2 November 2012

Liberia: 'Hope Gbowee Will Change Her Mind' - Pres. Sirleaf's First Reaction to Leymah Gbowee

Photo: Leymah Gbowee
Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee.

Since her fellow Nobel Laureate, Leymah Gbowee, tuned up the pitch of dissenting rhetoric against her administration, President Sirleaf has uncharacteristically remained taciturn on what others believe was an unsolicited provocation. It was not until the President left the country midweek for Great Britain to co-chair, along with other world personalities, a forum to pre-vet the Millennium Development Goals that international journalists pressed her hard to extract her reaction to barrages of allegations made against her by fellow Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee. The President's reaction must have let down many who must have expected an equally virulent rhetoric in response. But as The Analyst reports, piecing together international wires' perspectives on the saga, President Sirleaf has so far sounded congenial and motherly to Gbowee's allegations of nepotism and neglect of the masses of Liberians.

"She [Leymah Gbowee] agreed to be a part of the reconciliation process. Subsequently she has decided that she does not want to be a part of it. We respect that decision," President Sirleaf told the Royal African Society in London.

"I suspect that, as we move on, working with others, that she will change her mind and she will become a part of that process because the nation needs all of its people."

While visiting Paris, France, for the launch of the French edition of her book 'Mighty Be Our Powers', Gbowee: "People are very disappointed. We have a deficit when it comes to having a moral voice in the country [Liberia]."

She told her French audience that she was guilty for not speaking out in the past, declaring her intention to stepping down as the head of Liberia's reconciliation commission in frustration at its lack of progress.

Gbowee asserted that not much has changed under the presidency of President Sirleaf, as a lot of people continue to face hardship while a minute few are bathing in plenty.

"What has changed? [President Sirleaf's] sons are on the board of oil companies and one is the deputy governor of the central bank. The gap between the rich and poor is growing. You are either rich or dirt poor, there's no middle class."

She said she was resigning as head of the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative as "not enough is being done for national healing."

"I feel I have been a disappointment to myself and Liberia. Not speaking is as bad as being part of the system. Some may say I am a coward but the opportunity to speak out has come here. I will also speak about it when I get home."

Gbowee said in President Sirleaf's first term developed infrastructure, saying, "But what good is infrastructure if people don't have enough to eat? Development in a land of hungry, angry people is nothing. When they get angry, they will burn it down because it is not connected to a large section of the population."

In reaction to those claims by Gbowee, President Sirleaf to reporters in London that Liberia is making progress in tackling corruption by working on prevention and punishment of crimes, she said.

"We have made progress that is going to address corruption," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "Punishment, I would say, we have fallen short of. Our judicial system is just beginning to be reformed."

The president said she has removed or fired people whom she believed had a "lack of integrity," though she was limited in what she could do until the justice system functioned better.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf dismissed concern about corruption from Leymah Gbowee, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with her last year, saying she is "too young."

"My fellow Nobel laureate is too young to know what we've gone through to achieve peace and security in my country, to reach the level of democracy that we all are experiencing today," Johnson-Sirleaf, 74, said in London.

Johnson-Sirleaf suspended her son Charles in August as a central bank deputy governor for failing to declare his assets, the BBC reported. Her son Robert is chairman of the state-owned National Oil Company of Liberia.

The Liberian president said today that she still wants to work with Gbowee.

"Until there is prosecution to send a strong message of deterrence we know that we won't have the full effect," she said, speaking at the meeting at Simpson's-in-the-Strand.

Johnson-Sirleaf was speaking in London to promote investment in her country. ArcelorMittal (MT), OAO Severstal (SVST) andChevron Corp. (CVX) are among companies that have invested in mining, rubber and oil industries in Liberia. The World Bank (BOWEMBA) says 56 percent of Liberia's 4.1 million people live below the poverty line.

"I hope that I will leave Liberia on an irreversible course of peace and prosperity based upon the proper use of its natural resources," Johnson-Sirleaf said.

President admits 'endemic' corruption in Liberia but says appointments made on merit, and promises to review land deals

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president, has dismissed allegations of corruption as rumours and innuendoes as she mounted a strong defence of her personal integrity. Johnson Sirleaf, in London for the UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda (video), acknowledged that corruption had become "systemic and endemic" in Liberia after decades of conflict, but challenged anyone to find fault with her or her family.

Johnson Sirleaf, who was re-elected in a landslide last November after an opposition boycott, has won praise for restoring stability to a country ravaged by war. Since coming to power, Africa's first elected female leader has stabilised the economy. Foreign debt has been virtually wiped out and Liberia has enjoyed annual growth rates of 6.5% for the past six years. Johnson Sirleaf hopes Liberia will be free from aid dependence in 10 years' time and achieve middle-income status by 2030.

While acknowledging that corruption is a problem in Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf said defiantly: "I challenge anyone who says it's with me or my family. We have a very vibrant society, a society that's full of rumours and innuendoes … Now I have to put [people] in certain places where I get the best results based upon talent, based upon competence and based upon integrity, and that's what I do. I stand the test and I challenge anyone who says there are other motives. I stand by my record and stand by the record of my family very firmly."

On another contentious issue, the president said the government was aware of complaints that foreign companies had taken advantage of local communities in pursuit of land deals. Liberia is seeking to attract foreign investors that can develop its rich natural resources – gold, iron ore and agricultural land. According to Liberian campaigners, Johnson Sirleaf's government granted more than a third of Liberia's land to private investors for logging, mining and agro-industrial enterprises between 2006 and 2011. More than 2.8m hectares (7m acres) have become forestry and agricultural concessions. Land deals with the Malaysian corporation Sime Darby for the production of palm oil have been particularly divisive, with about 150,000 people directly affected in the first five years of plantation development.

The president said her government is reviewing land concessions and, where there had been unfair agreements, land would be returned to the community. But activists say this is mere window dressing and that the problem of unfair land deals is a direct result of the absence of a clear land tenure policy. "The government recognised the problems, placed a moratorium on the sale of public land and established the land commission to come up with policies regarding land," said Robert Nyahn, programme manager of Save My Future Foundation, a Liberian NGO that monitors foreign companies in the extractive sector.

"While the policy is not yet developed by the land commission, the government contradicts itself by granting large concessions for forestry, mining and agriculture on what it claims to be public land … the same public land … while people's right to land, especially customary ownership, is still in question. These concessions are granted by government without consultation with communities who live on the land granted as concession. When communities start to raise the issues, the government pretends it will review the concession agreements," Nyahn added.

Johnson Sirleaf was speaking at a business breakfast in London. The Liberian leader is one of three co-chairs of the high-level panel deciding what should come after the millennium development goals (MDGs) along with David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president. Johnson Sirleaf said three years remained to meet the eight MDGs and she wanted to see a big push to meet those off-track. "The post-2015 agenda has to build on the MDGs, but peace has to be fundamental," she said. "Without it, it is hard to achieve other goals."

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