One of the nominees most frequently mentioned for Carol Muske-Dukes’ Nine Women to Run the World, featured here last week, was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 71-year-old president of Liberia. WVFC was thrilled when Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jina Moore, who had talked to Sirleaf last fall from West Africa in a reporting trip funded by Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, agreed to share some of the president’s thoughts with WVFC.  We look forward to seeing more  work like Moore’s piece in the CSM Magazine, in which we learned (among much else) how much it matters in land disputes for women to get their fair share. — Ed.

In October 2009, I sat down with the first elected female head of state in Africa, to talk about the strides she’s made and the challenges she’s faced. One of the most notable had happened just that summer: in its final report, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended she and 30 others be barred from public office. In our meeting, President Johnson-Sirleaf and I talked about getting lights back on in Monrovia, girls back into school, and steering the country toward national reconciliation after so many years of conflict.

With so many competing needs, how do you develop a policy agenda? How do you order the priorities?

We started by trying to identify what were the critical areas we needed to address, and that’s what lead to our poverty reduction strategy and what we call the four pillars: peace & security, economic revitalization, governance and rule of law, and infrastructure and basic services.

Our first priority was education, given the fact that so many of the young people had never had the opportunity to go to school, some for two decades. The quality of education in our schools had deteriorated so much because most of the trained people had left the country, and the institutions themselves were manned by those not only without the requisite qualifications,and schools that lacked but w/o the compensation that provided the incentive to attract better people. So that became our focus, restoring the educational system. We enforced compulsory primary education in public schools; the enrollment in those schools has increased by over 40 percent, the majority of whom are girls, and so we place emphasis on girl’s education.

The next priority was to restore basic services. The capital city had been dark for fourteen years. We brought back some light, still limited, but we brought back some. We brought back pipeline water, something people have not known for years. And then, the people wanted roads.

Our constituents felt that mobility was the key— that even if we restored education facilities and tried to build the farms, that if they could not more from one area to the other that they would be constrained in their own empowerment and in promoting development. So emphasis has now shifted to roads, but that’s expensive here in our country. Liberia has very heavy rains: road building is an expensive thing here. I hope that as we go into the dry season now. we hope we can really pick up on road construction throughout the country on both primary and secondary roads.

More people today live in cities than live in the countryside. How do you approach this rural/urban divide?
Urbanization is a big issue in Africa. We just haven’t been able to stop that movement to the city, because the city has more services, has more opportunities. How do we reverse it? I think we have to do much much more to turn rural areas into mini-cities, where they have the same kinds of opportunities, whether it’s opportunities for employment or for basic services.

It’s very difficult because rural areas engage mainly in agriculture activities, and to be able to transform agriculture into agri-industrial places that create those jobs doesn’t happen very quickly. You have to work at it over many many years to be able to have that. I think that for the next decade or more, migration to urban areas is going to be a continuing pattern.

Another big issue in your country is the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which implicated you in its investigation of your country’s long civil war.  Does that controversy affect Liberians’ ability to reconcile with each other?

I hope not. It has created some tension in society because of differing points of view. I think what we’re talking about now is trying to put in place a rigorous consultative process. Legislature has said that as they go on their recess, they’re going to start that process. We’re going to do the same.

Photo: Dulce Foster, MinnPost.

I will go around the country and hold town-hall meetings and sessions with people just to get their views, because I do believe there are certain good things in the report that we need to look at and we need to carry out. There are other controversial things I the report that one will have to get people’s views on to see how do we move forward on that.

We’re talking about ultimately, out of this consultative process leading us to some national dialogue or debate —where the views that have been gathered from this process can now be put together, and see if we can reach consensus as to how we can move forward. I hope this process will be the reconciliatory aspect of this. Because too much of the  report has to do with criminal justice — that’s very important, no question about that—but not enough to do with restorative justice, not enough to do with reconciliation, which is part of the mandate of the TRC. We have to bring those the elements of that out into the open, because all the focus has been on the controversial aspect of passing judgment, being able to put people through courts and all of that. We need to find the right balance, and that’s what we’re all striving to do.

From domestic terror to global terror:  There are concerns that Al Qaeda is moving into the Sahel. Here, in September, six Pakistanis were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Is there concern about terrorism moving into West Africa, and what can be done to counter that?

Let me say that the Pakistanis that were arrested, we do not have any evidence that they were tied to Al Qaeda in any way. It’s true that one of the persons who was arrested is wanted in Pakistan for certain terrorist activities. But they seem mainly to be people trying to beat the visa system, trying to leave Pakistan and get to other contries, and Liberia being a good transit point with the kind of freedoms we now have and our low capability in such matters made us a ready point for them to come through and find their way either into Europe or into the US. Let’s just say that we all have to be on our guard to make sure that we do not—that we take action against any possibility, any potential terrorist threats here.

So you don’t see any change in the threat in the region?

No, I don’t see that. If there’s anything we’re very concerned about, it’s drug trafficking. Now to the extent that drug trafficking may also support terrorist activities globally, then we need to be concerned. Certainly West Africa has been used as a very major transit point for drugs coming from Latin America and entering other places. It’s something that we’re trying now to collaborate among ourselves, the African countries, to see if we can bring this to a stop. I know we’ve been able ourselves in Liberia to put up some very strong defenses to this. and some busts have already taken place here in that regard.

