The New Iron Lady

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks to Foreign Policy about corruption, press freedom, and developing her nation as a petropower.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Africa’s first female head of state. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. President of a country that self-identifies as one of the most corrupt states on the planet. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a lightning rod for praise and controversy. The Harvard-educated economist has presided over a remarkable period of peace and stability in Liberia, picking up the pieces after a pair of devastating civil wars and turning the former economic backwater into one of the fastest-growing countries in Africa. But she has also drawn criticism for appointing family members to powerful government positions and for entering into agreements to lease a quarter of Liberia’s landmass to logging companies in a two-year span. Most recently, the arrest of leading journalist Rodney Sieh in Monrovia has thrown the West African country’s reputation for free press into question.

Foreign Policy sat down with Sirleaf last week during the U.N. General Assembly in New York for a wide-ranging interview, touching on everything from the crisis in Syria to corruption to the president’s own complicated image at home and abroad. "Call [me] the ‘Iron Lady’ if you want to say so," she said, "because I have the capacity to take hard decisions. I’m not worried about my personal popularity. I’m worried about doing the right thing."

Sirleaf was particularly hopeful about the prospects for developing Liberia’s petroleum sector. "What we did in the oil sector is to bring in the big players — the players that have integrity, regulations," she told FP. "I met with the executives of both Chevron and ExxonMobil oil on this trip, and they said to me that when the reform is over and there’s another international bid round, they will bid again. That tells me a story."

Below is an edited transcript of FP‘s conversation with the Liberian president.

Foreign Policy: Since we’re in New York, I wanted to open with Syria. As a survivor of Liberia’s long civil war, what role do you think the international community can play in Syria? In particular, what role do you think the United States can play?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think the role that the United States is playing right now is the right role. They’ve decided to engage in dialogue to try, at a minimum, to bring the war to an end. We have condemned the use of chemical weapons by any group anywhere in the world, and we’re glad that that particular issue will be resolved in terms of weapons being turned over. We support what the U.S. is doing right now in collaboration with others such as the U.K. and France. Our own African countries on the Security Council are also a party to that. Where innocent people are dying, women and children are suffering, we share the view of the United Nations policy — to which Liberia is a party — about the responsibility to protect. Our own society was protected by the United Nations, and we expect that they will act similarly.

FP: Turning to Liberia, you’ve enjoyed explosive economic growth since your government has taken the reins over the economy, but development has lagged behind. Spending on education hasn’t grown in proportion to GDP. There’s only been a modest increase in public expenditures on the health system. How do you balance this economic growth with the job of providing services to the citizens of Liberia?

EJS: Perhaps you’re not fully informed. First of all, when one mobilizes resources for investment, given the scarcity of our own domestic resources while we try to build the economy, there is a time lag between when you mobilize investments and when those investments create jobs and that improve the infrastructure. However, we have indeed begun to deliver basic services. We’ve been working on our roads. We’ve been working on our schools and our hospitals. We’ve been expanding the services that we render through our health institutions, our educational institutions. We’ve increased civil service pay because of that. The period we’re now entering is the period when the benefits from the $16 billion in foreign direct investment which we mobilized will begin to be felt. There’s no shortcut to the processes of development.

FP: So looking forward to the next several years in your government, what do you anticipate will change in terms of basic services, education, health care?

EJS: We expect first of all to [improve] our infrastructure, our roads, our power. Power is of critical importance — it’s a major constraint to being able to move from mobilizing investment to delivering services and increasing income, to move from being a primary commodity exporter to being a manufacturer and adding value to our natural resources. That’s what’s going to happen in the next few years. The jobs that we talk about cannot come until we train young people who were bypassed by an education for so long. Technical and vocational training is something that we’re now putting emphasis on, to give them marketable skills. Give us four more years, and the results of all of this growth will be felt. We’re now exploring for oil. Oil is a transformative commodity, because we [have] sizable resources there. We have [a] discovery, but not a commercial discovery. The process is ongoing. What we did in the oil sector is to bring in the big players — the players that have integrity, regulations — like Chevron, like ExxonMobil, to make sure that we have the bona fide ones in there.

FP: Since you mentioned oil, when you’re choosing between an American company that obviously has to comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and human rights considerations and a company from another nation without similar limitations — like China or Russia — what considerations are you looking at in these potential partners?

EJS: We have a bidding system. They bid. There are certain technical requirements that one looks at through a due diligence process, financial requirements that one looks at based upon their record, and we select what we think is the best. What we did was to encourage U.S. companies to come in and to arrange for them to buy into blocks that were already owned by others. We’ve been lucky in that regard to achieve just that. Today we now have a petroleum reform that’s under process. That reform has gone very far. We’re committed to proper management of our natural resources for the benefit of our people. And we stand on our record on that.

FP: With regards to Chevron, Exxon, I know both of the original owners of those particular exploration blocks had some issues that were pointed out by your General Auditing Commission [GAC].

EJS: Absolutely.

FP: A decision was made by your government to not cancel those deals though the GAC had found that legislators in the Liberian House of Representatives had received money for their ratification. [Read more about this on "Big Oil, Small Country."]

EJS: We cannot cancel a contract, the executive [branch] on its own. If we did that, we would have an environment in which people say, "Our contractual arrangements are not respected." The General Auditing Commission reports to the legislature by a law that I initiated, so all of those reports are now before the legislature. The legislature has now announced that they’re going to have public hearings on those reports. Any one of those reports that accuses or charges anyone — whether from the legislature or from the executive or from the judiciary — there’s an opportunity to deal with that. There’s no limitation on corruption cases under our laws.

