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A Conversation with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President, Republic of Liberia

Speaker: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President, Republic of Liberia
Presider: Mark Whitaker, Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Vice President, NBC News
May 25, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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MARK WHITAKER: Welcome, everybody, to the Council before I introduce President Johnson Sirleaf. Just a couple of reminders, first of all, if you could turn your cell phones off and not just on vibrate, off, off, off, okay, otherwise, it's going to interfere with the sound system even if we can't hear it.

Also, this meeting will be on the record. The president and I will chat for about half an hour and then afterwards, we'll have a Q&A, so start thinking about what questions you might ask.

It's no accident that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is called the Iron Lady of Africa. She was born and raised in Monrovia, educated in the United States at the Madison College of Business at Harvard's Kennedy School. She rose to occupy high level positions, mostly in the financial area in Liberia and also at the United Nations.

She was jailed for an entire year for her opposition to the government of Samuel Doe and then when another strongman, Charles Taylor took over in Liberia, she went into exile and opposed his government there.

She returned to Liberia and eventually was asked to take over the leadership of the Unity Party, and it was as the head of the Unity Party that she ran for president and was elected as not only the first female president of Liberia, but the first woman to head any government in Africa.

In October 2007, President George W. Bush awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for, quote, "her personal courage and unwavering commitment to expand freedom and improve the lives of people in Liberia and across Africa."

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome President Johnson Sirleaf.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you.

WHITAKER: So in 2006, shortly after you had been elected, you came to the United States and you were given the rare honor and privilege of addressing a joint session of Congress, which, as you know, does not happen often here. And you painted a quite dire picture of the country that you were taking over. Among other things, you pointed out that Liberia held the modern record for evacuations of U.S. embassies, that because of various uprisings, turmoils, coups and so forth, the U.S. embassy in Liberia had been evacuated nine times in the previous 15 years.

You also laid out a very ambitious agenda for how you were going to tackle these problems, everything from demobilization of the forces that had been fighting in the civil war, a war on corruption, a bid to expand the export base and to be more responsible with U.S. and Western aid.

So now, after four years, give us a report card. What kind of grade would you give yourself for the progress you've made?

SIRLEAF: Well, before I give a grade, let me go through the details of it and then I'll get a grade and maybe get the audience to give a grade.

You know, when we started off, we inherited a pretty bad situation, a broken country, collapsed economy. Most of our citizens displaced, either in exile or in refugee camps or in the urban areas looking for safety, dysfunctional institutions, broken infrastructure. So we set about to establish our development agenda, which we talked to the Congress about in March 2006. We identified what we called our four pillars, peace and security, economic revitalization, governance and the rule of law and infrastructure and basic services. And on each of these pillars, we've come a long way.

On peace and security, we've trained with the support of the United States a 2,000-person army, that's now professional. We still have to do the officer corps, that's under way. We've also put the special security services and the other security apparatus in training. We still have to go a long way with police.

We still have the U.N. peacekeeping force, and we've worked with them on an exit strategy that will show that the country remains stable through the next elections. We've now started the Coast Guard, which has been dormant for the past couple of decades and the nation has been peaceful, we enter our seventh year of peace.

On our economic revitalization, of course, we want to reactivate our productive sectors; Liberia is not a poor country, we have natural resources and so we've started our mining sector, iron ore, gold and diamond, other major commodities; on our agriculture sector, rubber is our tradition. There is a replanting program going on, major concessions, as well as farmers, Liberian farmers, coffee, cocoa. We tackle our debt. We had a $4.9 billion external debt that had not been serviced since the early 1980s under the HIPC program. We're just about at the completion point; we hope that will come when the IMF board meets in June and most of that debt will go away, including a commercial debt buyback at three cents on the dollar.

We've started now to focus on agriculture, making small farms that thrust for food security as we move away from our mining and our forestry and our major agriculture concessions. All of this had brought in a lot of investment, some $10 billion worth in the mining sector, in agriculture concession sector and we hope that those are going to then to enable the economy to pick up as a result of all of this. Growth has averaged seven percent per annum since 2006; it would have been higher had we not got a slump during 2009 as a result of the global economic crisis.

Governance and the rule of law, we've concentrated on building the institutions, the pillars of integrity. The governance commission has been working with us on that, the anti-corruption commission and general auditing commission. We still have a long way to go, but we do have a free society, the media, freedom of speech, all the freedoms that you can think about I allowed. We could have concentrated on, you know, getting, building the institutions because they had been so dysfunctional. Getting the laws, getting the policies right is where we've concentrated and think we have that now in place.

We still now have to work on making sure that the laws are implemented. Infrastructure and basic services -- we've brought, you know water and lights for the first time to the capital city, and we've expanded it now to a large extent, rebuilding schools and clinics and hospitals and roads and water, all of those things that have been denied the population for so long. We've come a long way.

