Ellen Johnson Sirleaf On Liberia & Education

David Pilling:

Yet she’s not happy. “We have not changed the mindset. We have not changed attitudes toward honesty, integrity, hard work. Maybe our educational system has failed us,” she says, almost to herself. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ve had too much turmoil. It’s a history of boom, bust,” she says of an economy whose fortunes have been almost entirely dependent on the vagaries of the weather and commodity prices. “Things are moving up. All of a sudden, boom.” Her hand explodes over the table. “Something happens. Whatever it is. Boom. Then we start to climb again. Boom.”

“The integrity issue is systemic,” she says. I tell her I was stopped by police, only a few days before, at a makeshift roadblock. “Somebody wanted money from you,” she snorts. “Integrity is a longstanding issue in this country. What contribution does deprivation make to this? What contribution does poverty make to this? What contribution does dependency make to this?”

Isn’t Liberia itself in a permanent state of dependency, I say, pointing to its constant need for donor cash. “We’ve been too dependent for too long on giveaways,” she concedes, adding that the country has been a rubber exporter for decades but has never produced a single tyre. “Our budget should be at a much higher level,” she says of the tiny amount at her government’s disposal.

Suddenly she is pointing menacingly at a young waitress. “Do you pay taxes?” demands the president, eliciting a nervous giggle from the startled girl. “You’re terrifying her,” I say.