A decade after the worst fighting of its long conflict, which killed an estimated 200,000 of a pre-war population of 2.8 million and forcibly displaced a majority - as many as 1.8 million people - Liberia has addressed much of the worst devastation. But enormous challenges remain.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says that her first six-year term accomplished stabilization and her second is devoted to transformation, with tackling poverty as goal one. Although progress has been slower in several key sectors than projected, she still hopes Liberia can achieve a middle-income economy by 2030 - a message she brought to high-level discussions in Washington, DC, earlier this month and shared in her latest AllAfrica interview.
Restoration of power has been a top priority since you took office, but electricity output is still a fraction of what it was before the civil war.
Has this been a harder task than you anticipated?
Yes it has been. We've spent a lot of time trying to mobilize the resources for that. We now have made some progress , but it has proven to be more difficult. For example, to reconstruct our hydro electricity dam will take well over U.S. $200 million - something our own budget could not afford and certainly no one partner would be able to commit that level of resources to one activity.
But now, we have brought together partners from Europe and the World Bank and hope we are well on course toward getting the hydro facility working again by end of year 2015. We are also part of the West Africa power pool that attempts to have interconnectivity among all the Mano River countries - Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. That will also bring electricity from the Ivory Coast to us. We have some interim arrangements until 2015. With our own resources, we are installing a 10-megawatt [plant]. Japan is also supporting us with 10-megawatts and so is the World Bank. It's been a long time but relief is in sight.
What role does sustainable energy play?
Hydro is going to be the main sustainable. We are shifting from thermal generation that today produces only 22 megawatts at a cost of 54 cents per kilowatt-hour - one of the highest perhaps in the world - to heavy fuel oil. That will bring the cost down. We've been trying with biomass, and we still have solar lights that we are trying to introduce in the rural areas.
As you pointed out, it's proven to be more difficult given all the many other things that we had to do and had to address to get the economy going again.
Speaking of the economy, what do you regard as the most significant advance in terms of living standards?
Improvement in per capita income and reduction in poverty - and that has come as a result of us putting our productive systems back to work and making sure that our agriculture activities, our mining activities, our forestry operations have created some jobs. Not enough.
We still have challenges there. But the economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% over the past couple of years, and we expect that it's going to grow even more when the major foreign direct investment we mobilized, when those operations begin to start within a year or two. We expect the impact is going to be significant.
And is this showing up in measurable metrics such as mother and child mortality and other health indicators?
Under the MDG [Millennium Development Goals], we have made a lot of progress in child mortality - that has come down considerably. Maternal mortality still remains a challenge. We have had a slight reduction - but not enough.
Goal number one - poverty - we've seen a major improvement. We have seen a major increase in school enrolment: today we have 1.5 million kids in school. And it is fairly averaged now between girls and boys, so much of the increase has come from putting a lot of emphasis on getting girls into school. Quality education remains a challenge, not only in Liberia today but throughout Africa and in the developing world, and that is where we are going to be putting the emphasis moving forward.
Do you continue to believe Liberia can become a middle income country by 2030?
I am optimistic about that. Liberia's population is relatively small - about four million - and we are blessed with natural resources: minerals, agriculture, forestry, fisheries. All of those things that can be transformed into growth and transformed into jobs and transformed into increased per capita income. Our big challenge is to realize the benefits from that endowment is infrastructure. If we can get roads and power and the ports functioning at a level of efficiency, we will be able to deliver.
Of course, our own efforts at allocation - efficiency will be important. That means if we take those resources and put them into productive endeavour, then we will generate the income.
That is our challenge, but I believe we are up to that task. We remain cautiously optimistic about becoming a middle income country by the year 2030.
To what extent does regional cooperation, especially with your Mano River neighbors, play into your plans for growth?
A very important role. As a matter of fact we are all today concentrating on regional integration to enable us to get the economies of scale, to be able to identify comparative advantage, and, more importantly, to add value to our raw materials. And to do that it means we have to have a larger marketplace to attract the big investment that is required. Interconnectivity in transportation systems, in power systems, in telecommunications systems is high on the agenda of all west African countries, particularly the Mano River countries, which I currently chair.