We still have challenges in each of these areas. We haven't reached where we want to be, but we've come a long way and all of this, you know, has been well-documented. We say that in four years, I think we've done more than the country has seen done in the past two decades and we're very proud of that.

But if there's one thing we've done more importantly, I think we've restored hope, hope to the Liberian people that they can see a future in which they can share, in which they can participate and the Liberians can be proud again to be Liberians; that, perhaps, is our greatest success.

WHITAKER: Now, speaking of the job not being completely done, one of the things that you endorsed when you took power was a truth and reconciliation process. And among the findings of the truth and reconciliation commission was that a recommendation that you be banned from politics for 30 years because at one point, I guess, even though you were opposing for the most part the Taylor regime when it was in power, there was a contribution at some point.

So two questions. First of all, how important and useful was that process to the country? And why despite that recommendation are you planning to run for reelection?

SIRLEAF: Well, first of all, the process itself has been fully accepted. I think the commission did a good job trying to examine the root causes of our nation's conflict and they've made some very useful suggestions and recommendations as to how we go about with the healing process and we're working on that.

There are a couple of areas of recommendation that have raised concern. One has to do with the 49 or so persons banned from public office without due process. In many cases, some of those persons were never even called before the commission and there's been no evidence as to their involvement.

So the issue has been raised. Is that constitutional, when they have their rights in the constitution not to be deprived of unless there's due process? So the lawyers are looking at that. The other one has to do with the establishment of a war crimes court for those considered to be the major protagonists as well. War crime courts are an expensive undertaking and also the timing of it has to be right, because if you don't time it right, when you have so many warlords, some of them holding elective positions, then you run the risk of a return to conflict.

And so things have been looked at, when do we actually begin to move in that direction? At the same time we know that many of the recommendations we need to move forward on and that's what we're doing. A Palaver Hut concept has been proposed in the final report. We've been getting a group of civil society together, to be able to design a road map for moving forward on that. We're working with a group, a Geneva-based group, Humanity for Dialogue has been working with our civil society group.

So we are moving ahead on a recommendation. For me, there was nothing new. What was talked about in the TRC report is 20 years old and so I thought we had passed that one, I was selected in 2005, but maybe we'll have to do it again.

WHITAKER: But you are planning to run for reelection?

SIRLEAF: I've already said that.

WHITAKER: Yes. (Laughter.) Because the job isn't completely done.

SIRLEAF: That's right. We've made the foundation and now we've got to build the walls.

WHITAKER: You're also in the midst of a drawdown in the U.S., U.N. peacekeeping forces that, I guess, there will be several phases to it, but I guess eventually is projected to finally have peacekeepers entirely leave Liberia by 2012.

So a couple of questions. First of all, tell us a little bit about what the timetable is, first of all. Second, is Liberia ready or will it be ready to keep the peace without the U.N.? And also, is the rest of western Africa ready? Is the disappearance of U.N. peacekeepers from your country going to have an effect beyond your borders?

SIRLEAF: We have agreed with the U.N. on an exit strategy and a drawdown plan and that process is on. We've come down from 15,000 to about 10,000 today and the plan would take us to about 8,000 by the time we reach elections in October 2011, next year. The plan is to keep it at that level through elections. We have good elections and stability remains, then there's going to be a further draw down. That will also give us the time to be able to work on our police where we still have some softness. We have to do more training of them, you know, more professional equipment for them and we now have some support from the U.S. to be able to concentrate on that.

And so until that time, the peacekeeping force are very welcome and we do need them through the elections. We need them also for the region because we do have fragility in some of our neighboring states, as you know. The war in which Liberia was the epicenter was a regional war, and so Sierra Leone has gone a little bit further than us in peace and stability, but we have Guinea, which we've been working with on a diplomatic side to make sure that they move in that direction. We have Cote d'Ivoire, also moving in the direction of elections, that could be troublesome and I think the U.N. recognizes this and they're working with us and they're going to keep assessing it every six months to see if conditions are better, if any conditions require them to do more. I think they're prepared to do that, and we'd like to say that the support we receive from the United States and other partners are very welcome in this regard.

WHITAKER: You're an economist, so I want to talk a little bit about the Liberian economy and first of all, the war on corruption. You were very strong in talking about how big a problem that was when you became president. You've tackled it, but you still had problems, you had problems within your own government. You have had ministers who had to be dismissed because they had been caught in corruption cases.

So where are you with that? And why haven't you been able to have perhaps as much success so far as you had originally hoped?

