Interview With President Sirleaf
President Sirleaf has been talking about the challenges facing her government, why outlining some achievements.
In this interview (Pt. 2) with New Dawn, Pres. Sirleaf discusses her achievement, the war on corruption and her chances for 2011.
ND: With just 18 more months to the 2011 polls, how do you rate your performance so far?
President Sirleaf: I rate my performance very good.
If one considers what we inherited: a collapsed economy, infrastructure in ruins, institutions not functioning, people displaced all over the country. In 4-years, we have tackled those problems.
We have made tremendous progress. The country gets applauded all the time by those who know what it was 5-years ago and those who come and see what it is today. So, whether or not it is appreciated by the Liberian people, I don’t know, but I think the progress is there for everybody to see.
ND: In which areas do you think you have excelled for which you can boost of as your government’s success?
President Sirleaf: First of all, we have put together a development agenda, something the country has never had including the budget that goes with it. Our 150-days deliverables program under our interim poverty, and the full flag poverty reduction program (is) very clear about what we have identified, where we want the country to go policy wise and in terms of priority projects.
The second area is our debt relief program: we inherited a huge debt of almost US5 billion and we undertook the HIPC program with all its conditionality attached thereto. Today, we can proudly say we are at the end of that road. And when that debt is finally relieved, a few months from now, we will become a normal country, normal in the sense that we will have more fiscal space. …
If we have emergency, we can get advances, we can get benefits from concessional loans from countries such as Brazil, India and others. Those are the things we couldn’t do before because of the debt. We have built a strong strategy partnership- most of the bilateral partners that have left the country have returned. They are supporting our endeavor. We have good relationship with all of our neighboring countries to make sure never again will any of our territories be used to make war against the other one.
And lastly, I hope, we have restored hope to the Liberian people-that they now see a future in which they will have a part and they will be able to benefit from the resources of our country.
ND: Despite the level of progress being made by your administration, your administration continue to be heavily criticize at home and abroad, for instance, the 2009 US Human Rights reports, what do you make of these?
You know, we have human rights problems; there is no doubt about it. And it comes from the many years of lawlessness and indiscipline that have characterized our entire society. The violence, you know, to which our people have been engaged for so many years….We have a very weak judicial system, in terms of punishment that’s one of the missing links of our fight. But with all of that, we think, we have made certain progress: The openness of our society, freedom of speech and association and the fact that indeed, we have taken certain people to court.
I look at the one example in the US Human Rights Report, which really made me angry. They wrote about three pages, three paragraphs about the situation relating to Senator (Sumo) Kupee, but they never mention Senator (Rolland) Kaine. They mentioned in one line! They didn’t say that Senator Kaine went to jail. You know, he was indicted, he went to jail, he stayed in jail for months until the court declared him innocent. And they didn’t give us credit for that but lots of statements about Kupee.
You see, when I saw that kind of bias, then I said there is something wrong with the report. And the more I read, the more we recognized it. The minister of justice took grave exception. And so in a way, I was a bit confused and she made sure that her people study every aspect of the report. And she wrote where we made progress that was not recognized and where you know, we didn’t make progress and we know, we had to do better.
So, it was not so much that we want to criticize the US report, but we wanted to bring to their attention that indeed, they need to be more careful because some of the people who write the report take it from newspaper articles and from rumors, you know; From people, who they meet and who they talk to. We wanted to make sure that the next time they give us the benefit to sit down with the draft for us to tell them where progress have been made, so the report can be much less bias.
ND: Sometimes the government response to some of these allegations seems contradictory
President Sirleaf: One of the problems, we take time before we read these things and so most times, the newspapers get the report and they‘re the first one to react and they point out and then there is a knee- jerk reaction by somebody who see the need to react to the newspapers very quickly before we have the time to study the report to make professional respond. So I think it is that timing difference which sometimes comes across as inconsistency.
Investment: Contracts & Concessions
ND: What has happened to the Buchanan Renewable Power contract which has been rectified and signed by you?
President Sirleaf: Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE): Yes it worries me but we are very aware of why it has taken off. There are two aspects of BRE: One is the production of woodchips by cutting down and processing of old rubber trees, which they can export. The second one is to use some of those woodchips for power generation.
Where we have our problem now is the price that they want to put on the woodchips that will be used for power generation. We say the price they are putting on it is too high for woodchips that come from our own natural resources. And in the power purchase agreement with the LEC (Liberia Electricity Corporation) that’s where the problem has come. And we have not agreed to the fiscal incentives they want from the chips.
So right now, those negotiations have been going on and it has been going on for months because neither of us has reached the place where we say ok, we’ve got a fair compromise. And you know, we have many of our partners in the power sector. So whatever we do, we also engage them and get their opinion. And so their opinion has also been one of concerns. The negotiation is still on; if they meet some of our final recommendations that project will still go on. But in the main time, the other part of their project, the woodchip for export –that is still ongoing.
LEC Contract & BRE
ND: LEC has just signed a Management contract with a Canadian firm, does this in anyway affects the BRE contract?
