Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told AllAfrica in a 1986 interview, shortly after being arrested and fleeing the country, that her goal in life was to "bring good governance to Liberia before I die." Since her inauguration in January 2006, she has had the chance to try, and she acknowledges the magnitude of the challenge. Twenty months into her presidency, she thinks the campaign against corruption and the process of delivering health services, education and jobs has gained traction, and she is encouraged. But she says the region is troubled, peace is fragile and Liberia must have help to deliver a democracy dividend and preserve stability. Excerpts from an interview earlier this month in her Monrovia residence:
What is it in the last 20 months that brought you the most joy in this job?
Seeing the children smile again. As I went around during the campaign, the children looked so down-hearted and despondent. I said in my Inaugural speech that the greatest joy I would have is to make them smile again. I am so pleased today that whenever I get out of the vehicle and go to children- they all rush as soon as they hear the siren and know I am coming. The all are smiles, and they are all laughing, and they all call me 'Ellen'! So that's my greatest joy!
Would specific accomplishments most please you?
If we are talking qualitatively, it's the restoration of hope. People now see that there is indeed the light at the end of the tunnel. It is possible for us to move toward achieving our national potential. That to me is also one of the things I find very satisfying.
In terms of the quantitative things, we can go through the list: training of the new professional army and police; having sanctions lifted off our timber and our diamonds; restarting the forestry sector; qualifying for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa); completing a one year Staff Monitoring program with the IMF and restoring our good relations with those institutions just about to the place where we will resolve our U.S.$4 billion external debt problem and get the relief that will put us on the course toward the heavily indebted poverty reduction program.
We've also been able to get some of our fast-growing sectors functioning again. In renegotiating the Arcelor Mittal steel agreement for a U.S.$1 billion investment in our mines, we were able to get back, into government ownership, assets like railroads and ports that had been given to them under the [previous] concession agreement. We also have been renegotiating with Firestone to make sure that there are more benefits to the country in that arrangement. When we got here, we insisted we are not going to let our people live under the conditions they did, and Firestone gave us a new five-year plan for new housing, new schools and clinics. Look at the Firestone plantation today; the plantation is transforming. We're getting other mines restarted and are negotiating to revive some of our oil-palm plantations and get new investors involved.
On the economic track, our revenues increased by over 44% - from U.S.$80 million, when we took over from the national transitional government, to today closer to U.S.$200 million, with the potential to double that in the next couple of years.
You've put special emphasis on fighting corruption. How successful has that been so far?
We've got a very aggressive anti-corruption strategy, although I'll be the first to say it is a big challenge. Corruption has so penetrated the fabric of this nation that it's hard for me to think that we will solve it right away. But we have made important first steps. We have taken to court high government officials who violated the public trust. We have done a code of conduct that is before our legislature. We've done an anti-corruption policy and strategy.
We have what we call our pillars of integrity. The General Auditing Commission is one. We have reactivated and strengthened that commission and that process is going to be achieved. The Ministry of Finance is another pillar, and judiciary is another. The judiciary still has a long way to go, but that process again has started.
What about improvements in living conditions here in Monrovia and around the country?
This capital city was dark for fourteen years. We have brought some electricity - not enough - but some street lights. Because it's not affordable for many families, we now have children doing home work under the street lights. A bit innovative, a small step, but we hope that we can expand that.
Water: there is water now coming into many of our communities either through the pump or pipe borne water into homes in places like Paynesville, Congo Town and lots of other places in Monrovia.
Our road reconstruction program - that's one that everybody places priority on. It's a bit delayed because our raining season stopped us from working. But some of the roads in the rural areas have been done. Now that the dry season has started, we have a very aggressive program to repair some of the Monrovia streets. And we have been able to mobilize some resources for that. So we just need to get the work done.
In education and health, we have enforced compulsory free and primary education, and that has increased enrollment by over 40%, most of them being girls, because we have a special emphasis on girls education. We're trying to repair and renovate so many schools all over the country. We've made sure that there's no fee in public schools, and we're subsidizing a lot of the private schools to make sure that people in communities can go to school. We are on a fast track with that one, and we're going to get additional help. We have just been included in the list of six countries that will benefit from the Bush administration's special educational initiative.
