A Conversation With President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President of the Republic of Liberia

Princeton N. Lyman

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow and Director of Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

PRINCETON LYMAN: Let me just take care of a—(Applause) Let me just take care of a few administrative matters right at the beginning. Please turn off cell phones, and blackberries, and blueberries, and all those kinds of things, so that we have no interruptions from them. This meeting tonight is on the record. Often Council meetings are not, but tonight is on the record. And in honor of President Sirleaf’s historic achievement, this meeting has been designated the 2005-2006 David Rockefeller Lecture. That lectureship was established to honor Mr. Rockefeller when he retired as chairman of the Council’s board, and it is awarded annually to a distinguished African from either the government or non-governmental sector, and clearly, tonight, is someone distinguished. This meeting is also being teleconferenced to members around the nation and around the world, and to other leaders, so we’re getting a wonderful audience.

I’m Princeton Lyman, I direct the Africa policy studies at the Ralph Bunche Chair here at the Council. And I’m very pleased to welcome you here. We’re going to have a conversational format this evening, and then open it up for questions at 7:00. It’s a great pleasure and an honor for me to introduce our guest this evening; you have her full bio in your packages, and I’m not going to go into that at great length, but you know this is someone who came from humble rural roots and then rose to the leadership not only of her country, but she’s become something of a superstar—(laughter)—on the international circuit.

She has served in numerous positions in the international field, in the United Nations, the World Bank and the private banking sector. But I think what stands out is that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has never given up on Liberia. She twice served as minister of finance, only to find that the leadership at the time was not really committed to a true and just Liberia. She was sentenced to prison, and at risk of her life. And yet she came back—again, and again—to serve her country and lead it out of the maelstrom of the last two decades. And now she is the president of Liberia.

Madame President, it is a thrill for us to welcome you here this evening.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much.

LYMAN: If we can begin, you’ve been now I know to European capitals and now you’ve been here. You’ve addressed a joint session of Congress, you’ve met with the president and other officials. Perhaps you can start by you telling us what you came to achieve and how you assess the success of your visit so far.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you very much. Let me first say how pleased I am to be here and say how wonderful it is to connect once again with so many people in this room, many of them who have been very helpful, very instrument, to all of the things we have been able to accomplish and the progress that our country has today. You know you—I can just wink at you and say a big thank-you for the Liberian people.

I’m also very pleased to be here for the David Rockefeller event, this event named in his honor, because he was another person in those early days of Liberia when we were making progress and we were creditworthy. When David Rockefeller was out and I had the pleasure to serve for a little while when I lived in New York on the board of Synergos, which is Peggy Dulany’s international NGO, so it’s just a great pleasure to be here.

We made this visit essentially in responses to President Bush’s kind invitation, but to use that opportunity to thank him, to thank the U.S. government, to thank the American people for all that was done to support Liberia in its transition from war to peace. It took the courage of President Bush to actually put the pressure on that led to the process of change and took a despot into exile. It took the support of the U.S. Congress to give the appropriation that enabled us to support not only our own reconstruction efforts and the transition and support for a U.N. peacekeeping force, but enabled us to have free and fair elections. And so maybe the first order of business is to say thank you. And then of course to lay out to the American people, to you in this room, and to all of those with whom we’ve met, our vision for the future, our commitment to pursue the processes of change, the structural transformation that will enable our country once again to become a good performer, to undertake and formulate those policy measures that enable us to get our economy working again, repair our infrastructure, respond to the needs of the thousands and thousands of war-affected youth, respond to the women, my biggest constituency, and regain some of our international creditworthiness. And I must say that in all of this we’ve been very fortunate in getting a very good response.

Our message, we think, was well received by the Congress, by those in the administration with whom we met, by the Security Council when we asked them to allow the peacekeeping force to remain for a little while until we can consolidate the peace and restructure our own security forces to take over that responsibility. And so we’re just pleased with that. The interaction we have with groups such as yourself, once again to be able to set forth what we hope we’ll achieve, and to tell you that I represent the aspirations and the expectation of women in Liberia and women in Africa, and to say that we’re committed on their behalf to achieve those goals that we have set for the transformation of our country.

