Monrovia — Robert Sirleaf, son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has declared his candidacy for senator representing Montserrado County, which includes Liberia's capital, Monrovia. In a conversation with AllAfrica about how Monrovia neighborhoods can combat coastal erosion and flooding – for an upcoming series of reports supported by the Rockefeller Foundation on challenges facing cities - Sirleaf talked extensively about the importance of empowering local communities to improve their situations. He also agreed to an interview about the Senate race. AllAfrica's Boakai Fofana talked with Sirleaf in his office. Excerpts:
Let's start off first by the obvious question: why do you want to be Senator of Montserrado county?
For the last few years, we have been doing a lot of work in Montserrado county and some other counties. We've done some work in Bomi; we've done some work in Nimba. The people of Montserrado have spoken. I have been underneath a lot of pressure - maybe for the last two years - to declare for political office to represent them at the next higher level. It's taken a lot of self-thinking to make a very personal decision. And I decided to make it in the best interest of the county.
And what is that best interest? What do you hope to achieve at the end of the day?
Changing lives is one of the most important things we have done. We have been creative in creating employment, water, sanitation, and market places for the women. So when you go the next level to do it on a bigger and broader scale, obviously, I am [only] one person. As senator, I can rally partners. We all can benefit from sharing ideas in making Montserrado better - and other counties better at the same time.
Given that decisions in Senate are made by majority vote, how do you intend to make an impact personally?
Partnership. Politics is about interests. There are interests that we have in making the lives of the people better - coming up with creative ideas, coming up with ideas of employment, infrastructure development. It's a matter of aligning these interests and getting to a common goal.\
In the end, what would you regard as a successful term of office?
Nine years will make me 63; that should be enough. What we've been able to achieve in four years from the very small perspective that we have, a nine-year commitment to the people of Montserrado County, we will be able to achieve a lot of more. We are very committed to that and confident in our ability to create the partnerships and attract the right type of people to do investment in Montserrado. I think we can be extremely successful.
When you say nine years should be enough, do you mean in the senate or in public service?
With the senate for nine years - and when you add the other five or six [already] done, it's a lot of time to commit. Some people do it for 20 or 30 years - hats off to them. I think nine years in the senate will be enough for me.
During your declaration of intent you talked about social ills in Montserrado county. Some critics would assert that you helped create them. What can you say to that?
I would say a lot of people may not know me as well as they think they know me. But they are welcome to come to Montserrado; they're welcome to come to Monrovia; they're welcome to come to all the neighborhoods that we've worked in and talk to the people. We have made a difference in West Point. We have done two markets in West Point. We've done disaster relief program in West Point. We've built a football field in West Point. We've built a gym in West Point. If you go to New Kru Town, you will see the same type of footprint. Clara Town, you will see the same kind of footprint. If you go to Doe Community, you will see the same kind of footprint. If you go to Brewerville, you will see the same kind of footprint.
You know, it's endless. So when people say social ills, I spent a lot of my time in the football world. We started that program in BYC football in 2009. You cannot deny success - even the people who make the criticisms. We set up the largest football program in Liberia, and we didn't become that in 2013. We began in 2009 and built an institution of BYC's football and built a very successful institution. You go to BYC's football game, there's 12,000 people. All 12,000 don't love Robert Sirleaf, but all 12,000 cheer for BYC's football.
You have certainly done a lot, as you are enumerating, but is talk about social ills an acknowledgement of government's inability to perform in that particular sector? Some would say 'government's failure'.
The government is not the panacea for everything, regardless what government you talk about, whether it's the government of Liberia, Guinea, Ghana, the United States. It doesn't solve all the problems. It creates the opportunity at very high level to solve the problems. So to say that government is to solve everything, we don't necessarily agree with that statement. As individual, running an office of five, we have been able to make a difference in Montserrado county - and we are certainly not the government.
Gay rights issues have become a topic of discussion both locally and internationally, with many countries in Africa and other parts of the world coming under pressure to legalize gay rights. What is your perception about gay rights issues?
We believe in equality for all. We believe in the equality of women. We believe in equality of deaf people. We believe in equality of young people. But also we are extremely respectful of our cultural norms. We are respectful about the will of the people. If the will of the people of Montserrado takes a particular position on this issue, it is up to me as their senator to express their will at a high level. But the world is a changing place. In the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans or black people couldn't go into certain places [in the United States]. Back in the 1930s or 1940s, black people couldn't ride a bus. If you go to Europe or any other place, there's always this issue. But the world is a changing place. My job is to represent the will, the views, the desires of the people of Montserrado County, and that's what I am going to do.
When you talk of the will of the people, my personal opinion is that an unscientific survey will show that the people of Montserrado County will not want gay relationships legalized; would you go for that?
My opinion is to express the will of the people. The will of the people is my job. I am not the boss of the people of Montserrado County. The people of Montserrado County are my bosses. So if my boss tells me collectively, this is their will, my [responsibility is] to address that.
Are you married…and do you have kids?
No, I am divorced. I have two children. They are older. I am very sensitive to their wellbeing. I keep them out of the flow of this discussion and this dialogue. They live their own lives. They both are in their twenties. They support themselves. Their view is that I have a right to do what I want to do. Robert Sirleaf has no intention to dwell into their private life because that is not the issue. The issue is the will of the people of Montserrado County, expressing their will and working for them.
Are you a U.S. citizen?
Both my parents were born in Montserrado County. I was born in Montserrado County. Both my parents are Liberians. I am a Liberian. I have a Liberian passport. I travel as a Liberian.
So what do you make of reports that you applied for a Liberian work permit… and people were displaying a passport on social media, purporting to be yours. Is that actually yours?
I have seen a lot of that on the Internet, shown [to me] by my people. If you look at the major news networks - the BBC, CNN, Euronews, Sky - it has shifted to more social media. The issue with social media is, people post any and everything. People post things that they doctor. People post things that they change. People post things that they make up. The Liberian Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization I think has addressed that, and it's best that they address this issue legally.
So are you saying that the passport that is out on social media is doctored?
There are a lot of things on social media that are doctored, and will continue to be doctored. I will let the social media manage that. I am in all legal standing to take the steps and I will remain so.
You didn't apply for Liberian document?
That document you saw, if you really look at the document, Robert Sirleaf wouldn't say his address is adjacent the Fish Market. Robert Sirleaf certainly wouldn't misspell Monrovia. So I will leave it at that, for people to make their own judgment about my capacity, how I write and how I can spell.
There are perceptions out there that the money for your foundation is taken from the government's coffers. Would you care to comment on that?
I have never taken any money from the national coffers. That is a proven fact. Again, you give somebody a laptop, and they write a lot of things. Let me take it to the next level: after six years [of my contributions] to the country and the county, nobody has come with a piece of paper that says here's something that proves he has stolen money from the Liberian people. Nobody has done it. Yet people get on the radio, they say these things to people. It's catchy. It sounds good: "Oh, the man took our government money". Where is the evidence? There are some [suggestions] that I should go out and sue people. Sue them for what? Why go and make a burden at my expense. I have not taken from the Liberian people. I have never stolen money from the Liberian people. There is no evidence, but people say it.
Over the past years I have engaged with people who have made these statements - and do you know what they tell me? I say [to them], "You all know [the facts]." And they say, "We know, but we just say it on the radio, because, you know, that's politics." And I say, "You know it's not fair to me. If you're going to make such allegations, you should really back it up with evidence, because that's just spoiling people's name.
Sometimes. As an individual, I cut; I bleed like everybody else. It saddens me that people say the kinds of things that they know they can't substantiate.
In our campaign, we are not going to do that. We think the Liberian people deserve better. We are going to stay focused on the issues; we are going to stay focused on the record; we are going to stay focused on the commitment. I don't want to go after any of the other very good candidates that are in the race. I don't want to delve into their lives. It's just not fair, and the Liberian people deserve better. They know the propaganda they are doing, and it's a disservice. It's an absolute disservice to the people.
Now let's get to this, do you own shares in the oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil that may be pumping oil in Liberia in the future?
