A few days before she celebrated her 74th birthday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sat down with the Director General of the Liberia Broadcasting System, Darryl Ambrose Nmah, as the first guest of a new television personality profile program, Inside Out with Darryl. The wide-ranging interview delved into the President’s life – the present, her early days, her professional life, and her vision for the future of Liberia. The program aired on the national television station, LNTV, on Monday, October 29th, the birthday of the Liberian President.
NMAH: Hello, and welcome to this Special Edition of Inside Out with Darryl. This is where we come up close and personal with persons whose lives and achievements have made, and or continue to make remarkable impact in the lives of other people. Our guest, on this Special Edition of Inside Out, is a woman whose life tells an amazing story. She’s a mother, financial expert, a development specialist and, now, a President. Join me as we get up close and personal, on Inside Out, with Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia. Hello, Madam President, and welcome to Inside Out.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. I’m pleased to be your first guest.
NMAH: What is it like being the President of a country?
THE PRESIDENT: It is both resulting and humbling; resulting because the decisions one makes, day to day, can make a difference in the lives of people. It’s humbling exactly because those decisions, if not well made, if they don’t reflect sound options, could affect the lives of both current and future generations. In general, those sentiments apply; in Liberia, you have to add the word difficult because one has to continuously make sure that decisions take into account competing interests, competing values, competing priorities. But all in all, I think it is a noble undertaking that can really enrich one’s life from the day-to-day activities in which one engages.
NMAH: Looking at that, when you wake up every morning, what do you look forward to? How do you approach your day?
THE PRESIDENT: I look forward to coming to work, to promoting development – development in accordance with our deliverable plans; in accordance with our overall National Vision; I look forward to accomplishing identified things; and I also look forward to, on the basis of my discussion with people, being uplifted and having some fun also.
NMAH: Are there times that you’ve probably said, Oh God, I wish day hadn’t broken again, this morning?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, there are some times, like a few days ago when I was told by Security, you know you can’t go because the young students are on the streets and clamoring on behalf of their teachers. Those are the unexpected, but one has to be able to deal with them. I’ve learned to deal with them, to be able to interact with people, to be able to respond to some of their anxieties and their concerns, and to work with them in finding solutions. So, every day is a new day. Most follow normal patterns. Sometimes I wake up, having had the night thinking about a particular problem, and saying, now how do I go and fix this problem, how do I go and resolve this difficulty.
NMAH: Having such an approach towards work, what is the normal workday like for you – waking up, getting back home, going back to sleep as the President, coupled with the work you have to do with family? What is the normal workday like for you?
THE PRESIDENT: A normal day consists of institutional meetings, reviewing professional papers and reports, having telephone conversations with world leaders on matters relating to world development. Perhaps the most unsatisfactory part is having to respond to all the many, many individuals who claim the personal attention of the President – to be able to deal with their issues and their difficulties. That does take a lot of my time, and I’m always subject to criticism by my advisors who say that too much of my time is taken on this, taking away from the more substantive things with which I ought to deal. So far it works, but keeps me at work too long.
NMAH: That brings me to trying to imagine being the President, as you said earlier, of a country like Liberia, from this devastating civil war, almost everything is a competing priority. How do you go about making that decision, making that choice as to this is what I need to do at this particular time, inasmuch as everybody else is clamoring, everything else is looking for your attention. How do you go about making that judgment, that decision?
THE PRESIDENT: When there’s so much demand and so much need, as in our country, one has to prioritize within priorities. This requires consultation, for example, with Cabinet members, consultation with relevant stakeholders. But there are also times when one has to take a decision, sometimes an unpopular decision, because it’s a decision that needs to be taken in the national interest. That’s what leadership is all about; you consult, you get opinions, you get suggestions. At the end of the day, you make decisions, either collectively or you stand alone in your responsibility to do so.
NMAH: Well, you can imagine that all this ability and commitment to succeed did not just happen by chance. The question is, how did it all begin? Where did it all start in the life of this woman? This and more we’ll find out when we come back on Inside Out. Stay tuned.
NMAH: And so, Madam President, tell us, where did it all begin – place of birth, what was it like during your childhood days? Take us back into time. Where did it all begin?
THE PRESIDENT: I was born in a house on Benson Street, Crown Hill, in Monrovia, the third of four children. In those days, we had good neighbors, interactions with children in the neighborhood, spending your early mornings going to “chunk” plum—in your neighbor’s yard, sometimes having the dogs run after you – doing your chores at home and then walking to school. Safe, peaceful environment. When there are moonlights, kids coming outside, playing in the moonlight. Those really were enjoyable days. We didn’t have very much, but we were happy and loved.
