President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is visiting Washington this week for talks with Congressional leaders and a White House meeting on Thursday with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In an interview with AllAfrica, she discussed her record and her priorities. Excerpts:
Development and poverty alleviation have been the centerpiece of your agenda - and the topic on ongoing international debate. The United Nations is holding a summit on the Millennium Development Goals in September. A leaked U.S. government study says developing countries must have more ownership of development aid. How do you think development can best be achieved?
The best way to make development work is to ensure that the priorities are established by the people themselves. This is why our poverty reduction strategy came out of a rigorous process of consultation and participation by people across the country. They identified what became our priority goals, and we've been moving in that direction.
We've gone a long way in achieving the goals established under four pillars - peace and security, economic revitalization, governance and the rule of law, infrastructure and basic services. Basically, the country is at peace, although it remains fragile because we still haven't met all the challenges.
We are beginning to see our economy grow again. We have had an average annual seven percent growth rate over the last four years, despite the global economic crisis in 2009. We've virtually done away with our U.S.$4.9 billion external debt overhang. We're coming to closure on that in June.
Lots of roads, water and lights have been restored in the capital city.
Schools, hospitals and clinics have been built all over the country. We have a free society - sometimes we think too free! The media, free speech, free association, freedom of religion - those are all prospering.
Yet, no matter what we have accomplished, we still have a long way to go. Two basic challenges remain. One is employment for the thousands and thousands of young people who don't have skills and don't have the means whereby they can become productive.
In the governance area, we continue to fight the systemic corruption that's been part of the value system over two-three decades. We're trying to strengthen the pillars of integrity. We're exposing corruption, and we're taking action against it.
Did your efforts to involve people across the country in the poverty reduction strategy result in a buy-in from the Liberian people?
A definite buy-in. For the first time, people from the villages could say they sat in meetings and were asked "what do you think you want your government to do?" Three priorities came out quite clearly - roads, education and health.
And that influenced your strategy?
Absolutely. We were thinking education would be number one. But they convinced us that roads was number one because, as they said, they couldn't take their produce to market, they couldn't take their children to schools or the health centers if there was no mobility, if there was no way to get there. So our strategy has been to respond to what we know the people want.
So what have you been able to do about roads?
Liberia has heavy rains for a good part of six months every year, so the capital cost of building roads is very high. And you can only work during the dry season, so that makes it even higher. But the three primary roads that lead into the rural areas are now being made all-weather roads, and we have plans to have them paved.
In the capital city, the main arteries are being repaved right now.
Neighborhood roads are being constructed to open new roads for vehicular traffic. Farm-to-market roads are being built. It has taken a while to mobilize the resources to do this, but finally we're there. I am very pleased about our road development.
In education, one of your priorities has been opening opportunities for girls. What have you been able to accomplish in this area?
What we did was to enforce compulsory primary education and made the schools free. As a result, we've had 40 percent increase enrollment in all the public schools, and most of them have been girls. The girls were not going to school. They were in the market and on the farms. Our biggest problem as pertains to girls is retention - keeping them in schools beyond primary level. We have a program to provide scholarships for young girls, and this has been helpful as we work on this problem.
How can you create the jobs that are needed to employ the youth?
The private sector is the key to the creation of jobs, the ones that will absorb the young population. As we open up the economy, we expect job opportunities will open. In the meanwhile, we are trying to give them a skill through vocational training. We are introducing literacy programs, sometimes in the marketplace, so that the women are able to move up to higher levels. It is still a big challenge, because investment in the private sector - though it is taking place - takes some time.
To what do you attribute the success you have had attracting investment, despite the country's infrastructural insufficiencies and the global recession?
My own experience, having worked in the private sector for years, and also the public sector in Liberia and the international system, has enabled me to talk with investors. I think they have confidence in my integrity, my ability, my commitment to do this. We have a very sound development agenda. We've been able to mobilize quite a few talented and committed people who have been put in charge of this. We're very focused in achieving the goals set forth in our Poverty Reduction Strategy, and that has instilled confidence in Liberia's future. The fact that we have natural resources is also an asset, as is our openness to a market economy.
