Liberia: Johnson Sirleaf - 'Bigger Achievements Have Outweighed the Small Mistakes'

interview

Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently recieved a key innovation prize from the Kiel Institute. While in Germany, she spoke to DW about the challenges of office and her future aspirations for Liberia.

DW: You are in Germany to receive a prize for your efforts in rebuilding Liberia. You have been the president for eight years now. You have started numerous initiatives to improve the education sector, to promote reconciliation and to promote economic growth. You have come very far but despite your efforts Liberia is still a very poor, a challenged country. Do you sometimes fall into bed after a long working day as the president and wonder, why am I actually doing this to myself?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, there may be moments when I wonder what else I could do. I never wonder why. I always wonder if I have not done enough, if we could all achieve at a much faster pace. So generally I am very confident for the future and very satisfied at what we are doing, even though not at the pace I want to see.

What do you think are your greatest achievements so far as the president?

We have been able to start the process of reconstruction, infrastructure, building institutions, getting the laws and policies right, settling our large external dept to open up the fiscal space, getting kids back into school and our health and educational systems. We have had to tackle just about everything as a priority: ensuring that the environment is one that promotes democracy, ensuring people have all their freedoms, starting all the reform processes, restoring our international relationships. And so, it has been a challenging situation but again, as I said, we are pleased with the progress.

Is there a particular area where you are unhappy with the progress that has been made so far?

In our educational system. We have stated it is our number one priority, the foundation upon which everything else rests. It has been difficult because most of the professional teachers had departed the country, the schools were all broken down - everything about it required reform. And that has contributed to a slow pace and the lack of our building the capacity at a level that would assure a satisfactory implementation of our development plans.

When you came into office you were greeted with a lot of enthusiasm, both locally and abroad, and a lot of people, when you read the commentaries in the newspapers, expected you to change the country overnight, to build a very stable, prosperous Liberia. How do you cope with these enormous expectations?

It's always difficult when people have been suppressed for a long time and have not had opportunities for a long time. And then all of a sudden there is hope, hope that comes from a new government, an enlightened government. So managing those expectations is very challenging. But I must say that because we have been able to make enough progress we have given people hope and have given them a stake in society where they too feel that the future belongs to them. Because of that, we have been able to have ten consecutive years of peace. And now, we think we can build upon that. But still, there is no quick fix when a country has been destroyed over two decades and all institutions, infrastructure and systems have been totally dysfunctional. You can't fix it in ten or twenty years, even.

As you just mentioned you understand the needs of the people, they are enormous. If you travel the country, people make requests and you, as the president, of course know that you can't satisfy all their demands immediately. You know that you have to find the necessary funds first. How do you cope with that personally?

Well I guess, firstly you have to be truthful to the people by letting them know there are limitations in resources, financial and human. In those cases where one can respond to them in a small way, one tries to do that. One has to also keep pointing out that development is not only a government task or a leader's task. Development belongs to everybody and everybody must make a contribution. So it is a continuing process of engaging them and enlightening them and working with them. And despite the challenges, the message does get through.

You have always spoken out very strongly against corruption. But if you read the report by Transparency International there is still a great deal of corruption. Does it sometimes make you sad that while you are trying to explain to people what is necessary, you still see in everyday life that it is still quite difficult for many people to change their ways?

That is very true. It is one of the most challenging issues that we have to face. Corruption became a way of life. As a means of survival and it became a part of the culture, a systemic. It goes beyond government or any individual group or person. We have tried to tackle it by putting in measures of prevention. And that means improving people's compensation to reduce their vulnerabilities, coming up with the laws and the policies, rebuilding the institutions, rebuilding capacity. We still have some lacks when it comes to punishment because the system is to powerful, an overall systemic environment. And so punishing people is difficult in that situation. We have been changing laws, improving the quality of our judges, limiting bribery and all of that. And as a matter of fact, some progress has been made. If you look at the Transparency International indexes we have improved. If you look at the Millennium Challenge Account indexes we have also improved considerably. But we still have a long way to go.

How do you feel when people like Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with you, are now coming out and criticizing you? Does that hurt because you believe you know what you are doing?

It has to come with leadership. One has to be able to take that. There is no escaping it. I keep saying that perhaps she is too young to know the many struggles that we all went through to bring the freedom that enables her to be able to criticize. That's part of what it takes to be a leader.

Do you sometimes feel that you have made any mistakes in running the country?

Oh yes. I mean nobody can say that you are perfect in the decisions you make. I have made some mistakes. Maybe sometimes not being sufficiently hard on people who haven't achieved the goals in the time I have wanted. We come from a small society where everybody knows everybody so sometimes that puts a lot of pressure on the leader - even if you want to be hard and take those decisions. But generally I accept the small mistakes. I think the bigger achievements have certainly way outweighed the small mistakes here and there.

You earned a great deal of criticism abroad but also locally for appointing some of your family members to high positions of government. If you look at this now would you see that as a mistake?

No. In the realm of things many of them earned their position before I became president and I saw no reason to remove them if they were doing a good job. The capacity is limited in many cases. We are talking about three appointments. Sometimes people forget that people who have the same name I have, are really no relatives, some of them I have not even known all my life. But in those cases where they were direct relatives like sons and have served a particular function I think they have responded to specific needs that I had. And they can now move on as one or two of them are.

How satisfied are you with the assistance from foreign donors like Germany in the rebuilding of Liberia?

We are very pleased with the response. Germany has worked with us on our debt; Chancellor Merkel was particularly instrumental in bringing the European partners together. The United States remains our number one partner and has proposed to rebuild the army. The European Commission is a major partner in infrastructure and that goes for our multilateral partners like the World Bank and the African Development Bank. So, if there is anything that has slowed the progress it's our own capacity limitations because we have not been able to negotiate as fast as we have wanted to. Or implement at the aggressive pace that we have whished for. But we are quite pleased with our partnership, even our African friends who have helped to keep the peace.

What are your priorities for your remaining years in office?

Infrastructure, our power, our ports our roads - so that we can develop the private sector which is hurting our educational reform program. Civil service reform, we have been doing a lot of work on that to make sure that we get rid of the bloated public service and bring in the capacity; Constitutional reform, to do more on liberalization, diversification of the economy - so that we can move towards agro-processing and industrialization. Responding to the big challenge of youth unemployment; giving our youth some skills and technical trainings so that they too can take a much greater participation in the economic life in the country. And continuing to promote democracy, the freedoms that our people enjoy which they have perhaps not had all their lives. Freedom of speech, association, religion. We hope to continue all of that and build upon the progress we have made and consolidate it. I keep saying our 2030 vision calls for being a middle income country by the year 2030. Over the next four years, when I complete my term in our agenda for transformation, I hope we will put it on an irreversible course for the achievement of that long term goal.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa's first democratically elected woman head of state 2005.

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