Monrovia, Liberia - Mr. Cletus Sieh, Minister of Information, Culture & Tourism: Thank you very much, Madam President; we are very happy to have you at this press briefing. We want to use this opportunity to wish all of you a Merry Christmas. As all of you are aware, Saturday is Christmas, and Christmas is about peace, Christmas is about sharing, and we hope all of us can have a very good Christmas. Liberia has come a very long way. Like the song says, even though it was referring to Jesus Christ, “See where he took me from; he took me from the darkness and brought me to the light.” So when you look back, you can see where we are right now. We can surely say that, indeed, we have come from the darkness, and we are now seeing the light. We want to give you the opportunity to ask a few questions. Madame President is here. We hope it will be very brief, so that at least we can have the family tête-à-tête. Thank you very much.
Question (UNMIL Radio): Madam President, can you quickly give us a reflection on the year 2010 in terms of the achievements and challenges?
President Sirleaf: 2010 has been a relatively good year, coming on the heel of 2009 when you had the global economic crisis. We were able to recover from that crisis, which didn’t affect us that much given that we were not fully integrated into the global financial system. But it did affect us in terms of putting much of the investment that we had been negotiating on hold. In 2010, we saw everything resume again – our growth rate, which had fallen in 2009, rebounded. Our investments that we had been negotiating for the past several years were concluded, and most of those operations are starting just about now. We were also able to conclude quite a bit of our Legislative Agenda. Much of what we submitted to the Legislature passed, and some of the institutions that we were building, and the systems we were trying to install in those institutions, all became functional in 2010.
Of course, the result of what you do in 2010 does not get felt in 2010 because you get it started, and then the results of it begin to show after. So, we expect that in 2011, much of the things we accomplished in 2010 will begin to show the results and people will see that. In a way, it was a disappointing year as far as certain things are concerned; our infrastructure fell back a little bit, because the rains were so hard and so long this year. So the programs we had for roads, say, in the southeast and other places were quite delayed. It’s just now that those roads contracts have been concluded and the roads are starting.
Some of the plans we had to fight corruption did not meet the objective. We wanted to see a second court, a fast-track court for corruption, but the judiciary, the Supreme Court, working with our Minster of Justice, has still been working on that. We wanted to see the jury system changed, so that you can have professional juries and you can have people of their peers, and that also was delayed. While we had our systems and institutions fighting corruption well established, on the judicial side we saw some laggard there, and so that was not satisfactory to us.
But, as I said, I feel confident that much of what we set out to do under our Poverty Reduction Strategy. I don’t care what people say, we know that we’ve taken a lot of people out of poverty. We’ve created a lot of jobs, and we will be talking about that when I make my report to the Legislature in the Annul Message, where we will give actual details and data on the achievements to date.
Question (UNMIL Radio): Can you point out one thing that you consider as your major achievement for 2010?
President Sirleaf: The conclusion of many of our investment negotiations. Like I told you, we have well over US$16 billion worth of concession agreements that were finalized during the course of the year. I think that a major achievement, also, was reaching the HIPC completion point, that enabled us to get free from our debt, even though the process had been under way for three years, but at least we reached the HIPC completion point and can really say that the effort we put into our debt relief program finally saw success in 2010.
Question (FrontPage Africa): Two quick concerns. There is a recently leaked document from WikiLeaks which talks about the U.S. suggesting that [former president Charles] Taylor might walk free, and that the U.S. is pushing for coming up with other crimes to have him tried in the States. How much information have you gotten, and what is government’s position relative to that, given that you have been criticized in the past for not protecting the former leader and he was turned over to The Hague? A final question has to do with concerns that Liberia has been barricaded with two countries that have instability, most recently in the Ivory Coast and a large influx of refugees. What is the concern or what is worrying government?
