LIBERIA: The Restoration of Our Nation

Statement delivered by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf At The All Liberian National Conference
Columbia Maryland
April 14th, 2005


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 16, 2005

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
Madam Chairperson, Officers and members of the Liberian National Conference, Mr. President, Officers and Members of ULAA and other Liberian Organizations, Distinguished Presenters and Participants, Fellow Liberians, Ladies and Gentlemen

I thank you for the opportunity to exchange views today on the awesome task of the rebuilding of our nation and I thank you all for the recent coming together of all those who are contributing, in these fora, the ideas and the concepts that will help to shape the national agenda for the New Liberia. The same spirit of unity is the driving force at home as we strive together to respect our differences while moving forward collectively in the interest of our country.

Today, I will depart from the usual practice of recalling the litany of problems, cataloguing the many failures of our national existence. I will also refrain from the attempt to provide the conceptual and intellectual framework for the reform agenda for our country since this will be fully covered by the Presenters over the next couple of days and has been amply presented by our colleagues during the related conference held in Washington DC about 10 days ago. Moreover, representatives of the Governance Reform Commission will be joining you to share the Commission’s views on the reform agenda.

And so, I will try to reach out to each and every one of you, heart to heart, soul to soul, in speaking to the need for the restoration of hope; to the challenges of renewal of our country. I will look into the eyes of each of you and ask, as I have asked myself, have I done the most for our country? Have I tried hard enough to make a difference in responding to the needs of our country? Have I been a positive force for change in our country? Have I accentuated the positive; given each the benefit of the doubt; looked for the truth and the substantive in our dialogue with each other?

With these heartfelt questions in mind, I will focus my remarks on five themes – Reclaiming our History; Bridging our Social Divide; Fixing our Economy; Reorienting our Political System and Restoring Small Values.

Reclaiming Our History

I am not a historian and I have not read enough of our history but I know that something is missing when our nation’s evolution, as conveyed in the textbooks and taught in the schools, start with the emancipation of slaves in the United States and the event of the American Colonization Society. I know that more needs to be known about the ancient kingdoms of Mali and Benin and Songhai, from whence many of our people came into the territory which we now call home. I know that we need to appreciate among with the great historical men and women such as Elijah Johnson, and Joseph Jenkins Roberts and Jehudi Ashmun, the likes of Sao Bosoa, and Chief Botswain and Chief Suakoko.

Much of our nation’s history, which included all the great personalities and events of both settlers and indigenous population, has been researched, analyzed and reported by many scholars, Liberians and others, and a whole lot of it has been captured in dissertations, thesis and studies carried out over the years in professional journals such as the Liberian Studies Journal and the African Studies Journal. It is a history worth cataloguing in its richness and it is our challenge to organize this effort of revision and dissemination so that our current generation has a better perspective and a better appreciation of our common heritage.

Bridging our Social Divide

One of the reasons that our country has experienced continuing conflict is that we have permitted our differences, both ethnic and political, to divide us. I believe that we do not have to be the same, in ethnicity or religion or culture, to co-exist. I believe that we can have differences of opinion without resorting to violence. I believe that there is strength in diversity; that we can preserve our originality while subscribing to the same national agenda of equity and equal opportunity.

Our challenge is to bridge the long standing social divide that has been used as political fodder, by revising our constitution and our statutes and our policies and our practices to ensure that every Liberian, by whatever name, tribe or religion has a recognized role to play in national development; that every Liberian has the right to enjoy the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by our constitution; that every Liberian has the right to opportunities that may be available so long as he or she is prepared to use this opportunity in the national interest; that every Liberian has the right to the assurance of equal justice and protection under our laws.

Our challenge is to bridge the social divide by a strong program of national reconciliation which respects and accepts the fullness of our history; which ensures that our government is one of inclusion; which promotes programs that reflect the diversity of the nation.

Like many others, my family is a living example of the good and the bad of this social divide. My father, the son of the Gola Chief Jahmale and Jenneh, one of his many wives, was born in Julejuah, Bomi County. As a result of my grandfather’s friendship and loyalty to President Hilary Richard Wright Johnson and on the advice of the President, my father was brought to Monrovia, his name changed to Johnson and he was given to the settler family, McCritty. He served in the usual manner and suffered the usual humiliation of a country boy under the ward system but he was able to get an education and become an apprentice, which enabled him to become a successful lawyer. He eventually became the first native representative in the National Legislature and was included in several Liberian delegations to meetings abroad.

My mother had a similar experience. She was born in Greenville, Sinoe County, to a marketeer and farmer, Juah Sarwee and a German trader who was forced to leave the country when Liberia declared war on Germany during the first World War. My Grandmother was unable to take care of my mother so she sent her to Monrovia to live with a family where she suffered unimaginable indignities and humiliation until she was taken by the childless Cecelia Dunbar who adopted her and treated her like her very own. My mother enjoyed the best of available education and the full life of a settler family.

