Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says her current visit to the United States has been exciting and rewarding. The president, who is winding down a weeklong visit, has received several awards, including the 2007 Freedom Award, the John T. Walker Humanitarian Award, and the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award for her leadership role in encouraging women’s participation in the democratic process. One of the highlights of President Sirleaf’s U.S. visit was her meeting with President George Bush.
In an exclusive VOA interview, President Sirleaf said President Bush reassured her of his commitment to cancel Liberia’s debt.
“The United States and all the G-8 countries have themselves indicated their willingness to cancel their bilateral debt. The debt we’re really fighting with now is the multi-lateral debt, particularly the debt with the IMF. And that requires much more. The use of the reserve in the IMF has to be agreed to by all the members before they can apply it. Treasury Secretary Paulson (Henry) of the U.S. has been very firm in reiterating the fact that President Bush’s commitment to resolve this debt problem is firm, it’s unwavering, and that it may take a little bit longer than we anticipated, but it will get done,” she said.
President Sirleaf said Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has had meetings with all the countries concerned during the just concluded IMF-World Bank annual meetings about canceling Liberia’s debt.
She said President Bush also told her he would like Liberia to qualify for the Millennium Challenge account.
“We have met seven of the 19 indicators that enable us to be what they called a threshold country, and we are now waiting for the Corporation management to meet,” she said. "I think they meet early December to look at the progress Liberia has made, and if they agree that we can now become a threshold country, then we will get some resources to enable to work on the other requirements so that you are fully eligible may be several months down the road."
President Sirleaf said Liberia has made a lot of progress, and she hoped that progress would be recognized when the Millennium Challenge Corporation management meets.
On investment in Liberia, President Sirleaf said there were several good reasons why private investors should come and invest in Liberia.
“First of all our potential in terms of the natural resources that we have. That’s the first most compelling reason for people to come. The second reason of course is some measure of confidence in the government, that the government will have proper policies, and that contracts will be respected,” Sirleaf said.
She said if there is any constraint about attracting investors to Liberia it is the state of the country’s infrastructure, which she said might make investment more costly. But President Sirleaf said her government has made some progress, including bringing electricity and running water to some parts of the capital, Monrovia.
President Sirleaf has been a strong proponent of the U.S. Military Command known as AFRICOM. But other African leaders have spoken out against it. Still the Liberian president said AFRICOM is good for the continent.
“I think if there’s one thing I’m respected for by my colleagues in the African leadership it is that I take independent decisions based upon my own judgment. And so in this particular case I hope I can influence them to see that it’s not as it is being portrayed to be. I think it has several advantages for the training of our troops to prepare us for interventions, since we must take primary responsibility for that,” she said.
President Bush last month extended the Deferred Enforced Departure for some Liberians living in the United States. President Sirleaf welcomed the extension, but she said Liberians are always welcome home.
“Liberia is home, and whenever they are ready to come home, home is there. And some are beginning to return, and we like that to come and join us to rebuild the nation. For those who have to wait because they have other reasons to stay, if there’s any way we can help them in their effort to continue to meet their responsibilities here, we will do that. And whenever they’re ready, home will be there for them,” President Sirleaf said.
The Liberian House of Representatives voted down a bill submitted by President Sirleaf, which would have frozen the assets of former officials of former President Charles Taylor on the grounds the bill was unconstitutional. President Sirleaf said her government was only acting to fulfill a requirement of the United Nations.
“The freezing of assets is not the seizing of assets. The freezing of assets simply says we put a stop on it until you go to the court to establish whether or not the public trust has been violated. But the debate is on in our legislature when they return from recess, the debate will continue. If there are reasons to revise the bill to make it more acceptable while achieving the same objective, then we will go ahead and do that. But we are committed to carrying out this commitment, which we have made to the Liberian people and to our partners in the international community,” she said.
The Liberian president welcomed the first Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which was awarded to former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano. President Sirleaf disagreed with those who think the award is a payment to African leaders for them to do what they were elected to for their people.
“Mr. Ibrahim has introduced an interesting element that may prove to be an incentive to many presidents. You know many of our countries don’t even have retirement for presidents so they are afraid to leave office. If this provides the means whereby they can do a good job and can leave and can have the means whereby they can live comfortably, hey, I wish I could win it,” Sirleaf said.