The biggest handicap has been a lack of capacity. Many of us are stretched thin trying to promote this. Also the lack of infrastructure.
We still don't have sufficient power and roads. Our port systems need to be repaired and made modern. However, the confidence in Liberia's future and the confidence in the current leadership have been the driving force behind our ability to attract investment, despite the restraints.
You've also attracted significant assistance from international donors, including the United States. How important is aid for Liberia?
Without international assistance we would not have been able to restore water and build the roads and bring lights into our capital city for the first time in 14 years. We would not have been able to build schools and clinics on the $80 million budget we inherited. That's the budget for a high school perhaps in the United States! We're now up to $350 million, but that's small for the massive needs of a country that was virtually broken.
Foreign assistance has played a very major role in these early years, and our partners have made tremendous contributions to the progress we've been able to achieve. We know that will not last forever, and we must prepare ourselves to be able to takeover fully the responsibility for our development.
Based upon what we have done and the path we are now on, Liberia can move from dependency to self-sufficiency in 10 years. We should not have to ask for international assistance. We should be able, on the basis of our own natural resources, to finance our own development effort. We should see the total transformation of Liberia in 10 years, and all those who have been with us will be able to say, truly, that this is a post-conflict success story of which we can all be proud.
The latest U.S. State Department Human Rights Report says corruption remains "systemic throughout the government" and refers to a "culture of impunity" in the country. What will it take for your 'zero tolerance' policy to have its intended effect?
This government inherited the value system which could be characterized as one of dependency and dishonesty. It was a means of survival for many of the people who did not have jobs, were conscripted into warring factions, who had no skills and had never been to school. And they were placed into the civil service. That's what we inherited.
We know it's systemic. It's not just government. It's societal. It's been a means of survival for the past several decades.
We have to attack it on several fronts. First, compensation - to reduce people's vulnerabilities. Secondly, systems - to make institutions function again. That's why we did so much to reorganize and to recruit good people for the General Auditing Commission, and the Anti-Corruption Commission. We are a member of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and were one of the first African countries to get results under that program.
The weakest link in our fight against corruption is our judicial system, which is part of the same societal problem. We've got to be able to punish people, and to punish people we've got to go to the courts. We've got to win cases in the courts. I have suspended people. I have fired people. But I cannot jail anybody unless they are sentenced by the court. And our court system remains weak and vulnerable.
We're trying to address that. We've brought new people in the ministry of justice. We're working with the Supreme Court to make sure they change the jury system. We're trying to get better judges. Judges are protected, quite rightly. I can't fire them. So we are trying to get them better training, better pay, better facilities to provide an incentive to do better.
There's a lot of talk about corruption. That's exactly what we want, because we want to expose it. The only way to solve it is to take it from under the carpet and deal with it. After exposure comes solution, and that solution is to begin to punish people in the courts.
We are taking a lot of heat. That is unavoidable when you are trying to change the very culture of a certain way of life. But I'm convinced we're moving in the right direction and that, in a few years, we'll solve this problem.
Many Liberians say their paramount concern is the absence of national identity and cohesion. In our recent interview with President [Jakaya] Kikwete [of Tanzania], he talked about reinstituting national service, which helped forge cohesion by sending Tanzanians to regions different from their own. What can be done to begin to overcome the deep divisions that have characterized Liberia's history?
As you rightly said, the lack of a national identity has been longstanding in our national experience. We see the effects of the war, which touched everybody from every group, as perhaps the means whereby we can find a common cause. If there is one thing that Liberians from all walks of life now embrace, it is peace. We want never to go back to war, because we know how devastating war has been.
If promoting sustainable peace can be our unifying force, then we have an opportunity to talk about what brings us together as one people with one destiny. We're still searching. We're looking for what will capture all Liberians, that will bring out that feeling of a renaissance that we are looking for - rebirth, new life. I hope we can find it.
