President Sirleaf Arrives in New York at the Start of U.S. Visit

Wednesday, 17th October 2007
New York, USA - President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has arrived in the United States at the start of a visit which runs up to October 27. The President was met upon arrival by Liberian embassy officials, headed by Liberia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Nathaniel Barnes, Ambassador Charles Minor, Liberia’s ambassador to the United States, as well as other embassy officials, an Executive Mansion dispatch from New York said.

President Johnson Sirleaf concluded a visit to Belgium on Monday night, after having delivered a keynote address at a gala dinner attended by more than one thousand guests, including Belgian Princess, Her Royal Highness Mathilde, and the country’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Karel De Gucht, as well as the President of the Antwerp World Diamond Conference, Mr. Jacques Roth.  Welcoming the President, Mr. Roth said he was honored that President Johnson Sirleaf could accept an invitation to address conference participants.

President Johnson Sirleaf earlier on Monday addressed the opening session of a conference on the ‘New Images of Africa,’ taking place in Oslo, Norway.  The Liberian leader traced the African experience to pre-colonial African societies, which she argued were largely peaceful, agrarian and subsistent. Despite wars and conquests, the President recalled, large kingdoms and empires developed, notable among them Ghana, Mali, Songhai, the Hausa in West Africa, the Bunyoro in East Africa, as well as the Zulus in Southern Africa.  The conflicts, the President maintained, did not lead to the dismemberment and fragmentation of local societies. “Rather, these conflicts forged a sense of cohesiveness, thereby resulting in large scale political structures to maintain productive activities through commerce, agriculture and cultural development.”

European colonization, the Liberian leader noted, led to the balkanization of the continent, a major consequence of which was the disruption of pre-colonial social organizations including trade between and among communities, largely based on barter. “This did not last as pre-colonial trade was supplanted by a new form of relationship in which the economy of each colonial state was connected to the colonizing power, a relationship that continues today to undermine the potential for scale through regional integration,” the President pointed out.

President Johnson Sirleaf also recalled the period in Africa when the promises of post independence leaders were increasingly unfulfilled, when the military, “prompted by local and external forces, entered the political scene.”  The new military leaders, the President observed, were hardly different from their civilian contemporaries and in many cases, proved more corrupt and ruthless. “It was therefore not unexpected that under these conditions, Africa would experience significant decline in its fortunes,” the Liberian leader recalled, ushering in the 1970s known as the lost decade for Africa.

The President described the past 30 years as disastrous for most of the people of Africa. “While the Asian Tigers recorded some of the fastest growth rates and reductions in poverty recorded in world history, most of Africa remained mired in poverty.” Sub-Saharan Africa, the President noted, recorded an average annual per capita growth of close to zero percent for the thirty years between 1970 and 2000. The President named Botswana, Mauritius and Cape Verde as the three notable exceptions during the period.  The three countries, she said it was worth noting, were democracies with strong macroeconomic management and low debt burdens.

The Liberian President said Africa’s poor growth performance may be attributed to three broad factors. Many African countries, President Sirleaf observed, face unusually difficult geographical circumstances. “Sixteen sub-Saharan African countries are landlocked. Many have large tracts of desert and receive far too little rain, while others are deep in the rain forest and receive too much.”

External political and economic factors, the President maintained, have also undermined the growth in sub-Sahara Africa. Colonialism, the President emphasized, left deep scars that still affect the continent today. Not only did colonialists extract massive amounts of resources, ‘they did little in the building of schools, roads, and institutions.”

The Liberian Chief Executive also named poor governance as the basis of poor performance across the continent. Few African countries, the President pointed out, established democracies or other systems by which citizens could hold their leaders accountable. In many countries, the President noted, leaders simply took and held power by force. “Economies were badly mismanaged. Resources were used to enrich a small elite, leaving most people in deep poverty. Corruption, patronage, and the absence of the rule of law, allowed leaders to abuse their power.  This was our history. That was our legacy,” the Liberian leader recalled.

Fortunately, the President said, the bad news has begun to change. Slowly but surely, she said, a growing number of African countries are beginning to turn around, ending conflicts, installing good governments, implementing stronger economic policies, and getting back on their feet. “But because it is good news, and because it is happening gradually,’ the President regretted, ‘it generally does not get the attention it deserves.”

