Changing Liberia

by Tosan Aduayi

She has stated that it would not be an easy task but she certainly has the ability to transform adversity to opportunity. Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is probably the most visible woman on earth today as she has made it to the history books by becoming the first Female African Head of State as well as the 23rd President of Liberia.

At 67, she has a good sense of simplicity in fashion combining her elegance pose with rich African prints and a soft face complimented by a graceful smile. She also showed some impressive ability to cope with continuous activities during her visit to the USA.

She was largely described as a diplomat treating issues strictly on projectiles for the future of her country. Reformation, redemption of intergrity and restructuring formed largely the message she passed across to prospective investors.

She honored her kinsmen by attending a reception in her honor in New Jersey, visited the United Nations in New York and addressed the congress in Washington DC. She also paid a courtesy call to President George Bush in the white house and later played host at the council for foreign Relation also in Washington DC.

Amongst 22 candidates seeking the presidency in Liberia, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf emerged as uniquely qualified to tackle the challenges of rebuilding the country and healing its wounds. During her inauguration on January 16th 2005, the Harvard educated economist said her ascendancy to the Presidency “marked the celebration of change and dedication to the agenda for socio-economic and political renewal.”

Despite the current peaceful and stable environment, Liberia is still faced a $3.2b international debt burden and economic sanctions on diamond and timber which form the nations most important economic earnings.

However, the international goodwill fueled by the election of Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf offers a window of opportunity that needs to be sustained and translated into future tangible investment for the new Liberia.

At the Council of Foreign Relations, the president stated that there was already a program in place for the effective management of the forest resource. The World Bank, the USAID and the European Commission are all partnering as members of a Forest Monitoring group. On the issue of political unity, she explained that many of the populists were elected on the strength of their popularity in the towns and villages. “But we’re working with them. We expect some back and forth. We expect them to resist certain things like budgetary allocations that do not meet their needs which the legislature might want to see more allocations for their own pet projects for their own selves. But we have a good dialogue going with them, and we’re trying to build the blocks that support them, and enable the true test will come when we start to put the legislation through and when we get our own fiscal year budget we start in July. But we’re also committed to respect their independence as part of the checks and balances in a democracy, and so as long as that independence does not become a major obstacle toward the achievement of national goals which we think are common, I think we can manage this degree of tension”.

On financial needs she explained the need for the same level of funding that we had in the transition years. “As you know, we had a $200 million allocation for such development. That was in addition to the 245 (million dollars) given for the peacekeeping force. We also said that to the extent that we can see a shifting in the peacekeeping force the development which would diminish the need for peacekeeping that we can see most of those resources shift. But if we got a continuation of the level of funding that we’ve seen in FY ’05-06 that would enable us to get the jump start which we need. Of course, you know, we’re also going for a supplemental, we think the ’07 — and the supplement that we ask for would enable us to do emergency infrastructure repairs. We asked for $80 million. We’re counting on Senate colleagues to up it to where we want it”.

Do we need more? Yes, you know, if we did a 10-year development program, we’d say we need a billion dollars. But we also want to be pragmatic based upon our absorptive capacity, so that we take what it is progressively. And we also are very clear that Liberia wants to get independence, and we want to improve our ability to trade. We want to open up our economy. We want to attract private capital. We don’t want to base our independence on assistance, because we think we have the means to support our own development efforts. What we say is in the first one or two years that we just got that initial trust that set us on the course, if we got sanctions lifted — and that’s where we need the U.S. influence — so we can use our own resources for our own development and give us a five-year start and, you know, I think we can make it.

Liberia’s fragile peace is tied to the dynamics of the region. Our peace will never be secure until there is peace in the sub-regions, in all the neighboring countries. So right now we have problems with problems in Cote d’Ivoire that are not yet resolved, pending problems in Guinea. Until we get peace and stability in those areas we will always be at risk. And so we have to get to work on the solutions, the intervention by the U.N. and other forces and work with the leaders in those countries, in our neighboring countries, to ensure that they too can find a way to peace. That’s the only way to secure our own peace.

The finance Minister also shed more light on the economic status of the country. “Clearly we’re operating in a very, very narrow tax base. Our revenues at some $80 million a year are about a fifth of what we u

sed to have before the war. Of course with the devastation that we’ve been through it’s not surprising to have seen that drop, but quite a bit of it also comes from the fact that there are a lot of leakages in the revenue collection process. And plugging those leakages is one quick way of expanding the tax base in the short run. But clearly economic growth and investment that generates revenues is what we need to count on longer term.

We are very dependent on import taxes and taxes from imports, and we need to go beyond that to get to the point where taxes are also coming from income, profit taxes and property taxes as well. But investments in areas that are labor intensive and that use our natural resources, much of what we have already in the way of investment are such investments — in rubber, for example Firestone is still there. But clearly we’re locked into an agreement with Firestone that we’re reviewing as part of the effort to review all of the concession agreements that were signed or renewed under the interim government to find ways of making sure that their contribution to the economy is maximized, both on the revenue side and of course on employment generation and economic activity generally. But we’re starting to formulate a more long-term — medium-term I should say — program of reform to make sure that our revenue is enhanced to the point where we can certainly pay our salaries, but go beyond that and start providing the basic services that government should be providing, that we’re now absolutely totally dependent on the outside to do. So revenue performance is a critical short-term deliverable that I’m responsible and I know the president will be looking to me to make sure we deliver”.

On the role of women in leadership, H.E explained how women’s expectations and their ability to reach their potential is so high in Liberia and in the sub region such that the role women on her team would play will be to reinforce those aspirations and expectations.

She stated that the ability to move Liberia forward and to make a difference in the lives of the people is to use women in strategic positions to achieve the
objective of making a difference.

The Ministers for Finance Dr. Antoinette Sayeh, Justice Frances Johnson Morris and Commerce Ms Bankie King-Akinrele are women as well as the director of police Col. Beatrice M. Sieh. Jokingly, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated that “we didn’t dare have an all women cabinet although I toyed with that idea…”

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