Interview: Liberia’s President Sirleaf

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Look, the Nigerian elections are over. I think everybody will agree that the person elected by whatever means, probably represented the best person for continuity


The following interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was conducted by National Public Radio’s Michel Martin. For more please visit

MARTIN: What is the most important factor in achieving real progress in taking care of these big ticket items?  Is it private investment, is it the international lending institutions, is it intergovernmental support?  What's the most important factor, in your
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: For now, it's the support we get from partners, you know, like the United States, like the European Commission, like the World Bank. Those are the main ones that are supporting the restoration of these.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? Does that mean direct lending, does it mean canceling the debt? What does that mean?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: No, Liberia cannot use credit right now because we have a very - a huge external debt, almost $4 billion. That debt has not been serviced for some two decades. So we're not able to borrow.
But we do get grants now, bilateral grants, as well as the World Bank coming in with multilateral grants, still helping us to repair the roads. Um, water. We just brought water into the city, and an increasing number of people in their homes now get waters in the capitol city and in much - in some parts of the suburbs. These are all for now supported through our partnership agreement. Ultimately though, for getting electricity in any significant way, we will have to go private, and we're trying to work on that.

MARTIN: If we could just spend one more minute, though, on the international partners. Now you've been pressuring since your  election for help with restructuring that massive debt. Why do you think it's taking so long? Do you see any progress there?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Yes, we have had progress. It's taking long because the debt is huge. And, in order to get the multilateral debt, which is not subject to cancellation, it has to be repaid  by the bilaterals -- that means the U.S., and other countries that have to put this money up. We've been favored by these institutions; they've come up with some very unique arrangements using some internal resources.  But still there's a funding gap that requires our bilateral partners to put up extra money. Good promises are there. We also have, we have to bring the European countries on board. And I tell you, now, the European countries are a little bit reluctant because they say, you know, 'Liberia is America's responsibility,' and 'America should be able to put up the money and clear this debt.' Well, the U.S. has indicated the cancellation of the entire bilateral debt --

MARTIN: Which was how much?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF:  -- which was about $390 million, I think, something like that, and now they've also agreed to put up some money to handle the debt of the African Development Bank and some of the World Bank, but still there's a gap. And the gap has to come from either some of our European partners, or our traditional partners like the U.S., the U.K., and others that have agreed to cancel would have to put up more.

MARTIN: Well, what's your best argument to these countries, including to the U.S.? For as much goodwill as you've generated with your election and with your many visits and the warm relationships that you've developed, there are a lot of people in this country who are always very skeptical about foreign aid in general; there are people in
Europe where the economy is not as strong as it could be, who say that this money is better spent at home.  What is your best argument to these other governments as to why they should be supportive?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF:  Well, first of all, we point out that Liberia is not a poor country; it's just a country that's been poorly managed.  That we have enough resources that once we get a head start, once we get past these stumbling blocks, that we are able to support our needs, we are able to have the resources, natural resources, national resources, to respond to the needs of our people. We also point out that much of this debt was accumulated through bad governance, and that much of it is also -- a lot of it is bogus debt. This debt has not been serviced, and resources were given to governments that were known not to be performing.  So, it's not fair for our young children to inherit this debt from which they've received very little benefits.

MARTIN:  You've gotten a tremendous amount of attention as the first elected female leader, female head of state in Africa. I was wondering if that's ever lonely for you.
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF:  Well, yes it is because one in certain circumstances has to be restrained.  I go to African Union summits, and I'm the only woman there, so I can't huddle.  If there were another woman, we would huddle in the corner and take common positions. It's difficult to do that when you're alone.

MARTIN: Why can't you huddle?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF:  Well, you can, but with restraint. Don't forget that as a professional where many of the leaders have known me for many years, I'm fully accepted. But at the same time, they are wondering what positions you will take. Will you as a woman bring some strange ideas to the debate and the dialogue or will you be pushing the kinds of things that don't get on the table conventionally?   So you find your way, and sometimes you feel a bit lonely and wish that there were two or three others of your kind that could push a common agenda.

MARTIN: Do you ever not push an issue that's important to you? Do you ever hesitate in the international sphere to not push those issues forward because you feel that people just don't want to hear it from
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF:  Absolutely. There are some subjects that one has to be very careful in how you handle them.  Political sensitivities can be high in certain areas; not just relating to ownership.  Relating to protecting the African tradition and the African ideals in the midst of globalization require a lot of thoughtfulness as you take positions,
and so one must be careful.

MARTIN: Internally though you have appointed women to positions that they had not previously had before.  In the cabinet for example, I think the finance minister, the chief of the national police among other positions. How have the Liberians reacted to these moves?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: I think with full acceptance, because in each of these cases, these are women that possess the requisite competence and character and courage, so they are fully accepted. As a matter of fact, I think sometimes they intimidate the others.  And this isn't just happening in Liberia. If you look across the African continent, you find that women are taking positions that have not been normally traditional women areas so to speak.

MARTIN: What is the thinking, though, in appointing women to these positions that are not traditional for them to have?  Are you making a statement?
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: It is definitely a statement.  It's to say that women are in these strategic positions. If I had enough women ready to take 50 percent of the positions in the cabinet, I would do that.  But also we have certain criteria for the selection of cabinet people. Many women are just not available yet.  So the next best thing is to put them in all the strategic positions, sending a message to people that women are going to hold positions like justice and commerce and finance and police and all of those areas that have been traditionally male dominated areas.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask a little bit about some regional issues. Nigeria recently held elections; Human Rights Watch believes the elections were rigged in favor of the incumbent President Obasanjo, and they are concerned that this encourages corruption through the region - at least it could be extended. And I wanted to know if you share that
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF: Look, the Nigerian elections are over. I think everybody will agree that the person elected by whatever means, probably represented the best person for continuity, and for ensuring that the very important development agenda that President Obasanjo has pursued over these years will be carried out. And so, let's accept it for what it is and move on.

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