Monrovia — Since taking office in early 2006 as Africa's first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has become a prominent leader in a tough job. A quarter century of political turmoil, including 14 years of conflict that displaced three-quarters of its people and killed an estimated 250,000, left Liberia without infrastructure – no electricity or water services and few roads, schools or medical facilities. Despite global recession, economic recovery is visible everywhere, but the challenges are enormous, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission is expected to remain in place, at least until after national elections in October. Interviewed Friday by AllAfrica's Boakai Fofana, Reed Kramer and Tami Hultman, the president cited progress and discussed plans.
You often talk about Liberian children smiling again, yet you express deep concern about the rate of child mortality and other issues that affect children.
I'm glad to see the children indeed are smiling again. As I go around the country and I see them back in school, that pleases me so much.
Because of limited health facilities, particularly in the rural areas, child mortality has been quite high. But it has been coming down. Immunization has been very successful. That means we will have many more children that will live, many more children that will go to school and many more children that will smile again.
As you travel around the country, what are the main things people tell you they want from their government?
First of all, peace. They want to make sure that the stability we have enjoyed for the past nine years will continue and that they will see no more conflict in the country.
The other thing they want most is mobility, particularly in the form of roads. We have stressed the priorities of education and health but, as they say, if you don't have the roads to enable the kids to go to school, or to enable them to get to clinics, then having those facilities will not bring them maximum use. So we've put a lot of emphasis on the construction of roads - primary roads as well as secondary roads.
People also talk a lot about the health problems from lack of latrines.
We've not done enough for sanitation, particularly where you have overcrowding in urban areas. It becomes more noticeable and more of a health problem, as you correctly said. Clean water, latrine facilities in communities, is something we have started to place emphasis on that's going to make a big impact on the quality of health.
What things has your administration been getting right?
There's been a sharp reduction in child mortality. Maternal mortality still remains high, because you don't have enough clinics; they have to rely on the traditional methods – midwifery. We've been trying to train the midwives to give better treatment. But, again, when the roads are fixed, it makes it easier to get to the hospital.
Going around the country before, there were certain places I would have to take a canoe to cross the river. Today there's a bridge in most of those places, and I can drive there, although roads are not as good as they should be, and certainly we've got to build many more roads.
We've seen a big increase in education. Enrollment has shot up so much – a 40% increased enrollment in the public schools, and most of them are girls. By enforcing compulsory primary education; by making sure, through the World Food Program, that kids get a lunch, a hot meal, while in school; by giving free uniforms – that has brought up the school population.
Now the constraints are – we don't have enough teachers. We're concentrating on teacher training institutes, and we've reactivated all three of them. The Peace Corps is back – and strictly involved now in teacher training, because that's our greatest need.
The statistics are there. We're very pleased with the progress, although the challenges still remain many. Everything we've done, we've still got much more to do.
We've been hearing some concerns – from both businesses and development experts – that institutions of higher education aren't producing enough scientists, that a large majority are studying social sciences.
The number of graduates coming out in sociology, political science - our message to them now is: if we're going to support a scholarship program and provide subsidies, they have to go into areas that have been neglected. Most of the mining concessions are now giving scholarships for people to study engineering, geology. The agriculture concessions are now giving scholarships to study agriculture.
So the shift is starting, by our action of giving support to those who will study those disciplines. We have a lot of foreign scholarships, and in those areas we are stressing medical doctors, engineers, scientists. It will take a while.
And then there is the challenge – what do we do with all of those political science graduates, sociology graduates? We're encouraging some to be retrained, using the basic education that they have, but shifting to a more specialized area that will enable them to broaden their professional options.
But what about the fact that chemistry classes don't have labs and computer classes don't have enough computers?
The more schools you open, the less capable you are to equip them properly. We've been working with some partners to get science and lab equipment. We're just clearing the ports now with a gift of equipment that came from India – science labs that will be placed in high schools. Even sufficient books are things we have to continue to work on. This is like starting from scratch and rebuilding a nation from one that was a virgin state, but we've had good partners who have worked with us on this.
In your first election campaign, you promised to restore electricity to a country that had none. What has happened to that goal?
It's been slow. Capacity is one of the issues.
