PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Liberia’s Vision for the Transition

Authors: Gyude Bryant, and Mora McLean, President, African-American Institute
February 5, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations


Speaker: Gyude Bryant, interim president, Republic of Liberia
Moderator: Mora McLean, president, Africa America Institute

Council on Foreign Relations
New York, New York
Thursday, February 5, 2004

MORA MCLEAN: Our distinguished speaker today is Chairman Charles Gyude Bryant. He is chairman of the national transitional government of Liberia. Welcome, Mr. Chairman.


MCLEAN: Before I formally introduce him, I want to first acknowledge at least two distinguished guests here in the audience: first, Ambassador John Blaney, U.S. ambassador to Liberia in Monrovia – [applause]; and Congressman Gregory Meeks from New York. [Applause.]

Now, recognizing that not everyone in this room is familiar with the history and the contemporary events in Liberia, I thought I would commence with just a bit of an overview, which won't do justice to the subject, but perhaps will get us all on the same page.

Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves. Its population of roughly 3.3 million people consists of descendants of those slaves, and a majority indigenous African population. Liberia means "lands of the free," a name that was coined in the 19th century by a Maryland Congressman, Robert Goodloe Harper.

Following riots protesting the price of food in 1980, President [of Liberia] William Tolbert, who had succeeded William Tubman in 1971, was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe. Doe's coup marked the end of dominance by the minority Afro-American settlers, but heralded a period of political instability. In the late '80s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war, when dissidents of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front overran much of the countryside, and executed Samuel Doe.

In '95, the peace agreement was signed, followed by the election of Charles Taylor as president in 1997. But through the 1990s, neighboring countries— Ghana, Nigeria and others— accused Taylor of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone. And Taylor, on the other hand, accused Guinea of supporting Liberian rebels in the north.

Last year, in 2003, after 14 years of civil war, the conflict came to a head when Charles Taylor, under international pressure to quit and hemmed in by rebels, stepped down and went into exile. After negotiations mediated by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, and the international contact group of Liberia, which was formed by key donor and regional states to coordinate a comprehensive conflict resolution process, our distinguished speaker today was chosen to lead the transitional government at an all-party peace conference in Ghana.

Charles Gyude Bryant is a Liberian businessman and church leader. His mandate as chairman of the national transitional government is to lead the government toward presidential elections in 2005. Born in 1949, he attended Cuttington College University College in Liberia, receiving an undergraduate degree in economics. He served in government as head of the planning and development division of the National Port Authority, and went on to found the Liberia Machinery and Supply Company in 1997.

BRYANT: In 1977.

MCLEAN: In 1977, excuse me, which he operates today.

BRYANT: Not anymore. I'm head of state. [Laughter.] Conflict of interests.

MCLEAN: There will be more corrections, I'm sure. [Laughter.]

He remained in Liberia throughout the violent upheaval. He got his initiation into politics in the 1970s. And when the Doe government lifted the ban on political activity in 1994, he joined other prominent Liberians in forming the Liberia Action Party, which he was elected chairman in 1992.

He spearheaded the effort to create a coalition of six parties to contest the elections in 1997.

Chairman Bryant took several major actions upon entering office. He abolished monopolies on imports of rice and petroleum products, which had been awarded to Charles Taylor's cronies. He eliminated the requirement for Liberians to obtain exit visas before leaving the country, which had also been introduced by Taylor. And, in November of 2003, while in Sierra Leone, he expressed regret for his country's part in the Sierra Leone civil war.

He has the formidable task of disarming— overseeing the process of disarming— the rebels and leading the country toward the 2005 elections. His government includes former Taylor loyalists, rebels and civilian politicians, and these interests hold half of the Cabinet seats.

There are any number of emerging issues. But this week the international reconstruction conference on Liberia is taking place under U.N. auspices. And that conference is highlighting Liberia's need for financial and other assistance going forward. And indeed it was reported in the newspapers just this week that the team putting the conference together had issued a report making an appeal for some $500 million over the next two years to help underwrite this process. And it's expected that the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will join Chairman Bryant in officially making this appeal.

Now, during the question-and-answer period, I would ask that you stand and state your name and affiliation, and remember that this session is on the record. Chairman Bryant, I think I will open the discussion up by asking you, what are the three things that concern you most going into this conference and thereafter?

