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Johnson-Sirleaf Describes Attempts to Come to Terms with Liberia’s Violent Past

March 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: After a quarter-century of violence and upheaval, the tiny African nation of Liberia has a new president: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The 67-year-old Harvard-educated economist and former World Bank official won a landslide election last November against a popular soccer star.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF, President of Liberia: I, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, do hereby swear…

MARGARET WARNER: And her inauguration in January as Africa’s first elected female head of state drew international stars, like First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But the once-prosperous country, established in 1847 on Africa’s west coast by freed former American slaves, is in precarious economic and political shape. It’s now one of the world’s poorest nations, with 80 percent of its 3 million people unemployed and more than a third illiterate.

And UN sanctions remain against Liberian trade in its abundant natural resources of timber and diamonds. Those sanctions stem from the time of former President Charles Taylor. He was indicted as a war criminal by a UN court for using that diamond wealth to foment ethnic violence at home and in neighboring states.

Taylor now sits in exile in nearby Nigeria, where he fled in 2003 in a negotiated deal to end Liberia’s tribal civil war, a conflict that killed nearly 200,000 people. But Taylor still has his supporters in Liberia.

Some 15,000 UN troops have been keeping the peace since he left. So getting international help to rebuild Liberia and maintain order there were the new president’s priorities during her nine-day trip to the United States.

At the United Nations in New York, she sought international help to persuade Nigeria’s president to extradite Charles Taylor to a UN court for trial. She asked for the same help from President Bush when they met at the White House and for more financial aid, as well.

And shortly after the House Appropriations Committee had approved $50 million in aid to Liberia, she addressed a joint session of Congress. She received an enthusiastic and emotional response as she described what she hoped to do for her people.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I will not betray their trust. I will make them proud. I will make you proud, in the difference which one woman with abiding faith in God can do. God bless you.

MARGARET WARNER: I spoke with President Johnson-Sirleaf last night on the eve of her departure.

Madam President, welcome. There’s been tremendous public acclaim for your visit here, but you had some very concrete things you wanted to accomplish.

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I consider it a very good success. I got the U.S. government, both the administration and Congress, to see Liberia’s vision, to see the need for us to make more progress in our transition from war to peace, and to get U.S. support for our effort.

I also, in my discussion with the Security Council of the UN, got them to agree that our peace is so fragile that we need a continuation of the UN peacekeeping force for at least three to four years, until our own security forces have been restructured and professionalized.

And I think I reached out to a lot of the American people, to tell them of the determination of Liberians to set our country on the right course, a government to respond to their needs.

MARGARET WARNER: And why is your success moving forward and Liberia’s success important to Americans?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Because we have a long historical tie with America, because the United States has been a major partner in supporting us to make this transition from conflict to peace, and because America, right now, the Bush administration, has taken a strong stand for democracy.

It was President Bush who made some very strong statements based on his resolve that a tyrant should go into exile that set into motion all the things that achieved that objective. And I think the U.S. needs a success story for its support of democracy; Liberia has that potential to be the success story in Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you get the commitment you were seeking from President Bush, dealing with financial aid?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: As you know, the Congress was considering a supplemental. It had not been requested by the administration; it was an act of Congress, for which we’re very grateful.

But after I discussed with the president some of our immediate needs for infrastructure repair and for meeting the needs of the thousands of war-affected youth, he agreed that the administration would support that. And so I think that’s something to be pleased about.

MARGARET WARNER: As you said, the UN, Kofi Annan recommended the extension of the UN peacekeepers on the ground in your country. If they were to leave, would civil order collapse?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: At this point, our peace would be threatened. Full collapse, I’m not so sure, but we would be faced with some serious challenges, in terms of people’s safety and the stability of the country.

You know, we took some very courageous steps. We disbanded our entire army. It’s in the process of recruiting and training; that’s going to take about two to three years. And the rest of our security services are going through similar restructuring processes.

So, no, I don’t think we could really make it. We’ll be using all our resources and our energies just trying to address, you know, pockets of insurgencies or rebellion and whatnot, and the peacekeeping force is a necessary part of us making this important transition.

MARGARET WARNER: After you met with the president, you said to reporters — this deals with the extradition now of the former Liberian president and indicted — I guess, indicted as a war criminal, Charles Taylor.

You said that his extradition from Nigeria, presumably to a UN court — and I’m going to quote you here — you said, “I wish we had the luxury of time on this issue, but it’s become an impediment to our being able to move forward,” even on your development agenda.

Why is the extradition of Charles Taylor so important for you to move forward in what you’re trying to do?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, for one thing, we know that Mr. Taylor still has loyalists in the country. He still has business interests. And some of the things we’re trying to change will be resisted by those.

We also are facing, you know, pressure — I must use that word — from the UN, from the U.S., from the European Union, who are all our major partners in development, on the need to do something about the Charles Taylor issue.

And for us, you know, we are spending too much time with this matter just hanging over our heads, so to speak, taking too much of our energies, causing some slowdown in the commitments that we need from our partners to support our development agenda. And so we think it’s time to bring it to closure.

And also, you know, we have the peacekeeping force there that’s in charge of our security. They won’t be there forever. It’s better to get this matter closed out before the forces begin to be reduced.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying that the U.S., And the UN, and even Congress has intimated to you that getting aid is dependent on you asking for this extradition, is that right? And are you concerned that it could, if he’s put on trial, provoke a pro-Taylor backlash in your country?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: The condition hasn’t been that direct. It’s been like, “We are going to support you. You know, the resources are there, but, you know, this Taylor issue must be resolved.” And particularly since this requirement was one made by Nigerian President Obasanjo, that an elected government should be the one to take the necessary step.

Now, yes, there are certain risks, you know, if a trial were to start, that people in the country might resist. There could be rebellion on the part of loyalists.

But, you know, I think Liberians generally, except for a few pockets, want to get this matter behind them. I think they’re tired of it. I think they just want to move on with their lives and want to become normal again.

And, you know, 3 million people need to move on; they need to have their development needs met. One person should not be the one that holds up the progress of an entire nation.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a couple of personal questions. You told Congress last week, when you addressed the joint session, that 20, 21 years ago, when you were thrown in jail for circulating, I think, a petition for opposition political activity, you were thrown in a cell with 15 men and threatened with rape.

Did you think, at that dark moment, did you ever think in your wildest dreams that you would be president of your country someday?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: No. At that moment, no. At that moment, all I could think of was to pray for life.

However, once I had passed that and had been released, my conviction in the course I was pursuing was reinforced, because I knew then, more than ever, that we had to work to bring change to our country, so my experience would never be something that would be experienced by anybody else.

So, in a way, it emboldened me; it strengthened my courage and my conviction.

MARGARET WARNER: You have an interesting background, as well. You are an indigenous Liberian. You’re not from the elite slave-descendent class. But you had a German grandfather, and you are Western-educated, and you’re a woman. Is that combination an asset to you going forward? And if so, how?

ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: I think it is a definite asset. I mean, I bridge so many worlds in our country.

As I said, you know, in my statement, my feet are in both worlds. My feet are in the world of the poor, the rural poor and the indigenous, because my grandparents, you know, were that.

At the same time, you know, I had some of the best education, sometimes through my own effort. My parents were not rich, but they valued education, and they obtained education themselves through a system in which indigenous children were taken in.

And so, in a way, I think my own success and my own commitment to work for reform in our country is because of these many worlds from which I come and for which I represent. And I think people who voted for me saw this as a means of trying to bridge the cleavages that have existed in our society for much too long.

MARGARET WARNER: Madam President, thank you so much.