Liberian president briefs countrymen in Atlanta

Millions of dollars and lives at risk


By Tomi Morris Johnson
Photos & web design by Kurk D. Johnson
© WingcomLTD 2007 All Rights Reserved.

May 20, 2007, Atlanta, GA…When Liberian President Ellen Johnson–Sirleaf was asked what she expected from Liberians living at home and abroad, she answered firmly, “Commitment, honesty, hard work, peace.” This drew applause.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s progress report, announced by a talking drum, was made in an uncomfortably hot, luxury ballroom in the opulent Four Seasons Hotel – in a room with 132 chairs, 12 unseated members of the press, local dignitaries, and an overflow crowd of beautifully attired and well educated Liberians.

Event planners underestimated the president’s popularity, the crowd’s need for answers, and failed to provide adequate security services usually afforded heads of state.

H.E. Johnson-Sirleaf, 68, appeared composed, seasoned and serious.

 

Standing for hours, journalists were not allowed to ask Johnson-Sirleaf questions, including those referring to the expiration of U.S. Temporary Protective Status (TPS). Status exclusion could force over 350,000 Liberians back to a republic ill prepared to receive them at 12:01 a.m., October 1, 2007.

An uplifting moment occurred at the end of the briefing when three verses of the Liberian National Anthem were sung in unison and sustained harmony, emphasizing the belief that God will defend and help Liberia when man fails.

Response

Walter B. Skinner, Treasurer of the Liberian Association of Metro Atlanta, said the informative, frank update given by Johnson-Sirleaf gave Liberians hope. “I don’t see anyone here who is really ready to go back in the fall. Most people are willing to go back at their own pace, but not to go back because they have to.”

The initial mission of Skinner’s organization was to help Liberian students in the U.S., but it has expanded “to galvanize community support of Liberian citizens at home and to make more people aware of the relationship between Liberia and the U.S.,” Skinner said.

“China is bringing a lot of economic expansion into Liberia. With economic expansion, security is boosted. People who are going back to work won’t have time to be thinking maliciously. Economic recovery will reduce the current security risk tremendously,” Skinner added.

Dr. Walter Young is Honorary Consul General to Liberia. “President Johnson-Sirleaf gave a very excellent briefing and covered the present situation in Liberia very adequately. Isaiah 35:1 basically states: ‘The people will rejoice, and the desert will blossom like a rose.’ Before the President came, Liberia was…a forsaken, difficult place. She has revived it,” Young stated.

Good governance must improve economy.

Comments were also solicited from CPA Robert Kilby, a native Liberian now living in metro-Atlanta. Kilby is an expert on Sarbanes-Oxley, a law passed in response to a number of major U.S. accounting scandals. Kilby stated that although Johnson-Sirleaf has strong international support, she must defend her administration against corrupt individuals who are making concerted efforts to regain employment in the present government and others who have begun to infest the psyche of the Liberia people with counter productive; socialist views.

Kilby added that the Johnson-Sirleaf administration "should devise both short and long range plans for building the country’s technology infrastructure, tax base, revenue generation, and business development programs. A viable roadmap towards this end is to begin an initiative that will enable the government to meet the economic criteria mandated by the Millennium Challenge Corporation." (See www.mcc.gov for details).

CPA Robert Kilby said Johnson-Sirleaf has a challenging, surmountable job ahead of her.

Room Accommodations

Johnson-Sirleaf’s speech to a brimming crowd gave the appearance of enhanced popularity and an important agenda, but safety comes first. In a room with movable walls, fire code regulations, and excessive numbers of people, venue coordinators should have rectified the unsafe condition, especially since the president of a country was a guest.

Deemed an impromptu, town hall meeting, the scene mirrored the close proximity one would expect in a can of sardines…space was at a premium.

At high profile events, hotel employees should be proactive and compromising instead of apologetic in hindsight. When Four Seasons’ representatives were asked about the overcrowded accommodations, they replied “planning was last minute,” and “although food was not being served, catering was responsible for making empty, adjoining rooms not paid for available for crowd overflow.” Our capacity concerns were referred to Jolinda Cohavi, director of hotel sales, who did not return our call.

Security and courtesy lacking

President Johnson-Sirleaf, also known as “Iron Lady,” “Titanium Wonder,” and “Superwoman Wannabee,” survived a fire at her presidential palace on Independence Day 2006. The fire was rumored to have been set by rebels, yet Johnson-Sirleaf was not afforded appropriate presidential security at the Four Seasons.

WingcomLtd reporter Tomi Johnson pictured with Johnson-Sirleaf.

Although some say Madame President deems herself infallible, the prospect of an injurious stampede arising from a security breach was evident. To add insult to injury, security personal occupied seats which should have gone to women left standing in the hall’s periphery. Had “southern hospitality” and respect for international leadership suddenly gotten amnesia? Johnson-Sirleaf, a stunning role model for millions, deserved better.

According to her government’s website, Johnson-Sirleaf’s travels benefited the republic $141 million in 2006.

Stakeholders

Event sponsors included the Carter Presidential Center, Georgia Tech’s School of Social Work, Emory University, the Apex Museum, and a host of Liberian support organizations.

The United States is not the only nation helping Liberia. The European Union, China, Nigeria, Libya and Cuba have made significant contributions for reasons ranging from humanitarian to economic. According to the online CIA World Fact Book, Liberia is richly endowed with water, mineral resources, forests, climate favorable to agriculture, raw timber, rubber, palm oil and diamonds. Only 10% of the land is being used. Tourism could boom if peace and security is restored. This could take years and will surely be undertaken by future administrations.

What’s next for Liberia?

President Johnson-Sirleaf can make significant contributions to Liberia if she accepts technological challenges, surrounds herself with the right people; and takes advantage of the World Bank’s Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) and the U.S. Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The political system must also groom a successor.

GEMAP controls financial abuse by placing internationally recruited financial controllers in the Central Bank, National Port Authority, Forestry Development Authority, Roberts International Airport, and the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. MCC reinforces and provides aid to countries who maintain good governance, economic freedom and investments in people based on 16 independent and transparent policy indicators which leads to eligibility for Compact Assistance.

Liberian Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, the Rev. Dr. Lawrence Bropleh (r), accompanied Johnson-Sirleaf on her trip.

Notes from Presidential briefing:

The information in this article is the opinion of the author based on known facts and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.