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Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is in Rwanda to receive the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. She spoke to DW in an exclusive interview about her record as leader of post-war Liberia.
Governance is changing on the African continent, says former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "Look around and see how many peaceful transitions have taken place," she told DW, saying that more African leaders were willing to make way for their successors after two terms.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first woman to receive the prestigious Ibrahim Prize, awarded to African leaders for good governance and commendable leadership. Sirleaf took office after Liberia emerged from a 14-year civil war. The country's progress was devastated again during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak. Sirleaf remains one of the only female heads of states to have served on the African continent. She served two terms in office and handed over leadership to her successor, George Weah, in January 2018.
While Sirleaf is criticized for Liberia's struggling infrastructure development and the handling of corruption in her administration, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation said Liberia was the only African country to improve in every category of the organization's Ibrahim Index of African Governance. Former Ibrahim prize laureates include South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Botswana's Festus Mogae. Ahead of the award ceremony, she spoke to DW in an exclusive interview.
DW: What would you say were your main achievements in Liberia?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The most overwhelming achievement was sustained peace. As you know, Liberia had almost two decades of conflict that destroyed our economy, our institutions, hurt and displaced a lot of people. In a few months' time, we can say proudly that we have had 15 consecutive years of peace. And we've also [furthered] the protection and promotion of freedoms, Liberia's civil society, Liberian people generally. The media for once had full access and full liberties to take part in society, to criticize, to comment, to pass judgement – sometimes to even be irresponsible. Having been devastated for so long, I think what we were able to accomplish in terms of returning the economy to growth, rebuilding institutions and rebuilding infrastructure gave them hope that the future will be secured.
Would you say you are absolutely happy with everything you have achieved?
I'm very happy with our accomplishments given the complex and difficult environment in which we had to work. We did not reach our potential and we should have been able to do more. But you have to put everything into context, and in the context of our people having been depraved, having lived in poverty for so long, having lived with violence for so long, it's difficult to get the full kind of participation, commitment, patriotism that is required to get the ultimate results of what we had to do.
After the war, you chose not to have a special court of justice. Why did you make that decision?
Had we tried to establish a court — we had so many people that were major leaders of war, warlords, who not only were a part of society but had been elected by their people to different positions. If you consider the thousands and thousands of people that were involved in atrocities, you would have had to have spent all your resources, time and technology on the courts. That's not to say we don't believe in justice. But if you look at the history of nations, the sequence and timing of justice has to take place in consideration of the context of the society.
Are you referring to people like (the former warlord and politician) Prince Johnson, who has a lot of support?
I'm referring to all of those who were considered warlords, perpetrators or participants. It's hard to pinpoint any one person. There are key people and there were thousands of other people. And we were coming out of all these years of conflict. What we wanted to do was [to build] peace, to get people to have a commitment to a future — that we have reconciliation, that we have justice, that we have basic developments returned to them. We couldn't do it in those first initial years. We chose not to do things that would have taken us back to war. Because the record is clear. Post-conflict countries that do not manage well, revert to war.
Is there something that you wanted to do before the end of your mandate that you didn't manage?
I had hoped that we would build the road that would have connected all of our political subdivisions to each other, so that there would have been freer movement of goods and services and people across borders. We did some but we didn't complete. We also would have liked to have brought more electricity, thereby enabling us to add value to our commodities. We brought back electricity, but not at the pace and the extent that our plans called for. We had all the plans, we had the agenda, but these things don't happen right away.
In 2011 Sirleaf (r), together with Liberian and Yemeni women's rights activists Leymah Gbowee (l) and Tawakkol Karman, received the Nobel Peace Prize.
You have been awarded the Ibrahim Prize, but one of the things that the prize is directed to is corruption, and some of these things haven't been addressed in Liberia.
Corruption was very well addressed in Liberia, given the context in which corruption had penetrated the entire society and had become a way of life. The only way people knew how to survive was through extortion and dishonesty. What we did was to first of all make it a topic of discussion. That's how our media dealt with it, how civil society dealt with it. We put in all the means of prevention as the most sustainable way to fight corruption. That meant putting in the integrity institutions, putting in the proper laws, making sure that people know, firing people who misuse public funds. We fell short of the punishment side. That would have required much more support and participation of our urban institutions of government, for example, our courts. But we believe that the measures we put in place are measures that will last.
You've been criticized about favoritism regarding your sons in government. What do you say to that?
I make no apologies. I did what I had to do under the circumstances, and I'm not the only one around Africa and the world. We needed the skills, we had the skills, we used them. That did not take away from all the other things we did, from the complete inclusion of people at all the levels of society and all political parties.
You chose to leave office after two terms. Why do you think that many leaders in Africa choose to stay longer?
I think you're misreading Africa. Look around and see how many peaceful transitions have taken place. Can you see how democracy is spreading at a pace that you don't want to give real recognition to? There are a few that are lagging behind, no doubt, but it's happening around the continent. So yes, a few leaders stay in power, maybe because their people love them, or maybe because they don't know what will happen if they leave power. But that's part of the past. It's changing.
Now that you are finished with your mandate, what are you going to do next?
My work is not finished. My work is to continue the promotion of women. I accept this award on behalf of the thousands of women in Liberia, in Africa, in the world that have stood by me and supported me. They have not yet reached the level of equality that we want to see. They will probably not reach it fully in my lifetime. But I will continue to work on that in what's left of my lifetime.
Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in office from 2006 to January 2018. She is the sixth winner of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
Interview by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh and Eric Topona in Kigali, Rwanda.