Absolutely none! I have no interests; I have no partnership; I have no equity invested in any one of them. If mutual funds I invest in happen to buy [shares in] those companies, I may be an indirect shareholder, but let's not make it complicated. I own no share of Chevron, no share of Exxon, no share of an oil company. And again, it saddens me people will say this.
Talking about the oil sector, would you comment on allegations by Christopher Neyor, former head of the National Oil Company of Liberia (Nocal), who withdrew from the Senate race after he claimed that you personally benefited from relations with the international oil companies exploring in Liberia?
Christopher Neyor is my friend. I have nothing against Christopher Neyor. I was actually on the board of directors [of Nocal] when Christopher Neyor was the CEO for a very short period of time. He's a fine Christian. I have no personal beef with Chris in terms of the allegations that he's made. He has every right. I leave it to him and his conscience.
People call you the de facto president and say you call the shots from behind the scene. Is that true?
Nope. I don't call anybody's shots. I only have 24 hours in the day. In the football season, everybody can tell you where I am, spending hours on football field - two, three, four, five, six games a week; traveling with the with the team, trying to buy them their boots, trying to take care of their medical issues - and then be de facto [president]? That would make me superman. I am not even remotely close. I have asked again of the people who make these allegations - in a one-one-one conversation - and the answer is always the same: "You know, I just say that thing for the politics."
So you meet them [the people who make these allegations against you]?
Of course! Of course! Most recently, there were some people holding some placards in an area that we visited. Twenty-nine of these young people were put in jail. We sent people to the Central Prison. We paid their fines, and then we talked to the people who were 'quote unquote' against Robert Sirleaf. We brought them to my office; we sat in front of these young people. I asked them. "Do you all have a personal issue?" [Their answer was], "Papay, no. Actually we like you. There are some people that pay us five dollars to do it." I say, "Five dollars is actually offensive to me."
[The people who pay them to protest] put these children at risk. They were beaten in jail for jail fees. I told them they actually have to figure a way to improve their lives. You don't have to go and do something you don't have any conviction of.
Don't you think the fact that your mother is president and you want to be senator will heighten public perception about nepotism, even though it isn't nepotism because you will be an elected official?
People throw these words around because they sound convenient. I am very proud of what we were able to achieve at Nocal during my short stay there. It was very specific - what I was going to be able to do. It was very specific - when it was going to end. And it did end on all those terms. And I think it surprised people that it actually did. People have this view that money was taken out of Nocal. They are welcome to check. I have always been open. Nocal can be audited. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the president of Liberia. Robert Sirleaf's connection to Montserrado County is a separate issue. She has a very big and difficult job. Mine is to [represent] to the best of my ability the people of Montserrado county.
Do you want to be president at some point?
Not at all?
There is this speculation out there that you want to go to the Senate, grab the pro temp position and then use it to run for the president in 2017. And you are saying that isn't true?
Boakai, I don't know how many other ways to say 'no'. I have said 'no' twice. I can spell 'no'. N.O. is still 'no'! [laughter]
As I move around your office I see a lot of young men. Some people are asking why you employ a lot of young men?
We have been in this office for almost six years. We started the office with two people. There are women around, and some are actually in this room. We are very happy, we very proud of them. I have never asked them their political affiliation, and they can speak for themselves. We look for capacity, and we look for talent. It's not like we employ twenty people. The young men who initially came into the office were young men from different backgrounds and persuasions. There is nobody in our office that would classify as a Unity Party partisan. I feel sorry for them that they have to carry the burden of rumors, innuendos, whispers in the corners.
Would you like to address anything, as we conclude this interview, which we haven't touched?
I think you covered all the questions. It's easy and convenient for people to use the word corruption. It's easy and convenient for people to use the word nepotism. It's easy and convenient to address rumors and Innuendos. It's much more difficult for the people who don't see things the way you see it to talk about your record. That is the focus of this election. This election is about your record. This election is about issues. This election is about who can best represent the people of Montserrado county for the next nine years. That's what this election is about.
AllAfrica interviews are edited and condensed.