LYMAN: Thank you. Maybe if I can begin with a hard question. One of the things when you came back and ran for president, you were one of the few people who didn’t have an army. (Laughter.) And there were a lot of people around there who did, who had militias and other things, as you well know. And I wonder now as we move into this new era how you see the security situation, the ability to establish a unified national army, and whether you feel the danger of militias or people still around who participated in those is still there, or whether people are clearly committed now to a new regime, if you will?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think there’s no doubt that generally Liberians are tired of war, generally want peace, want to get their lives back together again. That said, our peace is quite fragile. We have just demobilized an entire army. Today we don’t have an army. We’re involved in trying to recruit and train a new army. We’ve demobilized a large segment of our police force and put the rest of them through a screening and training process. The auxiliary security forces that represented ad hoc groups that really did not protect people have been largely disbanded. And so our security truly today rests in the hands of the peacekeeping force. Most of our security forces, the ones left, the police and what-not, cannot carry arms because we still have a sanction on arms, quite rightly so. And so there’s still pockets of discontent, persons who have lost power as a result of the election. We stand a chance of some insurgency. We still have the Charles Taylor issue and the influence which he continues to have on the country and the implications of that. So but we believe that we’ve got enough going for us in terms of our commitment to the people, are responsive to their needs, and if we can continue to show that we are moving in a direction in which we regain and maintain their confidence in our ability to lead, in our ability to transform the country, that far greater numbers are on the side of peace and stability and that we can move the nation forward.

LYMAN: Thank you. Let me ask if I can a related question. You laid out in your address to the joint session of Congress a number of objectives regarding management and fiscal responsibility, and you already announced a number of measures that you’ve taken to address problems with corruption and misuse of resources. And now there’s a program with an odd name, called GEMAP, Government Economic Management Assistance Program. But you also have a legislature, a parliament with a lot of people from other parties there. Will you get the support within the parliament for the kind of fiscal management, economic management, that you set yourself to achieve?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: First, on GEMAP, it is a partnership arrangement, a partnership between Liberia and its major partners. It’s a response to our own government, our transitional government’s failure to manage our resources properly. It’s a financial management mechanism, an arrangement to which we are committed. It does help us at this point in time, because we do need the technical experts that come under that program to help us manage our resources. We’re very clear, however, that we’ve got to own our own processes. We’ve got to control our own destiny, and we’ve got to have the capacity for sustainability in financial management. Therefore GEMAP is a temporary arrangement. Perhaps I should tell you that there is confidence in our own ability to manage our affairs, and it will come.

What’s the other part of the question?

LYMAN: The support from the House of Representatives and the Senate.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, our party, the ruling party has a very—are a minority in the legislature, and our legislature also has real capacity—many of them populists elected on the strength of their popularity in the towns and villages. But we’re working with them. We expect some back and forth. We expect them to resist certain things like budgetary allocations that do not meet their needs—not unlike your own Congress, I might suggest—(laughter)—in which the legislature might want to see more allocations for their own pet projects for their own selves. But we have a good dialogue going with them, and we’re trying to build the blocks that support them, and enable—the true test will come when we start to put the legislation through and when we get our own fiscal year budget we start in July. But we’re also committed to respect their independence as part of the checks and balances in a democracy, and so as long as that independence does not become a major obstacle toward the achievement of national goals which we think are common, then I think we can manage this degree of tension.

LYMAN: Let me turn to an area that I know many people here tonight are very interested in and people—really had a question from one of the people in the teleconferencing, and that’s the whole area of education—not only education for children, but education for all those who were deprived of education when they were children and now are adults. And you have a broad issue.

We have several questions that have come up about that. We have a question from one of our teleconference people, Bishop Peter Weaver of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, who asks about whether there’s a role for faith-based organizations from the United States. And I know there are others here who have worked on education programs from other directions. And I wonder if you might talk about your thoughts on education and where Americans might be most useful, but where you see the priorities.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Education is a very, very big challenge for us. As I mentioned in another forum, it’s probably for the first time in the history of many nations that the younger generation is less educated, less knowledgeable and less informed than the older—a complete reversal of worldwide trends. And that of course is a result of the many years of conflict when young people didn’t go to school. And so that’s our challenge. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of war-affected youth, both victims and ex-combatants, that have been equally affected by the war and the inability to be schooled. And so one of our biggest challenges is to reverse this trend and to move up this generation so that they become competitive. It’s going to require lots of resources, because although we’ve said we’re committed to universal free primary education, we can’t implement that policy until we have the school buildings all over the country—because they’ve been destroyed—until we have the teachers—and most of our teachers, we’ve lost them through the diaspora, because they left the country during the years of war, training materials and books and all that it takes to respond to that need. It’s going to take us a while to be able to do that. It’s a very big challenge, and one of the places where we have to put our first priority.