BRYANT: Well, thank you, and good afternoon to everybody. We have a mandate, and that mandate is what is required by the peace agreement that we signed in Accra [capital of Ghana] in August last year. That mandate requires us to disarm our country of all and every piece of weaponry. It requires us to give the young people who are carrying around these weapons new skills and new values, and try to reintegrate them with their families and their communities. And the other major thing it requires of us is to hold free and fair elections in October of next year, and turn this government over in January of 2006. Then I can go back and be like you. [Laughter.]

That said, there are other requirements, other than what I would like to see, because those requirements are so crucial they will help us sustain the peace that we have. And to sustain the peace, we must be able to deliver to the people what is rightly theirs, using principally their resources, whatever revenues we can generate as a government for their benefit.

We all are old enough to know what happens when you go to war in a country, and the aftereffects of wars. Everything is destroyed. And Liberia has been no exception: no lights, no water, no schools for kids, no hospitals, no clinics, dirty cities, no sewer systems— sewers spilling into the streets. Name it, and we've had it.

We've come to this great city to join the United Nations and the United States to make a case on our behalf, to help us rebuild and set a strong foundation for change in our country— a foundation that respects civil liberties, that assures everybody of the right to move about and to speak your mind freely; guarantees every child a right to free education. And now we've made it compulsory, because you know in our African culture for too long we have condoned and accepted the abuse of women and children. And so while the men go to school and go to work in beautiful and luxurious offices, the women are left to go back and till the soil or carry around the peddlers' trade. And now it's legal for me to walk into your house and see that you have a little girl who is of school age and not in school, and I can bring criminal charges against you for that. I can even take your child away from you, and give that child an opportunity.

This program we are presenting to the United Nations is to help us reconstruct our infrastructure, give people clean water, give people some electricity in the city, give people medical facilities, health care facilities, and of course enable us to rehabilitate the schools -- not just in Monrovia, but throughout the country where young children can go to school and get real value, so that they can either take on a skill or go through the academics and have value in their lives. And I was telling Mora just now that we've got pretty much of that in this results-focused program that we are presenting tomorrow. The cost is estimated at about 660 million [U.S. dollars], if I am right, or somewhere in that neighborhood.

But like I said to the people in USAID [United States Agency for International Development] a few days ago, I'm beyond that stage now. Now is the time to start thinking about higher education— how do we begin to rehabilitate the universities and colleges so that in two years, when these kids have gone through elementary and secondary school, there are universities to attend. Because you have a huge, huge population of young children, school age kids, coming up. And now is the time to start preparing for that. This results-focused program does not take that into consideration.

The second thing I want to highlight is the need to attract you to help us create jobs. I come from a sector that believes in the right of us private people to be the locomotive that drives the economy in Liberia. And we are looking for true partners. My job over these two years is to ensure that we have the proper judiciary and judicial system that protects you if you come in there with your capital, and to ensure that the regulation remains liberal and free, so that you can do your work, do your business, benefit yourselves and benefit Liberians, who will be your partners.

So, in short, that's the vision. That's the goal. And we invite you to join us in trying to achieve that. We have this awesome task of trying to ensure security through the country. And so with the help of the United Nations, a military force has been deployed in Liberia. They are supposed to reach maximum 15,000 troops. When I was leaving Monrovia, we were approaching 10,000 troops. They are beginning to deploy throughout the country— north, east, west. Monrovia basically is on the southwest coast— they are there. And nightlife is coming back. We have been able to put some electricity in the city, some water into the city. We are paying our civil servants on time, and our foreign diplomats. But a lot more needs to be done.

It's a pity we had to go this low, but I think we're now building a consensus with the warring parties and the unarmed civilians that were left there. Never again. The times for settling scores with guns are over. And we have all seen the devastation. It has hurt every one of us, and I think and I am convinced that from now on the result will be negotiations. Never again guns.

So we ask you to come and help us. We are committed. We have begun a system of accountability and transparency. We have centralized a collection of our revenue system. We have centralized a depository with our central bank, and that's how we have been able to pay our civil servants. I said to a journalist the other day, there ain't no money falling from Mars— it's coming from right here, and it was here before we took over. The question is: what happened to that money? We were using it for guns, we were using it to disturb our neighbors, and we were using it to suppress ourselves.