President Sirleaf: The WikiLeaks is something that really concerns us. Liberia has become one of the victims of this exposure, but the actual instrument to which they refer had nothing to do with the government. This is an internal communication between agencies and institutions of the U.S Government, so we don’t have any position on that. Our position with respect to the trial in The Hague has always been the same: that people are, in accordance with our laws, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and that people, while going through that process, must be treated with dignity and humanity. That position has not changed. When the court rules, we’ll see and accept whatever that ruling will be.
Question (UNMIL Radio): Let me just follow up before you answer the next question. There’s a portion of that document that says you phoned the U.S. Ambassador personally to raise concern that Steven Rapp had said Taylor could walk away. Is that true?
President Sirleaf: No. The U.S Ambassador [Mrs. Linda Thomas-Greenfield] was just with me this morning to say that she knows that a conversation didn’t take place. If I want to discuss sensitive information with the U.S. Ambassador, I don’t call her on the phone. She and I meet regularly every week, and anything that we need to talk, we talk it during that time, so I don’t know where that comes from. She, herself, expressed apology for some of the things that came out of there. But like I said, that’s strictly the U.S. business, so she’s apologized to us for whatever indiscretion may have taken place.
Concerning the Ivory Coast, we’re very concerned about the situation in Côte d’Ivoire, and we’ve expressed that concern by participating in ECOWAS meetings, and we have been a part of the ECOWAS decision. But I’ve also, as the current Chair of the Mano River Union, been involved in the peace processes in both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Fortunately for us, Guinea has gone well; tomorrow we’ll be in Conakry to inaugurate the new President, Alpha Conde. Ivory Coast has not gone as well. And even though we tried to play a mediating role, since we know both parties, it’s a difficult situation there. We continue to work positively with the ECOWAS leadership and with the African Union leadership to see if they can find some compromises, because we kept reminding them, in all the meetings, that if things went wrong in the Ivory Coast, it was Liberia that was going to suffer. That suffering is taking place today because we have now many refugees crossing over. We have Liberians that are going to be hurt in this process.
Unfortunately, we also have intelligence reports about some Liberians going over to join the war, maybe as soldiers of fortune, and we’ve already put out a notice to all Liberians to stay out of the war of La Côte d’Ivoire; that they will be breaking our own laws and could be prosecuted under our laws if they took part in a war in a foreign land. We continue to appeal to them to stay out of it. We are appealing to the ECOWAS leadership and the African Union leadership to please join us in assessing the implication regarding refugees and what kind of response, because it will be a heavy toll on us, financial-wise, if we had to continue to serve thousands and thousands of refugees. The U.S. just told us that they, too, will be sending in a group to assess and see what kind of assistance they can provide Liberia in this regard.
Question (Power TV): The TRC Report. Madam, you started efforts initially to see how the recommendations can be implemented. So tell us, are you satisfied with your efforts so far?
President Sirleaf: No, we have to continue our efforts to be able to implement the TRC recommendations in a very reasonable way and that we can afford. The institution responsible for the implementation is the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR). Until recently, they were not functioning, but they are functioning now, they are operational, they have the resources. We’ve asked them to come up with a guideline, a road map for implementation, short term, medium term and long term, because some of the recommendations will require long term. Some of them can be done right away. I’m waiting for INCHR to give me that report on what their road map is, and I asked them to consult widely, with all of the civil society organizations that have been working on the TRC, to make sure that they come up with an implementation plan. I expect to get that before the Legislature returns so that I can be able to include, again, in my Annual Message, what are the steps to be taken.
Question: You are the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. We learned that some people were dismissed from the Army. Initially, it was said that there were 2,000 persons in the Army. Can you tell us, as Commander-in-Chief, what is the current strength of the Army?
President Sirleaf: The Army is about 2,016, because they had surpassed 2,000. I think – I don’t know the exact number – that some 100 officers left the Army, for their own reasons, or because they were subject to some discipline under the Military Code of Ethics. We don’t feel very concerned that those who have left the Army have undermined its strength. We are pretty satisfied with that, and we hope that those who have gone will find other good jobs in security sectors throughout the country and that they will continue to serve their country from a different point of view. At the same time, we have lots of our people in training in Nigeria, in Rwanda, and other places, and some will be returning home. We expect to have our first set of officers that will be commissioned very soon, and I will be with my soldiers at the end of this year for us to sit and talk on the future of the Army.