We’ve encouraged a return to a tradition in Liberia where churches have provided schooling facilities, particularly in rural areas—boarding schools have been part of the Liberian tradition, one that was lost in a way because the conflict caused many of the church schools to close down and missionaries that served in these schools left the country. We hope now that there is peace and we can provide a stable environment, that we encourage all the churches to come back to that tradition, because that would supplement the effort of the government to respond to this very important need. I discussed this with, as you mentioned—(inaudible)—and those at the United Methodist Church who are out there for the inauguration, and also the same goes for the Baptist and African Methodist and Episcopal—we encourage all of them to once again do what they can to contribute to the education of our young people.

LYMAN: Thank you. I’m going to ask one more question and then open it up, and that’s a question of infrastructure. You have mentioned the need for basic infrastructure to restore the economy, and yet because of the debt problem you don’t have access to wide-scale funding from the World Bank and some of the donors. How in your conversations here and in your plans do you think you’ll be able to address that, and how soon?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: There’s a newspaper at home that every day has a little box that reminds me every day how many days are left—(laughter)—of my political commitment to bring electricity back to the capital city. So I dread every morning when I pick up that paper and I see another day has gone by—how many days left.

I’ll start with a reminder that one of my campaign promises was we’re going to bring electricity to the capital city. I keep reminding them we didn’t—(laughter)—but we said we’re going to turn some lights on, so that’s part of our infrastructure challenge, to restore electricity to a capital city that has been dark for over 15 years—totally unacceptable. Even under the worst of circumstances something should have been done.

Anyway, we’re glad that in the area of electricity—I think Nancy Pelosi helped us a lot on that, the minority leader in the Congress. And she took a delegation over to Liberia, and I think she made a statement that it’s just beginning to make us have—because she said, “Madame President, you electrified the world, and so we’ll electrify Monrovia.” (Laughter.) (Applause.) I won’t let her forget that either. And so, anyway, we’ve got an emergency project going. The European Union is supporting us. We’re very glad the U.S. is also supporting us. So we are going to turn some lights on in the capital city by our independent day, July 26th. And we’ve got a bigger term program for the rest of our infrastructure. Electricity is key not only in the city but also to start to bring electricity and water back to some of the major urban areas of the city, to begin to do effective studies that enable us to talk about bringing water and electricity to as many of the rural areas as possible, based upon a mixture of private sector partnerships, because the government will not have the resources to do it all.

Our road system, that has been totally destroyed for lack of maintenance, and bridges that have been down, we started to do some work using the engineering facility of the peacekeeping force—Jack will remember that—you know, to do some road work. And we’ve got commitments now from departments, including U.S., to do that. Of course social infrastructure, repairing the schools and the clinics and the hospitals is an ongoing process, far from meeting the needs, but we have started. We’re very glad that we have just great support from the World Bank, even though our debt—we are over $3 billion external debt, unserviced for so many years, denies us the right to access the normal multilateral sources. But the bank has just stepped up to the plate and has come in with grants that will enable them to support some of the road-building programs. We’re working with all the other partners on repairing the schools and the clinics. So, again, it’s going to be a tough haul. We’re not going to be able to do it quickly—no quick fix. We’re very realistic about that. But we’re working on a program, a multi-year program, where progressively over the years we will restore the infrastructure, because that’s the only way we can attract the private capital and the private investment which we need. In fact, we’re encouraging them to have a part in infrastructure development tied to the exploitation of our natural resources, which are ample, and which we think provides the basis for us being able to make a very rapid economic recovery.

LYMAN: Thank you. I’m going to open it up now. And when I call on someone, wait for the microphone, and then be sure to give your name and your affiliation and then ask a question. So I’ll start here with Julius Coles.

QUESTIONER: Madame President, Julius Coles, AfriCare. I’d just like to take this opportunity to compliment you on your speech before the Congress and your speeches that you’ve made throughout your visit here in Washington and New York. I think you pushed the right buttons and said the right things, as you convinced the American people of Liberia’s need and there’s merit for such assistance.