This is a new day. I have had strong feedback. Most of you know I've a big judgment, I've a strong judgment— I've got strong faith— and it's that faith that's got me here today. I didn't go to Ghana looking for this job. I went there to be the kingmaker, and the guards pulled the carpet over me, and said, "You're going to be the king." [Laughter.] Anyway, so here we are, and we are looking for a true partnership, a partnership that benefits you and a partnership that benefits us. And in a nutshell, that's it. [Applause.]

MCLEAN: Well, in my sense that was a superb overview. I see that perhaps you have some prepared remarks that you didn't use.

BRYANT: They handed me this as I walked in here. [Laughter.]

MCLEAN: Well, obviously you didn't need it. I will open this up to the audience, and again want to ask you to state your name and affiliation, and to keep your questions concise. This is on the record. Please?

QUESTIONER: Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch. First, I'd like to thank you for coming to New York all the way from Liberia to present your people's case. I'd also like to say that Human Rights Watch has a new report out this week about the very grim conditions for child soldiers in Liberia. And the report finds really that when the child soldiers are not demobilized, given education, given jobs, they then in turn will go back to war, perhaps even exporting war to their neighbors. What plans does your government have for demobilizing the child soldiers, more than 15,000 of them, and finding education and other facilities for them?

BRYANT: In this results-focused plan that we are presenting to the world tomorrow at the U.N., it addresses that pretty well. The plan is to bring kids, these kids with arms, into cantonment sites, take their weapons away, and show that they have resources to go back and take care of their siblings and spouses, and then come back to the cantonment site, get a clean bill of health, and then we will attempt to give them new values and new skills.

Some of these kids took up guns when they were eight, nine years old, and they have been carrying guns for 14 years. They're young adults today. They know nothing. So we have this task. And the program is in place to take them off the streets, put them through this program so that by a certain date— six, seven, eight months down the line— some of them will have skills. Others may still need additional training, and ours is to ensure that the training continues until they are able, and until we feel convinced that we can then put them back into the communities and hook them up with their families again. Because the harmless, too, have been traumatized. There are instances when young boys have gone and shot their mothers, because their mother said to them, "Put the guns down and go to school." And these kids were so high that they would just blow their mother's head off. And that's how bad it's been. So the program exists.

QUESTIONER: Princeton Lyman from the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Chairman, welcome and thank you. As you mentioned before, and as Mora did, that there is a relationship between the civil war between Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and other countries in the region, I wondered what steps were under way either by you or through ECOWAS or through the U.N. or other ways to get a better regional understanding of both a peace process and strategic focus on how to prevent that happening again.

BRYANT: One of the first initiatives I took was to try fly into Conakry [capital of Guinea], into Freetown [capital of Sierra Leone], into Abidjan [capital of Côte d'Ivoire], the immediate neighbors, and talk to the leaders and their people about a change in Liberia, about our desire for a stable Liberia, and for the most sincere desire for wanting to live at peace with our neighbors.

With each of those countries we have tribes that are cross-border, and that's the reason for the porous border— a cousin is across the line over there, an uncle is across the line over yonder— and so we have basically the same people along the border lines. We've done that, and we feel very pleased about that. I am convinced that the governments of Sierra Leone, Republic of Guinea and La Côte d'Ivoire are now themselves convinced that we have a new day in Liberia, new leadership, new government that is on the peace bandwagon. And they all received us well. Prior to my going there, a leader of Liberia had not been to Guinea since 1980, when we had the coup. And I have been to Guinea twice. I've been to Sierra Leone once, but then President [Ahmed Tejan] Kabbah and I have met in other foreign countries in other meetings in West Africa. And the same thing with La Côte d'Ivoire. We have an excellent relationship with the Republic of Ghana. That was my last stop. You know, President [John Agyekum] Kufuor is head of the ECOWAS, the sponsor of this process. We have an equally good relationship with president of Nigeria, President [Olusegun ] Obasanjo— we talk frequently. And it is difficult to judge myself, but it would be a good thing also if you were to talk with some of these people. My judgment is that we are on smooth sailing on a good path, and the relations have turned around. We have indeed, especially in Sierra Leone, apologized to those people, because you know the Liberian government before me was extremely active inflaming trouble in that part of the region. And I went there. I admitted that we played a role, but unfortunately we can't bring the culprits to book, because a part of the peace process was getting Mr. Taylor out of Liberia into Nigeria during this transition period, and to seek Mr. Taylor would be in violation of the peace agreement that was structured by the West African heads of state before my time. And so I support that, and I uphold it. But I think we are on a good footing, and we are making progress. We need to monitor the situation in La Côte d'Ivoire, urge the United Nations to speed up some form of deployment there. If we can stabilize La Côte d'Ivoire, I think then the region will be stabilized. We tried to achieve that rapidly in Liberia, and we see peace about that. Ambassador Blaney is here— he can talk about some of that too. And now we need to go the extra mile and extend that into La Côte d'Ivoire.

