Conversation with the President on UNMIL Radio Saturday, 21 December 2013
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Hello and welcome to Our President. A program designed to engage the President of Liberia periodically on UNMIL Radio on matters pertaining to the State of affairs in Liberia. You will also listen to the program on different radio stations in Liberia. Hello and welcome, Madam President.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Thank you Sulunteh. I am glad to see you. It has been a long time since I last appeared on this important program intended to tell our people throughout the country what is obtaining in government.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: The first question that I want to ask you is that the other time when you came from America, you told us that you were not well. You underwent a minor operation and so how are you doing now?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I am alright now. But I am still waiting for my right hand to be fully functional.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: But the way that are you moving your right hand it looks like it is strong now?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, my right hand is strong. I am writing and doing the things that it used to do before. But when I came from the States, I ignored the doctor’s advice to rest the hand for six weeks but I told him that I had to come home to do my work. But it has been hard knowing fully well that it is not easy to do your work with one of the hands still dysfunctional due to the minor operation.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: The other time when you went to two different countries abroad, there were rumors that you were seriously sick and evacuated. Furthermore, others even said that you had died.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: When somebody told me that, I just had to laugh. They called my sister and my family. I said why somebody would call my sister to ask if something had happened to me. She will be the first person to know if anything was to happen to me. I think one of these newspaper reporters just saw me boarding a private plane owned by the brother of Ghana President to fly to Ghana to connect on a flight that was taking me to Kuwait to attend the Africa-Arab Summit and later to Belgium in Europe. We went to Kuwait to look for money for Liberia, but people speculated that I was sick that’s how I took a private plane. So when I came back, I had to walk the streets to dispel the notion and rumors that was spread about my health. The people were happy to see me and wished me long life.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: So Madam President, when the year is about to end, everybody including the government and citizens retrospect on the progress made and tasks that were not achieved. Has this government achieved its goals for 2013?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. Our plans for 2013 were correct. We did a lot, including signing the papers for the reconstruction of the Mount Coffee Hydro Plant. We also signed other papers for the construction of roads, getting the people to mobilize all machines that are needed for the construction. But there was a problem with money since the budget was not passed. We had to compensate people in the way of the impending road construction, so we had to pay these people to relocate themselves before getting money from the World Bank for the road construction. So, this had to delay the construction of roads. But at least, we were able to pay squatters. There were other problems during the year including wives of former Armed Forces of Liberia, workers of former Bong Mines, and others demanding benefits and back pays that were never paid by previous governments. We had to pay these people to ensure that the peace attained is consolidated. On the issue of inflation, there are two reasons why the United States Dollar rate against the Liberian dollar is climbing. That is, every time there are instances that threaten the peace, business people pack up their money and transfer abroad. This is the same money that needs to be circulated but because it is short in demand, it affects the local currency. Also placing a moratorium on the forestry industry because of cheating and threats of demonstration caused the money to get short on the market. But things are calmed now so we are glad that the money is coming back. Paying taxes in US dollars, customs, purchasing in the supermarkets and local markets with US dollars will have to stop as government is doing everything for these things to be done with Liberian dollars. If we wait for one or two months with the mechanism, the government is putting in place the rate will begin to come down.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: The same trouble that you talked about concerning threatening the peace has become a daily routine in recent times. Quite recently a group of motorcyclists burned a commercial bus that was involved in an accident with a motorcyclist and later attacked the police who had gone to calm the situation. Also, some students of the University of Liberia staged a violent protest in demand of the resignation of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. What do you think about this Madam President?