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Saturday 1 November  
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, in the Netherlands
Sophie van Leeuwen's picture
Tilburg, Netherlands
Tilburg, Netherlands

Interview: Liberian president will not fire her sons

Published on : 13 November 2012 - 5:00am | By Sophie van Leeuwen (Photo: Sophie van Leeuwen)
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Accusations of corruption and nepotism

Last month, the Nobel prize-winning rights advocate Leymah Gbowee quit her post in Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government, criticising her fellow laureate for corruption and nepotism.

Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first freely elected female head of state when she came to power in 2005, were named joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their work promoting peace in Liberia.

Gbowee had been serving as head of Liberia's Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

A spokesperson said that Gbowee resigned over concerns Johnson Sirleaf had failed to root out corruption and nepotism in her government, but he declined to elaborate.

Liberia's government confirmed Gbowee's resignation and said it disagreed with her criticisms. Johnson Sirleaf has three sons in top government posts but she has denied charges of nepotism and has said ending graft is a top priority.

Liberia is one of the world's poorest and least developed countries and is seeking to fund its recovery by drawing investment in its rich natural resources, which include vast iron ore deposits and offshore oil.

Rights advocates have expressed concern, however, that many of Liberia's resource deals are marred by fraud and do not provide the state with adequate revenue.

Global Witness said in September that Liberia's forestry department had given out a quarter of the nation's land to logging firms over the past two years in a flurry of shady deals.

Source: Reuters

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, was in the Netherlands to receive an Honorary Doctorate Degree at Tilburg University on 9 November. RNW’s Africa Desk was on hand for an exclusive interview.

You are a beloved leader around the globe and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Yet, in your own country you’ve been accused of nepotism and corruption. Three of your sons have been appointed to high government positions. How do you explain this?
“We have a country that has a very low capacity. Some of our institutions – the ones that have to carry out the important reforms for the transformation of our country – simply do not have the capabilities. They also sometimes lack the sufficient integrity to be able to do what is right.

“We have to place certain people close to us in positions to carry out our mandate of reform at the level of competence and honesty that is needed.

“Nepotism is putting somebody who is a relative in a position for which they don’t have the qualifications, integrity or competence. There are times when you have to hire relatives, even when it’s a temporary measure, to achieve your objectives.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, receives Honorary Doctorate Deg
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, receives Honorary Doctorate Degree at Tilburg University

You’ve accused former Liberian president William Tolbert of nepotism because he put his relatives in powerful positions. Do you think they were competent?
“Oh absolutely they were competent. Look, I’ve been criticized now too. But meeting your objectives at the end of the day is what counts most.”

So you will not fire your sons? To show that you are a hero of anti-corruption?
“No, I will not. There is a mandate and there’s a job to be done. When that job and mandate is done, perhaps they’ll move on to other things.”

Government officials in Liberia sometimes earn up to 10,000 dollars a month. Is there anything you can do about that?
“We have to recruit Liberians of certain professional skills and experience to certain strategic posts. If we do not pay them well, we will not be able to recruit them. We actually pay foreigners on our technical assistance programme much more than that.

“If a Liberian is qualified and competitive and if we want to get them, we’ve got to do that. Those Liberians getting positions and getting high salaries are strong, experienced managers, recruited from corporations abroad. Their skills are desperately needed to build our country. Liberians should not criticise those who come home with the right skills to rebuild their country. We need them at home.”

How will you gain trust in Liberia?
“I have trust in Liberia. I’m not talking about the noisy minority – that’s just all part of transformation. I’m talking about a satisfied majority who I meet in rural areas and who are pleased that their lives have changed, their incomes have increased and they’re getting better services.

“We accept the criticism and the comments. We also accept the adulation and the praise. That’s part of moving ahead in a democratic society where all rights are respected and protected. Liberia is making progress and the majority of the Liberians and the international community is quite aware and recognizes that.”

Listen to the audio interview in the upcoming 16 November 2012 edition of Bridges with Africa.


Isaac Alex Yoryor 21 July 2013 - 3:11am / Canada/Liberia

My Comments on the issues of corruption in Liberia seems to be an "Aged-Old" Scenario. It has now become a national "Stigma". I believed from a Christian point of view that Liberia is certainly under curse from God Almighty who punishes a nation who spelled innocent blood, most especially it leaders. "Hear me OUT", until the people of Liberia like the children of Israel make up their minds and repent, and ask God to cleanse the nation, we will be going "No Where". let the religious community weak-up from their slumber do the right thing.......