MCLEAN: We have a line of other questioners, but your mention of Mr. Taylor leads me to raise a question that I am sure is on everyone's mind. Do you have any concerns that he is continuing to maneuver from Nigeria?

BRYANT: I've heard that, especially from the president of Guinea. But, like I said to everybody who has asked me that, including the State Department, I see no evidence yet. The peace agreement prohibits Taylor from being in Liberia now, but it allows his brothers, his sisters, his wife, his cousins and uncles and aunts to remain in Liberia. The condition under which he is held in Nigeria does not prohibit his access to telephones and trying to cause trouble. But I think by the day his capacity for that is diminishing.

Your government is helping us to ensure that any hidden resources that he may have anywhere else are kept away from him. And I tell you I was there in Liberia when he headed Liberia. Without money, Charles Taylor is like a baby. And if we can keep the money out of his hands, I think we can keep him under control. So that's what we're struggling and trying to ensure happens. But a few days before leaving for this trip I even went into Burkina Faso, where he had excellent ties. And even there the tide has changed against Mr. Taylor. And we were obliged, because we told Mr. Blaise Compaore [president of Burkina Faso] that our perception is that he personally sponsored Mr. Taylor in depressing us. He denied that. He told us a number of things that I can't discuss with you, and in some instances even showed evidence to that effect. But the best strawberries I've ever had --in Burkina Faso— were grown there. And if these people can do that in their country, we've got such fertile soil --why we didn't use their capacity on their agricultural side to help our country, I don't know. But we will begin to take advantage now of the advantages that each of us has to strengthen ties between our countries. So I think Taylor is not too much of a headache for us --yet we caution.

MCLEAN: Jean, Jeff, Ralph -- I see a hand over here.

QUESTIONER: Jean Herskovits, State University of New York. This is a follow-up Taylor question. Nigerians have been discussing their views on Charles Taylor's future and what it might be. And even recognizing what was decided in the peace agreement, there's still some strong views in that country about the need to bring him to trial either in Sierra Leone, or eventually in Liberia. I wonder if you could share with us your views about his somewhat longer-range future.

BRYANT: The long-range future --when I took over, somebody asked me, and I said, if I were Charles Taylor, I would go to the court and prove I'm innocent, so that I can be a free man.

My fear is that Taylor has loyalists in Liberia, many of whom today are still armed. And what I will not support is an action that could inflame those loyalists, until we have the quote/unquote overwhelming capacity to suppress those loyalists of Mr. Taylor. We attempted to start disarmament in Liberia. It went bad initially because just too many people came, and the capacities were not there. We are waiting until we have the full deployment of the troops, and then we will resume that. Until that happens, if Taylor violates a law of Nigeria, and Nigerians want to handle him, or he violates the conditions and terms under which he is being held in Nigeria, that's a different matter. But I think it's still a bit premature for that call to come from Liberia, and definitely not from this government, because for this government to do so would be undermining those who supported the process that got him out of Liberia in the beginning. But the future, like President Obasanjo says, when the elected government gets there and they make that call— whatever call they make— the Nigerian government will abide by. So let's strengthen the base, and let's give the newly elected government teeth so they can act their consciences and not be intimidated or frightened into not doing what they sincerely would wish to do.

