Africa Briefing (AB): When it comes to Liberia, the topic on everyone’s mind is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. How would you judge the performance of President George Weah’s government in this area? If you were in office, how would you have managed things differently?
Joseph Boakai (JB): The experience we had with Ebola has taught us the need to exercise leadership. As a leader it’s expected of you, in situations like this, to move in to identify the expertise, make sure they are in control, and mobilise resources, both human and material, to tackle it.
You are not necessarily a technical person but you have the capacity to be able to mobilise all of the support necessary, both local and foreign, and then to put into place a mechanism that they can work with, and I think for us in Liberia at the moment we know that some of the things prescribed cannot work very well.
When you talk about social distancing you can’t tell 10 to 15 people who are in a room to socially distance, but again you have to approach it in a way that best suits your situation and your environment by using the local expertise to tell you that.
During the Ebola epidemic, we knew that they already had the additional will, being able to identify the people with cases and what to do. We have not exercised that very well.
Record keeping especially for now, unlike Ebola… when people take the vaccination they’re expected to be provided a record, if for example you take the Astra Zeneca – you take the first jab you must make sure that the record is kept of the first group so that they’re able to take the second jab on time and make sure you educate them enough so that they do not go for the J&J. And all of that is something that you don’t just talk about, they don’t go and you just say come tomorrow, but already some people are afraid. And making sure they’re comfortable with what they’re hearing and what they’re taking can help. Leadership is necessary, not just at the topmost level, but leadership in all areas. People getting the right information. I think for some reason all of it is not being done too well.
AB: You’ve had a long and established career in Liberian politics, including serving as Vice President alongside Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from 2006-2018. Many voters in Liberia view you as a figure that could bring stability and “right the ship” as the country goes through a difficult period in the wake of economic difficulties and a health crisis. What is your vision for Liberia? How would you govern the country if elected President?
JB: A small country like Liberia needs a leadership it can trust, a leadership that says what it means, a leadership that leads by example, a leadership that will provide guidance and make sure the country’s resources can be managed for their benefit. We are endowed with a lot of resources – human and material – but in managing this, you have to train the youth, for them to realise that they are stakeholders, they’re part of this economy. You have to make sure the economy serves the family.
Right now, in Liberia for the many years we have, not many people have felt the full impact of living in a country that cares for all. The people look up to their leaders. For example, when they see that you mean what you say they will follow, but it has to be done in a way that will assure them that you’re not just talking to them, that you’re living by example.
I think much of what we’ve gone through in this country, can be attributed to the average person not benefitting from our natural wealth.
The leadership that I want is one that is honest, leadership that is willing and ready to lead by example, to let the people know that the resources of the country are for them, not just on a silver platter, but move them in a direction that they too can benefit, because all of them have the same needs like anyone else, their children need to go to school, they need to get good medical facilities. You cannot continue to tell them to look out for tomorrow. Besides that, we live in a society where we are too dependent on foreign aid.
Every time we thank [the foreign donors] for what they are giving and you look out for more to follow tomorrow – you cannot build a dependant society and expect it to prosper. And that’s what leadership is about – challenging the people, make sure that you make them know that resources can benefit them and move them in that direction in honesty. I think that’s what I believe in – my vision is to see this country being able to do some of the things like adding value to its own commodities and creating employment for the people and making sure that the resources of this country benefit the people.
AB: You have a unique reputation in Liberia as an experienced politician with a known record – some say that you are staking your brand on loyalty. How will this record help you in what promises to be a challenging campaign for the presidency?
JB: Loyalty is necessary for the stability of a society. You cannot work in an environment where people are not loyal. I have learnt in the past – like a past leader said – when someone is “pushing the person up” and as they go up your feet leave the ground but you pull them down as you go lower down. Loyalty is a necessity, it’s not a blind loyalty, but loyalty with an intent to promote.
Integrity is extremely necessary because when you are a leader everybody is watching you.
You can see that on a day-to-day basis. People amass wealth but you cannot keep amassing wealth and keep telling the people to be patient, the economy is dead. You have to be honest with them and be able to demonstrate that integrity has got to start with yourself, you have to demonstrate you are serious when you say that there’s no corruption, you are serious when you say children should go to government schools. I have said this in the past that I would want all ministers’ children to go to public schools let them go and make sure that the public schools are well equipped, that the same education your children get is what they get. But double standards in Africa, double standards in the way we conduct business, is not a way that will drive the people to unify and promote a society.
Part two of the interview appears on Friday