NMAH: What were school days like as a teenager, the fondest moments you can remember?
THE PRESIDENT: As a teenager going to school, I was sports inclined; I was a good volleyball player, a good table tennis player; even football I used to play at a place in our neighborhood. I played with the guys – I was a “tomboy,” as they called it. I climbed coconut trees and all those types of things; played football with a tennis ball because we didn’t have real footballs in those days, so we played with discarded tennis balls. Very happy to be at school, I was a student at CWA [College of West Africa]. Perhaps the most memorable part of my early childhood was the time we spent in our father’s ancestral village with my grandmother and with family there – Julijuah, the place and same spot where we now have our family farm. The town is still there; there’s a river between the town and the farm, and swimming in the river – where I learned to swim, and pulling the canoe, because at that time there was no bridge. Fortunately, today we’ve been able to get a bridge across.
NMAH: Did it give you any special feel leaving from the city and going to the farm, and did you look up to it with anxiety, and what was that anxiety?
THE PRESIDENT: Great anxiety, because it was fun; early morning to have your grandmother cook rice and bitter ball, call everybody to eat, and then she goes to the farm and sometimes takes us there, and you go into the kitchen in the farm, whether she’s driving the birds or whether it’s time to cut the rice or whatever have you. Those were really enjoyable moments, and our father was so committed to ensuring that we lived rural life. And so as soon as school closed, we all went to the village and we stayed there until the vacation was over before returning to the city for school. As I said, those were some of the most memorable days, and this is why I still, with nostalgia, try to get back there whatever weekends I can, because it just brings back those fond memories.
NMAH: Give me a little insight about that time, family life. Were you closely bonded with your siblings, you in the community doing all those activities; were you doing them with your brothers and sisters, or you were alone somewhere and they were somewhere else?
THE PRESIDENT: No, no, no; we’ve always a close-knit family. Our mother was a very strong, dedicated Christian; in fact, she was a Pastor in the Presbyterian Church. So saying prayers in the morning, making sure that we read the Bible… Our family until today, my siblings and I, are very close. We’ve never had reason to have family conflicts. Of course, not only were we bonded very strongly with our mother and her principles and her religious belief, but also, you know, our father who was the prominent one in our family as one of the few indigenous legislators. But he took sick, and for seven years he was paralyzed. And that, in itself, became a bonding factor because my mother had to, with difficulty, ensure that the family kept together and that she nursed him, and that we continued to show love for him even in his difficulty. That spirit of togetherness stays with us until today.
NMAH: At that time, in your teenage life, did you have any ideas as to what your dreams and aspirations would be, what you wanted to achieve in the future, or maybe you were just the ordinary teenage girl going on?
THE PRESIDENT: No, absolutely not. I figured I would follow the footsteps of my mother, become a teacher, an English teacher. I never had anything more ambitious than that on my mind in those early days. All I did was, with her encouragement to try and get an education and see. But it was difficult for us because my father had become ill., and to be able to continue my education. Another thing is I got married very early; I got married right after high school, and I had four sons before I went back to college. He was teaching at Booker Washington Institute, so I spent some time there, and at their family farm, with his side, it’s called Jovahn, where we spent a lot of time living on the farm. But with all those difficulties of trying to bring up four boys, those were still good days.
NMAH: This is getting up close and personal with Her Excellency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. This is Inside Out with Darryl. It is said, train up a child in the way that she will not depart from it when she grows up. Is this what shaped the professional career of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? Let’s find out after this break.
NMAH: Welcome back to Inside Out, and our special guest today is Her Excellency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia. So, Madam President, at what stage in your life did you begin to shape your life into being a career woman, and how did you begin to make that choice?
THE PRESIDENT: Circumstance really evolved around me. As I mentioned to you, I got married at an early age, right after high school, seventeen years old, and had four children. So I had to go to work, along with my children’s father, my husband, to support the family. I had only a high school education, so that didn’t give me a lot of scope as a professional, and so I started looking for a job. One or two places I tried, I didn’t pass the test. Fortunately, in those days, our mothers used to make us go to Secretarial School, so we all learned how to type and do shorthand and such things, and so I had that bit of skill, and that enabled me to apply to the same Stanley Engineering that is still with us today. They had an office in the Ministry of Public Works, and they were then designing the hydro, and so I applied there as a secretary. Fortunately, I said I could type, and got a job with Stanley Engineering. That was the beginning of my professional career.
