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Interview with Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter served as the 39th president of the United States of America from 1977-1981. Liberia: America's Stepchild filmmaker Nancee Oku Bright interviewed President Carter in 1997, shortly after he returned from Liberia, where he served as an international observer of the elections in which Charles Ghankay Taylor was confirmed as president.

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to mediate conflicts in many parts of the world. More information on Jimmy Carter can be found at the PBS American Experience Web site.


Could the USA have prevented Liberia's disintegration into civil war?

Bright: The 1980 coup occurred during your presidency. What could [your] administration have done to [prevent or] contain ... the disintegration of Liberia?

Carter: Most of my term was spent with President [William R.] Tolbert in control here as president, and I came here and visited him at the time [1978]. When the coup took place during the last year I was in the White House, I was really not paying much attention to Liberia. I was involved with the hostages being held in Iran and running for reelection and so forth.

At that time, we only knew Samuel Doe as a sergeant who had taken over command temporarily. Later he developed, as you know, a fairly oppressive regime that at least had the tacit approval of the United States of America, and slowly but surely all of the adjacent countries became disillusioned with Samuel Doe's regime. ... Ten years later, in 1990, Doe himself was overthrown, as you know.

So we saw Liberia being destroyed during this warfare for a number of years. I began coming back here in 1990 to meet with Amos Sawyer [president of Interim Government of National Unity, 1990], to meet with Charles Taylor [rebel leader and Liberia's current president], to go into the interior, to meet with educators, to meet with people in positions of public life to learn as much as I could. But by that time, of course the war factions began to evolve, and the country became immersed in this destructive war.

Bright: [Given] the historical relationship between the U.S. and Liberia, what prevented your administration... and subsequent administrations from taking the same sort of position that was taken with Haiti [during its civil unrest], for instance?

Carter: Well, in the case of Liberia, I think the United States, at least for the last number of years, has looked upon the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] African leaders as being preeminent in their influence. In the case of Haiti, the United States was the dominant force [in the region]. ... Before I went there [in September 1994] to help work out the problem, we had 30,000 troops poised to invade Haiti militarily.

There was never this consideration for Liberia, and I think the United States and Western Europe and other places in the world, including the United Nations, thought that President [Nicephore] Soglo from Benin, President Jerry Rawlings from Ghana, Olusegun Obasanjo from Nigeria leading the other presidents, were the ones responsible and doing an increasingly effective job. So the United States was not directly involved. We wanted the African leaders to succeed, and they have succeeded far beyond anything we ever dreamed.

America's strategic interests in Liberia

Bright: Do you think Liberia is still of strategic interest to the United States?

Carter: Well, a strategic interest to the United States is not a role that Liberia has played except in the one circumstance; that is, when I came here in 1978 as president of the United States, Liberia just happened to be the location for a massive communications system. Some of the big towers, radio towers, are still there. But as far as demonstrating America's interest in Africa, as far as demonstrating our commitment to Third World needs, as far as honoring our ancient friends, 150 years ago this year is when Liberia was founded as a nation, with freed slaves from America.

In all these respects, I think it is of strategic importance, because the image of a nation, which is a very important part of the security or character of a country, I think will be dependent on how well we treat the people of Liberia. That's why I'm so eager to see the United States look upon Liberia as a special case and be extremely helpful, without interfering, to the people of this country in putting the schools and homes and health programs and transportation systems back into effect.

Liberia's prospects for the future

Bright: Are you optimistic about the future of Liberia?

Carter: I'm optimistic about the future of Liberia within certain boundaries. Since Liberia was formed as a nation 150 years ago, there has never been a time when Liberia had [true] democracy and the quality of treatment of citizens. There was an aristocracy, in effect, here in charge of the government of Liberia for many years, and since then there has been a succession of military factions who have abused the people and taken unwarranted advantage of their power through the gun. This is the first time that Liberia has a prospect of peace, freedom, respect for human rights, democracy, and equality of treatment, and so for that reason I am optimistic.

What the Liberian people and the chosen leaders will do with this opportunity is another question. And I think part of the answer to that question will depend on how deeply involved and how much help and assistance Liberians will receive from the United States, from Western Europe, from Japan, from the World Bank, from the African Development Bank, and from others who are interested in the people here. Overall, I am, I would say, optimistic.

And Liberia also has a great natural resource in productive land and access to fisheries and forests that haven't been totally destroyed, and the ability to produce rubber and the diamond mines and so forth. There is a lot that Liberia has that can encourage success that most other nations don't have [at the] start, as inherently poor nations. And I think one of the earliest things [that can help to encourage success] would be to get the farms producing again. And already throughout Liberia where I have been, there is a massive house-building program going on -- you know, the pole-type houses with thatched roofs. I mean, you see those going up everywhere, which is also encouraging.

Were the 1997 Liberian elections fair?

Bright: Do you think the election process has been a free-from-fear process from your observations thus far?

Carter: The election process has been free and transparent. I can't say that it's been completely fair, and neither are the elections fair in my country, where if you don't have $50 million to spend, your voice will never be heard, through television or radio, by the people of America. So you can't say that it's completely fair unless all 13 candidates have the same amount of money, the same number of vehicles, the same amount of access to news media, and that has not been the case. But I think as far as this election representing the freely expressed will of the Liberian people, I would say yes, it has been a free election. There is no evidence of fraud. The ECOWAS forces here have done a superb job with the full confidence of and gratitude of the Liberian people.

The candidates, regardless of whether they were strong or weak, have complied with the rules laid down by ECOWAS and by the Independent Election Commission. Three hundred and fifty or so international observers, highly qualified, highly dedicated, have been all over this nation. I don't think there could have been any fraudulent actions without [their] being detected, and all of the candidates have pledged to support the results of their elections, whether they win or lose. You can't say that about many elections on earth. So I'm very proud of the Liberian people.

Public awareness of Liberia in America

Bright: [How aware do you think people in America are about Liberia and America's historical relationship to it?]

Carter: I think from my observation all over America, there is a realization that one country in Africa has special ties with us, and that's Liberia.

I teach Sunday school every time that I'm home, about two-thirds of the time, and ... when I'm involved in Liberia, which is quite often, I tend to ask the members who come to my class, maybe 500 people from all over the nation, what they know about Liberia. It's surprising how much people know of Liberia, and the history of it.

I really love the Liberian people, and have been blessed in my life by having a chance to come here.

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