QUESTIONER: Jeff Laurenti with the United Nations Foundation. When you have a society that has been so shattered by war, as Liberia, inevitably the question of where you start to rebuild almost has no answer. But to what extent have you been able to restart a revenue stream from extracting money from your own citizens? That is, what is the country's own revenue base right now? And what are your priorities right now in terms of the money that you have from domestic tax sources, revenue sources? Is it security? What kind of reconstruction? And where are you finding receptivity in the international community for economic, social, whatever reconstruction? Or do you find countries say, let the Americans take care of that one— we've given in other places? How are you finding international receptivity to providing funds to get the country back on its feet so that you don't collapse back again into conflict and disorder?

BRYANT: The monies we have access to now is all being generated from customs fees or goods that are imported into the country from the maritime program, and very little from new registrations of businesses and those sorts of things— no major exports right now. Iron ore mines destroyed, looted; timber sanctions— can't sell anything. Diamond sanctions— can't move those either. The gold mines are not up to where we would like to see them yet, so we still have the artesian mining going on, where people find a piece of gold here, and would sell it to some jewelers. That --all those monies that come from customs and maritime, we now— one of the first things I did was to put up an executive order consolidating all of the revenue collection capacity within the Ministry of Finance, and take them away from all the various agencies that were collecting money in every direction you can look. And we centralized that so that everything now comes into the Finance Ministry. And the law says that the central bank will be the depository of the government. So all of that goes into the central bank.

With that, after our first 105 days, we were able to show a surplus in expenditures as opposed to revenues. Even with the low support we've given to support education, to support health care, to further progress, I think we still have a surplus in our budget of $3 million --

MCLEAN: Revenues or --

BRYANT: Revenues— a surplus in revenues of about $3 million. And we were able to pay our costs. What we had not done is taken on arrears yet, because we think those arrears need to be audited. I mean, all kinds of schemes were happening in Liberia. An invoice would pop up for goods or services that were never performed, and people were directed to pay. So these things have to be audited to satisfy ourselves that, yes, services were rendered, or goods were delivered. I am sorry that it hurts a lot of my own fellowmen and foreign businessmen, but sometimes one rotten apple spoils the basket.

How that satisfies our immediate needs? We are managing --I'll put it that way. We can pay ourselves, we can buy. I feel fortunately we don't have many automobiles on the road yet. We are not buying any big luxurious cars and all of that. We are still using the few old ones we can find. But where it's essential, like in law enforcement, we have been able to buy a few new vehicles.

How the United States is supporting us? Strongly -- beyond my wildest dream. I knew John Blaney before I went to Accra, and we talked a lot. We became friends. Since we came back -- before I came back he was on the streets, being a cop and helping to direct traffic— how to save people from armed robbery. And since I've been back in Monrovia from Accra, this man has been a truly ally, a true friend -- a true, true friend. The United States has stuck by this government beyond our expectations. They have championed our cause. They are putting in programs and helping us along the way, getting others involved, speaking more about Liberia, raising the stakes for Liberia, and we are grateful to all of you. I think if the pressure didn't come from you, John too would be dragging his foot. (Laughter.)

But the United States has come out strong. We think they can still do more. He and I talk about it. They have taken the leadership, and I think that's why Secretary Powell is co-sponsoring or co-chairing this meeting tomorrow, as we go into for the reconstruction. And we feel comfortable with that. We feel pleased with that. We've come a long way. We have mutual interests, and we have mutual values. Our constitution is tailored after the United States Constitution. And we feel good. Even my reception -- I was telling her, I don't think an American president has been here since the late -- early or late '70s. President Tolbert was the last to come and since that -- oh, no, I think President Doe came once when President Reagan was president. But since then, forget it, this relationship has gone downhill. Now we're beginning to build it up. We are very grateful for the warmth with which you have received us.

And because of the role the United States has begun to play— briefly, you had troops on the ground— it has given a lot of hope. It has strengthened the resilience of the people. And they're poor, yes, but they are beginning to do simple things: clean their little house; paint their homes; sweep their yards; put the kids back in school -- even if they have to put them in private schools. We are paying salaries -- they can afford to pay some tuition. So we are trying.