Yet I’ve also noticed you’ve been very diplomatic. You spell it out very clearly in your remarks that Liberia has been a longtime friend of the American people, and you said to the Congress that you need our help. But you didn’t indicate any amount of money. And I believe very sincerely and strongly that Liberia cannot develop on the basis of friendship. It needs resources, and financial resources, to be able to carry out this development. I know it’s difficult, but I would like for you to give us an idea what are those resource requirements within a two-year time frame, a five-year time frame, to really get Liberia back on its feet. Thank you.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I didn’t want to mention in the speech, you know, the amount because we already had the request in there. They knew it. What we did say was that we’d like to see the same level of funding that we had in the transition years. As you know, we had a $200 million allocation for such development. That was in addition to the 245 (million dollars) given for the peacekeeping force. We also said that to the extent that we can see a shifting in the peacekeeping force the development which would diminish the need for peacekeeping that we can see most of those resources shift. But if we got a continuation of the level of funding that we’ve seen in FY ’05-06, that would enable us to get the jump start which we need. Of course, you know, we’re also going for a supplemental, we think the ’07—and the supplement that we ask for would enable us to do emergency infrastructure repairs. We asked for $80 million. So far 50 has passed the House. We’re counting on Senate colleagues to up it to where we want it.

Do we need more? Yes, you know, if we did a 10-year development program, we’d say we need a billion dollars. But we also want to be pragmatic based upon our absorptive capacity, so that we take what it is progressively. And we also are very clear that Liberia wants to get independence, and we want to improve our ability to trade. We want to open up our economy. We want to attract private capital. We don’t want to base our independence on assistance, because we think we have the means to support our own development efforts. What we say is in the first one or two years that we just got that initial trust that set us on the course, if we got sanctions lifted—and that’s where we need the U.S. influence—so we can use our own resources for our own development and give us a five-year start and, you know, I think we can make it.

LYMAN: Back there and then we’ll come around here.

QUESTIONER: I’m Morton Halperin from the Open Society Institute. I wonder if you would give us your assessment of where the process of bringing Charles Taylor to justice stands and how important you think that is for the consolidation of democracy in your country.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: The process stands right now in the hands of the primary African leadership, the host of Mr. Taylor, President Obasanjo of Nigeria, the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, President Tandja of Niger, the current chairman of the African Union, Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville. Those consultations are ongoing. Liberia believes that this matter ought to be brought to closure, that we want to get on with the business of fulfilling our development agenda and responding to the needs of our people. The African leadership, in conjunction with the U.S. and the U.N., have the arrangement that took Mr. Taylor into exile. We think since he’s given the word that we want this brought to closure, it must now take a decision on the next step to take it to the court.

QUESTIONER: I am Carole Henderson Tyson with Henderson’s Global Voices. Madame President, thank you very much for your remarks, and I wish you the greatest of success in the leadership of Liberia.

My question is this: I have read that you are interested in or have begun the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I wonder if you would speak to us about that just a little bit more, where do you stand on that and what you hope to achieve in the healing of your nation with this. Thank you.

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: When we had the peace talks in Accra in 2003, we had a choice of going for a war crimes tribunal or calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Accra talks agreed that that right as the first step was a TRC, and so that was launched during the two transition years, but was not as effective and did not get the support as was required. So that body was reconstituted just at the end of the transition, and I inducted that group into office and have started to give it the support it needs to carry its mandate. Its mandate by legislation is clear: to investigate the root causes of conflict, to find the means thereby over the years we’ve had tensions in our society that have resulted in strife, ethnic strife, religion strife, and to find where justice is part of the healing process, and you’re beyond the scope of the process of contrition and forgiveness, the role justice will play in this. This gave us an opportunity to find the means for the thousands and thousands of youths who committed atrocities and meant to be subjected to a court for crimes they committed not under their own control but under the influence of drugs and drink, and we’d like to give the chance to face their accusers and to ask for forgiveness. We think it’s the best way to heal the wounds. And we say that it will not satisfy us where necessary and appropriate the process of justice, for those for whom justice is the only course as a part of healing. So we think the TRC is on its way and that it’s an important part of trying to move our nation forward.

LYMAN: Jacques and then we’ll come here.