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You know, we have tried to give everybody freedom, we say you say what you want to say, meaning freedom of speech. They have tried to bring violence, destroy and burn properties, then you have violated the law. The motorcyclists had the freedom to ride their motorcycles in the principal streets of Monrovia but they took advantage to cause problems for peaceful citizens so we had to take action to restore law and order. We have told them to stay away from the main routes and only keep riding on feeder roads. Also, the accident rates have reduced since government took decision to ban the motorcyclists from plying the main routes, and this will remain enforced to ensure safety. As for the students of the University of Liberia, they have to know that students have to be students. If students want to be on the streets causing problem they should go out there but not on the campus of the University. If you go to school you have to abide by the rules. You don’t go to school to fight and destroy property. I think some of them are in prison right now for destroying the university’s properties. But the freedom is too much now. So, I called the school administration and told them to straighten the school up or else government will stop financial support.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: That means the University of Liberia will close if government stops funding its operations?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: If the students of the University of Liberia don’t want to go to school, they should to tell the government or they can go ride ‘Phen-Phen’ motorcycles. But if they want to go to school and I encourage all of them. But let’s put it this way, sometimes, there are few people that can cause the problem. Sometime, the majority of people, plenty of them want to go to school, they want to learn, they want to be professionals and many of them when they finish school they go here and study somewhere else they can do well. But you get that small group of people that always cause confusion and then they bring bad luck to everybody else.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: It looks like the same thing now all the people than suffer from now with this pehn-pehn business here. Because the Pehn-Pehn people used to carry people all over. But the thing happened; they are not coming on the main streets. The people now are suffering to get car. So what is the government doing to put more cars in the streets that people will not miss the Pehn-Pehn?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: That is while we are turning now to National Transit Authority( NTA). We have ordered some more buses from India. But it will take some time for it to come. But they are looking to see to buy small-small buses here to fix it. Now, I see something else on the road? I don’t know how they call that one.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: That three tires, Bajaj.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Bajaj! That one we will soon put one law to stop it. Because if you supposed to ride two people in there. I was passing by some of them today, I saw six people; when that one turnover, that will be worst then pehn-pehn. So, I asked the Police to look at that one good and put strict law. You can’t put six people in that thing, otherwise, you just want one person, somebody – or if you just lean high on it, it will fall down.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Mama, you were talking about the hydro business and some of the work you have been doing this year. But let’s look at the hospital problem, how is it looking?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh, I went to JFK today. I want for people to go and see JFK. The hospital is working. It’s clean. The nurses are so good. Here, people complained sometime when you carry your people there at night some of the nurses may not pay attention and all of that. But, if you ask many of the people who been there, JFK is good. And Tappita, Tappita Hospital got all kinds of machine there. You can go there, in fact people going to Tappita Hospital from Ivory Coast, from Guinea to take treatment. I went to Redemption Hospital today also. And you know at Redemption Hospital, everybody take treatment there free. Yet, some of them complain that they don’t have enough drugs, so the problem not finish but the people have been working hard. The people working in the hospital, the nurses, the doctors, the people at the Ministry of health and Social Welfare, they have really done well. When I start my county tour, I will go and see the other hospitals in the other counties.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Yes, because we hear some noise from some of those counties. They were complaining from the hospital that the place not correct, some of them done even get light, nothing
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: We will look at it. But the problem in the country is plenty. Any area you turn to and when you do one good here, five other people will say I want the same thing. You can’t do everything the same time but let them tell true now; the country looks much, much better now. The country has made good progress. The country is moving. We got problem. And we know we get problem. And we continue to work on the problem. Even the people who say, oh they have all these investments; they raised all these money we can’t feel it. Don’t let them tell you that want. That’s not true. When I go on Robertsfield highway, I see all those houses and building, that’s not ministers. I know you building your part of house. I know so many people working with me, security people, protocol people all building houses all over the place.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Where are they getting the money from?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: So, when everybody goes to Waterside today, the place is filled what are they buying it with?