In health, we are tacking HIV/Aids and we have got support from the Clinton Foundation. After President Clinton's visit, he assigned someone to our Ministry of Health to help them at John F. Kennedy Hospital. We are trying to repair the clinics around the country. But we have a real challenge when it comes to health personnel. Getting medical services, particularly in our rural areas, is quite a long ways off. We have been getting support from Nigeria, which have sent us some volunteers doctors. We are getting help from the Chinese; they've got a medical team here. And we have been able to tap private sources.
Our Liberia Education Trust program, which mobilizes money from individuals and institutions in the U.S., has now raised about 3 million dollars to support what we call our "Fifty, Five Hundred, Five Thousand Program" - to build or repair fifty schools, train five hundred teachers and give five thousand scholarships to girls. Eighteen of those schools are now under construction. A hundred and something of the teachers are now being put through the teacher-training college. And we have about 1,270 scholarships that have now been given to girls in all of the counties, at different levels.
And we have our literacy program that falls under the Liberian Education Trust, in which market women have an opportunity to learn to read and write. It's exciting to hear them talk about how it has transformed their lives.
My promise to market women who supported me so well in the election was to improve their conditions. From private foundations, we raised about U.S.$2 million to improve or build new markets, here in the capital city and around the country. If you look around you will see so many of the markets are under renovation.
How do you, as president, decide on a daily or weekly basis what to pay attention to? How do you spend your time? How do you triage?
We have got an agenda. And there are so many policies that need to be addressed toward meeting that agenda. So I try to spent my time with each of the sectors to see where we are in formulating the policies. I spent a lot of time at the Finance Ministry looking at our revenue trends and our budgetary process. And a great amount of time with our legislature, trying to get our legislative agenda under way. A lot of it is structured and planned. Some of it is just responsive, reactive, because there's no other way.
We still are in a little bit of a fire-fighting mode, because we haven't got the kind of systems that are functioning like they should, because our institutions were dysfunctional for so long. We are just trying to build them back up.
So we are always responding. Soldiers had not been paid, civil servants had not been paid, people in our foreign missions had not been paid, government domestic debt had not been paid. And so all of those things - we have them programmed. We work on the policies. In the midst of it, though, there are maybe some people who are dissatisfied. Then we have to stop and react to that.
And I try to make sure our ministers are delegated enough authority to handle their areas. I am a hands-on president, I'll be the first to admit. Whatever they are doing in their areas, I know what they are doing, and I press them and keep pushing them toward the limits. I think it is beginning to work. We have got a long way to go yet. But I think we are beginning to see some results.
How do you reach out across the country considering you spend a lot of your time in Monrovia or traveling internationally?
Whenever they're having a farm opening or are breaking ground for the construction of a school or clinic or something, I get invited, and I make the effort to go there, because this puts me in touch with the rural population. I also had a cabinet meeting all the way in the furtherest county, near the Ivorian border. We drove. And driving meant we had to spend two nights in two other counties, in a county that really had no housing at all. People were sleeping in their cars because there wasn't a room. But we did that, because we wanted to send a signal that our connection was not just in the capital city.
We are going to do it again. We are planning our cabinet schedule now for the dry season, when the roads will permit us to go into the rural areas. I'm already alerting county leaders that we are scheduling to be in their counties for cabinet meetings. For us its serves a double purpose. One, by just going there, it spurs some development - both for government, who must do something to prepare for the crowds, and for private individuals, who want to make sure that their county looks good, and they can build some accommodation, and they can make some business, too. So we will continue to do that and take things on the road.
What does it do for the cabinet?
You know, I think it strengthens them. I think it brings a certain consciousness for many who have not spent time in rural areas to really see the challenges out there and the enormity of what we must do if we are going to transform this country and set it toward achieving its potential. So many of them come, despite the accommodation hardships, they all come back a little bit richer. A little bit more committed. And they have said they want to do it again.
Say a little bit more about those challenges. People who have not seen them can't imagine them ...