SIRLEAF: You know, I am still pleased with where we are on corruption, despite the fact that it's still a problem, and I'll be the first to admit that. We concentrated on building the institutions, getting the laws, getting our public financial management law passed, making sure we get a general auditing audit, general auditing commission that's functioning, making anti-corruption. We join in Liberia extractive industries program and we're one of the first African countries to complete two reports, two reports that have been examined by auditors, international auditors in which companies have to report any amounts of money paid to the government under those things.

So we've come a long way in exposing corruption; its been there for a while, but it has been covered. We have uncovered it. We're exposing it. We have fired people if we felt there were information. Now, what we have not done so far enough of is the prosecution of people, and that's what we're working on through our judicial system. Once we can get the prosecution part of it, you know, I think that we'll have come a long way, but this is the first time, I believe, in the history of our country where a government has gone after this problem as frontally as we have. But using a multi-dimensional report, improving compensation to reduce vulnerability, creating the systems that will ensure that we minimize it, getting the institutions functioning and the laws.

So we've made this much progress. Now, we think the results of all of that effort will begin to show.

WHITAKER: You've had a lot of success in attracting private investment into Liberia. When you talk to heads of companies that are looking to invest and to create infrastructures in Liberia, is that topic number one, corruption?

SIRLEAF: No, it is not. It is definitely not. The main topic is capacity and that's part of our problem, too, capacity at all levels in the society, in government, as well as in civil society. So the biggest thing is, do you have the expertise to be able to put all these people to work.

Unemployment is a big problem for us. Can we put these people to work? And then I hear people talk about 85 percent unemployment. Come on. That was a figure that started in 2003, those numbers, and those numbers are still being carried today, but that's nonsense. You go into the country and see the jobs that have been created.

WHITAKER: So where are you now? Where are you now?

SIRLEAF: That is the problem; we're just doing a survey to find out. We don't know. But I know you can't -- 2003 until 2010. It couldn't remain the same thing because people are at work, people have work on their farms, people have work on the roads. There is a construction boom that's going on, you can see it and so I know that that number is not correct, but we're going to finish this survey and get some new numbers to replace that.

WHITAKER: And what about education? What are you doing to produce a workforce that will be attractive to foreign investors and also to internal entrepreneurs?

SIRLEAF: Well, again, we're trying to redo the educational system. The first thing we did was to say, you know, because quality education is a problem because of the deterioration and loss of most of our trained people over the years of conflict. So we started by enforcing compulsory primary education in public schools and as a result of that, enrollment increased by some 40 percent, the majority of whom are girls because we have placed emphasis on girls' education.

And so our primary schools are now functioning; kids are back in school and we're so happy to see that and now we're beginning to concentrate on the high schools and the colleges. We've increased the allocation to the University of Liberia. We've reopened another university, Tubman University in one of our furthest counties, remote counties, that's been reopened. We're reopening the technical college in another place. So we've been working at both ends and we've been so pleased that we've brought the Peace Corps back and the Peace Corps has been concentrating on teacher education. Our three rural teacher training institutes have been reactivated and are now operational with Peace Corps teaching, promoting teachers' training.

So we've done a lot for education and it still remains one of our big priority areas.

WHITAKER: Liberia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa. As you know, there has been a debate that's been going on over the last few years about whether at a certain point U.S. and Western aid becomes a crutch for African countries. And I'd like to hear your thoughts about that. I mean, you know, obviously, it's something you've depended on, I would imagine you would still feel that Liberia needs. But what is the balance between relying on Western aid and then trying to grow the economy and becoming more self-sustaining?

SIRLEAF: Well, in these initial years of our development, aid has not been a crutch; its been a trampoline. Because --

WHITAKER: She was ready for that one.

SIRLEAF: No, because it's enabled us -- listen. When this government took over, our budget, our annual budget of the country was $80 million, you know, the budget of a high school here perhaps. Today, it has not gone up far enough; it's $350 million plus, you know, in the last three years, but that still is a very small budget. If we had not had the aid that we got from the U.S. or from other partners, we would not have achieved the progress that I've just talked about, would not have been able to get the infrastructure that would have enabled us to attract $11 billion in private capital and investment.

So the two have been linked, you know, we've got the official aid has enabled us now to be able to attract private capital and that was -- is our main vehicle going forward. Liberia should not need aid in 10 years. We've got the natural resources, now we have the leadership and we're building the capacity and attracting capital. For us, we're going to go from dependency to self-sufficiency. I insist we're going to do that and I think we have the potential to do so.

WHITAKER: Well, I know how we're going to be opening the questioning in 10 years when we have you back.

SIRLEAF: I won't be here, but somebody else will.

WHITAKER: And before we get off the economy, I want to talk about China. China has been an investor in Liberia. It's, I guess, currently has about $10 billion in concession loans throughout Africa.

What are the upsides and the downsides of China in Africa? And ultimately, what do you see as their agenda?