FP: In those two cases involving American companies, the Justice Ministry did not follow the recommendations of the auditor and pursue a prosecution or any other legal mechanism to address the bribery that was pointed out in the findings.

EJS: I know that what we concentrated on was to make sure that we had American companies coming to [the oil industry]. I don’t believe Chevron, who we attracted and who we brought into the oil sector, was a party to this, and neither was the executive a party to it. So we’re just pleased that we’re able to do that. The other block with ExxonMobil — we didn’t like the [prior] ownership arrangement. We purposely went after bringing in a company that we felt would respect the integrity laws, and that’s the approach we’ve taken to it.

FP: Do you foresee Liberia becoming an oil state? Obviously there’s been no commercial discovery to date. There have been some indications that there may be commercial-grade oil.

EJS: Let me just say to you that I met with the executives of both Chevron and ExxonMobil oil on this trip, and they said to me that when the reform is over and there’s another international bid round, they will bid again. That tells me a story.

FP: There’s a very popular narrative in the West of you as the Iron Lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize. You are the first female African head of state. But in Liberia, there’s a more complex picture. You’re a survivor of the civil war and political crisis. You’re also seen as a member of the nation’s elite, and you’ve also put your children into places of power in the government like your predecessors. Which view of yourself do you see as more accurate?

EJS: I’m still a strong leader. Call it the "Iron Lady" if you want to say so, because I have the capacity to take hard decisions. I’m not worried about my personal popularity. I’m worried about doing the right thing.

FP: Recently, your son Robert resigned as the chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia as well as from his role as a special advisor to you. How much did pressure — internal pressure from the legislature and from the press, and external pressure from other governments — play into that decision?

EJS: There was no internal pressure from the legislature. As a matter of fact, on the reform I mentioned before, he worked very well with the legislative committee to get those draft laws prepared. There was no external pressure from the international community. There was a lot of local talk, but we had an agenda: to bring major American companies into our oil sector. Because he worked in this country as an investment banker for years, he knew them. It has nothing to do with pressure. It had to do with staying the course, completing his assignment.

FP: The presence of peacekeepers has been a constant since 2003 in Liberia. When the United Nations Mission in Liberia eventually leaves — the force will be reduced from 7,343 personnel today to 3,750 by July 2015, though no final departure date is set — do you feel that your army and police force will be adequate to secure the borders, to enforce law?

EJS: We have to be. We know we cannot depend on the international peacekeeping force to provide us with the safety and security our nation needs. We have to be normal again. And to be normal means taking responsibility for our own security. The process of getting ready is on. We’ve made a lot of progress. We still have a lot to do in the training of our policemen and making sure that they are given proper logistics and incentive.

FP: Transparency International, in their 2013 [Global Corruption Barometer], found that Liberians view their nation as the most corrupt nation on Earth. They singled out the legislature, but also the police, as corrupt. Do you see that as a failure in the war on corruption?

EJS: No. Absolutely not. People must understand the Liberian context. First of all, it’s a perception index. If you take that and compare it with the data and statistic-based index, you find quite a different story. Because on the basis of Transparency International or World Bank indicators or MCC indicators Liberia has made a lot of progress. It ranks higher than many other African countries in the fight against corruption. But Liberia is a rumor-based, talk society — and sometimes without understanding the consequences of what [people] say. We know that there’s a problem in the police, because we have to do more for incentives for police to reduce their vulnerabilities. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We also say to the society: "You can be of help to us." There are many times when people offer bribes to the police. Both of you are wrong. We’re going to start to prosecute people who offer bribes. Then maybe we will send a message.

FP: The perception of corruption can be as pernicious as corruption itself. If you look back to the Rice Riots of 1979, that was the genesis of the 1980 coup.

EJS: That’s true. It’s how do we change that perception; that’s our challenge. You can only change it on the basis of the record. You can only change it on the basis of the action you’re taking. Now, how do we get the mindset to see that, to see the progression and to join in the fight? It’s a societal problem. It’s not an executive problem.

FP: Journalist Rodney Sieh has been in prison for 35 days now in Monrovia. This has prompted an outcry from Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International. How do you see this situation?

EJS: Please, let’s correct the situation. Mr. Sieh has spent a total of four days in jail. He’s in the hospital. He’s being treated by the government. He’s being fed by the government. He sees anybody he wants to see — his lawyers, his family, any visitor he wants to see. Rodney Sieh is not suffering. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. We didn’t ask for this distraction. This government has promoted freedoms more than any other government and far more than many governments in Africa or anywhere in the world. All we did was follow the rule of law.

What we have missed, and that we will correct — where the executive can take corrective action — is the fact that they have all these laws on the books, including defamation and libel laws. We said this to the Human Rights Watch and others: The minute I signed [the Table Mountain] declaration [on press freedom in Africa], you should have assisted our press union to draft the laws to repeal all of those laws, because we made a commitment and that commitment stands today. Now they’ve agreed to help. So I said to Ken Roth [the executive director of Human Rights Watch], "Why didn’t you do this six months ago? Those laws would not have been on the books." He said, "Oh, well, you know, we didn’t follow the laws. Well you’re right. We should have done it. We are going to help them now." So, I’ve asked the minister of justice to look into it. They are looking, first of all, at what laws they can use to bring reprieve to the situation. Secondly, more importantly, beyond this case, how do we draft those acts that will repeal all of those laws and have them ready for the legislature for when they return in January?

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