And if this program can go through, if we can have it powerfully funded, I think we'll be on the right track. We have met some good people at the State Department, the Treasury Department, USAID, World Bank -- everybody seems to be on line. So we are grateful, and I think we're on course. And yesterday when I was at the Capitol, Senator [John] Warner [R-VA.] said to me, "I'm a telephone call away -- if it's not enough, call me." And if it isn't enough, I'll call him. [Laughter.] And he's committed to stand by us also and support us. Next week when I see President Bush, I'll say the same thing to him.

MCLEAN: Ralph.

QUESTIONER: Ralph Buultjnes of New York University. Mr. Chairman, I have a two-part question. The first concerns justice. Aside from Charles Taylor, there are many people in your country who were perpetrators of some of the worst humanitarian crimes on earth. What are your plans for dealing with them? Are you going to have courts of justice? Truth and reconciliation commissions? Or are you going to forgive them? And if you do nothing, it would be an award for their malpractices.

The second part of my question is this: In your administration there are several people associated with Charles Taylor. How are you dealing with them? Are they cooperating? Are they sabotaging you from within? How do you deal with essentially people want to destroy you and whom you have displaced are now within your administration?

BRYANT: You know, we have a peace agreement, and we must follow that peace agreement. That peace agreement provided for amnesty for everybody prior to the date of the signing of it, so that we forgive all of the atrocities. And one of my jobs is to go out there and talk to everybody and plea for forgiveness, plea for healing. That is why our initial actions that we got were so focused on the people and raising their hopes. Because if you can give people better living conditions they tend to forget the evil things of the past quickly. So we started paying people, we dropped the prices of the staples --not by regulations and price-fixing, but simply taking out of the tax structure those things that weren't on the books, that were put there for God know whose benefit. And we brought the price of rice, our staple, down. We brought the price of fuel down. As a result, the price for cement, for building went down, transportation costs went down. People could send their kids to school in taxis cheaply.

The bad thing about reciprocity is that it keeps all of these atrocities and crimes and evil fresh in the mind. And my mother before she died said the more you talk of that "S" word -- you know what I mean -- the worse it will smell. So we try not to go back. We try to heal. We try to make life better for people, so that they forget the past and try to make life brighter for them. I have strong faith about that.

Charles Taylor's people in government, those in other factions who equally committed atrocities -- the peace agreement says I must as head of government work with them. So we have a legal commitment to do so. And the first person I fired from government was a Charles Taylor-appointed person. He wasn't doing the work, his work, and I wasn't prepared to accept that he wouldn't do his work and work for me, so I fired him. It created some storms, but the storm blew over. We never went in there believing there wouldn't be storms.

So we are working with the rest of them. We are working with everybody. It's going well, and we pray that it remains on this course. What I find in everybody is that they believe in what we're doing; they have hope; their resilience is there, and they're beginning to see a difference.

You know, it means a lot to a man who hasn't been paid in four years and he gets his salary on time at the end of the month. Christmas season was one of the most exuberant many persons have ever seen in Monrovia for a long time. You know, everybody had money in his pocket, the markets were spilling into every city, into every street in the city. We want to do more of that. We want to do more of that. And what my prayer is that we can build on the good things and let's forget the bad things. And if we can strengthen the good things, people will forget and healing will take place, and we can have a one united country again, strong, that can carry this out.

So Taylor people are cooperating. They're beginning to realize that Taylor is out— he's not coming back. We wouldn't allow him to come back. You know, I also head a political party, and if the law says Taylor is out, boy, I would be a jerk to bring him back. So Taylor is out. He's not coming back. And I think his followers now realize that. So they're falling in line.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Paula DiPerna of the Chicago Climate Exchange -- and good luck, Mr. president.

BRYANT: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Thank you for coming. I have a very specific question. It may sound like a detail, but I think it might be a confidence builder. You alluded to the maritime revenues and the history of flags of convenience, and I know you've had some connections to the port authority. But if you could speak to the issue of how you might reform flags of convenience and the whole sort of reputation, especially in a time where people are concerned about terrorism and shipping and kidnapped ships and children on ships that we don't know where they're from, et cetera, et cetera?

