Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (Democrat - Illinois) has proposed legislation in the United States Congress which would authorize U.S. $225 million in assistance to Liberia over the five years from 2009 to 2013. In an interview with AllAfrica's François Gouahinga and Reed Kramer, Jackson explained the Liberia Stabilization, Economic Empowerment, Development and Security Act - the "Liberia Seeds Act" - and the importance he attaches to helping Liberia and the country's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to re-establish democracy and rebuild the country after 25 years of conflict and civil war.
Why are you proposing to assist Liberia in this way – with a five-year commitment that goes beyond normal bilateral assistance?
As a Congressman, and more recently as vice-chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations of the House Appropriations Committee, I have long taken particular interest in long-term sustainable development in Africa. Even before I was a member of the subcommittee, I promoted legislation to establish a new, fair, free-trade arrangement with sub-Saharan Africa, not based on any colonialist or neo-colonialist models, but on a true partnership between the United States and Africa.
I see the Seeds Act as an extension of that work. We worked through a number of supplemental spending bills when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf first came to speak to Congress shortly after having been elected president. On that occasion, we successfully advanced an amendment to provide nearly $50 million. Historically in our country we welcome visiting presidents - and they leave with an economic development package that allows them to help reestablish democracy, fight for basic human rights [and] create stability within their own countries. Sirleaf, the first woman to ever head an African country, came very close to leaving with nothing. But the day before her speech, we had an Appropriations Committee meeting, and the only amendment accepted to the supplemental appropriations bill after the argument that I made in a Republican-controlled Congress was one that would provide President Sirleaf with a small package, and she was extraordinary grateful.
On subsequent supplemental bills, we also fought for appropriations that in the short run provided the Johnson Sirleaf administration with potable water appropriations, appropriations that included the ability to turn on lights a little faster in Liberia, which is essentially a dark country given that there is very little power and infrastructure.
How is what you are proposing in the 'Seeds' Act different from previous aid packages?
Liberia [now] needs 'seeds planted' to provide her, the country, with sustainable development over a period of time that can ultimately garner international support so that the Johnson Sirleaf government can maintain and have some levels of stability. The bill seeks to provide critical assistance to Liberia in a couple of areas, particularly in post-conflict resolution areas that allow the administration to show some progress in infrastructure.
Our bill specifically [targets] the reconstruction of key roads and key bridges [to enable] commerce, and so that people within Liberia can move back and forth to work. The funds that we appropriate through the Development Assistance Account also help ex-combatants and war affected youth. Many of them have gotten used to the idea of hot and running water and electricity.
I was in Liberia about a year ago… with [subcommittee] chairwoman [Nita M.] Lowey and other members of a congressional delegation: Barbara Lee, Betty McCollum, Brad Miller and Maurice Hinchey. [There we saw] thousands of young people standing on the street corners, standing outside of former colleges and universities and high schools, idle, with nothing to do.
President Johnson Sirleaf shared with us that many of these young men were combatants. They've turned in their weapons through various programs and these efforts have been successful but she's always been very concerned that unless they can turn the economy around, any group of former revolutionaries or those who fought in the civil war could easily reorganize themselves. So some of these funds will help these young men and women to get gainfully employed, learn new skills and rebuild the infrastructure of their country.
Some of the economic support funds will be used to create a government training institute. Interestingly enough, at the end of the [U.S.] Civil War, the Reconstruction government brought former confederates in the government and allowed them to run for Congress again, and allowed them to serve in the United States Senate again. Well, the wife of Charles Taylor is a senator in Liberia. The president introduced her to me. So she functions in an environment where, from various regions of the country, leaders of the civil war—save for [former president] Charles Taylor and others—have been elected in their democracy to public office and are constantly challenging her. And so the idea of creating an institute to train elected officials on how to work within the context of a democracy; [to provide support for] a Liberian truth and reconciliation commission to help with healing; and support educational exchanges between Liberian government officials and U.S. government officials become important components of this bill.
And lastly, police capacity building. Some of the issues we resolved through the Foreign Operations Committee now help clarify funds that had been caught [in] the pipeline that were designed to help provide the Liberian people with the kind of military and police training that they need to keep stability within the country. One of the appropriations that we supported provided security for the president, and training for her security detail. But basic policing functions throughout the country and accountability for the police is an ongoing operation.
The Seeds Act essentially authorizes 225 million dollars over a five-year period to carry out these activities. The bill is very limited in scope, it doesn't address issues such as healthcare, general education, development of agriculture or political participation. This isn't about getting people to vote. This is about government stabilization.
All of our early indication is that this is a bill that will be accepted by the Foreign Affairs committee. Mr. [Howard L.] Berman [chairman of the committee] has expressed his support and his desire to have a very quick hearing on this bill. The Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] has indicated her preliminary support of the legislation and we believe that we have sponsors in the Senate who are prepared to act on this bill as well. The president [President George W. Bush] has said that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's administration is critical and an important foreign policy success of his administration.