NMAH: What was it like, your first job, first day at work?
THE PRESIDENT: Making sure that you could take that shorthand well, and you could go and transcribe it and type it, and type whatever letter or document you were supposed to produce. They were also very supportive. Today, people who head Stanley, who come back from those old days, still remember and still see me as a family member. And then, of course, I had to move on to find a bigger job, and my next job was at Elias Garage, which was somewhere before City Hall. They had a big garage, and I went there and, again, limited skills, but the Abi Jaoudi people were quite close to my father, and they were running that garage, so I went there and was made a Clerk, an Accounting Clerk to a French Accountant who was the Finance Director of the company. That started my career in the area of business because, working with him, I learned how to keep books, how to do balance sheets, how to do financial records. That propelled me in the way of finance. Those were difficult days, but we learn and, working there, I was able, with my husband, to start to build our first house and to send our kids to school. That’s the way things happened in the old days. You really had to work hard; you had to earn it. There was no such thing like dependency or asking for help. You worked.
NMAH: At what point did you decide that I need to move forward, I need to get more than what I have in a career and pursue a particular line?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, obviously, I had to have more education! My husband was able to get a scholarship to go and do his graduate work, and so I was able to get a scholarship from the Ministry of Education to go and do college work. And so we both went to Madison, Wisconsin, where I took up Accounting. Of course, he was in Agriculture. I completed my training there, and that started my professional life.
NMAH: Going off to school, you left your boys behind. How was that?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I had to leave my boys behind. Fortunately, again in those days, the extended family worked. We left two of our sons with my mother, and two with his mother. My fourth son I had to leave when he was just one year old, but, fortunately, today they all understand and figure that they were glad they made a contribution to my future success in terms of my neglecting them. Then after I came back, of course then I started a career in the then Treasury Department, starting out as head of the Debts Section. My whole career, then, was in the Treasury Department until, subsequently, the Ministry of Finance.
NMAH: In pursuing your area in finance, you got into the development area. Give us a little insight about how it worked, how you went around Liberia, outside in the UN – those jobs and those challenges that you faced?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, in the first instance, I worked in the Department of the Treasury then headed by Charles Sherman. I worked my way up and J. Milton Weeks took over. I worked my way up until I became a Special Assistant to Mr. Weeks. What really happened is that there was a development conference, I think this was in 1969, and I represented the Ministry at this conference, and of course, true to my whole experience, I talked about some of the shortcomings, and so I almost got into trouble. I was able to then get a scholarship to go back to school. That led to another thing. I went to school; I ended up going to Harvard, with them providing the support going to the Economics Institute at Colorado University, and then subsequently doing a Master’s program at Harvard. When I was returning, President Tubman died; President Tolbert took over; and so I came back and was recruited. Since I had been in the Department of Treasury, I came back and became Assistant Minister, under Steve Tolbert.
NMAH: The question is, how did you get involved in politics?
THE PRESIDENT: Just an evolution of being propelled; I don’t know if there are invisible hands that guide people down a certain path, because I mentioned to you about ‘69 development conference at which I spoke. When I came back, and working in the Tolbert government, I made what is called famous – some may call it infamous – speech at my Alma Mater, the College of West Africa, and of course that, I think, started the whole thing because there I laid out what I considered some of the shortcomings of our whole system, and again, I almost got into trouble on that one. But that began the whole thing. After that, again unhappy with me, I ended up then at the World Bank because being in the Ministry I was able to interact with World Bank officials, so they quickly gave me a job, and I went to Washington. I left the government service and went to work at the World Bank in Washington, and I stayed there until, unfortunately, Steve Tolbert died in a plane crash. James Phillips took over from him, and he asked the Bank to send me back, to second me back to government service. By this time, my whole life was evolving. In the process of all this, and because I had been left behind by some of my high school classmates like Clavenda Bright Parker – we all graduated together, along with Wesseh McClain, Dunstan Macauley, those were all my classmates – and they had all gone ahead to college. And that urge, that drive to succeed, to go beyond just being a housewife and a mother, drove me, but that also broke my marriage because I spent too much time at work, trying to catch up. I then moved on.
NMAH: Characterizing from that time till now, how would you characterize that particular political aspect of your life, because you are still actively in it?