QUESTIONER: Jacques Klein, Princeton University. Madame President, congratulations, first of all. You’ll probably become a historical figure, but the job you have is a probescient (ph) one. How do you go forward? What are your priorities? Because you and I know the West is very (tempo-centric ?)—it’s very fickle. Popular today, gone tomorrow. So how do you see the near term? What are the things you really need to do quickly? What are the things we all collectively here can help you do before someone else is more fashionable and more interesting to the media and to everyone else in town?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: If I may say, Jacques, in Liberia you’re a historical figure yourself. (Laughter.) No, you’re right. I mean, we know the novelty is going to wear off and the radar screen will shift on some other subject pretty soon. And that’s why we’re talking right now about, one, doing something about infrastructure, getting some electricity, getting some of our roads repaired, getting the schools and hospitals, finding the means to get our people back into their communities farming again. We’re talking about getting our young people to work. Because of these people who are unemployed on the streets—it’s linked to the infrastructure development program, to the community development program. We’re talking about our security forces completing the process of the restructuring to make the nation safe again before time runs out with the peacekeeping force. These are the three main areas where we want to concentrate in. Anything that any of you and all of you can do in this room, you know, just to urge that—this support which we’ve been promised that that support is there. And this is a tough one for you, for me and for everyone else, but I said, Time is of the essence. I mean, commitments are good but until they turn into cash, we need the projects on the ground and we don’t get the results. So we’re trying to work with the government to see if the bureaucracy can be pumped up a bit so that we get those disbursements very quickly in these three key areas of infrastructure, security, community development to assert most of our young people in training programs and employment opportunities.

LYMAN: This lady right here and then I’m going to go back around.

QUESTIONER: Melanne Verveer with Vital Voices. Madame President, you inspire us all and we wish you and Liberia very well.

We know that one of the best investments that can be made in a country’s progress is to invest in its women. And you have talked some about the kinds of social development investments you’d like to see—education specifically. Are there specific priorities for the women of Liberia that we should be mindful of and that you can give us some sense of?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Yes, indeed. You know, my greatest constituency are women, and so I have a special, special obligation and responsibility to them. In the first instance, a literacy program for women. So many of our women in the informal sector cannot read or write, and so a literacy program so they are able to understand the basics. Most of them are market women, and they need that.

Responding then to the needs of the market women, and I see somebody here who has already done a whole lot, and let me just recognize you and thank you for all that you did for the market women, and when you come out you’ll see some of the results of what you’ve done. It’s just improving the working conditions for these market women. Most of them sit in the markets, sometimes in the rain, in the sun, destroyed facilities. Most of them have their baby sometimes and their young children in the markets with them. They have no other means, but they have them in the market as they sell just to make the money that feeds them that night. These kids are not in school, and so we’ve been talking with some of the partners to say let’s try to do a model market where we give them a decent place in a cost-efficient way, but we also have—what they do have in the markets, sanitation facilities. And they also have a place where there there’s a little school so the kids can be in school while their mothers are in the market. Those are the things we can do, we must do. It will take us some time. We’ll have to find partners that can work with us on that, but that’s my goal and that’s my commitment to the women of Liberia who—(inaudible)—We started it. Some of it is done already. We’re going to continue it and with as much support as we get—we’ll get as much as we can right across the country.

QUESTIONER: Gwendolyn Mikell. I’m the director of the Africa program at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Madame President, I’m really proud, and congratulate you on what’s gone on in Liberia. I have a question that has to do with the region. The region has been both a source of problems and a source of possibility for Liberia. So I wonder how you see the regional relationships, economic and political, over the next few years? What would you like to see happen that would push Liberia forward?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Liberia’s fragile peace is tied to the dynamics of the region. Our peace will never be secure until there is peace in the sub-regions, in all the neighboring countries. So right now we have problems with problems in Cote d’Ivoire that are not yet resolved, pending problems in Guinea. Until we get peace and stability in those areas we will always be at risk. And so we have to get to work on the solutions, the intervention by the U.N. and other forces and work with the leaders in those countries, in our neighboring countries, to ensure that they too can find a way to peace. That’s the only way to secure our own peace.

Once peace is secured, then the options for making sure that we have sustained peace is then development, and that means economic cooperation, where possible, economic integration, doing cross-border activities that enable us to get the economies of scale, employment-generating economic activity, investment in industries and all of that, reaching out and linking in infrastructure wherever possible to improve the mobility of distant services. These are all the things that we can take to make sure that when peace is won that it is continued. It’s so very important.

QUESTIONER: Ellen, Robert Nooter. I was the USAID director 1965 to 1967—


QUESTIONER:—when you were a young employee in the Department of the Treasury and when the mission needed information on what was going on in the government finances we would come to you and you would kindly share with us that information, which was always reliable and always accurate.

