When Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf sent her entire Cabinet on Administrative leave last year, all eyes turned to the president’s son, Robert Sirleaf, who is also a senior advisor as the brains behind the shakeup.
In recent weeks, Sirleaf has been at the center of controversy, dogged by reports that he is the ‘‘de facto prime’’ Minister. Outside politics, Sirleaf has been credited for undertaking a number of development initiatives in and around Monrovia.
But it is Sirleaf’s perceived influence over the president that has landed him on the dark side of critics. In this exclusive interview, the third son of the incumbent President holds no punches as he takes on his critics in addressing the ‘Prime Minister’ label, the perceived strained ties with Unity Party Chairman Varney Sherman and Presidential aide Medina Wesseh, a recent accident involving his security details, his now infamous run-in with lawmaker Regina Slocum Teah and a number of other issues making news in recent weeks.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Mr. Sirleaf, let’s begin with your role as Special Advisor to the President. What specifically is the function of your position?
ROBERT SIRLEAF: The office of the Senior Advisor (OSA) was set up two years ago with my own funds because I wanted to put together a great team of people to help Liberia’s development. I’m passionate about a better future for this country and I wanted to play a role. So I brought together great people, all Liberian locals, in the (OSA) to provide assistance in two main ways. First, as the title “advisor” suggests, is to offer advice to the President when we are asked, mostly on economic issues. I was lucky enough to have spent most of my working life on Wall Street and have some valuable experiences to share. The President, or her office asks us for an opinion on a specific topic and we give a view based on the best information and/or due diligence. At times the President agrees and uses it, at times she doesn’t, which is exactly the way it should be because she’s President and I’m not. We understand and respect both roles.
The other way our office does our bit to help Liberia is to work with disadvantage or economically challenged communities who are in particular need, to make a real impact for people and show others what can be done. Mostly, we focus on their basic needs and make a and healthier life- like building better markets for the market women, whom are the backbone of the community, water pumps, latrines, and providing solar lighting, We also know that healthy communities need good recreational facilities for our youth, so we have built a few mini-football stadiums, We’ve gone another step by also providing scholarships from University to the elementary school level and gave micro-finance assistance to some community dwellers to establish small businesses. It’s important to us that we can give what we can back to the country in this way. Our record speaks for itself. There are things each and everyone one of us can do.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: There has been a lot of speculation regarding the decision by the President last year to rid her administration of some perceived corrupt officials. There is a strong belief that you were instrumental in that decision. Why do you think it was necessary?
SIRLEAF: The President is the only person who can make and take decisions about her Cabinet. It is true that we supported and respected her decision but we did not play a role. I must admit as a Liberian, we all have a fundamental right to ask intelligent questions on the policies of government officials, including those on corruption, but we do this respectfully with proper factual based information that’s non accusatory, nor necessarily public. Ultimately the President has the constitutional right to choose the Cabinet that is best for the country and that’s what she has done. I respect that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How involved were you in the final negotiations for the Chevron deal. Are you satisfied with the manner in which it was finalized? Did Liberia get the best out of the deal?
SIRLEAF: You know Rodney I worked for 24 years on Wall Street, starting as a clerk, and working my way up to being a Managing Director of a major investment bank. I was proud of the fact that the President requested my assistance on certain parts of the transaction. I was in familiar territory. This was a team effort with many other talented people at the table. The deal was transparent and is one of the best transactions under this administration. I was very proud to be involved and did what I could in my capacity to obtain the best deal for Liberia; which we believe we did.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: You were recently appointed on the board of the National Oil Company of Liberia. How that going is and what can Liberians expect for hydro carbon deals going forward?
SIRLEAF: I feel honored for my preferment and wish to use this medium to thank the President for the trust reposed in me. I believe my appointment was based on competence and qualifications, and it feels good to be involved where my skills can be most useful. Of course, I’m only one of 7 persons on the board of NOCAL. We have a very dynamic Chairperson, a smart CEO, and dedicated board members. They are very informed and vocal with their perspectives. We always operate and are committed to make decisions as a group which is the way it should be.
The potential discovery of oil in Liberia is very exciting and presents a great opportunity for our country. But we need to set up a system that ensures this money is used properly. We need a clear and transparent system with checks and balances to ensure that every single Liberian can feel the benefit, not just the few. This is what we are determined to make happen.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: In recent weeks a lot of opposition forces have labeled you as ‘Prime Minister’ suggesting that you are the de facto President. Does that bother you?