I don’t know how my mother and father met for in those days, children who “had to be seen and not heard” did not ask such questions of their parents. But I do remember the good days we had with our foster Grandmother Cecelia and all of her settler friends. However, I am glad that neither my father nor my mother forgot their roots and so we spent a lot of time with my two illiterate grandmothers, Jenneh and Juah. We also spent all of vacation time in Julejuah my father’s ancestral village where I learned most of all that there was to know about village life including the long walks from village to village, swimming and pulling canoe in the Kpo River, fishing with twine made from the palm tree, bird hunting etc. etc.

Today, I go back to Julejuah to start, once again, the effort started by me, my siblings and our children to bring some small measure of development to our village, to restore what was destroyed by the conflict. I roam the village and talk to the many cousins, old and young, many of whom have suffered in those difficult days past because of their relationship with me. I reflect with pain how that village has remained unchanged; in fact, changed only for the worse in terms of development.

My challenge is to work to bring change to the many Julejuahs of our country, to all of the villages that have been bypassed by the development process, to address those root causes of conflict and division such as poverty and exclusion.

In this regard, we have all suffered; we and our families and our villages have all been through a desperate situation for the past 15 years. Yet, the record and the experience show clearly that we are a strong and resilient people, able to survive, able to rise from the ashes and start anew; able to forge a new beginning, forgiving if not forgetting those terrible things of the past.

Our challenge as a nation is to transform adversity into opportunity, to renew the promise upon which our nation was founded-the promise of freedom, equality, unity and self-reliance.

Fixing Our Economy

We are a wealthy people. Our nation is blessed with an endowment rich in natural and in human resources the likes of which are in this room. Yet, our economy has collapsed due to economic criminalization by a small array of predatory individuals in successive governments. The task of reconstructing our devastated economy is awesome, for which there will be no quick fix. Yet, we have the potential to promote a healthy economy in which Liberians and international entrepreneurs can prosper. We can create the investment climate that gives confidence to Liberian and foreign investors and we can promote those activities that add value in the exploitation of our natural resources. Although the benefits from exploration in the past have been minimal, our mineral resources are still vast and can provide the basis for growth. We can recognize and give support to our small farmers and our marketers who, through their own effort over the years, have provided the buoyancy and self-sufficiency in economic activity, even during the difficult years of conflict. Given the start from a small base and commitment to economic expansion, the 20% growth estimated for 2006 rather than 2005 is not beyond our ability to achieve.

Nevertheless, the environment for private sector driven growth and development cannot be achieved without the political will and policies of a government committed to these goals.

Our challenge, therefore, is to insist upon a government, which promotes a lean and efficient public sector; which will ensure that government intervention is limited only to those activities which it must undertake to defend the integrity of the nation and the welfare of the people. We must call for the right mix of economic policies to ensure an environment that attracts private capital and investment.

While an economic policy that stresses market orientation is appropriate for today’s globalizing world, there is scope to ensure that the policies relating thereto give adequate support and protection for those activities that are vital for sustainable and balanced development.

Our challenge also is to restore discipline to the budgetary system through a balanced budget derived from a fiscal system of aggressive revenue collection and expenditure control. We will need to address the serious external debt which our country faces by working with multilateral and bilateral partners to adopt measures that qualify us for debt relief and ensure that the revitalization, diversification and expansion of the export sector strengthen our reserve position to keep the Liberian dollar stable while maintaining the concurrent use of the US dollar.

Corruption, which has permeated every aspect of our national life, is today the greatest threat to economic reconstruction. It is for this reason that it is proper to support the UN position of continued sanctions against the exploitation of our diamond and forest resources. It is also for this reason that the Governance Reform Commission has raised the issue regarding the right of a short-term transition government, which lacks a mandate from the people, to grant long-term contractual rights to business entities to exploit the resources of the country.

Our challenge is to bring to an irrevocable end to this cancer of corruption, which has constrained our effort to start the process of economic recovery. In this regard, in the New Liberia, public servants will need to serve within the context of a meritocracy with a code of conduct, which includes full penalties for violation of the public trust. We are convinced that the majority of our people are sick and tired of dishonesty in public service. We must therefore ensure that there is efficiency in resource allocation and use and insist on financial management with full transparency and accountability in public sector operations.

The first priority of an economic recovery program is the creation of jobs. It is simply unacceptable that unemployment countrywide is at a record 80%; that those with jobs, particularly in public service, earn less than a living wage and cannot even get that on time. It is not beyond our nation’s ability in human and financial resource to restore the dignity of our people by supporting labor intensive civil works programs aimed perhaps at the rehabilitation of economic and social infrastructure. A few of our external partners notable USAID and UNDP already have ongoing programs on which we can build and expand.

No nation can develop nor expect to promote the private sector under a system lacking in basic economic infrastructure such as electricity, water, roads, communication etc. Although it will take time and substantial resources are required, it is not beyond our means to restore power to our capital city or to use the best practices of other countries to design rural power systems that use our ample water resources. It is not beyond our capacity to include in our investment strategy for foreign investment the rehabilitation of the rail systems built by the old mining companies to facilitate the transportation of goods and services. It is certainly within our means to revitalize and modernize our major ports whose operations can be made feasible and self financing.

