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The NS Interview: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia

“I’m a mother, so there’s a certain sensitivity I bring to the job”

How is Liberia today different from the country of your childhood?
Despite periods of destruction [during the civil wars], Liberia is more developed than it was during my childhood. Yet the past was also so peaceful. I wish we could bring back the serenity but, at the same time, have development.

You married at 17 and had four children. Did you think that your story would end there?
I didn't think I would go beyond that. At the time, I didn't have much of an education because I got married right after high school. The best that I could hope for was to become a teacher, like my mother.

How did you manage to forge your career?
I've been lucky. It took a lot of hard work, determination and courage - but a lot of luck, too.

What state was Liberia in when you became president in 2006?
I don't think people realise the extent of the damage that had been done to our country. Institutions no longer functioned, the majority of skilled people had left, the infrastructure had been destroyed. We inherited a broken society.

What gave you hope?
The resilience of the Liberian people was the positive side. They demonstrated the strength of their will to survive by any means they could.

What has been your greatest accomplishment as president?
I'm proud of getting rid of our external debt. [In 2006] we had an $80m budget. We couldn't even borrow from local banks, saying: "Give us an advance to meet salary payments."

Some say that you haven't been tough enough on corruption. How do you respond?
We're trying to change people's mindsets and tell them that corruption is a crime - it retards the development of society. I'm convinced that we are making progress at a structural level: not in a way that is sensational, where we grab people and throw them in jail, but in a way that will change the whole value system.

You have said you will run for re-election in October. What will be the priority for voters?
Employment is going to be a big issue. We will have to come up with a very clear programme to address that in a significant way.

Does the world need more women leaders?
Absolutely. Where we have seen women leaders, they have been strong, honest and effective. They have all left something behind that they and their people can be proud of.

Has your gender influenced the way you practise politics?
I'm a mother, so there's a certain sensitivity that I bring to the job, a certain caring and sharing that I'm able to balance with the need for hard decisions and courage.

Do you believe that Liberia will have a peaceful future?
Yes. Liberians have not forgotten the suffering they faced during the many years of war. There will always be political battles, but I don't think that Liberians will tolerate anyone who wants to take us back to war.

What are your thoughts on the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt and the effects on Africa?
We have already been through a lot of that: the war in Nigeria, the wars elsewhere in West Africa, the rebellion in South Africa. We are now on a different trajectory of trying to enhance democracy and promote development. There are pockets here and there of long-standing dictatorial regimes. But, by and large, our people are conscious of their rights and our young people are very active.

If you could talk to Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Côte d'Ivoire who is refusing to stand down, what would you tell him?
I would say, "Please consider the experience and the tragedy of Liberia." When a country descends into conflict, the damage that is done is so profound. It's not worth any one person; it's not worth the destruction of your country. It's so easy to destroy but so hard to rebuild.

Is there a plan?
Oh, there is a plan. We're now formulating the long-term vision that will make us a middle-income country by 2030. That's our plan.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
I wish I had not supported Charles Taylor [the ex-leader of Liberia who has stood trial for war crimes]. But the support was so minimal anyway and I wasn't even in the country. We were in the US and supported what we thought was an effective counter to a dictatorial regime. But it continues to haunt me. If I had known who he was, I would have stayed away.

Do you vote?
Yes. I have registered for the next vote that is coming up.

Are we all doomed?
No. I'm an optimist, an optimist for Africa's development and Africa's democracy.

Defining Moments

1938 Born in Monrovia, Liberia
1956 Marries James "Doc" Sirleaf
1961 Moves to United States
1964 BSc in accounting from Madison Business College, Wisconsin
1971 Earns Master's degree in public administration from Harvard
1979 Becomes Liberia's first female minister of finance
1985 Jailed by Samuel Doe-led regime
2006 Is sworn in as president

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle