Liberia's President On U.S. Financial Crisis, '08 Elections

Leaders from around the world are in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf talks about the financial crisis in the U.S., South Africa's new president and her work to stop poverty and corruption in Liberia.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It's Thursday, time for our international briefing. Coming up, South Africa has a new president a couple of months early. Incumbent Thabo Mbeki has been forced to step down for the remaining months of his term. We'll find out why in just a few minutes. And of course, we'll talk about our own presidential campaign. The first debate is scheduled for tomorrow, but will anybody be there?

But first, we go to New York where leaders from all over the world are gathering for the annual opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is there for that meeting, as well as to accept an award recognizing her efforts to rebuild Liberia after a bloody, decade-long civil war. President Johnson-Sirleaf joins us now. Welcome once again, Madame President.

President ELLEN JOHNSON-SIRLEAF (Liberia): Thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

MARTIN: Now you're visiting the U.S,, of course, at a time when the U.S. is very concerned about its own internal economic crisis, as well as the global economic situation. Madame President, you are a trained economist, a former finance minister, a banker. Do you have some thoughts about the situation and what the U.S. ought to be doing to bring it under control?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, I'll tell you. First of all, let me say that all the leaders of the world that have gathered for the General Assembly had intended to put all the focus on the millennium development goals, and you know, how far we've gone toward achieving that. But indeed the - things have shifted a little bit because we've had this financial turmoil that's claiming everyone's attention, certainly the attention of those in the United States, and we are concerned about that.

We're trying to assess what will be the implications for all of our countries, particularly the poor countries. This could well mean that resources that normally would have gone into official flows could be reduced as those resources are shifted to be able to meet the domestic financial needs. And because the turmoil has gone beyond the borders of the United States, we now find the same kind of effects in Europe and in Asia that may also affect some of our bilateral partners in those countries, and so the consequences of these need to be very carefully studied. Certainly we in Africa will be trying to make an assessment and see what the implications are and what our responses should be.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about both of those things. I mean, the U.S. government is committed to providing $80 million to support Liberia's development agenda. Are you concerned or have you received assurances that that funding will be forthcoming?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: No, we have not received assurances, but I would take it that the - you know, the budgetary allocation for Liberia would not be affected, but I can't say that for sure. I will have to discuss this with people at the State Department and people at the embassy in Liberia but I take it that those appropriations have already been made, those resources already identified, and I hope that they will not be affected.

MARTIN: And you also mentioned the fact that the economy is all linked, often through remittances from its patriots or from family members working overseas in the U.S. and sending money home and so forth. Have - has the Liberian economy been affected by the turmoil in the U.S?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: At this point, no. Perhaps, you know, there's lag before the effect is felt. Whether that is going to impact the remittances that come from the many Liberians who live and work here remains to be seen, but indeed, I imagine they, too, are some of the beneficiaries of those credits and the ones who are facing defaults. That could well mean a reduction in their own personal incomes and their own capacity to be able continue to send those remittances. So the results could be, you know, could be very, very deeply felt.

MARTIN: I'd like to turn now to some international issues. You spoke before the UN Security Council earlier this week. You asked that the UN maintain peacekeepers in Liberia. They've been there for five years during the rebuilding period after the long civil war. Why do you think the peacekeepers need to remain, and how long do you think they should stay?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, it's because we are trying to build a new army and that means starting all over. We are not just training the old army to be more efficient or more effective. We also are trying to do the same thing with some of the other security forces even though we haven't dismantled them completely. Liberia's civil war and its aftermath are so complex, and as you know, Liberia was the epic center of a regional wall that includes some of our neighbors. The fragility not only in Liberia but in other places - (unintelligible), which is further along the road but the uncertainties of Guinea could, (unintelligible), which is going through a transition, a political adjustment of its own. You know, it makes the entire region still very fragile and vulnerable and so what we have asked the United Nations to do is to remain flexible.

The drawdown(ph) has started but we want a flexibility to be able to respond to any changed circumstances should some of the uncertainties of the region evolve into conflict - maybe not in Liberia but another country, but it would certainly impact us - and certainly until our security forces are properly trained, are properly equipped to be able to take on this responsibility. How long will they be there? We hope that they stay until our next elections, which will - which are set for 2011. After that time and if that process goes well, I would think we should be in a better position to say thank you very much. We can now go it on our own.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about the U.S. role in resolving international conflicts. It seems that there's - I don't know if you agree, but it just seems that there's a lot of ambivalence about American involvement in international conflicts right now. And on one hand many people expect the U.S. to be more involved. On the other hand there seems to be resentment when the U.S. is - I wondered if you have some advice, if you will, for the next American president in maintaining international leadership but at the same time addressing this ambivalence, if indeed that's what it is.