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: So let’s talk about the school issue. The other time, you said the educational system is a mess. Some people got vexed and say you are the one supposed to fix the school problem and coming out to say it is a mess. So how is it looking now?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You know I like the Liberian people, because, I alone supposed to do everything. You go and stumped your toes because they didn’t cut the rock that’s why you stumped your toes. The school system we have to fix it but it is hard. It’s hard, because for long time all the good teachers left the country. Many of the other people, they tried. But they are not able because they don’t have the qualification to teach the children. And most of the schools, we have built the schools, we trying to fix the school but all the that we need, all the good teachers that we need; you know today we are bringing in some teachers from Nigeria and other places to help. We tried to open the teacher training schools in Kakata, Zorzor and Webbo where they are training teachers now but that’s not something you do one day or two days or even a year or two. Training enough, teachers on payroll to train all those teachers. So what do you do with the people who are already there? You have either give them some more training in order to be able to teacher our children. Or you got to move them, where do you put them? Education, you know education is not like house. You can go and build the house today in six months’ time, that one time, the house is built. The child, you have to start from three-year old all the way up until they get from college, that’s 16, 17-year old. That’s not easy job.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: To finish high school?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: yes, now you know that’s one of the problems again. Because many of those young people never started school soon, during the time there was war, this trouble and that trouble; the children didn’t go to school soon. The other thing is, many of the young people are not going to school because they leave the school to go dig diamond. Many of them are doing Pehn-Pehn business. This is not good for the country, because tomorrow the older people will not be around. If the younger people do not prepare themselves by going to school who will be able to run the country? Who will lead the country? Who will take the country? So we have to continue to work with all of them, to encourage them to go to school.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: So how is the security problem?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The security is alright. The nation right now is safe. I am glad that there… you know we have intelligence. Every now and then somebody wants to cause trouble. Most time they want to cause trouble that’s money business and….but everybody want to be safe, everyone want to enjoy their Christmas. Everybody want to enjoy the New Year…We get plenty of Liberians coming home for the vacation. They all in town, all the restaurants filled, all the little tables on the sidewalks are all filled. So, I am sure everybody wants peace. So we just encourage everybody to have a good time this season. Try your best. Enjoy yourself oh, because the holiday work is coming now.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: You know you talked small about the road business this dry season, signing all these papers. So what kind of road work now we will be doing in the country.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: well, the road, right now they are starting with the road. If you go there, you will see.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Which One?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Cocoa Cola Factory - Gbarnga, that road is moving now; Gbarnga – Ganta, that road is moving now; Fishtown – Harper, they are coming to start that one. The road they were fixing in Monrovia, that one stopped little bit, because the people who were doing that road, government owes then big money and they borrowed their money from the banks. So the banks say they must pay the old money. And I was telling No forest money to move the road but they are trying to get after the New Year Central Bank to get some money to pay off some of the debts than the roads that they are doing in Monrovia here including Duport Road – half has finished and half remaining. Those ones have to finish immediately and roads are going on not only in Monrovia now. They have what they called feeder roads – up country. Some of those roads are moving. Some are slow.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: People have been talking about Liberia and speaking of good plans to build a sea port not only in Buchanan but Maryland, Sinoe and other places. What is the plan that government has?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: That is what we have been working on for the past years. You don’t just start building a house in one day time. You got to have the plan and see how much money it will take, you have to raise the money and sometimes government does not have the money and it has to work with our partners, some other banks or some other countries to raise the money. We got all these kinds of laws: procurement laws, and financial management laws. That means you cannot do anything unless you go through the laws to make sure that no one kind of person can get the job, so one person cannot give the job to his family person or friends. On the light issue, they are now putting lights in many of the neighborhoods. Others who have not gotten are complaining, but the lights are coming. By the end of next year that is when big lights will come and the hydro will come alive.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: The budget that the lawmakers passed and was sent to you. The country has gone more than half of the year before it was approved. How are they going to work with it?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The budget took long time this year. That is part of the reasons too that monies took long time to flow. If you don’t have the budget, you cannot start to do anything. We still want to do some more work on the budget so we agreed with the legislature. We still have to look at it because something in there is not correct. People complained that we did not give them all the money they asked for to undertake projects. So we have to come back after December in the New Year to look at the budget again if we need to change and add some things. Like I was at Redemption Hospital today and they told me that they only get 300,000 to buy drugs but the real drugs they need is one 1.6 something million. Three hundred thousand cannot help so I said to them to start with the one they have and after the New Year we will look at it again. Other people have the same kind of complaint. You know, the country has to make more money to be able to meet everybody needs. To do it, everybody got to stop causing confusion. You know, can you imagine the people who are planting the