BRYANT: Flags of convenience, but also one of the best safety records in the world. I was told it's second only to Norway. How we intend to improve that? We don't have the big navies. And one of the things we're considering is who and how to protect innocent people on ships that fly the Liberian flags. And I can't give you an answer yet, but I assure you that is something we're giving serious consideration too, and finding a trusted partner -- probably yourself, the United States -- who knows? -- that can police this madness where people are using sometimes Liberian-flagged ships to carry such massive destructive weapons or what else that brings such great harm to humanity --not just to this country, but anywhere else in the world. And that's something we will probably address before I leave this country. Did I assure you? Thank you.

MCLEAN: I think we have time— I've seen three hands up until this point. And perhaps what we will do in light of the time is to have each of the three questions in succession. Vivian?

QUESTIONER: My name is Vivian Lowery Derryck from the Academy for Educational Development. And, first of all—

BRYANT: From where, ma'am?

QUESTIONER: Academy for Educational Development. It's an NGO in Washington -- [inaudible.] My question goes to something that you said earlier in terms of partnership and development. I'm wondering about how you plan to develop the institutions of government and governance: the legislature, the judiciary, civil society, political parties— in that all of them have been so really diminished over time. And for Liberia to really return to its former status, then those institutions really do have to be strengthened. I thank you.

MCLEAN: We'll have the next two. Is that all right with you, Mr. Chairman?

BRYANT: I hope my mind is strong enough to keep all of them.

MCLEAN: I'll try and help. Here I think— and if you can be as concise as possible.

QUESTIONER: Paige Portna, from Columbia University. My question is about the disarmament process. [Off mike] usually one of the most difficult which you -- [inaudible]-- ought to disarm, both because disarming leaves you vulnerable, because for many, as you mentioned, this is the only way many of these people have been able to make a living. So I'd like to hear your thoughts on how the disarmament process is going so far, and what its prospects are, and whether you think that the U.N. force that is coming is strong enough to deal with the problem. Thank you.

MCLEAN: Third question, here.

QUESTIONER: Philomene Gates, a lawyer. You talk about the very fertile soil you had. And I wonder what your plans are for developing farms outside and maybe with incentives to give people a title to what they farm, or homesteading or what-not, if you have any. Because in Cuba, their outlying districts are all falling apart, because nobody will stay and farm. But it's very fertile. And I'm sure yours is too, with the proper irrigation. I wonder what your plans are.

MCLEAN: Do you need help, or you think you—

BRYANT: I think I remember.


BRYANT: Capacity building has been one of the immediate needs. When we arrived in Liberia, everything had been looted, including the desk from the office of the president. That was gone, air conditioners, computers— no records, absolutely none. The only record we found was the record in the banks, and they were all in the red. How they got there, there were no records to show. It was so bad that windows were out, bathroom fixtures were out. So we have taken on the task of trying to build that capacity.

The UNDP [United Nations Development Program] has come to help in that area, and they're trying. So have the European Union and the United States government. And we are gradually building that capacity through a planned and focused process so that we don't have excesses and waste, which were very common and known for. That process is going on. With our own resources we have been able to— I told you about the police emergency response team— to do some of it and build some capacity ourselves, where we can put some basic functions— like computers— where we can put some stationery for people to work on, particularly so where we can prepare the proper receipts and customs forms, because that's where we get our money.

A part of this reconstruction framework that we're presenting also helps to capacitate us. What we've done, we presented a program based on sectors, a thematic program, whether it's agriculture or health or education or security. And we've built up those teams, consolidating various agencies of government into sectors. And then we raised funds, raised resources and use those monies to support those various thematic areas and build them up again.

We are hurting in the judicial system. I went to the Supreme Court, because they were the last branch of government to be seated. And that too was hit hard. So we asked them to do their budget, and we will do the best we can to fund it. But there are partners working with us in building up the capacity again. It will take some time. It will take time to weed out the inherited corrupt ones, and to also get rid of the newly corrupt that we brought in ourselves. But we'll get there. I guarantee you we will get there. We are determined to get there. We have the resolve, and we will get there.

MCLEAN: Disarmament and U.N. forces?

BRYANT: Disarmament. To begin disarming a man who has a weapon, you have got to have one or two or three guys around him with bigger guns. [Laughter.] And so the U.N. is bringing in those guns. They are not just coming from the ECOWAS states— like Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal. They are coming from Ireland, they are coming from Croatia, they are coming from Pakistan— just name it, and they're coming. In fact, the most robust force we have is the Croatian force. They've come in there with helicopter gunships. And so I stood up before one of the warring factions guys. I said, now you know who wears the big drawers. [Laughter.] I will cut you down shortly.

