The Role of America in Liberia's Recovery

Robert Johnson is the founder and former CEO of Black Entertainment Television. He is now taking on Liberia's cause by helping the nation to rebuild. He encourages other Americans to do the same.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we're going to bring this conversation about Liberia closer to home. Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson became a billionaire by creating a cable company aimed at African-Americans. Now he's sending some of that fortune back to Africa, specifically Liberia. He's asking other African-Americans to do the same. In an op-ed this week in the Washington Post, he describes his efforts to help Liberia and what else he thinks needs to be done. He's here in the studio to talk about it.

Bob Johnson, welcome.

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Chairman, RLJ Companies): Thanks, Michel. I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: You write that you were inspired to get involved when you heard Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, speak at a conference sponsored by former President Clinton last fall. What did she say that captured your attention?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think one of the moderators asked a question, and he said, you know, if you just had a magic wand and you wanted to ask me to give you something that would help your country, what would it be? And she answered very simply: seeds.

She said we need to restore our agriculture because people left the countryside and have inundated the city. She said we need simply seeds to help our people go back to the land. And so when I heard that, I was sort of inspired along with several other African-Americans who were in attendance to say we got to do something, and so that - Liberia was our something.

MARTIN: Let's back up just for a second for people who don't understand. Why Liberia?

Mr. JOHNSON: I was a history major. I went to high school and college as a major in history and got a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School in International Affairs at Princeton. So I know about our history of creating Liberia in 1847 when slaves were returned back to Africa, to Liberia, and how Liberia has been a part of the United States in that sense. Their flag is red, white and blue. Their capital is Monrovia, named after James Monroe, the president.

So many Liberians, even to this day, look at themselves as one of the states of the union. And so you have that natural attachment, natural affinity, and so that's how I got involved in it, and I think that's why hopefully if we do this right in helping her, this will resonate with African-Americans again the way Israel resonates with Jewish Americans.

MARTIN: And I was interested to hear you say - and I had noticed that you had a master's degree in international affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School, but we really haven't associated you with international affairs except for of course, you know, trying to get your Maserati through Customs. I'm just wondering, is it is a time in your life when you're ready to expand your vision? Do you think it just speaks to something larger in the African-American community that perhaps persons here are ready to look abroad...

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I think, Michel, it's probably the latter. I went to the international Woodrow Wilson School with the idea one day of becoming a United States ambassador. And so I think what I've sort of done now, I've got not only BET as a dominant business I created and sold to Viacom, I now have my RLJ Companies being run well by some very talented people, and all the companies that I have, ranging from the Charlotte Bobcats to the hotel division.

So I've got those things in place, and this gives me a little bit of flexibility to do something that I want to do that I have another passion about, which is to sort of have a voice or play a role in international diplomacy and international affairs.

MARTIN: You pledged to raise $30 million. Have you done it?

Mr. JOHNSON: We've done that. We raised $30 million in partnership with OPIC, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the African Development Fund.

MARTIN: And what's that money for?

Mr. JOHNSON: That money is targeted to Liberian entrepreneurs to help them start small businesses that will employ people as quickly as possible and give people hope that they can repair their country. The issue for Liberia now is a combination of, is the infrastructure capable of receiving the kind of aid that governments and private sector want to bring back, and is there accountability that will allow you to be confident that if you make a deal and do an investment, that investment is going to be protected according to the rules and the laws of Liberia?

So what President Johnson-Sirleaf is doing - and when we were there, we saw examples of that, of her bringing together her cabinet talking about the commitment to justice and the rule of law and emphasis on reform to encourage Liberians to return home.

MARTIN: You said when you were there. As I understand it, you took a large delegation of folks there last month. Put your reporter hat on - tell me what are some of the things that you saw, particularly some of the things that perhaps were surprising to you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the things that I saw is just that there is absolutely very little infrastructure to speak of it all. Maybe seven to 10 percent of Monrovia has electricity.

MARTIN: Which is the capital.

Mr. JOHNSON: Which is the capital. Just completely dark at night. Roads are not really repaired enough to move about with any kind of efficiency. There are 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers there who sort of have checkerboard - the checkpoints all along the roads. The other thing, there are just a lot of young children, because what happened during the war, young men between 18 and 35 were sort of slaughtered in the war, so you've got this age gap of older people and very young kids. Now, that's a problem.

And the other is no - very little running water, and a very limited health care system. So with all those problems, you would think there would be total despair, but in the middle of that despair you saw a lot of hope. You saw government officials going to work every day, government officials focusing on agriculture, on mining, on jobs, on education; President Sirleaf leaving no one stone unturned on the international scene to reduce debt, to help bring the country back, and just a conviction on the part of Liberians.

MARTIN: What do you say to African-Americans or other Americans who would say, Bob Johnson, you're a man of means, you know, you're very successful, you've had a lot of business success and you could probably retire now, if you wanted to - you choose not to do so - but I'm not wealthy in that way; what can I possibly do, and why should I care?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you don't have to be wealthy. This is a good part about helping a war-ravaged country like Liberia, where people are trying to heal. I mean, we figured out the economics of the Liberian dollar to the U.S. dollar. A thousand dollars would be equivalent to almost three years of wages for a working parent or a working family in Liberia. So any dollar amount would help people restore their lives, give them dignity, give them job opportunities. So you could do very small things that would help in a big way.

MARTIN: All right. Robert Johnson is chairman of RLJ Companies and former president and CEO of Black Entertainment Television. Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, recently named him Knight Grand Man, which is the country's highest honor.

Bob Johnson, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel. I'm delighted to be here.

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