SIRLEAF: I think their agenda is clear, access to raw material to keep the China economy going. The upside is China is fast. They know what they want. They go after it and they go after it quickly. They want to build a school, they build our school in three months and school is there. They want to negotiate a contract, negotiate a contract and they get it done. They're fast.

The downside is one has to be careful that you don't get a lot of unskilled Chinese workers in your country doing petty trading, taking up the jobs from your own people and so we try to be very careful about that and say, you know, we've got a lot of unemployed people, we're not going to allow you to bring people. You only bring the skills and you help to train our people.

China's flexible. It's not just in Liberia; all over Africa. They're flexible. They're moving. They're committing. They're taking up natural resources. And so what we're trying to do to counterbalance the China move, and since we've been -- we've got a Malaysia company that's now come in with a(n) 800 million (dollar) investment in oil palm. We're negotiating with a (little ?) Indonesian company. So we try to keep that diversity, so that China doesn't monopolize anything.

But Europe and the U.S., you know, have -- are always cautious, and you've got big economies and you've got big purchasing power. So most times, the small countries are not that attractive.

WHITAKER: We have to get --

SIRLEAF: But we'd love to see U.S. investment. That's what we'd like to see, private-sector investment. I think Bob Johnson started -- he's already started a hotel chain. We hope more will follow.

WHITAKER: Before we open it up to Q&A, I just want to ask you some questions about women in politics and in other positions of leadership, in Liberia and then more generally. Obviously, in addition to your historic position, you have six women in major -- at the head of major ministries: Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Commerce, Agriculture, Sports and Gender. You have women in high levels and in sizable numbers in the police, in the military, among the U.N. peacekeepers. So, first question: Do women lead differently than men?

SIRLEAF: Yes.

WHITAKER: How? How so?

SIRLEAF: I think with a -- (inaudible) -- sensitivity, a sensitivity to humankind, you know. They work harder. I mean, you know -- (laughter) -- I mean, because they've always played a dual role. You know, they've carried the family, and professional women have also carried the job responsibility. So it -- it's just part of it of -- working hard I think is part of what comes, you know, with a woman's character and her values and so -- if I could have found them, I would have made an all-woman cabinet. (Laughter, applause.)

WHITAKER: (Laughs.)

SIRLEAF: But I didn't find enough of them, and we didn't have the time to wait. (Laughter.)

WHITAKER: Okay. (Laughter.)

All right. So then, is Liberia, do you think, unique, in terms of your role and perhaps the -- I don't know what it might be -- the historical connection to the United States, other factors that have made it possible for women to move so -- to the forefront so quickly? Or do you think that this is something that's going to be and can be part of the future for Africa, particularly given some of the sort of cultural impediments that have been in -- that have existed in the past?

SIRLEAF: No, we're not unique. There are some countries that are far ahead of us, for example, women in parliament. Rwanda is way ahead of us. I mean, you know, they have 59 percent, I believe, women in parliament, and so -- and, you know, the glass cage is broken. Today women are competing at all levels in society -- you know, for public office, for political office. Women are taking leadership in all aspects.

You know, it will take a while to say -- to get them to the place where we say 50-50, because it's been a long time getting women started in this direction. But right now, it's spreading all over. And I don't think it's just -- I don't think it's just Africa; I think it's spreading all over the world where, you know, we're not concentrating on whether you're a woman or man, we're concentrating on the person and their competence and their courage and their capabilities and their integrity. And the person gets selected for that job. And I think that's a good thing.

WHITAKER: Okay. We've talked enough, so I'm sure you have lots of questions for the president.

If you could -- if everybody could -- we have -- are we going to have microphones that are coming around? Yeah, okay. So if you want to ask a question, I'll call on you. If you could wait for the microphone to arrive, and then identify yourself and your affiliation before you ask the question.

Here. There we go. Coming with the microphone.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Madame President, first of all, thank you for your kind comments about me in your book. I appreciate that. More importantly --

WHITAKER: Governor -- sorry --

QUESTIONER: Pardon? What, is it on?

WHITAKER: No, no, you just need to identify yourself.

QUESTIONER: Oh, Jacques Klein, U.N. More importantly, if you're sitting with President Obama, and he says to you, "Madame President, what is the one thing that we in the United States have not done?" -- or what is the one thing we in the United States can still do for you to continue this process?

SIRLEAF: I still think it's the promotion of U.S. private investment in the country. Jacques, we owe you a lot.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike) -- you've done a wonderful job.

SIRLEAF: So, yeah, you know, the security sector is where the U.S. has concentrated, and we appreciate that. And we still need help there, but I think opening the economy and creating those jobs is the real solution to our security problem.

