Liberia and the world over received yet another shock recently when former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, opened up in an interview on Al Jazeera that at no point in time did the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) went bankrupt, an experience generally believed to have led to the collapse of that promising national revenue generating source.
In an intense interview with Aljazeera’s Mehdi Razzan Hassan, Sirleaf tried to hold her ground as she replied to several leading questions posed to her about her twelve years of Presidency in Liberia, particularly with the issue of several decisions, including her failure to prosecute corrupt officials in her government, an act she cherished or ignored that probably set very bad precedence for the country.
When asked about her son Robert Sirleaf, under whose chairmanship NOCAL reportedly went bankrupt, Sirleaf described the allegation that her son mismanaged or stole from the coffers of the company, as a “blatant lie. L-I-E.”
“First of all, what you have just said is a blatant lie. You go and look at the records. There is nothing about a day that that company went bankrupt,” she proudly said with her head up.
Sirleaf also said NOCAL’s operations went under because the two major oil concessionaires that came into the country to explore crude oil did not find any deposit.
“NOCAL broke down because EXONMOBIL and Chevron could not find oil. That meant that this company could not continue. It is as simple as that and the record is clear,” she said.
Sirleaf’s response concerning the bankruptcy of NOCAL is quite different from what she told journalists in Liberia in 2015, albeit consistently in defense of her son, Robert.
“As the head of the country you have to take responsibility even though you have a very able Director and a very able senior management I entrusted to make the decision on behalf of the company. As the head of the country anything that does not work the way we want I ultimately will be responsible,” she told reporters in late August upon her return from Japan, where she had gone to deliver the keynote address at the opening of the 2nd World Assembly for Women (WAW 2015).
About the arrest and prosecution of her other son, Charles Sirleaf, who has served as deputy executive governor of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) for several years prior to the L$16 billion saga, she said President George Weah led government is in the wrong for prosecuting her son.
“He was unjustifiably, illegally charged,” she alleged.
She did not, however, speak in clear terms why should anyone believe her that her son, Charles was unjustifiably and illegally charged by the Weah administration for playing a key role in episodes that led to printing of excess of the Liberian Dollar bank notes; a contrary expectation of the Legislature and the general public. She only told Al Jazeera that since the matter is under the jurisdiction of the court, according to Liberian law, it would be illegal to discuss the matter.
On other corruption matters, mainly with concerns about nepotism being high on the radar as the Arab international TV journalist asked, the former Liberian leader said she did nothing wrong by bringing her sons and other relatives in government.
“One of my sons has been working in government long before I took office. I didn’t fire him. It was not necessary to do so,” she said, adding “If you are talking about the others, they were also people with specialized skills that I thought to use to be able to achieve our objectives and mobilize the needed resources to be able to tackle our development programs. That’s what I did.”
Nepotism, a key issue for which former President Sirleaf was constantly criticized, compelled her fellow 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, Leymah R. Gbowee, to disassociate herself from the President at the time. Gbowee resigned from the position of ambassador for peace and reconciliation — a position then President Sirleaf had given Gbowee as a platform to promote reconciliation and peace across the country.
It is estimated that over 250,000 people lost their lives and properties worth hundreds of millions, if not billions of United States Dollars were destroyed and the fabric of the country’s economy dragged to almost irreparable status.
She said she failed in prosecuting corrupt officials in her government because of the entrenched cultural systems.
“Politicians themselves are part of the culture. Politicians are part of the systems. I am not blaming anybody,” she told the Al Jazeera journalist. “I think you are just talking without listening. I am saying, dependency; dishonesty came out of the Liberian culture in many years of deprivation,” Sirleaf said.
This response of hers is now synonymous to President George Weah’s response on his stand about fighting corruption. Recently, President Weah said it is difficult to curb or eliminate corruption in the country because traditionally, everybody is related to somebody, even those who are expected to make use of the law by punishing all those found guilty of defrauding the country in many ways.
The failure of government after government in Liberia’s nearly two centuries of existence to prosecute corrupt officials, including a former head of state suspected or accused of stealing from the country, has led to the nation being numbered first of the poorest countries in the UN development index.
As she has done in many interviews while in and out of the Liberian Presidency, Madam Sirleaf stated that her link or support to Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, is worthless talking about any more, although history holds it as the key factor responsible for the reverse of the country in its development agenda; even though slain President Doe is said to have established bad systems and created challenging conditions for all those who were his opponents.
“We have moved beyond the Charles Taylor story. We have moved beyond all those bad things that characterized our country. Liberia needs peace, Liberia needs civility, Liberia needs to claim a future that is devoid of all of those things that have kept us down,” she said.
Why She was unpopular at home?
The former Liberian leader said she was in close contact with her people back home but in most cases she had her presence and influence felt in the rural parts of the country, instead of Montserrado County, host of Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia and which contains at least half of the nation’s population.
She boasted that over the years she had lots of interactions with women who are farmers and traders.
“We needed a lot of outside support to build our country and so we had to go out and make for ourselves that good image. Even at home I know that I was popular but as it is, decisions sometimes taken that affect the general public of a given place, mainly Monrovia, they had problems with me. That I was not deterred to do what I knew was right for the country,” Sirleaf said.