SIRLEAF: Anyone who thinks I am a de facto President or Prime Minister, a job that does not exist, not even on a de-facto basis, clearly has not met my mother! She is strong enough, smart enough, devoted enough to do the job, and everyone who works with her knows that. Honestly, It does not bother me if people say such things- we live in a free country and people are even now more free to talk nonsense if they choose. But it is a shame if it distracts people from what our office does. Like a normal human, we feel troubled when people disseminate misleading, non factual based information about me or any other Liberian all in the name of politics. All I have interest in, is getting on with my job – giving advice where needed and working hard with communities and community leaders to make Liberians’ lives better. But that’s life. I anticipated this from the very day I accepted to serve as senior advisor to the President and to contribute to Liberia’s development. She and I spoke about this. It comes with the territory, and I accept that. It will not deter us from our goals. The more they talk, the harder we work in the communities, including the very ones they live in. The people will ultimately judge their words against our actions!
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Now, let’s take a look at the various projects you have undertaken since you assumed the position as Special Advisor. For the benefit of our readers could you say how many projects and which areas have benefited? How many more are in the works?
SIRLEAF:Well we work with communities with real challenges, and we go into those communities and instead of telling them what they need, we ask them what would make their lives better. And they tell us – basic things – latrines, water pumps, mini-football stadiums. And then we go to work. The office had 79 projects in economically challenged communities in Montserrado out of which 59 had been completed on time and on budget with minor adjustments. Some communities that we are engaged with include; Old Road, Lakpazee, Brewersville-Virginia, New Georgia, WestPoint, Slipway, PHP, Buzzie Quarter, Sonewiene, Clara Town, Doe Community, New Kru Town, Logan Town, Jacob Town, Barnesville, Chicken Soup Factory. The OSA is also considering projects in other counties per the citizens’ requests. And we are passionate about our work. I love this part of my job.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The election season is well underway. Those close to you say you try to stay away from the political side of your boss and prefer to be behind the scenes. Is that possible? How much impact do you think your various projects will have on the re-election of the President?
SIRLEAF: Human by nature is a “political animal”. I am very proud of my mother’s political life and you know what? I want her to win the election. She is my mother and I love her but she is also a great leader and has a long term vision for our country. When the time comes, like other Liberians I will “put on my political cap to go out there and canvass for the candidate (s) of my choice not only for the Presidency, but also legislative.” But right now, I’m not focusing on the election; I’m focusing on giving the President good advice and making sure we deliver the community projects, real benefits to our people. Let me add, our projects are not undertaken with the aim of soliciting votes for my mother; but aimed to complement hers and others developmental agenda in addition, set an action oriented standard. Will some people vote for my mother because of my work? Probably, yes. Some people in these communities will vote for my mother because of the role I have played in their communities. That’s only natural. Because this is about Liberia’s development and at the end of the day, it’s the people who will win.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: I read somewhere that you were suggesting a meeting with Prince Johnson. How is that going? Is it something you are seriously pursuing? Do you think he will be a factor in this year’s presidential race?
SIRLEAF: I have never met Senator Prince Johnson, but actually look forward to meeting him just as I will wish to meet every senior representative of the people in the Legislature. I visited the Senator’s county a few weeks ago, both to Sanniquellie and Ganta, twice and spent the night. I was overwhelmed with the warm welcome and support received from the people of both cities. Our office is considering projects in Nimba per the citizens’ request. And we look forward to working with the Senior Senator to this end. Every citizen that has registered and willing to vote will be a factor in this year’s elections. If we aim to do a project in Nimba, there is a need to work with the citizens and representatives of the county which Hon. Johnson is one. And we will show him and his office such deference and respect, though the project is the focus
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The legacy of the President is no doubt something that will be debated whether she wins or lose the presidential race. How do you think it is shaping up? Is there anything you feel should be done that hasn’t been done, that is being worked on as we speak?
SIRLEAF: I think the President has done a great job over the years. To me she is one of the best if not the best President Liberia has had. When I look at the country today I see a country that is safer, more prosperous and stable than at any time in recent memory. I see new roads, more jobs and a developing economy. The essence of elections is judge the performance of all elected officials. When she wins, it will confirm that she has performed as President. I believe the President should be given a second term to enable her do more. As she rightly stated in her State of the Nation address “her first term was about setting the foundation, building institutions and structural adjustment”.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Who do you see as the most viable opposition candidate in the current field for the presidency that should be taken seriously by the incumbent?
