Liberia’s President Optimistic About Her Nation’s Future

IRP Gatekeeper Editor Sunni Khalid's interview with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

November 22, 2010

Aired on WYPR, a Baltimore-area public radio station and NPR affiliate

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She's known as the "Iron Lady." And with her direct gaze and no-nonsense demeanor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has commanded respect from both friend and foe over the years, long before she became Liberia's president.

She likes to shake things up. And a day before she left for the United States two weeks ago, she put her entire cabinet on administrative leave, not making any decisions on those who would remain in office until after she returned.

In an interview last week, Johnson Sirleaf explained that next year's elections - where she will seek a second five-year term - was one reason behind her unexpected move.

"We are reaching the place where we are going into an election year and people became a little bit relaxed. And many people are pursuing political agendas and this was just to pause, to stop a bit, let's stop. We've got six months to get our development agenda going and to achieve some of our development goals. And it's not time for complacency. It's not time to say, Well, you know, it's almost at the end of the line and, therefore, what's the point.' That was just a wake-up call."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

The 72-year-old grandmother stressed the importance next year's elections for her country, founded nearly 200 years ago by freed African-American slaves before becoming an independent nation in 1847. Two of Liberia's first seven presidents were born in Maryland, which is home to a large Liberian expatriate population.

"The next election will be the defining event for Liberia's move toward normalcy and move toward sustainable peace. But that second election, which we all must do all we can to make sure it's free, it's fair, it represents the people's choice, after that, I think Liberia will be put on a irreversible course for democracy, development, peace."

Johnson Sirleaf and Liberia face several enormous challenges. The first, perhaps, is restoring the nation's shattered economy and rebuilding an infrastructure, including the electrical grid and water and sewer systems, which were almost completely destroyed by 14 years of fighting in two civil wars. Most of the bullet holes that pockmarked the capital, Monrovia--once considered one of the garden spots of West Africa just three decades ago--have long ago been covered up. Streets are being resurfaced, but Liberia has less than 500 miles of paved roads. New construction is taking place all over Monrovia, in stark contract to some of the large buildings left derelict by the fighting, which ended seven years ago.

"We have come a long way, since 2006, when this administration, this government started, because what we met was truly dysfunctional system, collapsed economy, lack of credit worthiness, bad reputation for the country, a failed state, a pariah state, as we were all characterized. I think we can say today that Liberia is functioning again."

Of course, until then, Liberia will continue to rely on its allies, primarily the United States. The relationship has been marked with long periods of ambivalence and mistrust. Liberians founders named their country after "liberty," their capital, Monrovia, after Secretary of State James Monroe, and adopted a flag of red and white stripes with a single white star in a corner of blue.

Yet, Washington did not recognize Liberia until the year before the Emancipation Proclamation, some 16 years after independence, because of some fears over recognizing a republic founded by former slaves.

During World War II, the United States built Roberts International Airport outside Monrovia, using the longest runways on the continent as a re-supply hub to the Allied forces fighting Nazi troops in North Africa. In January 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt became the first American president to visit sub-Saharan Africa, when he stopped to have lunch with Liberia's president on a stopover Edwin J. Barclay.

And during the Cold War, Washington backed a succession of strong-armed dictators, who abused human rights and stifled political freedom. President Johnson Sirleaf, like many Liberians, has long chafed at being referred to as America's "step-child."

"We've grown up. We're no longer a step-child."

Known and respected by many Washington policymakers for years, the Liberian president says both nations have turned a new page in their relationship.

"Today, we see relationship that's based on partnership, with mutuality and benefits and respect. We feel we can give something back and we can receive something and that's what we're trying to do. I think today that we are respected for that partnership. I think the United States needs Liberia in certain international fora to stand by certain things they want to do, to certain positions they want to take. Liberia's natural resources are available for investment by the U.S. At the same time, we do have a very healthy bi-lateral assistance program from the U.S. And today, we enjoy strong bi-partisan support, we're as strong with the Republicans as the Democrats So, I think that the partnership is on a much sounder basis. It's got nothing to do with patronage. We don't want patronage."

According to the latest data, unemployment is estimated at 85 percent and 80 percent of the Liberia's 3.5 million people live at or below the poverty line. The task for President Johnson Sirleaf is to translate the country's significant natural resources, like iron ore, rubber, agriculture and oil, into employment and prosperity. So far, she's been successful in wooing international investors, as Liberia has the world's highest ratio of foreign investment. Major U.S. firms, like Firestone and Lockheed-Martin, are investing in the country.

Liberia's still struggling economy is growing at about six percent annually, but President Johnson Sirleaf boldly predicted that her country is about poised to take off, economically.

"If Liberia continues on the path on which it is right now, given our relatively small population and our ample natural resource, Liberia will not need foreign assistance in 10 years. We should be able to manage our own matters and to achieve our development goals by our own resources."

Even the Liberian leader's biggest supporters aren't quite that optimistic. More than 8,000 United Nations blue helmets remain in the country, keeping a fragile peace. Liberia is likely to remain one of the 25 poorest countries in the world for the foreseeable future, but its political and economic trends appear encouraging. And as President Johnson Sirleaf readily admits, there's still much more work that must be done.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He reported from Monrovia, Liberia, on a grant from the International Reporting Project.