Just think that there are some places that are unreachable by roads! We have got one county, Gbarpolu County, that has been purposely, over the years, kept without infrastructure, because the infamous prison was there - the place called Belle Yala. Where they took prisoners that never returned. Well, I went to Belle Yala, since it missed me as a prisoner - I went to all the other prisons but I missed that one! So I went to see what it was like. Can you imagine that there are people there who have never seen a vehicle in their lives? Never! Because they haven't left the village to go anywhere else and there is no road that has reached there. There are some places where people have to walk for days sometimes even to collect their pay checks, because there are no roads.
I mean, there is such thing as "electricity"! There were many kids in this capital city who did not know that water came out of anything but a bucket - because they have never seen pipe-borne water before, until recently. And that particular challenge still pertains for many of the rural areas, because they are still using the streams and the rivers for washing, for sanitary purposes, for drinking. We are trying to change that - to be able to take wells into those villages, so that they don't have to use polluted water. But those are the challenges, and this is a country so blessed with rainfall that people should not be drinking contaminated water. But we haven't learned a way to store the rain water, you know, in the areas where they can use it when the rains are gone.
The challenges of education - we don't have enough school facilities. Those we had were destroyed. So you have some kids in villages that have never been to school, and they are now ten years old, twelve years old. When you see some of the statistics and see the average age of students in the primary and secondary schools, it clearly tells you what that kid has lost with no education.
Most of these were child soldiers that were commandeered into warring factions. What about the challenge of the rebels who have really turned into hardened criminals because all they know is violence and extortion? Every now and then you hear about the armed robbery in the city; you hear people are attacked, because they know no other way. The only survival they know is to take a gun or take a cutlass and go after somebody. How do we reform that group? Giving them opportunities for skills, education, jobs. The statistics have shown for several years now – unemployment at 80% to 85%. We think we have impacted that and brought it down a little bit. But we are trying to do the statistics on that. But, even so, even if it was 60%, that is a huge amount of unemployed. And that's a huge pool of potential danger for us.
Jobs! A very key challenge. And of course, because the government itself is trying to improve it's own efficiency and bring the number to a manageable proportion consistent with our resources, so we will be able to pay higher salaries. Because of that, we have gone through a restructuring exercise and a retirement exercise. But unless we build a private sector very quickly to be able to absorb them...
Now the private sector is beginning to respond; then we face another problem. The jobs created by the private sector require a certain amount of skills. The skills are not there. So we have to quickly see how we can think through: how do we accelerate the skills training program, how do we create these blue-collar workers quickly to be the masons, carpenters, and electricians and what not, where some of these jobs will be created?
Another of my biggest challenges is the media. Media anywhere has to look for the problems and take the sensational things, because that sells the papers. We can understand that, but how do we get them to be a constructive partner? We need a media that is more investigative, that challenges people and tries to enhance everybody's involvement.
How can Liberia create the number of jobs that are needed?
The scale is large. We are reactivating old mines and opening new ones. We are replanting the rubber plants, and starting our oil-palm program. We have road construction. It will take a combination, and we have built job-generating elements into all of them.
We also are trying to get people back to their farms, back to farming. Look at the crowdedness in this city. Everybody had to leave their communities, abandon their farms, because they all ran for safety to Monrovia. Getting them back is a problem, because there is nothing there. The villages are overgrown with bush. People here may not have a job, but they do have a support system. We have our extended family system of helping each other, and one person with a job probably feeds 20 people. So at least they can manage, and they don't want to go back.
That's why we've got to build roads and create jobs there to attract them back and reduce the numbers here. It will be difficult. They haven't farmed for a long time. But some people have started. We think a couple of our counties will produce enough rice this year so they wouldn't have to use imported rice.
There is lingering fear: 'Is the war really over? Is peace going to last? Will some other group start something that has us running again? We don't want to go back in the village, rebuild our homes and then [have] something [happen] again. So we've got to keep that hope alive. We've got to keep talking and sustain peace.
That's why we are grateful for having Unmil [the United Nations Mission in Liberia].
Our own security forces are not yet ready. Our army is just being trained. It will take another couple of years before we will have an army and a police force that can do it. That is why Unmil has agreed to stay. They will have a draw down, but that draw down will be consistent with our own capacity to expand our abilities. By the year 2010 they will be down to a certain number and we will be taking over much of this responsibility. But they have also said that this will be continuously monitored and adjustments will be made as conditions evolve.