Mohammed A. Kromah 15 April 2013 - 3:33am / Canada

If I agreed that nepotism is not our president problem then let's us take it from another prospective, Her son is holding almost 3-4 higher positions within the Liberia government what does mean? didn't we've other qualify Liberians to occupy some of those positions? It doesn't make any sense seeing one man especially her son spreading his winds over the Liberian natural resources. I would say this purely and clearly a nepotism, because there are so many qualified Liberian men and women to quantify their diligent talents for Liberia.

President Sirleaf much truly understanding that putting fairness in the right place would the right democratic ways of doing things.

John Morlu 14 November 2012 - 10:03am

Good interview. Key issues raised in the questions...on point.

1. If competency was the criteria, why has America passed a law against presidents appointing relatives? After all, it would be hard to find an American president that will appoint incompetent and low integrity relatives. Robert Kennedy was eminently competent and had enormous integrity. Tolbert entire family, from his daughters to his brothers to his sons were highly educated and experienced. In Liberia, Executive Order 38 passed by President Sirleaf forbids nepotism, with no qualifications that you can hire your relatives in Government as long as they are "competent" and have "integrity." Executive Order 38 was based on Article 5 of the 1986 Constitution, forbidding corruption and nepotism. Sirleaf's argument is a red herring, not befitting a Nobel Laureate....some have argued forcefully.

2. Sirleaf's position will set yet another bad precedence. Other future presidents will hire their tribes men and relatives and argued that they are qualified. And who determines the "competency" and "integrity" level of the relatives and tribes men being hired? The same president? Nepotism and corruption are vices that have ruined Liberia and will continue to do so forever.

3. Sirleaf says no manpower in Liberia as a justification to appoint her sons. Did she advertised the post of Chairman, Deputy Governor, National Security Director etc and there were no qualified Liberians? I can name 100 Liberians that are equally or more qualified than her sons...from banking to engineering to oil experts...all over the world there are qualified Liberians. Again, this is untrue a statement. So when there are equally qualified or more qualified people and you choose your relatives over them, then is that not nepotism? Any reasonable person will say yes, absolutely.

4. "Noisy minority," and "satisfied majority in the rural party" of Liberia. First, from Russia to South Africa to Liberia, only the noisy minority has brought about change in any society. Ellen Sirleaf and Charles Taylor etc were the "noisy minority" that brought about change in Liberia, unfortunately through war and mayhem. It was never the 3.5 million Liberians that brought change and war. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, it was never the "satisfied majority." Instead less than 10% of the people of Egypt were in the streets but it brought about change. Also, more than a majority of Liberians live in the cities, not rural Liberia. Monrovia, Ganta, Gbarnga, Voijama, etc are where the majority live and those are not satisfied. Also, if she stands to be correct about her "satisfied majority," she is amongst the few Presidents in African who have failed to win 50 plus one percent of the vote. Others are Emilio Mwai Kibaki, Laurent Gbagbo, and Robert Mugabe, etc. I learned in school majority means 50 plus one percent but perhaps at Harvard, it means something different. I am a graduate of University of Virginia, George Mason University and Johns Hopkins, so I learned a different math from the Ivy League people.

5. Sadam Hussein, Mohamad Ghadaffi, Hosni Mubarak, Abdoulaye Wade, Bingu wa Mutharika, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, etc will say their relatives were "competent" and have "integrity."

6. President Sirleaf has received nearly 40 honorary PhDs and Awards including Hunger Award and Nobel Peace Prize. But after nearly 7 years, Monrovia remains the darkest city in the world, Liberia is 2 poorest country in the world and Liberia ranks in the bottom 5th percentile of the worst performers on the Human Development Index. Being portrayed abroad as Saint and being considered at home as a Devil is not a long term value proposition for anyone, much less a President.
Anyhow, at least, Sirleaf admits, she was wrong to have criticized the Tolberts, a criticism that formed part of the movement to remove Tolbert from power and that led to the deaths of 13 Liberians and Tolbert, himself. And it also led to the death of Doe and mayhem in Liberia. If Liberian history is any indicator, Liberians have never forgiven a President whose government is characterized by rampant corruption and nepotism. Arguably, minus the United Nations Peace Keeping Mission, Liberia democracy could implode under the weight of corruption, nepotism and impunity. I always told the Europeans and Americans, one cannot build a democracy on corruption, nepotism and impunity, as these three vices undermine accountability, transparency and the rule of law, which are pillars of a sustainable democracy.

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