This is a tough time for members of Congress to vote on anything in the way of spending. How confident are you that you will get this bill approved?
The argument to the contrary is that it would be a tougher time for the Johnson Sirleaf administration to fail; it would cost more to the U.S. because of the potential for destabilization in the region associated with a failed Liberia. So a democratic success, putting Liberia on its own feet, with its tremendous economic resources and potential in terms of raw materials—this is a country that can quickly be stabilized.
Liberia has a long and historic relationship with the United States. This is a country that was formed by former freed slaves. At a time during which there is the possibility of having the first African American president of the United States, creating stability in Liberia allows his administration to focus on issues of critical importance in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq and other troubled areas of the world that immediately threaten the security of the United States.
We're going to be involved in Liberia one way or another. We can be there to provide and create stability and security, for this democracy under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was educated here in the United States and shares many of our values. Or we could be at the back end, and watch as Ghana and other countries are potentially threatened potentially by a failed state. We cannot afford a failed state anywhere in Africa. Failed states provide foundation for activities that could threaten the security of the United States.
White House budget predictions show a record deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. How likely is it that Liberia could get funds, given that it presents no immediate threat to U.S. national security?
This is an authorization bill. I am confident that we will pass a bill that will authorize appropriation to the Liberian government in a structured way. The Seeds Act represents three critical areas of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government that need support and stability: economic empowerment, infrastructure, government accountability and police.
We can continue to have various appropriations to Liberia subject to other constraints, but these are the elements of her administration that are necessary for her government to survive. We may fight for other appropriations for agriculture and healthcare, but her government cannot survive without this authorization. This provides her government with the kind of stability she needs. Fighting for this authorization is another battle, but I think we will be successful.
How does authorizing these funds - $225 million – help Liberia, when the money still has to be appropriated by the Congress before any money flows that way?
This authorization allows the Sirleaf government to go to France, the United Kingdom, Germany and other G8 or G12 nations and say: 'The U.S. has made a long-term commitment to the stability of our government. We'd like your government to consider making a long-term commitment [too].' From that foundation Ellen Johnson Sirleaf can work on critical infrastructure needs, and also approach the international donor community to continue giving humanitarian assistance. But the United States, given that Liberia has such close ties [with us], should lead the way. It must provide the foundation for Sirleaf's administration and that's what this bill does. So with this authorization we're saying that for the next five years the U.S. is committing itself.
Even the political dynamic on the ground within Liberia—the ex-combatants that she deals with in her administration need to see that the U.S. is making a concerted effort through this authorization, to see that we're going to have a short-term, medium-term, and long-term relationship with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, based upon the principles of good governance she has demonstrated. It helps reestablish the credibility that Johnson Sirleaf brings to the people of Liberia at this very critical hour. President Bush has indicated that he is very interested in the survivability and the stability of the Sirleaf administration and we're confident that this bill is very consistent with the president's desires.
When you look at the map, you see other countries in the region that have also experienced conflict. So why Liberia, and not, say, Sierra Leone?
I'm not suggesting that this model should not be replicated in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly bordering states, like Côte d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone and others that have had significant conflict. But we are suggesting that when people lay down their arms, when they democratically elect their leadership, the world's leading democracy will help and provide some stability. We think that's a particularly good signal for border states to Liberia. And Liberia's success and their new relationship with the U.S. also sends a signal that we're going to make it a success story on the continent.
There are other countries that border Liberia, that through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, through other aid programs, seek economic support. Many of those economic compacts are tied to good governance, to economic stability, to their ability to provide healthcare and education for all their people. We think that we've laid the foundation for these countries to move many of them in a similar direction. And if they want a long-term relationship with the U.S., they'll follow the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration.
How do your constituents feel about you fighting for Liberia?
Interestingly enough, I have constituents who are from Liberia. They are excited about the idea of repatriation and returning home and trying to help their motherland. As for my non-Liberian constituents, when they look at other countries that we have helped and they think about the kinship that we have with Liberia, I am of the opinion that this is something they would clearly support. They want the war in Iraq to end, they want al-Qaeda to be pursued, a real war on terror. They don't want Aids spreading in Africa and they want to do everything they can to stop its spread.
They want Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and democracy to succeed. For the first African woman to head an African state to not be successful would undermine the struggle for women on that continent for many generations. For a woman—they call her the Iron Lady of Liberia—to be successful at this, would speak volumes [coming after] generations of corrupt men on the continent. Her success speaks to the possibility of changing the social and the cultural order within many countries, including the possibility that women can serve and garner the support of the international community and bring about peace and stability. It would be a significant contribution that cannot be ignored.
We cannot afford for Liberia to fail, because if it does other countries around it might fail, and this would be unacceptable from a U.S. national security perspective. This bill is an important first step towards helping a republic that was war-torn and is now trying to move in the direction of peace and stability.
Announcement: Liberia Stabilization, Economic Empowerment, Development and Security Act