The problems you face sound enormous. I can visualize it, knowing the country as I do, and imagining the condition that it must now be in. And certainly one of the primary things is going to be how you’re going to create a government revenue stream that’s going to support the government. And I assume this is going to come at least in part from foreign investment, as you mentioned earlier. What kinds of foreign investment do you visualize might come in that would create employment but also create some sort of revenue stream for the government?

LYMAN: Could I add to that also, because we’ve got a question on that from one of our teleconference people. What will you see for those countries that have been in Liberia before exploiting the natural resources and developing them? Are they part of your plan? You’re looking for new investors?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Bob, I better say every time I pass by the building you were in and look at it still today I just reflect on the great task we have ahead of us. So you’d cry if you saw your building.

It’s maybe an opportunity to get somebody else to talk. So I’m going to get the finance minister—(laughter)—to take this question, since she’s going to be responsible for enhancing that revenue stream. (Laughter.)

MINISTER ANTOINETTE SAYEH (Liberian minister of Finance): It’s a very good question. Clearly we’re operating in a very, very narrow tax base. Our revenues at some $80 million a year are about a fifth of what we used to have before the war. Of course with the devastation that we’ve been through it’s not surprising to have seen that drop, but quite a bit of it also comes from the fact that there’s a lot of leakages in the revenue collection process. And plugging those leakages is one quick way of expanding the tax base in the short run. But clearly economic growth and investment that generates revenues is what we need to count on longer term.

We are very dependent on import taxes and taxes from imports, and we need to go beyond that to get to the point where taxes are also coming from income, profit taxes and property taxes as well. But investments in areas that are labor intensive and that use our natural resources, much of what we have already in the way of investment are such investments—in rubber, for example – that’s one source—

QUESTIONER: (Off mike)?

MINISTER ANTOINETTE SAYEH (Liberian minister of Finance): It is functioning. Firestone is still there. But clearly we’re locked into an agreement with Firestone that we’re reviewing as part of the effort to review all of the concession agreements that were signed or renewed under the interim government to find ways of making sure that their contribution to the economy is maximized, both on the revenue side and of course on employment generation and economic activity generally. But we’re starting to formulate a more long-term—medium-term I should say—program of reform to make sure that our revenue is enhanced to the point where we can certainly pay our salaries, but go beyond that and start providing the basic services that government should be providing, that we’re now absolutely totally dependent on the outside to do. So revenue performance is a critical short-term deliverable that I’m responsible for and I know the president will be looking to me to make sure we deliver. (Laughter.)

LYMAN: I think there’s a question way back there. I saw a hand way back there. I can just see the hand.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Princeton. It’s Anne Richard, International Rescue Committee. My question actually was the one Gwendolyn Mikell asked about the region, but maybe I could ask a follow-up on what is the U.S. government’s responsibility then looking at the entire region. Should we focus on Liberia, or do we have to play a role then in the neighbors, or do we look for other donors to do that? And I also wanted to share one quick anecdote, which was I was in the ladies’ room at the Brussels airport, and the lady next to me was wearing an African print dress that had the picture of your face, Madame President, over and over and over in the pattern. And I said, “Well, you must be from Liberia. There’s some good things going on there, huh?” And she said, “Yes, we women are going to take over the world.” (Applause.) I just wanted to alert the gentlemen of the Council on Foreign Relations on what’s being conspired. (Laughter.)

LYMAN: The question was: What role should we be playing in the region?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think the U.S., the U.N. and all of those that are supporting regional peace have to work together, and they have to support interventions that are going to bring peace to the whole region. It’s not enough to bring peace to Liberia. We have got to have peace in Cote d’Ivoire, you’ve got to have peace in Guinea, you’ve got to have peace in Sierra Leone. And we’ve already made some success in Sierra Leone, some success in Liberia. We need to work harder to make similar success in Cote d’Ivoire and to avert any impending crisis in Guinea. So I think it’s a collective thing. The Security Council is at the center of all this. The U.S. influence on the Security Council is going to be key.

And to the lady in the restroom, you know, Hey. (Laughter.)

LYMAN: Yes, here we go. We have a microphone for you.