WHITAKER: Here, and then we'll -- we'll just go across. Go ahead.

You can go first.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Madame President --

WHITAKER: Sorry, just identify yourself.

QUESTIONER: Madame President, my name is Andrew Brimmer. I run an economic and financial consultant firm in Washington, D.C. Briefly, how was the -- how was Liberia affected by the worldwide recession which is now passing? And finally, has recovery begun in Liberia? And what are the prospects?

SIRLEAF: Good to see you, Mr. Brimmer. The Fed days, we remember that.

We were affected. We had thought because we're, you know, our financial system is very shallow and we don't have the integration with the rest of the world financial system that we would have been protected. But that didn't happen, because what it did was it slowed the investment that we were negotiating. They were put on hold for a year. And also remittances. Liberia benefits from a lot of remittances from over the world, and our remittances dropped by almost 50 percent. So in a way it did affect us.

The prospects are now good, because much of that is over. The major companies that are investing are now back; the negotiations are being concluded. They're accelerating. The investment today -- we have good relations with Guinea. And all of our mining companies between Liberia and Guinea is now going into joint ventureship with a major steel company. So things are looking good.

QUESTIONER: I'm Tami Hultman from AllAfrica. Madame President, you've mentioned the lack of capacity in Liberia and the need to have more Liberians trained. On Friday, your minister of planning and economic development told a conference on aid effectiveness that building human capacity ought to be central to every aid policy. How do you see -- I assume you agree with that, from what you said. And how do you see that being done? And what are the impediments?

SIRLEAF: Well, we need to revamp our educational system. We need to improve quality education. Our higher institutions of learning have, over the years, deteriorated, and we're trying to build them back.

We've got to have technical training for those who -- you know, who cannot do academic training anymore. We need the blue-collar workers that will take those jobs. And so the impediment is time. It takes time to build an educational system; it takes time to train people. It just doesn't happen overnight. And so we're started on that road. But it'll take us a little while to get to the place.

We have a lot of our skills, our brains, over here in this country. We hope we can repatriate them. That would be a big plus if we could get them all back. And we've tried to encourage that. But at the same time, we are realistic. If they all were to come back en masse, we would not be able to absorb them, because we wouldn't have enough high-level jobs for that and high-paying jobs for that, and the facilities that they've become accustomed to.

So the major impediment is the time to be able to get the -- coherent approach of building our own institution(s), repatriating our people.

WHITAKER: Let's go to the back here for a few questions.

Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Madame President. Maria McFarland from Human Rights Watch. I -- you've been very clear about the need to build strong institutions and to combat corruption, but there are a couple of areas where we have concerns. One is on the Anti-Corruption Commission, which is -- was established late, is under-resourced, it lacks investigators and logistical capacity to conduct important investigations. There have also been reports of political interference in some key cases.

And the other area is with the Independent Human Rights Commission, which was mandated to be established seven years ago and has yet to be established. Could you please speak to these concerns and say what you can do to establish the Human Rights Commission? Thank you.

SIRLEAF: Sure. The Anti-Corruption Commission does have a capacity problem. This is where we hope the partners will come in. I hope you'll talk to them so they can be able to give us better investigators. We welcome that. We established a group. Most of them are lawyers. They don't have investigative capabilities. I don't think the country has enough investigative capabilities. So we hope that that support -- one.

We have provided resources, but it's -- the demands on our budget are so high that we have to spread it among so many needs and so many uses that we can't give as much as, perhaps, they would need to be able to have the -- (so we've got to ?) provide them through technical assistance.

The Independent Human Rights Commission, as you know, a process were (sic) under way in the interim government, and that process, a process I concluded -- I did not select those who were, but I took the list that came from the interim government and I sent the nomination ahead to the legislature for confirmation, as required by law. During the hearings, the legislators got concerned about some of the people, and they came back to me and asked, you know, did we -- did we do a security check on some of the people? No, we did not; we took the list from the interim government.

We therefore decided to scrap the whole thing and put the process back in place. That process is now under way. I hope we'll have some names coming from this expert committee that was organized by the Supreme Court and we get those into the legislature and that they'll confirm those people. And we already have budgetary appropriation for them. I hope this certainly would get started within the next two months.

WHITAKER: Way in the back.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. My name is Dayo Olopade. I'm a fellow at the New America Foundation researching technology in the emerging markets.

And I was just curious if you could perhaps speak to the business climate and how it is affected by telecommunications infrastructure, by different types of technology, and whether that's something that Liberia is interested in investing in, and how that compares to perhaps more traditional types of investment in infrastructure -- roads, water and such -- and whether there's a choice or a trade-off between the two in terms of economic growth.