Africa is taking the same approach to ensure that we increase the level of intra-African trade, that our protocols on the free movement of goods and people will become a true reality, where we will be able to trade with each other, to expand our markets, to add value to our products and become competitive in the world trading environment . Everyone agrees that good governance is a big part of moving forward economically, and everywhere you look democracy is pretty messy.
What are the biggest obstacles to entrenching accountable government?
We have a lot of freedom in Liberia. We are proud of our democracy, as embryonic as it is. The biggest challenge is people's understanding of their rights, the exercise of those rights and the limits of those rights. That will take a while, but I think we are moving in the right direction.
Our civil society is now very vibrant . They play a watchdog role - our media - even though we have had some troubles there. Our democracy, our political systems are beginning to mature. Most important of all, we are now entering our tenth consecutive year of peace. There's a lot to be said for that.
You mentioned the issue of press freedom, and the recent controversy that arose between your head of security and the press union . How, in your experience , should the Liberian government handle an often hostile press?
Let me say: I stand unchangeably on my record, Liberia's record of a free press. That's why we have the Freedom of Information act that many other countries don't. That's why we signed the Table Mountain Declaration. It is evidence by the proliferation of newspapers and radio stations, by talk shows that are very aggressive, very open, very frank. In Liberia, media freedom is unassailable and untouched.
So you are optimistic that you can work with the Liberian press moving forward?
I have no doubt about that.
Land ownership is another key issue when it comes to citizens' rights. Where does Liberia stand on that issue?
We have a very aggressive land reform program ongoing. Our land rights policy has been concluded by the Lands Commission. It is now being vetted through consultation around the country. For the first time, Liberian communities will have a right to land. Not only will they be able to exercise those rights in fee simple ownership [absolute ownership] , with a deed, but that will also mean that any use of that land would require their full participation and their full agreement. This is a first for Liberia - from a land tenure system in which there were no such rights. Land was only owned by the public; land could be taken by urban groups, with just some agreement with the tribe or chief. We are very proud of this land reform which will be going into effect very shortly.
What obstacles have you encountered in fighting corruption, another one of your top priorities since day one?
One obstacle we have faced is the slowness in reform of the judicial system. We have looked at corruption in two streams - prevention and punishment. On the prevention side, we've increased compensation to reduce vulnerabilities. We've introduced laws and we've established institutions.
We've built capacity. That, to me, is the most sustainable way to address corruption.
You must have punishment also, so they know that if they violate the public trust, they will pay the penalty. We have been slow on that one, but judicial reform is now coming. I just signed into law a new jury system that will make sure juries can no longer be compromised. We've been training magistrates to handle small petty corruption cases, and so we've come a long way in that. The big issue now will be attitudinal change - for people to appreciate why corruption takes away from our collective effort to develop the country and to make Liberia competitive with others.
That is where we are now. I feel we have come a long way. On the [most recent] Corruption Perception Index , Liberia has climbed and is much higher than many other African countries. Also the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index shows how much we have succeeded in doing this. We are not where we want to be. We must continue to strengthen our capacity. We must make sure that we tackle the punishment side so that people may be prosecuted if the evidence is there that they violated the trust. But I am confident that we've done a lot and that, in the next few years, Liberia will continue to show great improvement in addressing corruption.
What is your pitch to both private sector and government players?
Our period of stabilization is over - that was the six years of the first term. It's now our period of transformation. All we've done to mobilize the investment, to build institutions, to build capacity, to attract the partnership, now let's put them to work. The challenge of infrastructure is holding us back. So my message to everyone is: let us put our collective effort toward moving forward, so that the transformation makes Liberia a post conflict success story.
Let's meet those challenges! Our success will be a success for the United States and for all who support us.
SEE ALSO: Bold Plans for Hard Problems in Second Term - Johnson Sirleaf (June 2012) 'Much More to Do', Says Johnson Sirleaf (June 2011) President Reports Progress Amid Problems to U.S. Backers (May 2010)