QUESTIONER: Hi, mine very much follows on this question, so I’ll stay on the woman thing, since it’s such an important one. You know, the World Bank released a study—I’m Yolanda Richardson, Center for Development and Population Activity, CDPA. The World Bank released a study talking about the indirect relationship—the inverse relationship between corruption and the highest participation of women in the political process. And so it’s very interesting to me to talk a little bit about how you see building political leadership in your base that you so make in the country, but also in the region, because as you know your election has really inspired women throughout the continent. So given the immense challenges you face as president of Liberia, how do you see that larger role that you play in the region around aspiring women’s political participation?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, I tell you when you talk about the inverse relationship, I can say that I do agree with that and that’s the very reason why in Liberia—although we didn’t get a—you know, we didn’t dare have an all-women cabinet. I toyed with that idea. (Laughter.) What we did achieve was to make sure that we put women in all the strategic places you know—finance, justice, commerce, you know—police director. (Applause.) You know, that’s what we did. And I think that sends a strong signal that we believe that women who have the competence—chances are, based on our experience, do have a higher level of integrity. And I think women activities, women right now in Liberia are so high—women’s expectations and their own potential and their own confidence in—their self-confidence and their ability to reach their potential is so high in Liberia in our sub-region in Africa that the role I play and the role the women on my team play is going to just have to reinforce those aspirations and expectations—and our own anxieties—we’re really under the microscope, and we know that our performance is going to be the key—our ability to move Liberia forward, to make a difference in the lives of our people during this period and to use the women in these strategic places to achieve that objection is going to make a big, big difference. I mean already the back door is open across the African continent and three other countries—already I have been contacted by women who are expressing their desire to run for president. Of course my answer is, Go for it. (Applause.) You know? And so I just think the enhancement of the women’s rule is just going to be so high. We’ve got to work on our parliament, our legislature, where we still have not sufficient representation, not unlike you. (Laughter.) But I think women the world over just know that that potential for equality is there, the potential to achieve their leadership goals are just there, and I think the world is going to be better off for it.

LYMAN: The gentleman right there.

QUESTIONER: Glenn Prickett with Conservation International. It’s a pleasure to be with you here tonight, Madame President, and it’s an honor for our organization to be working with your government and your people on the ground in Liberia.

I wanted to salute you on a very bold initiative you’ve taken, among the many others we’ve heard about tonight, to end the logging concessions that were given by the previous regime which were not being managed for the long-term benefit of your people, either economically or ecologically. And I wanted to ask: What are the key steps that Liberia needs to take to bring the management of your forests and your natural resources onto a sustainable footing, and what can we in the international community do to support you in these efforts?

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: We already have a program for the effective management of our forest resource, a Forest Monitoring Committee is in place, real guidelines for being able to give out part of our forest for exploitation are already in place. We ensure the participation of the communities in which the forests are, and we feel the benefits that must accrue to those communities. We have our partners that are supporting that—the World Bank is a major partner with us in this regard, and others, the USAID, the European Commission, all of which serve on this Forestry Monitoring group. We’ve just reconstituted the first redevelopment authority to do it and the management is new. Under the GEMAP we’re putting in proper resource management. So we’re doing everything it takes, and that’s a requirement for the lifting of sanctions on our forestry sector, which we think would be achieved by the time the Security Council reviews this in June. But we’re very happy with the way we’re going forward, and anyone that gets a concession to do forest operations will do so now under rules and regulations and guidelines that are very clear.

LYMAN: Well, Madame President, as you can tell you have a lot of friends here, people who are working very hard on behalf of Liberia, extremely actively in committees and other things and others. Julius Coles said you were very diplomatic, and you have been on your whole visit. The truth is, as many of us know, the United States has not always done well by Liberia. You’ve given us a second chance. We hope to live up to it. (Applause.)

JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you. Thank you. May I just introduce—I just want to recognize the presence of those who are here with me, particularly those who are the members of our delegation: Dr. Antoinette Sayeh who spoke, the finance minister. (Applause.) Ms. Nohu Kidau, who is a member of the legislature from one of our counties—(Applause.)—she’s not in my party, so that tells you—(laughter)—Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh an advisor to the president a long time. (Applause.) Dr. William Bull, a former ambassador, now a deputy minister of foreign affairs. (Applause.) Ms. Medina Wesseh, an executive assistant in the president’s office. (Applause.) Ms. Etta Tellewoyan, a representative of the market women and one of our elders who has been doing marketing all her years, and she’s here with me. (Applause, cheers.) Eddie Dunn, the chief of protocol. (Applause.) Of course Florence is just a compatriot, but she hasn’t made her way back home yet. Florence. (Applause.)








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