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One-on-One with Liberia President Sirleaf

One-on-One with Liberia President Sirleaf
By Tracie Powell

Liberia’s “Iron Lady,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was in Atlanta last month to deliver the commencement address at Spelman College and to accept an honorary degree from the historically Black all-women’s school. Before doing that, she took a few minutes to update Diverse on economic development and education issues that still face her country as well as to discuss her recent visit to the United States.

Diverse: You were at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., with presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y. Will the money be used for Liberia’s girls’ education initiative?

Sirleaf: Hilary Clinton is kind enough to advocate and support the Liberian Education Trust. We launched this program to attract private financial support given the limitations in the government’s own budgetary resources. We call it the 50-500-5,000 plan. Its aim is to build or renovate 50 schools throughout the country, provide training to 500 teachers, which includes paying their training tuition costs and stipends as well as to provide 5,000 scholarships to girls annually.

Already, 16 schools have been built, 1,200 scholarships have been given and about 100 or more people have benefited from teacher training. Also as a part of that program, the government has launched a literacy program for the market women; teaching them how to read and write so that it will help them better carry out their trading businesses. That, too, helps out with our program for impacting girls. My position, as well as serving as a role model, I think, also helps to inspire and motivate them.

Diverse:  Why did you choose to deliver your first U.S. commencement addresses at historically Black colleges, Langston University and Spelman College?

Sirleaf: It sends a message about the importance of these institutions and the sacrifices that have been made by so many to enable them to continue to pursue the course of excellence, prepare African-Americans for full professionalism and for competition in this global world. And so my being a part of it just says that I’m happy for what they’ve been able to contribute. My endorsement and being a part of them just puts me where I want to be.

Diverse: What kinds of jobs are you hoping to create to spur economic development in Liberia?

Sirleaf: We plan to reactivate our traditional lines of growth: mining for iron ore, diamond, gold and other types of minerals. The idea now is to open up the private sector, which will create thousands of jobs. United Nations sanctions on our forestry sector have been lifted, that’s going to create jobs. We have infrastructure reconstruction — roads, schools, health facilities all over the country — that’s already creating jobs.
[Black Entertainment Television creator] Bob Johnson’s work to support Liberian small- to medium-sized businesses will also create jobs.

Diverse: What about Liberia’s youth? Will they work in the mines?

Sirleaf: We launched an initiative in which we’ve disarmed, rehabilitated and are now reintegrating war-effected youth back into society. We’re equipping them with skills training.

It’s going to be a tall order because they are still very vulnerable. Many of them have not been accustomed to work. We’re going to have to change the whole mindset for an appreciation for work. They’re used to extortion through violence to get what they want. Counseling is important.

Diverse: What conditions in Liberia existed that allowed voters to elect a female president and what needs to happen in America to elect a non-White male to the White House?

Sirleaf: I think you have to look at the circumstances of our country and my own political involvement. Liberia has had a history of male domination, but also Liberia has had in its history some very strong women who have held important positions from way back in our history, with indigenous chiefs who led wars to preserve the territorial integrity of their areas. I’ve followed in the footsteps of those great women and became a political activist and was part of the opposition. I was, in a way, challenging successive governments for their failure to respond to the needs of the people and to open the society for democracy and for balanced development to take place.

I paid the price for that, I bear the stripes of going to prison. I was perhaps the only woman activist in that category to have suffered so much and to have been a part of a political process in which I participated in elections two times and failed, whether justified or not, but failed according to official results.

This time, I think, Liberia and Liberian women were ready because I represented for them an opportunity for change. The country was ready for change after conflict and strongmen and the destruction and debt associated with that kind of rule. Also for them I had the requisite competence, courage and character to compete. And so there was a great opportunity for women and men to come out in large numbers. They saw that I could make a difference. A woman’s moment in Liberia had come and a Liberian electorate saw that and went for it.

It’s a great thing that representatives from two minority groups are up front and competing for the presidential election in the U.S. If poll results translate into the official results at the end of the day, you might say that America itself is seizing the moment of opportunity, looking for something that’s different and a departure from the past.

Every American should give encouragement to that because it changes the whole nature of the society and its commitment to equality, equal opportunity and to equity. We’re looking forward to that. Whoever it is that emerges, if they come from one of these minority groups, you will find us there commending and being the cheering crowd for that.

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