Three and half years into her term as Africa's first and only female president, expectation of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's leadership acumen still remain high. But despite inevitable distractions, Liberia's president remains steadfast and optimistic. "From day one, we were aware of the magnitude of the task ahead but here we are now, and we are on the right track," she says in this exclusive interview with New African's Omar Ben Yedder. The seasoned economist and astute politician, has in the past few months not had an easy ride. There have, for example, been calls for her to resign following a report issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission alleging she provided financial support to former President Charles Taylor, who is currently on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at the International Criminal Court facilities in The Hague, accused of war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. But as this interview reveals, the softly spoken 70-year-old affectionately called The Book in reference to her intellect, is firmly focussed on nothing else but rebuilding Liberia from the ruins of a protracted and bloody civil war. Conducted in her humble presidential office, in the capital Monrovia, the interview gives an eye-opening insight into how Africa's most powerful woman is juggling her onerous responsibilities.
After three and a half years as the first female president in Liberia, and currently the only one in Africa, you have gone half way through this presidential term. It is timely to give what could he considered a mid-term report on your presidency and on the situation in Liberia now. Are you happy?
Johnson-Sirleaf: Clearly, we have made a lot of progress during these years. The first reason why I am proud of what we have achieved over these three and half years is that they have been peaceful for a country that has mainly been used to violence previously. But we want to do better: our objective is to attain sustainable peace and security in Liberia. This is in fact one of the four pillars of our development agenda, currently being implemented. The remaining pillars concern economic revitalisation, governance and the rule of law, and infrastructure and basic services.
Let us begin with the first pillar--peace and security ...
J-S: On these two interconnected fronts, we are moving well, notably through the training of a new army. We have totally demobilised and disbanded the old army. At the moment, there is a 2,000-strong army in its third year of training. The USA are supporting us in this crucial effort. In addition, the other security forces and national police, equally, are still going through a training process. We have the UN still around and we depend on them to a large extent for peace sustenance in Liberia. That is why we expect them to remain at least until the next elections in October 2011.
What about the economic revitalisation of the country after so many years of brutal conflicts?
J-S: From day one, we were aware of the magnitude of the task ahead but here also we are on the right track. For instance, we are reopening our iron ore mines. The sanctions imposed on the exports of our diamonds have been lifted. I am pleased to confirm that we are now Kimberley-compliant, meaning we respect the international norms regarding the exportation of precious minerals. We are also no longer facing sanctions concerning our forestry. They have been lifted, and we are currently going through negotiations to start off forestry operations. On the agricultural front, we have started to mechanise rice farming and to reactivate the rubber industry which was destroyed through the years of conflict. There is a lot of replanting going on. In financial terms, we inherited a $4.9bn external debt. But we have already signed off the HIPC programme. We believe that we will meet the conditions and reach the completion point sometime next year. In doing so, $4.9bn will be forgiven including $1.3bn of commercial debt held by the hedge funds which we were able to buy back at 3 cents on the dollar. There are other important signs that show how Liberia is recovering: we have in our pipeline of investment some $8bn coming in. Arcelor Mittal is planning to invest $1.5bn.
But it seems that this Mittal deal is now in trouble as a result of the negative impact of the global economic downturn on the prices of minerals. Is that investment still going ahead?
J-S: Yes. We are told by Lashmi Mittal that the investment is still there and that they are committed to Liberia but that as a result of the global crisis all the operations are delayed by a year. Whereas they should have made their first exports by 2009, the first exports will be in 2010, and they will restart operations early next year. But ArcelorMittal is not the only investor in Liberia. We have just signed with China Union to open one mine, representing $2.8bn. We have also signed with a...