President: The management contract itself will not hinder it because that management contract is tied to two things: One to make LEC itself more efficient. Secondly, to provide some resources for the distribution network, the one that will put up some poles and wires to connect the whole of Monrovia. And what would be affected by the BRE is if we were to get a hydro; when the hydro comes on screen that would be the most cost efficient way for electricity. But the BRE Plant is only going to provide 35-megawatts, that’s not a lot of power. The only innovative thing about it is that it is a good, clean form of energy and it burdens our own resources and also the hydro because it is so capital intensive.
It will take a long time; it will take at least three years to build a hydro. The BRE even has slipped that one cannot come on before 2012. Others interested in woodchips projects here.
ND: We have read online of other companies expressing interest in bio fuels projects here
President Sirleaf: As long as they (companies) can make a proposal that involves competition and does not undermined the commitment we have already made to BRE, if the two of them can compete and if there is a sufficient rubber trees for all of them to be able to carry out, we’ll promote it. One of the things we like about the woodchip program is that it has a replanting of the rubber from our farms and that is a very good byproduct.
ND: Are there other major investments underway and how soon?
I think most of them have been talked about. But we can just say more. The company from Indonesia they called Ferolium that wants to do oil palm in the South East- that to us is a very important project because it is going to bring economic activities to the depressed areas of the country: Maryland, River Gee and Grand Kru. Those are places where that project will take place. So we very much want to encourage that.
Truth And Reconciliation Commission
ND: Your January 25th declaration to contest for a second term sparked a huge debate, with some members of the public terming it as a total violation of the TRC’s recommendation, why others see it as a breach of promise that you are going for a 2nd term when you had earlier declared not to?
President Sirleaf: Listen, as regard the TRC, I’m very clear that some of the recommendations in the TRC infringed upon the constitutional rights of people. And the position that some have taken is, can one group of people infringe on those rights without giving them the due process as required by our laws? So, I am saying, I am not a lawyer, I want to give that to the lawyers to look at that.
There are other recommendations in the TRC, which we have already moved on. We have had a group of civil society people that have been working with an international NGO, put together a program to deal with what has to do with reconciliation to start the Palaver hut process, you know.
We also think some of the recommendations relating to memorials for those who died and all those are the things that we should do. And so by the time I make my second report to the Legislature some of the concrete measures that we have taken, we will be able to detail them.
Human Right Commission
ND: Are you somehow disappointed that those commissioners you appointed were rejected by the senate?
President Sirleaf: The process is now on. You know what happened is that when the people nominated went to the Legislature for confirmation, only two of them responded in certain ways that did not certify the Senators. So they (Senators) asked me, did you vet these people properly? I said no, because these people were not nominated, I mean, I nominated them but the process of selection was not done in this government, it was done by the interim government, and I just took the names from the list they gave me and sent it forward. So, on the basis of that they said, look, we are not too happy. So what we want to do is to take the process over. Let this government vet them and then when you nominate them, we will look at them.
I believed many of them are good people to serve and I think some of them will be re-nominated and I think they will be confirmed. The process is on for now for the selection based on the team of experts that have been appointed by the Chief Justice, As soon as I get those names, I will take them because the vetting is taking place. So that process of due diligence is being done. So, by the time I get the names, I know all of them will have the right qualification, the right record and I will send the names forward and I hope we will get the confirmation very quickly.
ND: They say politics make good bed fellows. Cllr. Varney Sherman was seem as one of your bitter rivals in 2005, today you are merging with him, why the move?
Politics is to either compromise. So there is a compromise. But it is also in the spirit of historical facts. The UP (Unity Party) the Liberian Action Party and the Liberian Unification Party were part of the Grand Coalition in 1985. The three leaders of those parties, we all have worked with, they were the godfathers of politics or multi-party politics and so we wanted to bring them together because we want to see the number of parties reduced. So that just seems like the likely way to push everybody to a merger by bringing these three parties together into a grand coalition.
In fact, you can see that by us doing that other groups are being formed and other groups are coming together. We hope that this process will lead to maybe at most three or four political parties instead of the 13or 17 that we’ve have in previous elections.
ND: Some people say you people are forming an elite party.
President Sirleaf: I think one ought to look at the background of people in our party before making such a statement. There are some of us when we are elite today; it is because we’ve worked for it. It was not given to us on a silver platter. We are just like everybody else. I know, I worked my way to put myself through college. My parents were not able; even though they were Monrovia based people. But their roots were not of Monrovia and they didn’t have money. So, people sometimes just make statements without looking behind it to get the truce facts.
Supporters and Dumping Boakai
ND: There are reports of dissatisfaction amongst the grass rooters and the choice of another person over VP Boakai.
President Sirleaf: All of that is just false, rumors and political rhetoric. All of that is not true. Each of the three parties had their convention. The convention includes people from all walks life- majority of our membership are grass-root people. So they have endorsed it. On the 6 of May, we are going into the combined Unity Party convention to elect new officers to take us forward to the elections, so all of those things really have been resolved.
You know, people tried to plant people in party too. Not only ours but other groups to create a little bit of confusion to divide everybody and I think we are all aware of that. So we just have to do things to prevent that.