Other priority sectors on which successful economic recovery and sustainable development depend are agriculture and education.

Our country is an agricultural nation, providing through the export of primary agricultural commodities the foreign exchange which is needed to finance our imports and to service our external debt. The largely subsistence farming communities in our rural areas provides the basic sustenance for the nation.

Our challenge is to revitalize the labor intensive rubber industry using the long term plan formulated by the Liberia Rubber Planters Association and, over the medium term, to promote a revitalization and diversification of other agricultural export potential.

We will need to review our long standing land tenure system to ensure ownership and the protection against displacement of our rural communities and enhance, through credit and technology, the levels of production and productivity of our small farmers thereby moving them from subsistence to surplus.

Experience points to recent indiscriminate exploitation of our forests for export without consideration for their replenishment. There is a need for sound management of this resource to ensure its preservation for future generations and to maintain the role our nation plays as one of the few remaining rich biodiversity centers of the globe.

The years of civil strife have deprived our youth and our children of the opportunity to develop the basic skills that will enable them to contribute to the country's prosperity and to compete in a globalizing world. We must insist in the New Liberia that every child is given the opportunity to go to school through a compulsory primary education system, which is our current unmet national goal. A revitalization of our education system will require more than this. We will need to ensure that there are quality secondary schools in all of our counties and that regional vocational and technical institutions are rehabilitated to provide skills training for our high school leavers and for the thousands of youths who have voluntarily given up arms with the hope that they can return to productive endeavors.

A high level of education is also important for a modern society making it necessary that we enhance the quality and expand the availability of college level education to a greater number of our citizens by decentralizing the University of Liberia system into colleges with specific disciplines in selected counties.

There is also the need to recruit and maintain a cadre of good teachers by launching a program of benefits, retirement, training and proper compensation thus ensuring that our graduates are competitive with others in Africa and the world.

Reorienting our Political System

Our Republican system of government, patterned after that of the United States with a strong Chief Executive and a bicameral legislature, has not served us well for it has produced in the past fifty years an imperial presidency which has undermined the independence and development of institutions that provide the checks and balances in the society. It has also led to the patronage system which has deepened dependency and sapped the dignity of our people. We ought not to be timid in trying to examine other political systems and best practices so as to ensure proper and full representation of and accountability to the people. In a national reform agenda which has decentralization and the devolution of power at its core, we might consider the establishment of regional assemblies thereby bringing decision making closer to the people whose lives and destinies would be affected by such decisions.

A political system which guarantees participation by the people would require that those who represent and who exercise authority over the people should be elected by them and should be given the authority to lead, at the local level, the processes of development including the determination of priorities and the budget and disbursement processes which provide the resources for the achievement of development goals.

Restoring Small Values

Many historical practices have helped to instill the values of patriotism and a sense of national identity and unity. Children in years past looked forward to July 27 and what it represented in terms of the new outfit that one would get for the occasion on the Executive Mansion grounds which brought them together for goodies and for play. Children knew what it meant for families to be their brother’s keepers, for every child was the child of us all and we did not hesitate to discipline them when they acted with indiscipline away from home. How well we remember those character strengthening practices of family prayers and required church and Sunday school attendance. The "Santa Clause" of past days, which featured skillful dancing and oratory through the speaker who told of the story of the journey of the Santa Clause and his men, was replaced in latter days by "Old Man Beggar" thereby changing the value of earning through skill and intellect to one of dependency through begging. Today, we hardly see the beating of Judas on Good Friday thereby denying our young ones the implications of a rejection of behavior which represent treachery and hypocrisy.

There are more substantive little details that we might consider restoring to bring about a greater sense of national unity. It would enhance our feeling of nationalism and give us a good feeling if our national anthem were sung at the opening of every public event. It would go down well if our Head of State or President removed the disconnect from the people by doing away with the large convoys and armed guards that accompany travel. It would strengthen our stake in the nations' agenda if there were opportunities for exchange of views through town hall meetings or some other medium between the political leadership and the people.

Madam Chairperson, Fellow Liberians, as our country faces yet another crossroad, we can and we must turn the current adversity into an opportunity for national renewal. I believe that the current, albeit fragile, peace can be maintained and stability restored to allow the fulfillment of our national vision. I am convinced that Liberians can achieve their full potential in an environment that protects their fundamental rights and guarantees equal opportunity for all.

Those of you in this room and throughout this country who represent our country's greatest asset will have a key role to play if we are to rise to the challenge of this opportunity for change and renewal. We need you at home to join in the effort to rebuild our country. And even if you cannot join us now, we need your skills and your counsel and your ideas if we are to get it right; if we are to adopt the right policies and identify the right measures to set our country on course.

Let us resolve that it is our collective charge and commitment to bring hope to our people, to convince them that change is on the way, that their dignity can be restored, that they can now rely on the promise of a better future for all.
I thank you and God bless us all.