If we didn't have Unmil here, given the kind of changes that are going on and people who have lost power, privileges and resources, and given the pool of unemployed young men, we would have had trouble. It has been an indispensable element of the progress we have been able to achieve.
You've expressed gratitude for the support Liberia has received from the international community. What is your message to the international community today?
We'd like to see more urgency in the support that they give. The processes take too long. We lost a whole season, because road construction that should have started last year and didn't happen [before] the rains came..
Donors sometimes talk about the lack of absorbable capacity in Liberia.
There's truth to that. Sometimes, even within government, the money is there but what's missing is having people with the skills and the processes [in place] to make sure the money is used for the intended purpose, that there is accountability and quality oversight.. Some delays are on our side.
We have two or three programs that address this. The Open Society Initiative has supported one program that enabled us to bring high level Liberian professionals back to the country. There's a UNDP program that brings in middle-level professionals for a period of time. And we are launching the Senior Executive Service to bring 100 Liberian professionals from abroad and infuse them in the different offices to strengthen capacity. We need more, but it's a start.
You're emphasizing a lead role for the private sector. How are outside investors responding?
There have been very good responses to each of our offers for international bids, which suggests that people see Liberia's potential. Robert Johnson from the United States has come in along with OPIC (the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation) with a U.S.$30 million facility that will be able to help Liberian entrepreneurs get into business. That's going to boost Liberian participation in the economy.
The Chinese are chomping at the bit. They want to do everything: roads, mines. But as they say, they are still poor, so they don't give lots of grants. They give concessionary loans. And they have got plenty of that. We could tap that, but it's a quasi-barter system. If they do that, you've got to give them a mine or a forest or whatever it is.
We have attracted a lot [of interest]. We want to make sure that that [each transaction] contributes something to the economy. That negotiating process takes awhile. We have the checks and balances these days. We are part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which means that how resources are used [is] made very clear to everybody here and to the world at large.
How important is it to resolve the issue of outstanding debt?
Very important! Right now, even were there were good soft loans or concessional loans available to us, we couldn't take them, because we are indebted. We have bilateral debt, multilateral debts - essentially to the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank – and commercial debt. The bilateral and multilateral are tied together. The bilaterals have all made commitments to give us relief. But we still have settle with the World Bank, IMF and the African Development Bank. At the World Bank, they have come up with internal mechanisms and bilateral donors. The African Development Bank we think is fairly well set now also. But at the IMF, we are about U.S.$95 million off target. These are huge debts, and we are using some internal reserve mechanisms that requires the agreement of all the major IMF member states. The G-8 and all the big countries have all agreed. We still have to get some of the ones that are a little bit more distant from us, like Brazil, Argentina, Turkey and others. They have to agree that their share of this reserve in the IMF can be used. If we get a favorable response, we are hoping the announcement could be made that Liberia's debt is resolved.
Yet [even then] it's not over. We then have a one-year performance program before we start with the decision point. We have a year to go with the Poverty Reduction Strategy before we can reach the completion point, before we can be free of the debt.
And there's still the commercial debt. Most of it is now held by these so-called "vulture funds". They buy the debt when a country is in terrible shape - maybe a couple of cents on the dollar, and then they hold it until the country begins to recover. And we are in that state right now. They are holding close to a billion dollars worth of debt. They can take us to court.
We are trying to look for solutions. The U.S. government has been good. The Federal Reserve Bank had a meeting and brought in some of the funds just to show that they were behind Liberia in the resolution of this debt. The U.S. Congress has been watching the situation, and the UK is looking at it. We don't know if it will require legislation in some of the major countries to bring these funds under some kind of a control. But right now, we have people helping us to negotiate with them to see how far we go.
We hear that nobody on your staff can keep up with you. Clearly you are motivated. How do tackle you each day? Do you find time to relax or exercise?
I'm up every morning about 5:30. We have a room here with a treadmill and bike, and I hit the treadmill for about an hour. Everyday I'm thinking about what I want to accomplish. How do I address this challenge and that challenge and the other. There's so much potential.