SIRLEAF: There's always a trade-off. But, you know, technology is there. The cell phone -- I think we're one of the major users of cell phones, even in most of the remote villages where they have towers. I mean, I think that's the one thing you hear that a Liberian will really go to war for, if you take their cell phone away. (Laughter.) Because that's the only means of communication.

But certainly we keep trying to trade off, you know, when do we do more roads, as compared with water, as compared with lights and all of that. But, you know, we keep trying to make progress on all those fronts, and so far it's not -- that's not a major impediment for the investment, because we started on the infrastructure and we expect private investment will also contribute to the infrastructure development.

WHITAKER: Sir.

QUESTIONER: Good morning, Your Excellency. My name is Alfred Choza (sp). I'm charge d'affaires at the Zambia embassy. First of all, I would like to personally congratulate you for serving in such an office in Africa. Indeed you're the first. And that's a very rare opportunity, actually.

Your Excellency, when you spoke to us earlier on, you referred to, you know, some drug lords who have assumed elective offices. I'm worried about that because these are people who normally thrive under chaos, when there is chaos in a country. If you know them, why do you tolerate them, Your Excellency? Because they may throw everything into disarray.

Thank you.

SIRLEAF: I'm worried too. (Scattered laughter.) We just hope that all of those who were so characterized in the past see the wisdom in peace and that they'll help us to contribute to the peace and stability that we all need to be able to deliver development to the people. So far, so good.

WHITAKER: Back there. Ma'am. Yeah.

QUESTIONER: Madame President, my name is Marcia Eccles (sp). I'm a professor at Howard University School of Law, where I direct the World Food Law Institute.

Food security is a very visible topic now. And you mentioned the programs that you have begun with small farmers. I wondered how you are supporting small farmers. Is it for family, local food security? Do you see something else, let's say, five to 10 years from now with regard to small farmers?

SIRLEAF: Yes. Our emphasis on small farmers is aimed at food security. What we've done in the past couple of years is to have given farmers seeds, tools, to enable them to expand their farm production. And it has worked. We've seen significant increases in the production of two of our main staples, rice and cassava. The thrust now is to move from high-land to low-land rice, which is irrigated rice, where the yields are better, where you can crop more than two times a year.

There is a health problem associated with that. Schistosomiasis, you know, prevents the farmers from moving into low-land rice. But that is something that we're now working with the U.S. As you know, the Obama administration has stressed food security in agriculture. So we've been working with them on that, and I hope that we will begin to do more for the small farmers by moving them into irrigated rice as a means of food self-sufficiency.

We've also now got investment in mechanized rice production, something which we didn't have before. So our emphasis, now that we've got the mining and the forestry and the agriculture concession going, we want to now concentrate on food security through small farmers.

WHITAKER: In the back.

QUESTIONER: Madame President, Jamie Bowen from Diplomatic Courier. In regards to you running for reelection, what are -- you've made many big strides already in your current -- basically what you've been doing in the last four years. And I was curious, if you were reelected, what would be your main points and what strides would you be looking to make in the next couple years?

SIRLEAF: Make sure that we tackle the employment -- the unemployment problem that we have, get the private sector moving so that we can get those jobs and we can get our infrastructure. It's just building in -- on what we already have, consolidating the peace, moving the development agenda one step further toward prosperity, making sure our own natural resources carries the burden of our development.

And so, even if it were not I, I think anybody else who came after me would do exactly the same thing. They would take where we are today and they would consolidate and build upon that and move us toward peace and prosperity, because we have the potential to achieve it.

QUESTIONER: Nancy Walker, Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Madame President, talk to us a little bit about Africa Command. Controversial on the continent, and yet Liberia has embraced and yet -- and welcomed the establishment of Africa Command on her soil. Tell us more.

SIRLEAF: Our position, Liberia's position on AFRICOM remains the same. We welcome it as a vehicle for training our own regional forces to enable them to be able to address the drug trafficking that exists in our subregion, to enable them to have a rapid response, if necessary, to terrorism, to global terrorism.

And so we welcome it. We do not see this as any American intervention, a creation of bases and all this thing that is attributed to it. We don't see it for that. And we've been all having dialogue with some of the leadership in Africa.

And I believe that there's a -- there's a -- the French have been training people in Francophone Africa for years for exactly the same reason. And so this to us is nothing new. We're glad that we have 60 mentors from AFRICOM in Liberia today. What they're doing is training our officer corps. And again, like I said, we welcome that. Our position on that is clear.

WHITAKER: Princeton -- (off mike).

QUESTIONER: Madame President, Princeton Lyman from the Council on Foreign Relations. There is some concern that there is a plateau if not a regression of democracy in Africa: the problems in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, coup in Niger, et cetera. And I wonder if you could comment on what you see as the state of democracy, it growing in Africa or not, and how much you and your fellow democratically elected presidents can do to stem any backsliding on the continent.

