President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is a strikingly pleasant personality. She is a living encyclopaedia of contemporary international issues. In all my encounters with sitting Presidents along the West African region, advanced questionnaires are always requested and rehearsed before the presidential interviews proper. Not in President Johnson-Sirleaf’s interview. She fielded the questions, un-rehearsed and methodically. In this exclusive interview with ABUBAKAR HASHIM, she spoke on the reasons behind being the first female African President, the first female ECOWAS chair, the present state of Liberia/Nigeria relationship and other current and burning international issues
Q: As the first African Woman President and first Woman ECOWAS chair, how has it been so far? Were you intimidated to be the pioneer?
As a matter of fact, I have to be grateful to God to lead Liberia. It has been a challenging job to lead Liberia. It has enabled me to use my long years of political activism and professionalism, at home and abroad. The country I inherited was one of extreme difficulties after two decades of conflict, two decades of deaths and destruction. To start the process of peace and reconstruction. To ensure basic services in all sectors are restored and to bring hope to the Liberian people.
As the first democratically- elected woman President in Africa, the task is even more challenging because I must represent the aspirations and expectations of women, not only in Liberia and Africa, but in the world. So, whatever I do is looked at very carefully, the decisions I make, my performance is judged on a continued basis, so that other women will follow. I will like to say that I have been pleased to see progress in that respect in my own country. Women now have a voice, particularly grassroots women from the informal sector. Women farmers, women marketers that were excluded before, now have a voice in decision-making process. Today, when I engage them, they say we just want to thank you. They say, they can now participate in decisions that affect their lives. So young girls that were traditionally shy, can express freely their views on matters of interest. Today, they have a voice of hope, of a brighter future, when I routinely engage then. So it has been a challenging undertaking and the results are encouraging. We will take it to the finishing line, when this administration ends.
You were in Nigeria recently. You met with President Muhammadu Buhari. What areas of cooperation were discussed?
We talked primarily about ECOWAS. Some of the issues that will be coming up at ECOWAS. At that time, I was not chosen to head the authority of ECOWAS. I wanted to seek his counsel, his advice and his support. What we now look forward to is the Joint Commission, so we can begin to discuss the potential for bilateral partnership.
Already we have a lot in the partnership with Nigeria. We have Nigerian banks that are here. Nigerian businessmen are also here. We look forward to other areas where we have investments. President Obasanjo and Dangote have all committed to make investments here. There is Obasanjo Farm already here. So there is close partnership with us.
The one area, we’ve not discussed (but it is one I have flagged and I will like to discuss it), is where we can benefit from Nigeria’s example of Agriculture transformation. We know the President of the Africa Development Bank, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, who was then the Minister of Agriculture, has done a lot in this regard. We have reached out to him and he is supporting us. Our technicians have been going to Nigeria for technical capacity building, to visit some of the operations there, to be able to learn from them. So there is so much that we can learn from the Nigerian experience. We plan to have a formal structure for the exchange of views and that will be through the Joint Commission that we have to re-activate.
Madam President, Liberia is now stable because of your vision. Could you tell us your vision that enabled your country to be stabilized?
It’s a vision of breaking the cycle of success and adversity in the Liberian experience. Liberia has gone through adversities. My vision is to put Liberia on an irreversible path of growth. To ensure that we have an economy that will benefit the people.
A vision of ensuring that the exercise of choice in the democratic process, by respecting basic freedoms of our people-freedom of association, religion and of expression. Today, all of those things are in fact taking place. Finally, Liberians themselves endorse the process of change, take charge of their destiny, so the people can benefit from it. That is the only sustainable process.