SIRLEAF: Each and every alternative candidate for the Presidency ought to be taken seriously by any incumbent. Our people will make the choice and I, as we all, should respect the will of the people.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Do you think the President has weeded her administration of most of the perceived ‘rotten apples’? How does she avoid similar appointments should she win a second term?
SIRLEAF: The President has a strong Cabinet and a strong team around her. They are doing a good job and need as much support as they can get to ensure Liberia’s future development.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Which candidate would you prefer facing the president if this elections result in a second round?
SIRLEAF: I hope she wins the first round, and the Liberian people give her a solid mandate, but as I said earlier, every opposition candidate for the Presidency ought to be taken seriously by an incumbent. My focus and commitment will be giving her the necessary support to win. I wish she wins the election be it first or second round. Liberians will choose.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How confident are you in the achievements of the president over the past five years. So you think she has done enough to win a second term?
SIRLEAF: I am very proud of her and her achievements as President. She has done great job and deserves to have a second term and I am very confident she will win. Liberia and Liberians have come a long way since 2005. I have faith in them, they know deep in their hearts the best choice. Liberians are a smart people: they’ve been through a lot and know when they are on to a good thing. I don’t underestimate our citizens. People don’t give them enough credit; they’re smarter than most people think. Trust me Rodney when I say “they know.”
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let’s move on to a serious incident that occurred recently. Your security detail was involved in an accident which claimed the loss of live of two person. While you were not in the country at the time of the accident, several critics have suggested that you were. For the benefit of our readers could you state what actually happened and what have you done to identifiy with the victims’ family?
SIRLEAF: Sure, on Monday, February 28, 2011, my car was en route (around 11am) to the Roberts International Airport to pick me up; I was arriving on Air Nigeria from Accra, Ghana around 1:00pm. I was not in the convoy at the time of the accident but was rather on the inbound flight from Ghana. For anyone to suggest I was in Liberia at the time of the accident is devious and ridiculous.
According to preliminary findings of the Liberian National Police (LNP), a jeep with three persons overtook a truck after the first car. The overtaking jeep did not have sufficient room, and was hit by the truck which was being overtaken, that same jeep then hit my car off the road. My vehicle then overturned with my driver and a security officer both sustaining non-life threatening injuries, thanks to the use of seat-belts. Preliminary, the jeep then hit the second car. All persons were rushed to the hospital. One person in the jeep was pronounced dead at the ELWA Hospital according to the LNP. A second person died later that night at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center.
I was told (according to eye witnesses) the truck driver allegedly responsible for the accident attempted to flee the scene but was apprehended by officers of the Special Security Service (SSS) and turned over to the LNP. Both my driver and SSS officer assigned were hospitalized and released on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011. When I got off the flight I was informed of the incident. I then went directly to JFK to inquire on the well being of all involved. I then reached out to the family, personally went to their home and expressed my condolences, which was managed privately, per everyone’s’ request.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Recently you were involved in a heated exchange with representative Regina Teah over credits for one of your projects. Have you guys patched things up since?
SIRLEAF: I wish that incident had never occurred. We’ve completed 3 latrines in Doe Community, we’re two weeks from completing a market which will have a water pump, and latrine stationed with it. We are 80% done with the completion of the their football pitch. The footpath between Doe Community and Clara Town via Jonas Island is 100% completed and in great use for the people. They don’t have to walk in water anymore. We installed some solar lights, and additional ones are order for them. We visit Doe Community every week. I can say I haven’t been happier then to see all this done for the people. We have a few other surprises for them. All in all we’re happy to be welcomed there. We were just there this past Saturday, and as usual, all the little kids are always saying to me; “Hello Mr. Ellen.” I’m not sure how the President feels about that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Finally, what is your relationship with people around the inner circle? Some have complaint that you and Varney Sherman, for example do not get along. Also Medina Wesseh, the former Director General of the Cabinet. Are there any truths to this or just people talking?
SIRLEAF: Remember I’m her third son. I’m also around to take care of my mother, as anyone else would take care of their mother Look; I’m not focused on personal politics and relationships. I’m focused on my job. As it happens, I have a very good relationship with Counselor Sherman – we talk and I respect his thoughts, I hold him in high esteem I also have lots of friends outside of the Unity Party – my relationship with people is not and will not be based on political party affiliation, they’re my friends, and they make me laugh, so I like them. And they attend BYC Football games, and that really makes me happy.