SIRLEAF: You know, there may be pockets of regression, but generally democracy is on course. We had three democracies in Africa in the 1970s. We have over 18 today. We have countries that have had three successive transfer(s) of power through the democratic process, several countries in Africa, in our own subregion. And I know that because I'm participating (in it ?).

In the case of Guinea, where there was coup d'etat, or of a sort, when the -- when the president died and the military took over, ECOWAS, a regional institution, took a strong position that we are not going to have this, we're going to have elections. I personally intervened with Dadis Camara, when he was in Ouagadougou, to say you can't do this; if you try to take power, you're going to set our region -- you're going to set our region back into war, into conflict. And we convinced them. They're going to have elections in June.

Cote d'Ivoire has delayed their elections for reasons you know better than I. But we're going to get there eventually.

So I believe that the course is there. Yes, you will have -- you will have those who will change the constitution from time to time, those who will -- who will see themselves as, you know, the only one that can rule a country. You'll have pockets of that, as you have in other places, not only Africa.

But I think, generally speaking, we've come a long way. And we have a civil society today that is so informed and so enlightened and so demanding that it's going to be difficult to think that anybody can get away with the kinds of things that we got away with before.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for creating this space. And really, thank you, Madame President, for always making us Liberians proud when you come to Washington.

I guess my questions -- I'm Emira Woods with the Institute for Policy Studies -- and my question related to the question on AFRICOM, but really it speaks to the private military contractors and their use and abuse, as many of us believe, in Liberia.

With the scrutiny that those military contractors have come under in Iraq and in Afghanistan, it seems as if they're sort of still running amuck in Liberia. And I guess the question is to what extent what you're presenting as training is actually in practice private military contractors that are increasingly unaccountable, including in Liberia.

And I think there's heightened concern of the recruitment of Liberians and other Africans to go to Iraq, and the involvement of people in mercenary activities, more broadly. So I guess I'm wondering if you can speak to that.

I'm most concerned about The Wall Street Journal's report about a -- in March, on March 23rd, about the private military contractors, Pacific Architects and Engineers, being involved in training of prosecutors. So -- you spoke so well about the rule of law and how critical that is, but to have these private military contractors training those critical elements of the judicial system seems a bit incongruous for many of us. So I wonder if you'd speak to that.

And then, if I may, a quick other question: Given the oil spill in the U.S. today, the issues around oil extraction in Liberia and offshore oil drilling, and to what extent the disaster here is having an impact in terms of the planning both for the extraction and the exploration offshore in Liberia. Thank you.

SIRLEAF: Okay, Emira, let me take the -- (soft laughter) --

WHITAKER: (Chuckles.)

SIRLEAF: -- (chuckles) -- let me take the last one first. We haven't found oil yet, so thank God we haven't reached a spill point. (Laughter.) But we hope we find it. We're actively looking.

But in the case of oil, we're trying to do it right. We've talked to Norway to see how they have managed their oil resources and asked them about their laws in that regard. And I hope we can -- we can now take some of their own good practices into play.

Yes, the U.S. supported us in the training of the new army, and they use defense contractors. DynCorp and PAE were the two large contractors. They did the training. We don't have a say on that. You know, we don't get budgetary support from the U.S, I think, as a policy issue. I don't know.

So they -- the defense contractors, they did the job. It ended. They're not amok -- they're not running amok, because they're there anymore. That program ended in December of last year.

And don't forget: We also have in our training program not only the private contractors, we have Nigerians, we have Ghanaians, we have those who are training our people too along -- the head of our army today is a Nigerian general. And so he has to say -- we have our people training in a Nigerian army school right now, those who would be officers.

So even though the defense contractors may have been there, we have owned the program, and we are -- we are the ones managing how people will be trained. So I think the issue is over on that particular one.

You said they're training our --

QUESTIONER: Prosecutors --

SIRLEAF: They're training our prosecutors?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

SIRLEAF: Well, I hope they train them better. I hope that -- if they train them as well as the army, it would be all right.

But we do have a judicial training institute, and we are going to have people who will be working -- if they're working within the training institute, then I would have no fear, because it's being managed by our supreme court and by our own lawyers. So perhaps there's an added expertise that they have. I don't know too much about that, but I'll look into that, if it troubles you, and I'll get back to you and tell you the details on that.

May I? Okay.

WHITAKER: Sir.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Gregory van der Vink, Princeton University, Terrametrics, and in January I just registered a small manufacturing company in Liberia. So -- all protocols observed.

And I -- you've mentioned unemployment, you've mentioned extraction industries, and you've mentioned your natural resources. And I'm wondering how you see Liberia moving towards profiting more economically from its own natural resources, moving away from concessions and extraction industries, and creating more of those jobs and keeping more of that wealth in the country through the development of manufacturing and products with your own natural resources.