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, you know, I'm one of those who believe that even though the U.S. takes the position that they are reluctant to put boots on the ground, that they do support peacekeeping operations. You know, the UN peacekeeping forces, the U.S. get assessed, and most times get assessed much higher than any other country. So, you know, they do put up their fair share, and in their bilateral programs they support the training of security forces in our own country. The training of our new army is being done primarily by the United States through defense contractors and with the appropriation of from the U.S. government. So I think they do their share.

Now they could do more, as could all the other countries, in equipping the African armies to enable them to intervene when necessary. Most times there are acts to take responsibility for African peacekeeping forces but they're not given the wherewithal to be able to do it effectively. Therefore, you know, it's a case in point on this. And when we also say - and this is strictly a Liberian point of view - that the training that would come from an Africom that is transferred from Europe to Africa, we hope to Liberia, is something that's important to train our forces to be able to respond whenever intervention is necessary.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening for Tell Me More from NPR News. My guest is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She is the president of Liberia. And President Johnson-Sirleaf, of course one of the other stories that we're following is outgoing South African president Thabo Mbeki, recently helped broker a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe in an effort to put an end to this horrific violence that accompanied the elections there. But now Mr. Mbeki is being forced to step down, and of course, members of the cabinet stepping down along with him. For years South Africa has been considered a democratic success story on the continent. What do you think this turmoil there means?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, let me put it this way. I think South African President Mbeki has been a real champion for promoting peace in Africa. Certainly was very instrumental in the strategies that finally brought peace to our country, and I hope this will not affect the relationship South Africa has with all of our countries. But we like to commend what he's done in his country for the many years he served as president. So Liberia certainly commends him for what he did to bring about our peace.

MARTIN: But what do you think it means that he's in the situation he's in now?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: You know, he's - I think he's made a statement. He's a strong member of his party and accepts the decisions of his party. I think he's doing the honorable thing, and I think he will continue to be revered and remembered by the people of South Africa and the people of Africa even if he's no longer in power.

MARTIN: This year we've seen elections - the end of the last year and this year - we've seen elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe that were party contested. There was violence. And then after some period of time, power-showing agreements were achieved, and obviously, we're watching both closely to see if those agreements hold. But what do you think that means? I mean, on the one hand, elections did take place, on one hand those elections were attended by a lot of turmoil, and yet agreements were eventually reached. What - to the degree that you feel comfortable, what do you think that this says about the state of democracy on the continent? Is this a good news story, a bad news story? Is the glass half full, half empty?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Well, let me put it this way. Liberia took a position, and our position was to use the example of Liberia. That whenever the people's choices is frustrated, you set in train the kinds of things that lead to conflict in the society and that those conflicts do not stay within borders. They spill over to other borders. And so our message was please, address this, please make sure that if people's will is respected, find those strategies and approaches to accommodate those choices. And so we were one of those that called upon President Mbeki to work even harder.

And I believe that though Liberia is small - our voice is a lonely one, maybe sometimes in the wilderness, and we don't have that much influence - but we were joined by many of the countries of Africa in taking the same position. And as we said, we just hope that all Zimbabweans now will respect the agreement and will work together for the good of their country and to fix their economy and to bring the suffering of the people to an end.

MARTIN: Finally, I know you're watching the presidential election here in the U.S. closely. One way or the other there will be a historic first. There's a woman on the Republican ticket, Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor was on the - is the vice-presidential nominee. On the Democratic side, Senator Barack Obama would be the first African-American elected president. Kind of exciting. Do you...

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Very exciting...

MARTIN: Have some thoughts about that?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: To see a change in American politics, and we're just glad for it.

MARTIN: Which are you more glad for?

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: We're glad for what's been happening here. Minorities, both in terms of women and blacks, are now up there competing for the highest office in the land. Very exciting, a change that all of this will entail is something we will follow. And we just think the United States has come a long way.

MARTIN: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the President of Liberia. She's Africa's first elected female head of state. She is in New York attending the UN General Assembly's opening session. She also received the International Women's Leadership Award from the Women's Opportunity Network of Opportunity International. She was kind enough to join us from New York. Madame President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

President JOHNSON-SIRLEAF: Thank you so much. I'm just glad for the Opportunity's International award that I've just received.

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