But, anyway, we are getting there and we went out to begin the process of disarming on December 7th, and we said we'll start with the old government of Liberia militia. And their was so overwhelming, we had to shut it down, because it was turning violent. We collected— John Blaney has the statistics, he can tell you— thousands of AK-47 rifles. I didn't know, but a few dozen SAM [surface-to-air] missiles that can bring an aircraft down flying out of Roberts Field. They collected a few dozens of Doe's stockpiles of hand grenades, and there's still more out there. And if we were to put the value on those weapons, then one can understand why the people were not paid for four years, and the foreign service people for 12 years— because we have been buying guns for the last God knows how many years.

But that process will resume around the middle of March, when— not me, but when military people from the United Nations are satisfied that they have enough forces on the ground and can compel or force people with arms to surrender their arms, because they'll have enough power to overwhelm anybody, any adversary, who may not wish to do so.

Once we can do that, then I think we have smooth sailing, because people can then go back to their communities and start their lives. For these people nowhere is better than home, so they have all run and come down around Monrovia, before running to neighboring countries. But my visit to these countries— each time I go they tell me, "We want to come home." But I wouldn't support their coming home until, one, I have visited the areas and am convinced that it is safe for them to come, so that people wouldn't be coming in at night and intimidating and harassing and threatening them. So that process will resume, but we think it's pretty much underway. It is pretty much underway, and we are talking to the United States government, and I think there is a commitment on their part to rebuild the Liberian army up again, the armed forces of Liberia. This time it will be a small and efficient army with not all fighting men, but engineering corps, medical corps, and whatever other civil corps you have in the army. And we are trying to build that up professionally and make sure that they understand now that the values are not in shooting down civilian governments, but respecting them and carrying out their orders.

Agricultural development: we're looking for partners. You know, we haven't gotten into the culture yet of large corporate farming. And this is where some of you with your experiences and capacities can help us. The soil is there, it's rich. But people still feel that if they can take five acres and produce some pepper or some okra or some collard greens or you name it, that's sufficient. We need new technologies and new ideas to come in and expand that.

The few that have that initiative— like the capital and the basis and the banking system is such that they do retail banking. They will support an inventory for six months. These are basically consumer goals that come and go on the shelves, and one can turn over in six months and the bank is paid. But you don't find a capital base where somebody will lend to me for 15 years or 20 years or 30 years so that I can take out 100 acres, build a new house and complex and sell those houses, or I can build a supermarket and carry three or four million dollars in stock at any one time, or have an automobile dealership where somebody can take our note for 24, 36, 48 months, whatever. We don't have that kind of market yet, and that's something I mentioned particularly to the Treasury and to the World Bank people. And we're working at that. We're working at that. We may not get there in two years. We'll try to, but we will get there soon.

What the priority is though is stabilizing Liberia to win your confidence. And you can feel secure to come there and know that if you brought your money there, firstly, the law will protect you. And you will be able to get some returns on your money. So that system is coming back into place. All of those things with the judicial system were destroyed, but the land is there, abundance of land. And if you fly over Liberia in the peak of the dry season, when temperatures are up to 40 degrees, you still see green. Nothing is dried up. It's green. So that tells us something. That's why everybody says we're rich— very rich. And Mr. Blaney here tells me that we even got some oil offshore. So it may be in your interests to get out of that trouble spot [Iraq] and come and let's— [laughter]--let's be true partners. Thank you.

MCLEAN: Well, Chairman Bryant, I think I— I'm certain I speak on behalf of everyone present, when I say that you with your superb presentation have buoyed our hope for Liberia with confidence. And on behalf of the Africa-America Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to thank you. [Applause.]

BRYANT: One more thing. Just before we go I wanted to introduce my wife, Rosalee. She's standing back there. [Applause.]




More on This Topic


Liberia's Sirleaf: Reform in Africa

Speaker: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Presider: Mark Whitaker

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says her country and region continue to make democratic strides, but she appealed for greater...


A Conversation with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (audio)

Speaker: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Presider: Princeton N. Lyman

Listen to Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state, speak about the challenges facing her country.