SIRLEAF: Yeah. That's a -- that's a big challenge, because our own history is one of enclave operations. Today we're trying to make sure we have those linkages, but ensuring that the large concessions do a lot of joint ventureship, making sure that they offshore some of the -- some of the activities that they normally would control within their own environment.

Certainly the manufacturing sector is one of the -- the one that is most needed in our country and is -- it's very small-scale. We don't have a large manufacturing sector. And that's something that -- adding value to our own -- our own raw materials instead of exporting them, the things that -- part of our policy. So we're just working with the companies on that to make sure that we have this linkage, so that the economy can be sustained, even when the extractive industries have ended.

QUESTIONER: Madame President, Whitney Schneidman, of Schneidman & Associates. Nice to see you again.

Just to go back to an earlier exchange, you were asked what you would say to President Obama if he said, "What more can we do?" And you said private enterprise. I'd like to push you on that and ask you how specifically. Would you like to see more training for Liberian entrepreneurs? Would you like to see more resources for microindustry or small or medium enterprises or trade missions? This is an important issue that I think many people share your aspiration for but really have trouble getting their hands around it to make it a reality. Thank you.

SIRLEAF: We would like to see more support for Liberian entrepreneurs. We'd like to see some joint-ventureship with U.S. firms. We'd like to see facilities that will enable some of our small companies to be able to grow. The construction industry, for example: China is dominating there. They're doing all the roads, with World Bank financing. We'd like to see, you know, a couple of U.S. companies come in there and work with some of our small engineering firms that don't have the capital to be able to do that. This is where we can -- we can build, I think.

Bob Johnson and OPIC put in a facility for Liberians, but, again, the business development service has been lacking in that regard. So training for the entrepreneurs to be able to put together projects, to be able to manage it, is all part of what will help us to build this private sector that we speak of.

QUESTIONER: Good morning. Charlotte Key (sp) with Sceptre (sp).

Madame Excellency, I'd like you to focus a bit more on the youth side. I share your concern about the next generation. I'd love to hear more about your vision for how we bring them up. Thank you.

SIRLEAF: We need to get them an education. We need good-quality education for them. We need good medical training for them. You know, child mortality has been one of our big problems. I think we've halved it now, but still have a long way to go.

We need for them to be assured that they can become professionals; good nutrition for them, so they're not stunted. And these are all the things and all the areas that we're working on, that we hope will make a better life for the children.

I say today, at least our children who are entering the first grade will be the first set of children that have not known guns, that have not had to run; be the first time that that has happened. And that's something we ought to preserve.

Once we do that, and then we can give them a good education, then we think they're on the way.

WHITAKER: Okay, one more question. And just a reminder that this has been an on-the-record discussion.

Ma'am, back there.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Madame President, Viola Gienger, from Bloomberg News.

I was wondering if you would tell us, specifically on your economic outlook, what sector of your economy do you see growing most rapidly in the next few years, and what regulations do you see potentially needed to control that growth?

SIRLEAF: Agriculture. And we're talking both export agriculture, where rubber is our main, traditional product, but also oil palm we're going into in a big way. It create(s) the jobs, and it has all the potential for outgrowers to support small farmers in that regard.

And what was the last part? What -- what is the --

QUESTIONER: Regulation -- (off mike).

SIRLEAF: Our labor regulation, to make sure the protection of our workers, ensuring that the resources from those -- our tax system. We've just -- you know, revamp our tax laws, to subject the large concessionaires to tax of general application, to make sure we take away the discretion and the potential for corruption.

And so all of those laws are -- you know, are something that we've been working on in the past few years, making sure that the use of the resources through -- and a transparent budgetary process, that's also in place today. Our budget is printed on the website. Anybody can have access to it to see whether -- the allocational efficiency issue.

So those are the things that, you know, we've been doing, like I said, trying to make sure we get the laws and the institutions and the accountability right. Then we can tackle some of these places where there have been individual cases of abuse and misuse.

WHITAKER: Madame President, I want to thank you first of all for allowing me to be the moderator, despite the fact that I'm a man, you know. (Laughter.) There's still a few of us who are -- (laughter) -- here.

SIRLEAF: (Laughs.)

WHITAKER: We're happy to come over to Liberia after it's completely run by women.

SIRLEAF: There you go.

WHITAKER: And but most of all, for a very candid and honest discussion. And we wish you all the best with the challenges ahead in Liberia. Thanks for being here. (Applause.)

SIRLEAF: Thank you, Mark.

Let's hope that some of you will come to Liberia. Everything I say, don't take my word for it; come and see it.

WHITAKER: Thank you very much.

SIRLEAF: Thank you.

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