First of all, we started off with what we promised. We said that we were going to bring electricity back in six months. We didn't say we were going to electrify the country in six months! We brought it back through the introduction of street lights, where street lights have been missing for two decades. We're happy with the response – children dancing in the streets, studying under the street lights.
Since then we've been trying to expand, but building power is a high capital cost, something which our budget couldn't afford. So we've been working with partners, adding new units. All the new units are thermal units; they use fuel oil, and the rising price of petroleum is a constraint. But we have gone from zero to about 21 megawatts – not enough, but we should be electrifying many of the communities in the Monrovia area by the end of this month.
The most cost-efficient means of power is to rehab and expand our hydro facilities, but the capital costs are high. To do what we want is $300 million dollars – which was more than two times the size of our [annual] budget! So we want to also bring in the private sector and see if we can, through independent power producers, restore some power, and we are now working very actively with partners to get some work done on the hydro.
Why haven't you borrowed funds to restore hydroelectric capacity? The St. Paul River alone is capable of generating enough power that you could export some and earn revenues – while combating climate change, as you've said you want to do.
Liberia could not borrow. We had a $4.9 billion external debt that had not been serviced for 20 years, much of it representing accumulated interest.
That's why we put our emphasis on the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. I think Liberia has the record on that, that in three years we were able to reach the completion point on the HIPC. Right now we are signing bilateral agreements in which, under the Paris Club, we got a 100% waiver, again unprecedented – and now we are virtually debt free. (I shouldn't say totally debt free – there are little segments of debt.)
We're very proud about the commercial debt. Even though some of the "vulture" funds that were holding some of our debt took us to court, we were able, through moral suasion – through Bono and others who joined and put pressure on them – we settled for three cents on the dollar. All that commercial debt is gone.
Now we are able to borrow, but we must also be cautious. We have a supportive program with the IMF in which we ourselves have said we will constrain ourselves; we don't want to see our country get into debt distress once again. We're limiting our borrowing to a certain percentage of GDP. So as the economy expands and grows and GDP increases, then our fiscal space to borrow will expand correspondingly. That way we will be sure that when we borrow, we have the capacity to repay.
With the election campaign off to an early start, you're getting a lot of praise, but there's also some very loud criticism. Does it worry you?
No it doesn't. I believe in an open society. I've promoted that here, to show people they have freedoms, of the constitution: freedom of speech, association, religion. So when they criticize, we take it in stride. If it's constructive and enables me to do better, to institute new measures, then I take it like that. If it's destructive, if it's someone in the opposition who wants something, then I just have a thick skin, I let it roll off.
One of the most frequent charges is that you're not doing much about corruption.
We are doing much about corruption. It's just that corruption here is not a government problem. It's a country problem, a nation problem. It comes from 30 years of economic free fall, two decades of deprivation. It became a way of life. Our value system turned upside down in the country. So we have to approach it in a multifaceted way.
Yes, we can go and grab people and throw them in jail. That would have some effect, and you have to do that at some point. But you have to have better compensation. You can't pay someone $15 a month to go and do a job, when their revenue collector is collecting thousands a month. To reduce vulnerability, you give better compensation.
Everything here was done by discretion, centralised at the top. You have to introduce systems that will prevent misuse – and we've done that. We're computerizing, we've come up with new accounting systems. You have to build institutions. We've done that, through a general auditing commission. It was a nothing body before.
We've put in new procurement laws. We have a Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission; we're giving them enough teeth. We have the Extractive Industries Initiative. Liberia was the first African country to become compliant under that initiative. Those are the things we're doing that will make a permanent impact on the level of misuse of the public trust.
We remain still weak in the punishment area, the judicial system. We've taken cases to court that have stayed in the court for years. We've taken cases that have lost, even though we felt the evidence was overpowering. We have a jury system that we're trying to fix now, because it's so easy to bribe jurors here. And we allow public debate on this subject. Before you didn't dare talk about it; now we've exposed it.
We haven't done enough yet, we still must fight it. We even must fight it through education – introducing it in the schools, why integrity is an important part of growth and development, an important part of national credibility.
I say to everybody, we should all work at it – in our homes, in our institutions, in our parties, in our churches, we must all have a collective effort. We're making progress, I can tell you. But the problem has been so overwhelming, it's the one issue everyone hangs on to, it becomes a big national debate issue.
