President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Speech to the U.S. Congress
Delivered March 15, 2006
US Joint Session of Congress
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of the United States Congress distinguished guests,
I am deeply touched by the honor bestowed on my small but proud West African Republic of Liberia and on myself by inviting me to address this body of representatives of the people of the great United States of America. By this invitation, you have paid one of the greatest tributes there is to those who laid down their lives for my country to be free and democratic. I can only say a big thank you. The people of Liberia and the people of the United States are bound together by history and by values. We share a deep and abiding belief in the power of freedom, of faith and of finding virtue in work for the common good.
The national motto of Liberia - founded, as you know, by freed American slaves - is "The Love of Liberty Brought us here." We became the first independent Republic in Africa. Our capital, Monrovia, is named for your president James Monroe. Our flag is a star in a blue field and red and white stripes - its one star makes us the lone star state in Africa. Our constitution and our laws were based upon yours. The U.S. dollar was long our legal tender and still is used alongside the Liberian dollar today.
But our ties greatly exceed the historical connection. I stand before you today, as the first woman elected to lead an African nation, thanks to the grace of Almighty God; thanks to the courage of the Liberian people, who chose their future over fear; thanks to the people of west Africa and of Africa generally, who continued to give hope to my people. Thanks also to President Bush whose strong resolve and public condemnation and appropriate action forced a tyrant into exile and thanks to you - the members of this august body - who spurred the international effort that brought blessed peace to our nation.
It was the leadership of the 108th Congress, more than two years ago, that paved the way for a United Nations force that secured our peace and guaranteed free and fair elections. It was your 445 million dollar addition to a supplemental appropriation that attracted additional commitments from international donors. With those funds, we have laid the foundation for a durable peace, not only in Liberia, but in the whole West African sub-region. Special appreciation goes to this 109th Congress for the effort, in recent weeks, to meet Liberia's development needs.
Honorable ladies and gentlemen of this Congress, I want to thank you. The Liberian people have sent me here to thank you - thank you for your vision. Our triumph over evil is also your triumph. Our special relationship with the United States brought us benefits long before the autumn of 2003. Thousands of our people, including myself, have been educated in American missionary schools and gone on to higher training in this country. You have generously welcomed tens of thousands of our people as they fled war and persecution.
I was among them. In 1985, after challenging the military regime's failure to register my political party, I was put in jail with several university students who also challenged the military rule. This House came to our rescue with a resolution threatening to cut off aid to the country unless all political prisoners were released. Months later, I was put in jail again, this time in a cell with 15 men. All of them were executed a few hours later. Only the intervention of a single soldier spared me from rape. Through the grace of Almighty God and the mercy of others, I escaped and found refuge here, in Washington, D.C. But long before that, our country and I benefited from Liberia's special relationship with the United States.
My family exemplifies the economic and social divide that has torn our nation. Unlike many privileged Liberians, I can claim no American lineage. Three of my grandparents were indigenous Liberians; the fourth was a German who married a rural market woman. That Grandfather was forced to leave the country when Liberia - in loyalty to the United States - declared war on Germany in 1914.
Both of my grandmothers were farmers and village traders. They could not read or write any language - as more than three-quarters of our people still cannot today - but they worked hard, they loved their country, they loved their families and they believed in education. They inspired me then, and their memory motivates me now to serve my people, to sacrifice for the world and honestly serve humanity. I could not, I will not - I cannot - betray their trust.
My parents were sent at a young age to Monrovia, where it was common for elite families to take in children from the countryside to perform domestic chores. They endured humiliations and indignities, but my mother was fortunate to be adopted by a kind woman, and both my parents were able through this system to go to school - a rarity at that time for poor people. My father even became the first native Liberian in the Liberian National Legislature.
I was not born with the expectation of a University education from Harvard or being a World Bank officer or an Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. When I was a small girl in the countryside, swimming and fishing with twine made from palm trees, no one would have picked me out as the future president of our country. I graduated from the College of West Africa, a United Methodist high school. I waited tables to support my studies in the United States - college in Wisconsin and graduate school in Massachusetts. I went on to enjoy the benefits and advantages of a world-class education.
So my feet are in two worlds - the world of poor rural women with no respite from hardship, and the world of accomplished Liberian professionals, for whom the United States is a second and beloved home. I draw strength from both. But most of our people have not been as fortunate as I was. Always poor and underdeveloped, Liberia is only now emerging from two decades of turmoil that destroyed everything we managed to build in a century and a half of independence.
The cost of our conflict run wide and deep, manifested in varied ways - mismanagement, corruption, bad governance, massive looting of public treasury and assets. Unlike the Tsunami in Asia and Katrina here in your own country, where the destruction and human casualty were caused by nature, we participated in or stood silently by in our own self destruction. Our country agonized with your citizens and victims and families of these natural tragedies and our country also agonized with itself over the effects of a senseless civil war.