Gradually, President Johnson Sirleaf said, more countries in Africa are becoming democracies and establishing accountable and transparent systems of governance. Africa, the President noted, has gone from very few democracies in the space of a generation to more than one-third of the continent. The President emphasized that some of the democracies are relatively strong, while others are still fragile. The President noted that never before in world history have so many low-income countries become democracies in so short a time. This enormous change, engendered by an empowered citizenry, the President said, has huge implications for Africa, “but it is rarely noticed around the world.”

The President also spoke of vast improvements in micromanagement and the end of significant economic distortions. With a few unfortunate exceptions, she said, countries have shifted to much stronger macroeconomic policies. Inflation has been kept in single digits, and foreign exchange reserves have doubled on average from two months of imports to four months, the President emphasized.

Another significant change, President Sirleaf said, is the end of the huge debt burdens in Africa. The end of the debt crisis, she noted, is improving financial positions of governments that no longer service debts. Some governments, she said, are using the newly-freed resources to increase spending in health, education, infrastructure, or civil service wages. The end of the debt crisis, the President also added, is providing countries with much greater capacity to design their economic policies and spend less time continually renegotiating old loans with creditors, such as the IMF and the World Bank.

The President cataloged Liberia’s terrible past experiences, which she attributed to widespread corruption, mismanagement and the concentration of power in the hands of a few. Despite the difficult past, the President said, much progress has been made since the election and inauguration of a new government nearly two years ago. The pace of economic recovery, President Johnson Sirleaf noted, has accelerated.

The President said her government is aware of the daunting task it faces in rebuilding the country from the ashes of war. To be successful, she said government must implement policies aimed at both political stability and economic recovery ‘that are mutually reinforcing, and that to sustain development overtime, we have to rebuild institutions and invest in human capacity.”

For Liberia to be successful, the President said, government must create much greater economic and political opportunities for all Liberians, “not just for a small elite class, and ensure that the benefits from growth are spread much more equitably throughout the population. We must centralize political structures, provide more political power to the regions and districts, build transparency and accountability into government decision-making, and create stronger systems of checks and balances across all three branches of government.”

Madam Johnson Sirleaf described the recent changes in Liberia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa as a welcome reversal of the near universal bad news from the past.  The President, however, cautioned that the recent success over the last decade by no means guarantees future success. She warned of considerable risks that these countries might slide back, sparked by violence or adverse economic shocks, adding that there is no room for complacency.

African governments and the international community, the President said, must take steps to consolidate the progress, sustain it going forward, ensure that economic gains are more equitably distributed, and spread the beginnings of progress to as many as possible. The key responsibility the President emphasized lies with the leadership and citizens themselves. “Governments must establish much more transparent, accountable systems of governance, with timely open, and audited financial accounts; strong judicial systems; a free press with open public discourse; a full embrace of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and similar instruments; a responsible, professional, and well compensated civil service.”

The international community, the President said, can support these countries in several ways. “They can open their borders to much greater trade from low income countries. If for political reasons they cannot reduce trade barriers to all developing countries, they should begin by focusing first on the countries that are taking major steps to escape poverty and have a chance to stimulate labor intensive exports.”  Foreign assistance, the President recommended, should be focused primarily on countries that have moved to more accountable and transparent governance and implemented strong economic policies.

Security, the Liberian leader noted, is a major concern for low-income countries emerging from conflict. The President called for support for a standing, professionally trained African military force that can be called in on short notice when necessary, rather than the current approach as assembling ad-hoc international forces when the need arises.

The good news from Africa, the President said, is that many African countries across the continent are finally beginning to emerge after thirty years of misrule and economic stagnation. Democracy, stronger economic management, and growth are slowly replacing dictatorship, mismanagement and decline.  The President said this is the best opportunity in many years for these countries to escape poverty. But continued progress, she cautioned, is far from assured. “African governments and the international community must seize this opportunity to accelerate the process towards stronger, more accountable governments, and economic revival.

The organizer of the conference, Norway’s Minister of International Development, Mr. Erik Solheim, expressed the hope that the New Image for Africa Conference will open more avenues that can be explored for investment. He said Norway and the rest of the developed world want to see a prosperous, stable and peaceful Africa because “there is hope in Africa.”

The conference brought together representatives from several governmental and non-governmental organizations including UN Deputy Secretary-General.