oil palm, somebody took cutlass and begun to cut down the people trees. They cause too much problems. The people in Bong Mines went and lie down on the train track and said the company will not transport ore. When you do all of these, you waste our time and then you lose jobs. You know if you go and bother the people so much and threaten that if they don’t give you job, they will not operate, we have to go and talk to them and time is passing. The time is being wasted is the same time we have for the people to finish the work, to create jobs, for them to pay revenue to government. We did say that anybody should cheat the people and that they must not get their just benefit, but there is a way to do it. You come and make your complain and we’ll send the Ministry of Internal Affairs there to look into the problem and resolve it. But when you are violent and spoil the people thing, then they all will slow down. The next thing is, if you trouble them too much it will packed-up and leave. They don’t care there are many countries they can go to. Thank God that we have solved many of those problems and we have not lost any of the big companies. Yet some have slow down their business. With everything now quiet, I just want to caution Liberians not to create confusion. If you create confusion, you do it to yourself because the government cannot get money and you cannot get job and the roads cannot be fixed.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: The other day two groups released reports on Liberia. Mo-Ibrahim and Transparency International. Do you want to talk about it and how do feel about the reports.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There are three different kinds or repots that state whether the country is moving in the right direction or not and whether corruption is being controlled or the is moving in the right way it called, Governance. Mo-Ibrahim shows that from 2009 to present, Liberia has moved faster than many other countries to be able to get everything working again: Light, water, roads, the institutions so they really rate us high. In Transparency International have two reports. One report is just like Mo-Ibrahim is based on information. They took reports from our own institutions, IMF, and they take reports from Central Bank. With that one, Liberia is doing well. The one they called the Perception Index is the one we failed in. it is not based on numbers but on what people say. Some of what they say is true because some people sometime pay some money to the police. The people who pay money are the problem too. If the police caught you for violating the traffic and you give him small thing so that he will let you go, you are also part of the problem. So this time, the people who pay bride need to be caught too. Some time we give officials who are working out of town big cars because of the bad road like the ministry of agriculture, but if they abuse the car then, it becomes a problem. May be we will call in Mary Broh to put a check to this. If you visit the prison, she had electrified the prison.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: During the dried season you hardly sit in Monrovia. With the coming in of the New Year, are you going to travel again into the interior?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yet, I have to go. You know I cannot just stay in Monrovia all of the months. When the dried season comes that is the time I have to go out. I have to go and see the other people in the counties and see how development is going on, to listen to the people and hear some of their complaints they have some of the progress. So it is important for me to do that. January have plenty of meetings I have to attend. But in February, I will start the county tour and try to reach all over the country.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: So this problem that in Lofa with the church people and the bush people, what are you doing about it because we hear they even closed the churches?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The Minister of Internal Affairs went there and he has talked to the people. The Council of Churches also sent people there – just so hard-headed people on both sides. You know, some of the people from the Christian side were hard-headed because they say they had their church long time and they want their people to have church there to carry their Bible and thing. So, when the people in the town; you know those Zoes and thing, they say No, you this place here they are not supposed to have church there because our Poro society; if you come here you spoil our society business. So anyway, anybody who did something bad like tiring people up which I hear, if you do that one is against the Law. You have to abide by the Law. You have to face the Law. All we have to do is to make sure that we all live together. The church people can be on the other side to have their church. The people on the other side, so you cannot spoil their society bush. You know, and why now. That place in around long time. It is just that everybody have freedom. I think the Council of Churches and Ministry of Internal Affairs have worked on that problem, so it has cool down now. So, when I go to Lofa, I will reach to that town myself.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: You will reach to that town?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. I will reach to the town.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: So, our soldiers that went to Mali, how are they coming on?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: They are doing very well. Very, well. In fact, one or two of them have moved up and so, we are glad we made that decision because it is good experience for them. They will now learn how to join UN forces, African forces to be able to bring peace to other countries just as peace was brought to our country by our brothers and sisters. So, it was good for Liberia to pay back. I think there will be a rotation for the group that is there to come home and rest for other people to go. That will be good for our army.
Torwon Sulunteh-Brown: Ma, you know some President them it can be too hard to, I mean too hard for people to see them or even talk to them. It can’t be easy but for you, ain’t know what happen. People can be so brave self like the way we sitting down here and be talking maybe I get something on me I can be recording, you ain’t even know? Why all that one happening?
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: You want start that Ellen Corkrum thing. You do it I will make security every time you come here they will search your ooooo. If we had done that one the country won’t go through the entire problem. You know, I pass through many things in my life. I passed through village life when I go there stay with my grandmother. I passed through hardship. There were times when I did the hard work. In fact, I have trouble with my hand now because I used this hand to long in too many ways in my life. And so, I have been opposition too; I have been to prison too. So, my openness is because I have been through