In the campaign months, I traveled to every corner of our country. I trudged through mud in high boots, where roads did not exist or had deteriorated past repair. I surveyed ruined hospitals and collapsed clinics. I held meetings by candlelight, because there is no electricity anywhere - including the capital - except from private generators. I was forced to drink water from creeks and un-sanitized wells all of which made me vulnerable to the diseases from which so many of our people die daily.
I came face to face with the human devastation of war, which killed a quarter of a million of our three million people and displaced most of the rest. Hundreds of thousands escaped across borders. More - who could not - fled into the bush, constantly running from one militia or another, often surviving by eating rodents and wild plants that made them sick and even killed them. Our precious children died of malaria, parasites and mal-nourishments. Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers, to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves, gang-raped by men with guns, made mothers while they were still children themselves.
But listening to the hopes and dreams of our people, I recall the words of a Mozambican poet who said, "Our dream has the size of freedom." My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom - and, in their dreams, they reach for the heavens. I represent those dreams. I represent their hope and their aspirations. I ran for president because I am determined to see good governance in Liberia in my lifetime. But I also ran because I am the mother of four, and I wanted to see our children smile again.
Already, I am seeing those smiles. For even after everything they have endured, the people of Liberia have faith in new beginnings. They are counting on me and my administration to create the conditions that will guarantee the realization of their dreams. We must not betray their trust. All the children I meet - when I ask what they want most - say, "I want to learn." "I want to go to school." "I want an education." We must not betray their trust.
Young adults, who have been called our 'lost generation,' do not consider themselves lost. They, too, aspire to learn and to serve their families and their communities. We must not betray their trust. Women, my strong constituency, tell me that they want the same chances that men have. They want to be literate. They want their work recognized. They want protection against rape. They want clean water that won't sicken and kill their children. We must not betray their trust.
Former soldiers tell me they are tired of war; they do not want to have to fight or to run again. They want training. They want jobs. If they carry guns, they want to do so in defense of peace and security, not war and pillage. We must not betray their trust. Entrepreneurs who have returned from abroad with all their resources - risking everything to invest in their country's future - tell me they want a fair and transparent regulatory environment. They want honesty and accountability from their government. We must not betray their trust.
Farming families who fled the fighting for shelter in neighboring countries or found themselves displaced from their communities want a fresh start. They want to return home. They want seeds. They want farm implements. They want roads to get their goods to market. We must not betray their trust. I have many promises to keep. As I won elections through a free and peaceful process, I must preserve freedom and keep the peace. As I campaigned against corruption, I must lead a government that curbs it. As I was elected with the massive vote of women, I must assure that their needs are met.
We are not oblivious to the enormity of the challenges we face. Few countries have been as decimated as ours. In the chaos of war, our HIV rates have quadrupled. Our children are still dying of curable diseases, tuberculosis, dysentery, measles, malaria and parasites and malnutrition. Schools lack books, equipment, teachers and buildings. The telecommunications age has passed us by. We have a 3.5 billion dollar external debt, lent in large measure to some of my predecessors who were known to be irresponsible, unaccountable, unrepresentative and corrupt. The reality that we have lost our international creditworthiness bars us from further loans - although now we would use them wisely.
Our abundant natural resources have been diverted by criminal conspiracies for private gain. International sanctions, imposed for the best of reasons, still prevent us from exporting our raw materials. Roads and bridges have disappeared or been bombed or washed away. We know that trouble could once again breed outside our borders. The physical and spiritual scars of war are deep indeed.
So with everything to be done, what must we do first? We must do everything we can to consolidate the peace that so much was paid to secure, and we must work to heal the wounds of war. We must create an emergency public works program to put the whole nation to work and give families an income through the rebuilding of critical infrastructure, strengthening security and attracting investment. We must rehabilitate the core of an electricity grid to high-priority areas and institutions - and visibly demonstrate to the people that government can provide necessary services.
We must bring home more of our refugees, and resettle the displaced. We must give them the tools to start anew, and encourage more of our skilled expatriates, who have the knowledge and the experience to build our economy to return home. For those unable to come home now, we must appeal to you to grant them continuing protective status, and residency where appropriate, to put them in a condition to contribute to their country's reform and development.
We must complete the demobilization of former combatants and restructure our army, police and security services. We must create legal systems that preserve the rule of law, applied to all without fear or favor. We must revive educational facilities, including our few universities. We must provide essential agricultural extension services to help us feed ourselves again, developing the science and technology skills to insure that we prosper in a modern global economy. We must create an efficient and transparent tax system, to ensure the flow of government revenues and create a hospitable investment climate.