Transformation – how you change this mindset – it takes a while.There's no justification for corruption, we continue to fight it, vigorously. I'm just saying we should see it in context and fight it in context.
Jobs is another much-discussed issue. How are you doing with job creation?
We've created a lot of jobs, but we've said job creation will come largely from our private sector. The government was already bloated with people, people who had lack of capacity. We inherited all of this - warring factions, ex-combatants. Most of the trained minds left the country.
We started to do that now, creating jobs with the major concessions, in the mining, agriculture, forestry sectors. But the large pool of untrained young people – the war-affected youth – don't have the skills to be able to be absorbed quickly. So we're starting now to concentrate on vocational training, and we're trying to do more in that regard.
You know, the definition of the unemployed is a big issue here. As defined by the ILO [International Labour organization], if you're self-employed, you're employed. If you're doing petty trading, you're employed. But in our own mindset, you're only employed if you're sitting behind a desk!
We've been working with the ILO on the unemployment issue to get the right data and statistics. That study is now completed; they should be releasing it to show the numbers. So one will see that unemployment has come down considerably.
But unemployment does remain a challenge – that we know – until we can train young people, until we can improve upon their working conditions as traders and whatnot, and until the private sector really picks up the pace of its potential. Most of our agricultural concessions are very labour intensive. Some of them have plans to create up to 10,000 jobs over a period of time, but they're just getting started, so every year you'll see increases in the numbers.
You mentioned agricultural concessions. Are they already producing?
The agriculture concessions start with clearing land, with building nurseries. Their planting starts one year later, and then they keep growing every year and keep expanding. We have several of them that are starting their operations.
At the same time, we're trying, through small and medium size business support, to encourage Liberians to go into farming. Agriculture is the mainstay of our economy. It's hard work and the risks are high, and that's proved to be a deterrent for many people. But we want to encourage that so we can have food security here.
We ran into a young man working nights and studying agriculture at the university through a scholarship. He said he plans to go home to Nimba County "to make a difference" but that, as we discussed earlier, most of his classmates think agriculture is a poor career choice. How do you combat that attitude?
By making agriculture success stories! This young man, when he goes back, we've got to find a way to support him. He ought to be one who'll stand up and say, "I went back, I made a farm, now I'm making money, now I can do the things I want to do." He can serve as an example.
Also, many people working with the agriculture concessions we've been able to attract from Asian countries. Their experience in agriculture is a little bit different from the western experience, because they're not as highly capital intensive. The people they are employing are developing an appreciation for agriculture, and I think they will pass it down to their children [who] see their fathers and mothers working.
And talking about fathers and mothers, most of the people working right now in the agriculture concessions are women. The [concessionaires] tell us that the women are much more attentive to how they take care of the plants. We have a large pool of unemployed women who do marketing, and this will provide another option for them.
How far is Liberia from food security?
Very far. Again, that's because during the periods of conflict, most of those who were farmers, for their safety, ran to the urban areas. The capital city, Monrovia, which was built to accommodate 350,000 people, now has 1.1 million! It's breaking at the seams.
Records are very clear that once people come to urban areas and benefit from the social amenities in those areas, they don't go back. So we'll have to create a whole new class of farmers from the rural population. We're hoping that with the opening of some of these large concessions, they'll create not only farming jobs, but management jobs and other technical, vocational jobs that will attract some people back to the farms. But a large number of them will remain [in the cities] and will not want to go into agriculture.
There has been international criticism of concessions, both agricultural and extractive, as taking too much from countries, while contributing little. Can Liberia avoid that pattern?
Every concession agreement that we've negotiated has in it corporate social responsibility; they have to do things in the communities in which they work. Schools, clinics, roads, housing – they are all required to do that, and most of them have indeed been doing this.
As a matter of fact, we renegotiated both the ArcelorMittal and the Firestone agreements, signed in 2005, just before this government came in. We renegotiated to make sure that the social benefits to the people were enhanced.
If you go to Firestone today – a company that was always in the courts for child labour, bad housing conditions – you will see a changed environment. We made them give us a five-year plan, which they did, for development. If you go there today, you will see new housing units, you will see the schools and the hospitals functioning. We're just glad that, in that spirit of cooperation, they have worked with us, recognizing that this was something due to the Liberian people.
AllAfrica interviews are excerpted and edited for concision and clarity.