ND: Prince Johnson, has decided to run, many observers think that will slim your changes in Nimba County, what do you think?
President Sirleaf: No, Senator Prince Johnson’s declaration and his campaign don’t bother me at all. I am proceeding with my same old constituency. I think we got a good foothold there. We are going to build on that and we are going to compete that’s what politics is all about.
Prince Johnson is no match. Any of those who are there have the right to compete. Our constitution gives them that right. We will do nothing to infringe upon that right. But we are going to compete effectively. And the best man or woman wins.
Corruption and 2011 elections
ND: Many count your inability to punish some of your ministers alleged to be involve with corruption as weakness. Not only have they considered this a weakness on your part but they compare you with neighboring Sierra Leon where President Koroma has punished most of his officials found to be corrupt. Many say this may slim your chances for 2011, what can you say to that?
President: Quite frankly, the fight over corruption is a very difficult one and I will be the first one to tell you that because it is not just government. It is a societal problem that we all have to fight.
Yes, we have certain weaknesses. The one thing that Sierra Leone has that we don’t have is a very quiet Auditor General. You don’t hear any noise. So, when they get the report, they can sit down and read it and move. In our case, before we can even read the report, it’s the talk of the town. Then it takes away the effectiveness of what we want to do because, you know, our society, then all the different opinions start, each one got their own opinion; some say the person is innocent, the person not innocent. Then we have, the whole thing….Then we have a judicial system that is slow. We get cases in the court that have been there for two years, but that’s the judiciary, you know. There are lots of things that have been attributed to people without ascertaining the facts.
Our laws say somebody is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. We’ve always judge them in a court of public opinion, you know. And I want to be very careful about that, because they’ve accused me too. And I know they accused me wrongly. And I know nobody has any evident, not one iota to say that she (Ellen) was in this deal or in that deal; absolutely not. And I know many of my colleagues, I don’t hold brief for all of them and when I get the evident, I move. Sometimes, the evident points to prosecution, I forward it to the Justice Ministry. Sometimes the evident points, sometimes there is not enough evident for prosecution. And I do what I can do within the Executive Branch; I fired them or suspend them.
But let me say to you, the one mistake I made way back in 2006 is when I first went to the Ministry of Finance, I wanted to fire everybody there, then I was persuaded that you can’t do that. The minister then said no, you can’t fire everybody within the ministry. How will we work? But if I had done that because of that cabals, whatever the ministers do, we find that out….But we’ve got at the Central bank, Ministry of Finance and some other ministries, you get these little cabals where they inter-relate with each other. And they have learned over the years how to be corrupt, how to abuse the system for personal gain, it’s a serious problem. And the way to break that problem, we’re using so many ways: One, we tried to give people better compensation because many of them through deprivation, they just survive by any way they could.
Secondly, we are putting in systems. There were no systems. Today, we are trying to computerize the ministry to prevent and minimize the different kinds of malpractices. Then of course, we still have the judicial system that still remains weak. Then we get of course the GAC and LACC. The GAC is producing good reports, sometimes three, four, five a month. We are not criticizing that because we like the speed with which they do it. There are times we do question some of the recommendations. And if we do, I call the Auditor General and say no, I don’t agree with this one. Err, he says well they are the recommendations. But before we can do anything, the talk is all over the place.
What I am glad about is that, no longer is corruption hidden. It is now being disclosed. It is being reported. It is being debated and we are taking good measures to fight it. This is something that did not exist before. Corruption has been in our system for years. It was given a cover up because nobody was free enough as they are today, to expose it and to talk about it, that’s the first step to the solution. And the second step of course is how to take effective measures to serve as a deterrent. And I am convinced that we are on the right track of fighting it. We haven’t achieved what we want to do but, I think the progress we have made: installing systems is something we are going to see the result of it in two to three years.
ND: So will we know the next running mate on May 6?
President Sirleaf: No, no, no. Our constitution says one year before election. So May 6 will tell you who the chairman of the party is and the head of the various committees and auxiliaries.
Ellen Backs Ngafuan on audit report
ND: The recent audit of the Finance Ministry and the revelation linking Finance Minister Ngafuan, does it embarrassed you?
President Sirleaf: No, it saddens me. It doesn’t embarrass me. But it makes me sad, because I know the integrity of the minister and his predecessor and I know that they personally inherited a difficult situation. They are up there. Things have been going on under them: payroll padding, issuance of duplication of checks, even if you go pay your taxes, you get to pay somebody sometimes to pay your taxes. Those are not things that the minister did. They were things he inherited. He had to go ahead and fire people and change people. What the audit report has to also recognize is that those bad practices are there.
The report cannot deny it. It brings it out. It happens to be the fact that this is his tenure. So it brings it out in his tenure or even in the tenure of the previous minister. But to say that he personally took it and that I should fire him, because I know that he has not been personally involved.
He has worked to change things down there. The audit is a history. Let us now judge him in the next audit report after he has the measures he has taken, taken. Then everybody will see the progress he has made.