Liberia: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf does not “want Africa to return to the men’s club”

By Christophe Le Bec in Monrovia
Posted on Friday, 9 September 2011 16:26

The first female president of an African country, elected in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains a lone trailblazer. And, at 72, the “Iron Lady” of Liberia has decided her work rebuilding her country is far from over

The Africa Report: You are the first female President in Africa. Will this happen elsewhere on the continent?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: It will definitely happen in other countries because many women are now vying for the presidency, which didn’t happen much in the past. None have been successful, that’s why I’m holding on – so I can wait for somebody to take over. When that will happen I don’t know, but I see the possibilities in many countries. It will happen – within the decade you will see at least one or two more female presidents in Africa.

Is that one of the reasons why you chose to run for another term?

It’s one of the reasons – I don’t want Africa to return to the men’s club. We’ve built a solid foundation in getting our economy and institutions functioning again. We don’t want to see any reversals and so we need continuity to put us on an irreversible path towards sustained peace and development.

How far has the reconciliation process gone?

The reconciliation process started with our commitment to a government of inclusion, so as we structured the government we brought in people from the opposition parties – many of whom were even contestants in the race with me. We have a policy of ensuring that there’s no discrimination in terms of opportunities, in terms of rights and privileges, as a means of ensuring that everyone feels a part. We have tried to settle certain disputes over land and over religion – again as a means of bringing people together. This year we’re in a political year, so as a result you hear a lot of discussion about division and disunity because these are a sign of the times.

Do you think this election process is bringing a bit more tension from the past?

I think that some politicians will use it and try to say things that divide, but deep inside, we’re a very small nation. We’re a relatively small population and when we all meet socially – we all meet on the football field, that everybody loves – you find that there’s really no animosity. But when we start to talk politics, then of course, then we play the game.

What has been achieved in terms of infrastructure?

We have made quite a bit of progress in restoring basic infrastructure – roads, bridges, electricity, schools, clinics and hospitals – so that if you go throughout the country now you’ll find that not only have we worked on the major primary roads that link all the capitals, but also secondary roads – farm-to-market roads.

When we came [to power], the capital city had not had any lights for two decades – we’ve brought lights and today many people are enjoying this. Piped water did not exist; today a large percentage of the population has it. The same applies to schools and clinics and hospitals. The major university now has a new campus. In one of our rural areas we now have a very large, modern referral hospital that is serving not only Liberians, but also many of the Côte d’Ivoire refugees.

How do you open the door for investors and what type of investors do you want to see?

Well, you know Liberia is a natural-resource-rich country and we have attracted private investment to the order of $16bn dollars in the past few years. I think that’s a record for this country. We are a major mining country – we have iron ore and sometimes gold – so we have re-opened two major mining concessions that were closed and brought in a Chinese investor.

Liberia is not an agricultural nation, but we have brought investors from Asia, so we have Sime Darby, which is Malaysia’s largest palm-oil producing company. They have operations in two of our rural counties, and we have Golden Veroleum, which is an Indonesian company. They have started to do their nurseries and are beginning to set up social infrastructure for the workers.

Many of the rubber farms went out of operation during the civil war, but Firestone is now replanting.

Do you still consider America as your first partner?

America is still our first and best bi-lateral partner and that partnership is in the form of support through official assistance. They have worked largely in areas like social info-structure and in capacity building. They also have helped us in creating a new army and to train that army professionally.

There has not been major US investment, largely because as you know our market is small and the US market is so large that they concentrate on their domestic market more than outside – although we have Robert Johnson of BET television who has invested in a hotel here.

We are trying to cultivate a relationship with Brazil, because we see Brazil and South Africa as the large economies that have been able to develop and have certain similarities to our own.

Could you tell me more about how Liberia has been affected by the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire? What was your role in trying to help the situation?

First of all, unlike in the past, we have good relationships with all of our neighbouring countries. We have what we call the Mano River Union and I’m the current chair of that. It includes Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. The crisis has affected us because today we have over 180,000 refugees spread over some 26 villages.

Our ability to respond to them is very limited. The people in our communities that have received them have shared with them their homes and their food. This has also affected our own food security because those people have had to use that and they’re running out of food. The international community – particularly the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – is helpful, but it has been slow.

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