Would you describe the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in dealing with the recent past and charting a way forward?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did a good job. They researched Liberia's historical problems, the root causes of our conflicts, and they've come up with several recommendations that will promote the healing process. Some of those recommendations have been challenged on constitutional grounds. We think we need to have expert lawyers look at the constitutionality and give us advice. That's what we have done.
In cases where a judgment has been passed which would lead to the establishment of courts, as a means of insuring justice, one agrees with the principal of that. But timing and sequencing are also important in a country that is as fragile as ours, to make sure that whatever we do, we do in such a way that it doesn't lead us back to conflict.
We are moving on other recommendations - ones that have to do with the healing process, with restorative justice. the Palava Hut concept [a traditional method for resolving disputes], [and] reparations in places where communities were victimized.
We are working with a Geneva-based organization, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, who's been holding meetings with representatives of our civil society organizations, to read the report [and] come up with a road map on its implementation. We're trying to organize a group in Monrovia to do the same thing.
Anyone who says that the report is being trashed or is being thrown away is absolutely wrong. We want to implement in a timely and appropriate way and ensure that whatever we do, Liberia's peace must be maintained to enable us to carry out the development agenda that is unifying and healing the nation.
You've expressed frustrations about aspects of media coverage. Do you think that media training can help address this?
The training of journalists to make sure they are responsible as they exercise their freedoms, which they should, is important. The tendency toward sensationalism, because it sells the newspaper in an environment where resources are scarce and the reader public is limited - so all the bad news stories get the attention - that's fine, but in the long run doesn't help. We need trained journalists who can conduct investigations, who can expose, but can expose on the basis of truth, on the basis of their own proper analysis of the situation - not on the basis of rumors. And when international media pick up the rumors that we all know in the country to be untruths, it really hurts our country.
That's just not fair.
Are you concerned that next year's election might reopen old wounds and prove divisive for the nation?
Any election will have its tensions and divisiveness. Our responsibility, our challenge is to minimize that. What we need to do - those of us who are political leaders - is make sure we keep sending the right message. Competition is a good thing. The door should be open for competitive politics. The process should be free and fair, and we should make sure that the institutions managing the process have the capability to carry it out in a peaceful manner. Let's all approach it in that spirit.
The next election in Liberia will be a defining event. If those elections come off free and fair and the Liberian peoples' choices prevail and are respected, then Liberia will be on the path to consolidate its peace and to get its development agenda on an irreversible path. Any good-willed Liberian, any responsible politician must work for the achievement of that goal, because that is what will make Liberia the country that we can be proud of.
At the moment, election preparations are being stalled until the National Legislature passes a "Threshold Bill" to determine the allocation of representation, based on the national census. When do you expect this to be resolved?
In any country, when you are dealing with population shifts and allocation of legislative representation, there are always problems, because certain areas lose seats and others gain. We are dealing with that in our legislature - trying to establish a threshold level that would minimize the loss of seats for certain counties. That's causing a big problem. We've got to overcome that. Once we get past that - and we all know we are running out of time - the election commission has the means to start the campaigning. We should see this coming to conclusion next week.
Why are you seeking a second term? Or perhaps the question should be why you would subject yourself to the rigors and challenges you have faced since becoming president? And what do you expect your opponents to say about you?
When I read our papers and listen to the radio, I sometimes ask myself - "do I really need this"! I know they are going to be raising the same charges - that we are not fighting corruption; you said you would only run for one term, the Truth and Reconciliation report. [The TRC recommended that President Johnson Sirleaf be barred from public office for being "associated with former warring factions."]
What drives me to run is that we have laid the foundation, and we need a few more years to ensure there is no reversal. We need continuity so we can bring Liberia to the place where it is on an irreversible path, where we have restored the infrastructure, where we have solved the problem of corruption by building those institutions that are the pillars of integrity, where our economy is booming and most Liberians are getting an education, getting a job. Then I will be able to walk away and say: "The job is done. I've left the country better than I found it." I look forward to that day.
I take my cue from what the Liberian people want, because it's going to be their choice. I know the Liberian people will make the right decision. Whatever it is, accept it. I think they know that I've brought them a long way.