Dubai — A Conversation with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
In her second and final six-year term as Liberia’s president,Ellen Johnson Sirleafhas continued a heavy schedule of international travel, despite seemingly intractable challenges at home. It is an uneasy balance, she acknowledges – courting international investment and aid while struggling with a fractious democracy still scarred by a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced two-thirds of the population, and destroyed nearly all the country’s infrastructure. After attending the Africa-Arab Summit in Kuwait, Johnson Sirleaf visited Dubai, where she sat down with AllAfrica’s Reed Kramer and Tami Hultman to discuss her priorities and principles.
Madam President, what do ties in this region mean to Liberia?
In Kuwait there was an opportunity to meet with leaders of the Arab world, who are increasingly good partners to Liberia. The same thing continues in Dubai, where conversation is ongoing between the Dubai Port Authority and our National Port Authority, whose managing director [Matilda Parker] is on the mission. We were honored to meet with the Emir and discuss possible collaboration between Dubai and Liberia in several areas, and with bankers – in terms of financial support of investment and development. So this trip is meant to promote more cooperation.
You’ve made job creation a top priority, so why does unemployment remain such a challenge?
The private sector and the substantial amount of direct foreign investment – over $16 billion that we mobilized with an objective that they turn into exports, into jobs – have been constrained by lack of infrastructure. Full operation in the agriculture sector – the most labor intensive – the mining sector and the forestry sector, all have experienced difficulties.
Our agenda for transformation, which is the first phase of the long-term Vision 2030, focuses on infrastructure – making sure our roads, our ports, our power, are available – because these are the major constraints for concessionaires that have been granted agreements [to use land for economic purposes or to extract natural resources] really, really moving at the rate that we anticipated to create jobs.
Have the investments further strained your infrastructure, because they’re not, in most cases, directly infrastructure-focused. Can the holders of those valuable concessions do more?
As we speak, there are ongoing meetings by the minister of finance with all the concessionaires that have been granted agreements. They are the mainstay of our economy. We are resolving land issues, resolving financial issues for many small and medium-sized businesses, which are job creators. We are very focused on this agenda for transformation this five years, to ensure that Liberia achieves those goals that we have set forth.
In concrete terms, what does that focus mean?
We have done a lot on developing infrastructure. Through bilateral and multilateral arrangements – World Bank, African Development Bank, development funds like the Kuwait Fund, the European Commission, Germany, Norway and all of those – we’ve mobilized substantial development in the area of power, for example. Plans are now being executed for the restoration of our hydro [water-generated electricity]. With the support of Norway, Japan, World Bank, Kuwait, we are going to be having an additional 38 megawatts of power that will serve as an interim until the hydro comes on stream. So we’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s not going to be enough.
We have four major mining companies that have investment in our starting operations. They’re going to require a significant amount of power. We have two major agriculture concessions – from Malaysia and Indonesia – that are now well advanced in their planting. They’re going to require power, because in all of these we’re looking for value-added. The road sector is the same thing. We are committed to build all the primary roads and connect them to the different [county] capital cities. We’ve got a long way to go but are well underway toward the completion of some of those.