THE PRESIDENT: That was a very, very demanding period; demanding, but also interesting because we were still going through some of the issues we’re going through today: fiscal difficulties; insufficiency in revenue to meet growing needs; the burdens on Liberia – Liberia then was looked upon as a leader in African political development, and that put a lot of pressure on us; the hosting of the OAU Summit here that led to other things. We were all in the midst of this, but I daresay that progress was being made within limited resources, but transformation was slow. Young people now had become radicalized through education, some of what we called the cleavage in society we thought had been broken down through intermarriage and through education. It didn’t prove that way; it was just a papering over it because, underneath, that tension, that torment and that division was still there, which manifested itself subsequently in events that really plunged us into the chaos that we faced.
NMAH: Were there times, in the period of your political life, that you thought, well, I’m just in the wrong place; I shouldn’t have gotten involved, I’m regretting getting involved in this?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yes. When we tried to form a new party, the Liberia Action Party (LAP), and I ended up… After the World Bank, I went to Citibank; I was a Vice President of Citicorp, based in Nairobi. And when we came in ’85 to form this political party – it was then the Liberia Action Party – and I ended up under house arrest and going before a military tribunal, and lost my bank job, and said, Oh, my God, I could have stayed at my job in Nairobi, why did I come and get involved in this one? I ended up caught up in the political turmoil. I was charged with sedition; sentenced to ten years at hard labor; ended up, subsequently, at the Schefflein Base, I was jailed there; and then Post Stockade, BTC, then at Central Prison.
NMAH: What kept you going?
THE PRESIDENT: Just that I had to beat the odds; I felt I had already come a long way. Maybe, also, my faith and my belief in God and, I think, that my mother’s strong will and her teaching would see me through. She was alive then, and so she was my inspiration, too. She didn’t break down; she didn’t cry; she didn’t go beg anybody to let me out. She came to the prison to see me and came with prayers. So, I think that in itself was a big source of my strength.
NMAH: After all has been said and done, what does the future hold for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. That, I’m sure you wish to know, just as I do. So, let us find out together, when we come back on Inside Out.
NMAH: Welcome back to Inside Out with Darryl. Madam President, I believe that it was not always a rosy time. Can you pinpoint once or twice in your life that you thought were some of the challenging moments of your life, and also some of those great moments that you want to re-live, over and over again?
THE PRESIDENT: As I mentioned, the days when I went to prison, those were challenging times. There were many who didn’t think I would make it. One of my greatest moments, of course, was Inauguration Day 2006. We got out of the vehicle and walked the roads, and the crowds were all there chanting, “Ellen walking; Ellen, Ellen walking.” We walked for a long distance, with the crowds on the side. That was one of the most delightful moments. Of course, I’ve had other moments that I have enjoyed. Most of them have had to do with the people: Being able to go back to Harvard and to be recognized to give the Commencement Address and to be awarded an Honorary Doctor degree by my Alma Mater was another exciting day, because I don’t think anybody thought that some student from a poor, little West African country, who graduated among the thousands of people who graduate, would be invited to that kind of recognition. Those were some of the great days. And, again, sometimes some of the simple things: going and meeting kids on the road, when I travel, and have them come out of their schools and stand there, and I go and share things with them. Those are the great moments!
NMAH: Looking at Liberia, seven years in the helm as the leader, what do you think the future holds for this country and its people? What kind of future do you seek for the people of this country?
THE PRESIDENT: I have faith in the future of our country. I believe we will see a country – I want to see a country – that’s peaceful, that’s unified, that’s prosperous. I believe that the fundamentals that have been put in place will enable us to start that difficult road. We are now headed in the period of transformation, and that’s always difficult. And that’s why today you see some of the turmoil because it’s a natural resistance to change – change in mindset, change in habits, change in attitudes. But that’s what transformation is all about. If we all, despite the difficulties and the obstacles, if we all see that bigger picture of what Liberia can be, based upon sound management of its natural resources, then those objectives of peace, unity and prosperity, I think, are within our grasp.
NMAH: I believe there are hundreds of thousands, and I daresay millions across the world, who look at you, this woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as a source of inspiration. If you had the chance to just speak to the whole world on something with a special message, especially those in Liberia, what would you be telling them? What would your message be?
THE PRESIDENT: To all those who are motivated by me, by my life experience, who see me as a role model, I say, be steadfast in your conviction, in your principle, despite the obstacles and the constraints that you will face; perseverance, commitment, dedication to the things you want to achieve are always the virtues of success. That has been my life experience. I’ve had many ups and downs. I haven’t always been perfect. I’ve made lots of mistakes for which I’m sorry today. But, all things considered, I still remain consistent in the things I believe in, in the things I want to achieve, and I’m very pleased with myself for that and I urge everyone else to follow that path.
NMAH: There is this quote that I picked up from you, “If your dreams don’t scare you, then your dreams are not big enough.” What’s that supposed to mean?
