country that has experienced so much conflict for so many years?
I think we've just got to respond to the basic needs of the people. We need peace, but to get peace you need development and to get development you need peace. They are interrelated.
Many ex-combatants have been disarmed [but] they have not yet been reintegrated into communities. The majority of them have not been through skills training programs and educational programs. They're idle, they're unemployed, they're vulnerable, so they could easily be recruited for another war unless we address those needs and do it urgently.
We also have the victims. Many of our young children - I've seen them in villages across the country - are not in school. Eighty-five percent unemployment - that's a recipe for disaster. It's not a lack of resources, I keep saying. Our country is not poor. We have resources. We have commitments from our partners - funds that were pledged at the donor conference [in 2004]. Large amounts of that remain unused, because the donors have lost confidence as a result of the poor performance of the transition government.
If we come out of the elections with a government that has credibility and experience and that is committed to development and to all the tenants of good governance, we establish the right priorities. For God's sake, two years after the exile of Taylor, we don't have basic things like electricity and water!
We do that, and we get all these young people into school or into productive endeavors; that is a basic element of trying to unify the population. Obviously there are things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has to be made more functional. The justice system needs a lot of reordering to make sure that those whose rights are abused have a means of redress.
Those are the challenges, but we must start with a government that is inclusive, that reflects the diversity of our nation, so everybody feels like they have some representation [and] have a stake in the progress that we intend to make. I am optimistic that it can be done.
You're saying one of the first steps is to have a government that is representative and not skewed one way or the other ethnically or regionally or any other way?
No question. Anyone that wins this election and tries to do a winner-take-all type of government would face tremendous problems. You have to include everybody so that everybody is in it. Everybody has to have a stake in moving the country forward.
Could you comment on relations between Liberia and its neighbors?
Liberia has always had good relations with our neighboring countries. That relationship deteriorated during the Taylor regime as a result of Mr. Taylor's interference against our neighbors. We have, since the transition and since the talks in Accra, made amends with all of our neighbors and pledged never to see our territory used again for any insurrection against any neighbor. I personally have been making a tour - I have not completed it - but I have visited some of the countries and met the leaders and I have given my political commitment, as I'm sure many of the other candidates have, that we are going to make sure that we remain good neighbors and work together.
For me, it's much more than just giving a commitment not to use our territory for aggression. It's a question of serious commitment to regional integration and cooperation, because that, in itself, is a deterrent to conflict in the subregion. If we provide job opportunities and provide the means for better movement of goods and people, where we get the economies of scale, those are the things that will improve our relationship with our neighbors. I certainly have that very high on my agenda.
What role do you see the Liberian Diaspora playing in the election?
They're playing an important role already, even pre-election. Liberians abroad provide significant resources to the country - huge amounts to take care of their family and friends. In these elections, they are much more involved than they have been in other elections. They are enthusiastic, they are aggressive, they are participatory with the candidates or party of their choice, they are having rallies, they are supporting with ideas, with money.
To all of our disappointment, they have not been allowed to vote, simply because the Election Commission didn't feel they had the capacity to manage a vote externally. But many went home to register, and many will try to go home to vote. Many of them that cannot vote are working in support of candidates. I know that I'm enjoying support from Liberians in this country and in other countries to ensure that we win.
Liberia's major donors, including the United States, have proposed a Liberian Economic Governance Action Plan (LEGAP) to address their concerns about corruption and economic mismanagement? Do you support this?
I see that as a donor response to the frustrations they have had. We have been unable to meet the arrangement we had with them for the solid management of our resources and for efforts to clear up corruption. And so they're proposing to put in technical assistance that would not only put in advice but would have authority to stop corruption. I am not worried about it. I know that if we win the elections, no donor is going to impose anything on us because we'll have the capacity and the credibility to do what is right.
You have said that your consuming passion is to see good governance in Liberia before you die. Is that what this campaign is about?
Yes, it remains that, in the last mile of a long haul. Hopefully, we're going to change Liberia for good. I have visited all 15 counties. The situation in our country is sad. Sad! But when you look at the young people, you see the eyes of hope. We all want a new Liberia. That's what this is all about.