Question (Radio Veritas): We learned recently that you were to meet the staff and administrative staff of Star Radio. How far are you on that? The second point has to do with Grand Gedeh. Some months ago, you went to Grand Gedeh, and promised the Grand Gedehians that you would advocate with the courts in the United States to have their kinsman freed. How far are you on that? I refer to Mr. George Boley, a former rebel leader.
President Sirleaf: I’ve asked the Vice President to handle the matter relating to Star Radio because, as many of you may know, he was the first Chairman of the Board of Star Radio, and he’s the one who helped to organize Star Radio that set them up, and he was able to get Hirondelle, the non-governmental organization in Switzerland, that acquired them subsequently. The Open Society Institute supported them also. I put it in his hands, and he’s been holding consultations with the staff, with the management, with the Board. He tells me that they are reaching a conclusion. I really prefer that it stays in his hands. He tells me it will be coming to some conclusion very quickly.
On the second question, I have asked Ambassador William Bull, who is now in Washington, to intervene on that matter and see what can be done in the George Boley case. I was very clear to the citizens of Grand Gedeh when I was there, that we will see what we can do, but this is not something we have any control over. I’m not quite sure that I even understand the whole case itself, even though Dweh Boley, his brother, tried to explain it to me. I took whatever George Boley gave me and sent it to Ambassador Bull and asked him to please investigate and come back to us. I’m still waiting for him to do so and to see what the Government can do, or what I can do to be of help.
Question: (Kings FM): I have two issues. The first is the government’s program for taking children off the streets. How much pressure is being used to take these children off the street, because we see them roaming around, selling different things? Secondly, has government lifted the ban on firecrackers around the Christmas season?
President Sirleaf: When it comes to children on the street we try, but it’s a tough one, and we have to appeal to the parents to help us. The Gender Ministry and the Ministry of Youth and Sports are in charge of that program. Children are still selling on the streets; sometimes I see them myself. You stop and ask, where’re your parents? They say, oh, my parents there. You find the parents, and the parents say, oh, my child going to afternoon school, or my child going to morning school. It’s a tough one because the children are many. The Superintendent of Montserrado County is also joining in that effort. We want to try to do what we can without getting into measures that would harm the children or harm their parents. We keep trying to talk about it, and keep trying to work on it.
There is a ban on firecrackers. If you’re hearing them around the city, that’s the tendency of the Liberian people to be lawless and indiscipline. There is a law, there is a ban. The Minister of Justice told me that they went around, they even found some of the places where it was being sold, and they took action and confiscated what was there. But there will still be people who will break the law; they will find a way. Probably it comes across the border, because we don’t manufacture it here, so somebody is bringing it in illegally. The only thing we have to do is to try to keep enforcing the ban. Please, if any of you see somebody with it, please call us, you hear? Tell us, ‘I saw some at Red Light, or I saw some at ELWA Junction, or I saw some Waterside.’ Please tell us. Everybody has to help with some of these things for us to be totally effective.
Finally, my only word to the Press is to continue to be the watchdog of society, but to please be careful with the facts. Please make sure that the things that are reported to you, you check out the other side to make sure it’s true. Please, as much as possible, keep down the sensationalism, particularly when they’re based on rumors because people’s character, people’s lives could be affected by the quality of your reporting. Other than that, I want to say that we think the Press has done a great job. We think the Press has been very effective in being the conscience of society and bringing to light things that perhaps would not have been disclosed otherwise. I only ask you to continue to be good professionals. I understand that there are some good training programs now for journalists, and I hope many of you will take advantage of that.
The President then engaged in a “family talk” with members of the media.