THE PRESIDENT: That was something I said during the Harvard Commencement Address, because I want to encourage people to go beyond the limitations of their current environment and circumstances. A dream is an aspiration; it’s a hope. Let those dreams – they may be dreams while you are awake – but let those dreams say “I want to achieve something. I can be.” Sometimes, like I say, those dreams are so big because they are the impossible dreams. How could I ever think that I would ever be this? How could I, sitting before you, ever think that I would be President of Liberia, given what I went through? But it did happen. So, we want to encourage everybody to think the highest potential that they can achieve.
NMAH: Madam President, what were some of your sources of motivation in life? Who were some of those people, or that particular person, that really also serve as your source of inspiration? I know you mentioned your mother. Are there other people in your life that you’ve Iooked back to and say today that they shaped you to where you are?
THE PRESIDENT: We still have two great persons in my lifetime; those are our two African icons, Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere. Those are people whose life commitment, life experience, is worth emulating by all of us. If you come to the home front, go back to people like Angie Brooks Randolph, Emma Shannon Walser, Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman. Those were all the great women that, in my early professional life, I saw as representing all the things that mean greatness, mean leadership. The contributions they made to this country are not really yet captured. I hope future history will capture them.
NMAH: Do you take time to rest and have leisure out of work?
THE PRESIDENT: For me, rest may well be just finding a book to read. If I’m not engaged in something that keeps my mind working, then I get very bored. I don’t do well at small talk, and I don’t encourage rumors because I like to see my time spent on better things. Yes, I like to engage in a good conversation or dialogue on substantive issues on a wide range of areas. My drive is part of my life. I’ve been working since I was seventeen years old. I know no other way; I have no other habit other than that. That’s what drives me. Any accomplishment, any success only builds another layer of potential to which I must reach. The few years of my professional life that are left,… I may not live to see the Liberia I want to see, the dream of the Liberia I want to see, of a fully peaceful, fully prosperous, fully unified Liberia, but I hope I will have made a contribution to that and will have been a part of the many who are working toward setting us on this road toward the achievement of that goal.
NMAH: Finally, Madam President, beyond Liberia, you have been appointed by the UN Secretary-General to co-Chair this High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (which includes the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the President of Indonesia) to set a new development agenda for the world, post-MDGs. What are your expectations, and how do you intend to tackle this task, especially coupled with your responsibilities back at home in Liberia?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, let me say how honored I am to have been selected by the Secretary-General to join the other two co-Chairs. We are mandated to look at the experience of the Millennium Development Goals, going ahead because we’ve got three years for the MDGs; that we want to encourage everybody to accelerate their effort towards achieving as many of those Goals as possible, and then using that experience and the lessons that have come from that to build upon that in the post-MDG era – post-2015 development agenda – but to add to that more recent concerns in terms of global development, like environmental sustainability, national resource capital management, growth, youth employment are things that will be tackled. But let me be very clear: the High-Level Panel may bring ideas to the table, and we, as co-Chairs, will join them. But we have to represent the voices of the people. In Africa, I must do so through a rigorous consultation process. I am pleased that one such consultation of civil society in Africa took place and ended here in Monrovia just today. We must listen to them. We must see what they want this new agenda to be, what are their shared values? My voice will be a voice that brings to the table the African voice, the African position, the African aspiration. And I think that if we all do that – the time is short but the process is on – and I’m glad I am being helped by a small secretariat which has someone designated by the United Nations Development Programme, the former Prime Minister of Haiti; but also Dr. Alioune Sall, a well-known intellectual who’s worked on our own Vision 2030; they are joined by three of our people – Dr. Abdoulaye Dukulé, Mr. Sam Jackson, we’ll ask other people, such as Dr. Byron Tarr, who has studied the New Deal Agenda, which brings special attention to fragile States like Liberia. We also have the young son of former Vice President Harry Moniba, Clarence Moniba, with us. And today, I promised civil society that we will bring on to the small group one of their designated persons. With that, and with what’s happening in the other countries, we hope that we will make a major contribution to this new global development agenda.
NMAH: Getting up close and personal on Inside Out with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. We believe we’ve brought the amazing story of a mother, a financial expert, a development specialist, and now President of a country. President Sirleaf, thank you for being on Inside Out today.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, I appreciate being with you.
NMAH: And by the way, Happy Birthday!
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
NMAH: Until we see you again, next time on Inside Out with another guest, this has been Darryl Ambrose Nmah wishing you a pleasant viewing. Have a good day.