During a recent visit to South Africa, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sat down for an interview with the eNCA, an online television channel – and then abruptly walked off the set.
The former president was in South Africa to attend programs commemorating 25 years of national independence and democracy in South Africa.
Naturally, it was the perfect time to reflect on democratic success stories not just in South Africa but from other African nations. President Sirleaf is the latest African leader to have exited power without contention, and she has been handsomely rewarded and celebrated for that aspect of her legacy.
By the same token, however, that is not the sum total of her legacy. She has to be just as well prepared to answer for the mistakes as she is to receive the accolades!
But this is the irony of her legacy – that she was able to project democratic ideals in the eyes of the international community but at home did not believe she was accountable to the Liberian people or anyone else! That she would arrogantly walk off the set of an interview as if she owes NO ONE any answers — what message was she sending to the world?
Madam Sirleaf could not possibly have thought that no one would ever ask her the Taylor question again. A politician as astute as she would by now have thought through that question a thousand times and fashioned her answer to every possible question related to the Taylor issue.
But what does one do when there is no cogent explanation? What does one say? One diplomatically avoids the question and counts on the good graces of the interviewer not to press the issue further.
But what happens when the question has never been answered, and an answer is needed at a time when Africa needs all of the lessons she can learn from success stories as well as past mistakes? When those answers need to go deeper than skimming the surface; when the answers are complex and need to be delved into?
Madam Sirleaf took offense, told the interviewer she felt “hijacked” and walked off the set.
But the answers to that question would have benefited not just the entire continent of Africa but the entire comity of nations still struggling to find their way – – the right way.
Take Venezuela for example, where an opposition leader practically staged a one-man coup, declared himself president and was backed by many of his countrymen as well as a number of nations. Could Venezuela have learned from Liberia’s mistakes? This business of backing a rebel leader to escape a democratically elected but corrupt leader is still a matter of desperation for alternatives that many nations are still grappling with.
What the world didn’t know until she walked off that set though, was that refusing to answer the pertinent questions was the modus operandi for twelve straight years of the Ellen Sirleaf administration. The questions were never answered as to what happened to the money that disappeared from National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) coffers while her son, Robert Sirleaf, presided as chairman of the board of the entity and special advisor to his mother. As a matter of fact, the questions were never answered as to why she had three sons in senior positions in her government – previously condemned by her as “nepotism” in the Samuel Doe and other administrations. The questions were never answered as to how the bodies of the late Harry Greaves and Michael Allison (both critics of the lack of accountability surrounding NOCAL) turned up on the Monrovia coastline.
What the world didn’t know until now was that this was not even the first time an interview was abruptly ended, and over the self-same Taylor issue. In 2009 the Liberian Observer Online, operating from the United States at the time, received a phone call from then Liberian Ambassador to Washington, D.C., M. Nathaniel Barnes. He stated that President Sirleaf was in the States to promote her just released memoir, This Child Will Be Great. Barnes asked the Editor whether she would be interested in interviewing the Head of State. We obliged.
The editor dropped everything, purchased a copy, read it in two days and arrived in Texas with twenty-six questions for Madam Sirleaf, who was due to address a gathering at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Twenty-three of the questions covered the various other issues addressed in the book. The last three dealt with the Taylor question which, though addressed in the book, had left more questions than it answered.
When the Observer Online Editor posed the question as to whether the president hoped Mr. Taylor would face the full weight of the law, Madam Sirleaf skirted the issue and refused to answer the question. When the journalist, taken aback, pressed the issue, the president’s son, Robert Sirleaf, interrupted the interview and blasted the journalist – with complete disregard, of course, for the fact that the tape recorder was still on. The interview was effectively terminated with the journalist being accused of attempting to embarrass the president.
As the journalist exited the Presidential Suite at the guest mansion where the president was being hosted, Robert followed her into the hallway, still blasting. One of several Secret Service Agents assigned on the president’s floor positioned himself between Robert and the journalist (a young lady). When Robert realized the young lady was being protected by the Agent, he returned to the suite.
All the while, his mother never uttered a word to bring his completely unprofessional behavior under control.
The Agent accompanied the journalist down to the ground floor via elevator and returned to his post on the president’s floor.
Madam Sirleaf accurately answered the South African reporter this week when he asked her whether she felt she owed Liberians an apology for financially supporting Charles Taylor with an emphatic “No.” And when pressed a second time, she responded, “I said No.” She also told the reporter she felt the war had been necessary because Samuel had commandeered the country’s wealth.
If Liberians were ever looking for an answer from the former president, there it is.