You’ve gotten a tremendous following as the first female head of state in Africa; you’ve made significant strides with girls’ education and initiatives to stop violence against women. Could a man do what you’ve done for empowering women?

Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

You know, I will say yes, because I can use an example. I think President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has done tremendously well in empowering women–I think his results are even better than my own. Today, Rwanda parliament has over 50 percent women. We’ve not been able to achieve that. [But] I think that we’ve also made some strides; we’ve put women in strategic places, and our results have shown that women indeed have been able to show stronger commitment and better results. We’ll keep making progress and keep expanding the numbers as we can. Generally, I think a woman leader would do better in promoting women, but there are also some men who can do equally well as the evidence has shown.

How is our president, Barack Obama, doing keeping his promises to Africa?

First of all, he did not make great promises, and we did not expect great promises. What he did is to set the principle upon which US assistance will be based. He said ownership—Africa take charge of your own destiny, we want to support those who have made progress in democracy and in development again, I don’t think we should use italics. I think those things are happening. I think they’re still trying to get the details of the policy to be able to support the ideals he has put on the table.


What should be on his Africa agenda?

The promotion of good governance. That means really supporting the institutions of integrity, the pillars of integrity:  judicial systems, public service, rebuilding the institutions that promote them. That in itself promotes a democracy. Development. Here we see agriculture I think he’s already stressed agriculture as a key element in trying to promote the development agenda. Infrastructure. Infrastructure, for us, is what enables us to create the environment to attract private capital and private investment, recognizing htat we cannot continue to depend on aid; we’ve got to be able to build our economies to the places where they can carry the full burden of development without depending on official flows.

The sun seems to be setting on the era of African strongmen. What do you see emerging as leadership in the future?

I see democracy defined by us as participation by people, and choices . We also see the new leadership of Africa are people that are more technocrats than professional politicians. They’re bringing to their responsibility the kind of capability, foresight, confidence that is necessary to the kind of openness of society that we see all over Africa. I see us only making progress in this regard.

Jina Moore is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.  Her work has also appeared in Newsweek International, The Boston Globe, The Walrus (Canada), Glamour Magazine, Harvard Magazine, Congressional Quarterly Press, Search magazine, and Best American Science Writing, as well as online in Newsweek, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy and the Global Post. Her Liberia reporting is part of  “Justice Renewed: Liberia After War,” a project  funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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  • Gregory Nevels October 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I commend Mrs. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I live in Texarkana,Texas USA, I’m a 56 yr old male. Our citizens still see Africa as a country still divided between themselves. Africa is the only continent that is not a country, they have providences like Canada, but Canada it a country. Keep in mind African-Americans are still just 26% of the population of America,we are still the minority. It will be a long road ahead to unite Africa as one it will not be in my lifetime. I am an African American I have seen radical religious Sects start blood shed not the citizens that abide by the law of the constitution. Lawlessness is darkness and evil like Radical Islam, and Radical Christian sects , and Generals coups can start wars.It’s really call power of persuasion of others with strong influence over the peoples minds. Not law abiding Liberians, or Nigerians, or citizens and so forth. The Country must focus on Democracy from order down from voting who they want to run the country, Supreme Court,Commander in chief, Parliament or Congress, Military, Governors, Mayors, Police, Firemen,etc, then citizens. Most radical beliefs dispise western belief and education but there is one God who is in control of this whole world, to believers, and radicals. I wish everyone peace and love one another we are all are human not fanatics. Mrs President I saw on the news this morning 10-19-10 how a young girl carried pottery, and plates on her head so long her hair can’t grow back. I can’t change what has happen in the past, but the future Mrs President Education is mandate to Gods law seek wisdom (education) then (understanding) to become be a Doctor, or Dentist, or Politician. This is 2010 World, Africa doesn’t have as much technology as America, rest assure me if you let progress take it’s coarse and not try to change what is not broken why try to fix it to your belief like radicalism, it isn’t excepted by majority population of the world. Children boys and girls need education from kindergarten to college.
    Mrs President I have a program we have here in USA I can help get stated in Liberia, its a construction, community service post secondary training school, youth 16-24 can only apply. You will need a Contractor with civil engineer education to run it, some instructors to go on the job sites for 4-5 hrs, they then come back to the school and do there homework to get there GED or diploma, they can stay in the program two years, the good part about this they get paid to attend this program, after completion they get a certificate of completion to apply for work. Have your Department of Education, or Administrtor to get in touch with me. We have one here in Texarkana, it goes international around the world. Grants or what runs the programs I think they are due after November, get a grant master to write it.. I have a Drug,Alcohol, Tobacco, and Gang Prevention Program, with Golden Glove Boxing Gym if you want to teach the youths to motivate themselves to stay sober minded they will become Presidents and Journeymen and women to run Liberia in the future, just remember the youth are our future they have to run the country 20-40 years from now also I am here to help voluntarily if u need me.

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  • Get your Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on › Jina Moore February 4, 2010 at 6:20 pm

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