Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has discussed the accomplishments of her first official visit to the United States. President Sirleaf talked about her trip in an exclusive interview with English to Africa reporter James Butty. She began with her meeting with President Bush Tuesday at the White House. She says it was fruitful.
“The meeting went exceptionally well. I thanked the president on behalf of the Liberian people for all the support that we have received in making this transition from war to peace. I went over some of our plans for the development of the country, some of the challenges which we face. The president was forthcoming; he was positive. He even made suggestions in some areas that I did not mention. And so I think the results of the meeting are very good and in the interest of the Liberian people.”
President Sirleaf says Liberia’s reconstruction is a long-term endeavor and she and President Bush did not discuss any specific amounts of possible additional aid.
“Right now we’re talking about making sure that the existing appropriation levels are disbursed quickly. We talked about the supplemental appropriation that’s now being considered by Congress, and he promised the administration support of that will enable us to meet some of our emergency infrastructure needs, that will enable us to conclude the restructuring of our security forces and to respond in terms of community development programs for the thousands of war-affected youths.”
The Liberian leader says President Bush did not condition U.S. assistance on Liberia handing Charles Taylor over to the War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone. She says she wishes the Taylor issue had been handled before she took office.
President Sirleaf says the U.N. Security Council has decided that for the time being it will continue its current peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
“Well, I tell you, a security assessment has been made of Liberia’s own security sector capacity, and it’s being determined that the process now of retraining and restructuring our security forces will take a while. Therefore there will be need for the continuation of the peacekeeping force we say for at least three to four years.”
On when the U.N. sanctions on Liberia will be lifted, President Sirleaf says:
“We’ve met all the immediate requirements, and we hope, at least for the forestry sector, that those sanctions will be lifted during the June review. We’re still working on the Kimberley Process to become eligible for the lifting of sanctions on diamonds.”
During her visit, President Sirleaf held two town hall-type meetings with Liberians in the state of Rhode Island and in Washington D.C. She says Liberians here shared their concerns with her.
“I think one of their concerns we’re already working on that they get certain protected status here to enable them to continue to support as best they can our development effort while we try to broaden our capacity to get them (Liberians living in the United States) home as we would like them to do over time. Some of their concerns have to do with their safety to come home to make sure if they come they won’t have to run again. Some of their concerns have to do with jobs; some of it has to do with infrastructures. It’s a big problem, and this is what we say that it will take time for us to expand and improve the economy and we recognize that.”
President Sirleaf says she asked President Bush to assist in extending the Temporary Protected Immigration Status affecting many Liberians in the United States. She says President Bush’s response was positive.
On when she thinks public electricity and running water will be available in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, President Sirleaf says the process will come in phases.
“We’ve promised that some lights would be turned on in Monrovia by the time of the independence day, July 26. And let me confirm and reconfirm that that’s going to happen. It’s not going to cover the entire city, and certainly it would take us a longer time to bring electricity throughout the country.”
President Sirleaf says her election as Africa’s first elected woman president has brought added pressure on her to perform well.
“In a way I represent the expectations and aspirations of Liberian women, African women, world women; and my performance is going to make a big difference in whether their roles are enhanced, whether they achieve their potential, whether they get the applause that I have got. And so yes, I’m going to be under a microscope. I’m very aware of that, and I’ll just do everything I can to justify the confidence that they have in me.”
In her speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Sirleaf said Liberian women wanted to be protected against rape. She expressed regrets that five Russian contractors with the U.N. Mission in Liberia accused of raping two Liberian women had fled the country under strange circumstances.
“Very aware of it and very unhappy that it was a Liberian member of the legislature who facilitated their departure. We’ve taken this matter up with the special representative of the secretary general before I left. I took this matter up last Friday when I met with the deputy secretary general of the United Nations in New York. They’re very concerned and they’re working with the country concerned to see that those are brought back to Liberia to face justice.”
President Sirleaf says the job as Africa’s first elected woman president is everything she expected and more.
“I knew it would be difficult. I didn’t realize that the country’s management, particularly our financial management, was in a sorry state of disarray as much as it was; that the institutions were so dysfunctional and systems no longer existent. And so the extent of it has surprised me, but the challenges I was aware of. We’ve just got to get it done. Like they say, you’re now in the water you got to swim. The challenges are enormous, but I tell you Jim we are up to it and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”