TV & Radio
Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005
10 Questions For Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
By CLAIRE SOARES
A former World Bank economist who once waited tables to put herself through Harvard, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, was officially declared the winner last week of a presidential runoff in her native Liberia. She spoke to Claire Soares about her plans to heal the war-torn country--where the rate of unemployment is 80%--and how she earned the epithet Iron Lady.
YOU'RE THE FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO HEAD AN AFRICAN COUNTRY. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU?
It means that I have a great responsibility to meet the expectations of Liberian and [other] African women. I'm humbled by the challenge. I will be under the microscope all the time--whatever I do and say, how well I am able to move the Liberian development agenda, how I am able to promote peace and reconciliation. I'll have a lot of detractors who want to see me fail, not only because of my long years of political activism in Liberia but because they aren't really convinced that women can be leaders.
HOW WILL YOU PROVE THEM WRONG?
Well, the first thing is I want to be very informed, and that means doing my research. I'm glad that my own experience working in the private sector and as head of the African bureau of the U.N. Development Program provided me with the opportunity to have a dialogue with the African leadership. In a way, they have already welcomed me, so my entrée should not be particularly difficult.
IS THERE SOMETHING EXTRA YOU BRING TO THE JOB AS A WOMAN?
Sensitivity to human needs. Maybe that comes from being a mother and interacting with other women, many of whom carry the biggest burden in times of both war and peace.
GENDER ASIDE, HOW WILL THE JOHNSON-SIRLEAF PRESIDENCY BE DIFFERENT? AFTER NEARLY 14 YEARS OF CIVIL WAR, UNEMPLOYMENT IS AT 80% AND MANY STILL LIVE IN REFUGEE CAMPS.
I'm going to have a rigorous reform agenda in which we will introduce the structural change our country has lacked for so long. The renewal of Liberia means a new political order, a new social order, a new economic order. It involves far-reaching reforms--constitutional reform, land reform, judicial reform, civil service reform and decentralization of power.
YOUR OPPONENT IN THE PRESIDENTIAL RUNOFF, FORMER SOCCER STAR GEORGE WEAH, HAS VOWED TO KEEP FIGHTING THE ELECTION RESULTS IN COURT. HOW WILL YOU PACIFY HIS ANGRY YOUNG SUPPORTERS, WHO HAVE TAKEN TO THE STREETS SEVERAL TIMES THIS MONTH TO PROTEST THE ALLEGED VOTING FRAUD?
I do not think these allegations can be substantiated. I will sit down with [his supporters] and assure them that it is in all of our interests to move forward. I am young at heart, and I think we can convince them to come on board.
THE CIVIL WAR HAS LEFT LIBERIA DEEPLY DIVIDED. WHOM WILL YOU APPOINT TO YOUR GOVERNMENT TO HELP HEAL THE WOUNDS?
We will look at every political party, ethnic group and religion, and find people who meet our requirements of competence and honesty. Certainly we're open to discussing with Mr. Weah what role he might play.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR TOUGHEST MOMENT?
I was in prison after an attempted coup in 1985 with about 12 other so-called rebels, all of whom were killed. At that point, I felt a bit of fear, I must admit. But I became more determined to continue until I got to the place where I could change things.
WHAT ARE YOUR WEAKNESSES?
I've been disappointed many times in the trust that I've put in people. And I can sometimes be a bit harsh; I guess that's where my Iron Lady nickname comes from. I don't suffer fools gladly, and I can be rough around the edges in my handling of people who I feel have not met the requirements of a task.
HOW LONG WOULD YOU LIKE TO STAY IN OFFICE?
Just one term. Our constitution currently calls for a six-year term, and I think that's enough to make the changes and put Liberia on an irreversible course toward peace, reconciliation, democracy and development. And by that time, I think I will have earned a rest.
WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD DREAM?
That I would wake up black. I was teased because of my [light] complexion. Of course, that was an impossible dream.