With few resources beyond the will of our people, I want you to know we have made a strong beginning. During my first few weeks in office, by curbing corruption we have increased government revenue by 21 percent, relative to the same period last year. We have cancelled non compliant forestry concessions and fraudulent contracts. We have required senior government appointees to declare financial assets; implemented cash management practices to insure fiscal discipline and sharpen efficiency; met the basic requirements for eligibility under the US general system of preferences and initial Exim Bank support. We have restored good relationships with bilateral and multilateral partners; commenced the process leading to an IMF Staff Monitoring Program; accelerated implementation of the Governance Economic Management Plan - the G-Map; and we have also launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the abuses of war.
But while we seek national unity and reconciliation, we must not sacrifice justice. I respect the life-saving role that our West African neighbors, particularly Nigeria, played at no small cost to them in accepting to host Mr. Charles Taylor. Liberians are deeply grateful. But I say here, as I have said before, Liberia has little option but to see that justice is done in accordance with the requirements of the United Nations and the broad international community.
I know that my government must go beyond these strong beginnings; must do much more than we have done so far, and we must do it quickly. Our people's courage and patience are formidable, but their expectations are high. And their needs are urgent. This does not mean that we want big government. We cannot afford it, and we believe that government should not attempt to do what civil society and business can do better. The people of Liberia know that government cannot save the country - only their own strength, their determination, their creativity, resilience and their faith can do that. But they have the right to expect the essentials that only a government can provide.
They have the right to a government that is honest and that respects the sanctity of human life. They need and they deserve an economic environment in which their efforts can succeed. They need infrastructure and they need security. Above all, they need peace. That is the task of my administration. To meet that challenge, to do what is right, I ask for the continuing support of this Congress and the American people.
Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, my appeal comes with the recognition of all that you have already done. In addition to the financial assistance to disarm our fighters, to feed and house our displaced, the artful diplomacy of the United States was central to ending our long conflict. We thank you with all our hearts.
As small and as impoverished as we are, we cherish the friendship we have had with you. During the Second World War, we stood together, even if only symbolically, to fight Nazi expansionism and tyranny. At the request of President Roosevelt, we planted rubber trees after the Japanese seized the Indonesian supply. When U.S. laws prohibited sending ships to a Europe at war, we agreed to establish a shipping registry to help transport American goods.
During the Cold War, we hosted a submarine tracking center, an intelligence listening post and one of the largest Voice of America transmitters in the world. Again, we ask that we continue working together but we do not ask for patronage. We do not want to continue in dependency. The benefits of your assistance must be mutual.
Honorable members of Congress, much is at stake for all of us.
Liberia at war brought misery and crimes against humanity to its neighbors - a toll that is beyond calculation. A peaceful, prosperous Liberia can contribute to democracy, stability and development in West Africa and beyond.
Nine times - nine times! - in the past 15 years, the United States has been forced to evacuate official Americans and their dependents from our country, at enormous cost to your taxpayers. Monrovia, I am told, is the most-evacuated U.S. embassy in the world. I am determined that you will not need to rescue your people from our shores for a tenth time. You contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to a UN Peacekeeping Force in Liberia. A fraction of this will be required to support a peaceful and stable Liberia.
Honorable Members of this great Congress, think with me about this. What is the return on an investment that trains young combatants for life, rather than death? What is the yield when our young men can exchange their guns for jobs? What is the savings in food aid when our people can feed themselves again? What is the profit from educating our girls to be scientists and doctors? What is the dividend when our dependence ends, and we become true partners rather than supplicants?
Honorable Members, we know that there is no quick fix for the reconstruction of our country, but Liberians, young and old, share their government's commitments to work, to be honest, to unite, to reconcile and to rebuild. A nation so well endowed, so blessed by God with natural resources, should not be poor. We have rubber and timber and diamonds and gold and iron ore. Our fields are fertile. Our water supply is plentiful. Our sunshine is warm and welcoming.
With your prayers and with your help, we will demonstrate that democracy can work, even under the most challenging conditions. We will honor the suffering of our people, and Liberia will become a brilliant beacon, an example to Africa and the world of what the love of liberty can achieve. We will strive to be America's success story in Africa, demonstrating the potential in the transformation from war to peace; demonstrating the will to join in the global fight against terrorism; demonstrating that democracy can prevail, demonstrating that prosperity can be achieved.
The people of Liberia have already rolled up their sleeves, despite overwhelming obstacles, confident that their work will be rewarded, confident in the hope and promise of the future. The women of Liberia and the women of Africa, some in the market place and some in high level of Government have already shared their trust and their confidence in my ability to succeed, and ensure that the doors of competitive politics and professionalism will be opened even wider for them.
Honorable members, I will succeed. I will not betray their trust. I will make them proud - I will make you proud - of the difference which one woman with abiding faith in God can do.
God bless you.