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Liberia’s former V-P tells politicians: If you want to make money go into business

In the second part of his interview with Africa Briefing, Liberia’s former vice-president, Joseph Boakai, touches on the successes and failures of the Sirleaf Johnson administration, a war crimes tribunal for Liberia and how he would tackle corruption if he won the 2023 presidential election

AB: Following the second Liberian civil war, the country was left in tatters – but the Unity Party was able to slowly return the nation to stability. What was this process like? How did this experience shape you and your approach to politics?

JB: You know, when you create a success story it is necessary to be consistent.  We did well the first six years.  I think that the second six years were to reinforce some of the things we were upgrading, making sure they would become part of a system.  We drifted a bit because people began to feel that this was a serious government that was able to deliver: the roads were being constructed, there were government structures put in place, but again it is just part of the story.

There were a lot of missed opportunities and I always used to say and I know I’m on the record for that, I can look at all the presentations and power points but what I always ask about is implementation.  You can do all of what you do on paper, how do you translate it to a workable tool for the benefit of the people.

And leaders in a country should do a follow up.  We don’t have the luxury of a developed country, our people need to see that the leader is leading, is following up, that you are supervising and ensure that what you say is happening.  I think for some reason, they didn’t go all the way and the second 6 years did not really bring much addition to what we did and of course, things began to fall apart and I think one has to be guided by that to know that, especially for a country that has gone through all of the turmoil, that one should start a process to ensure that you follow up, ensure that you are consistent in what needs to be done and to be able to inspire the people and continue to do so.  You cannot do it with nepotism, you cannot do it with having sacred cows, everybody has to know that they’re all committed to the same rules and the policy applies to all.

AB: There are increasing calls both within Liberia and abroad for a war crimes court to bring accountability to the horrors suffered in the civil war. The House of Representatives voted to form a special consultative committee that will carry out consultations throughout the country on the question, and last month a letter was signed by numerous human rights groups addressed to the Senate calling for the establishment of a Transitional Justice Commission. Do you support the creation of international war and economic crimes court?

JB: I tell you, and I know quite a number of people who always say, “You said this one time.” When the TRC started it was my feeling that we go the South African way but we’ve seen, unlike South Africa, a lot of impunity.  Most of those responsible for most of the atrocities are the ones in leadership, they have not repented. They don’t believe they owe anybody an apology.

Now, you cannot live in a society, create harmony and reconcile when most of the people who don’t believe that they’re responsible for anything, they’re evasive about what they did and they seem as though they don’t even care.  When you have that kind of society, reconciliation becomes difficult.  So, a War Crimes Court might be able to teach the people that, to convince them that those who are convicted should bear the full force of the law, because they have been given enough time to be able to reconcile, they’ve been given enough time to realise what they’ve done and to even take measures with which they can begin to reconcile the society.

I don’t see much of that happening in Liberia.  Most of the war lords are the ones who want to be in the legislature, they’re the ones who want to be President, as if to say nothing has happened.  We’re not going to console people by being arrogant.  Impunity is what for me, I believe, should warrant the War Crimes Court to come, so that those who say they didn’t do anything can prove their innocence.  It has become necessary to do so.

AB: One of the vexing problems about a war crimes court in Liberia is that many of the likely targets – those identified by the 2007 Truth and Reconciliation Report as perpetrators – of any such court are either currently in office or still in politics. Would you continue to support the war crimes tribunal if charges were hypothetically filed against your own political allies, such as Benoni Urey?

Let’s call a spade a spade –everyone knows when they do wrong.  We have been given enough time to realise what we have done.  At least, unlike other places, it was about time that maybe even if by error you were put in a responsible position, you will say as part of all this, I think I need to do something, I need to understand that I still have some baggage and I need to reconcile.  Nobody has done that, so what do we do?   No matter what you try to do there are people who are hurting.

There are people who have lost their families, there are women who have lost their breadwinners, their children – and they are still hurting.  Has anybody reached out to them to say, “Look, I did this but I want forgiveness?”  If you don’t do that, how can I be responsible to say let bygones by bygones.  You will be pleasing some people and hurting some people.  That’s not a reconciled society.  People who do wrong must take the initiative to make up for the wrong.

AB: But my question is whether Benoni Uruy (as your political ally,) if found to be culpable, would you see him being tried and convicted?

 JB: As much as all of us who live in Liberia, all of us are aware that things were done that were harmful to society. Believe you me, not all of us know the degree to which each person played their part and I think that a thorough investigation will be necessary to find out who did what, under what conditions and how. I will not sit here to judge anybody because I don’t know what each person did and to what extent. That’s why I believe if I knew that someone did something wrong and they know that whatever happens they know the public is aware, they should take the initiative to correct that wrong.  I recall Benoni Uruy to be very frank, I don’t know to what extent.  There are lot of people who have a lot of information – I don’t have it because during the conflict I was not all the time in Monrovia – I live up country, I was up country before I came down….. So…..   I work with people as a team but individuals can always answer their question.

AB: You have a clear record of success in the fight against corruption in all its forms in your many years in government. How do you think this record will resonate with voters in the 2023 election?

JB: On the issue of corruption, people here take the Liberian people for granted.  They think that stealing money and sharing a bit with people will make you free.   People are not always looking for handout.  Every human being is looking for an opportunity to advance themselves.  To take their resources and become a personal custodian of their resources is not what they want.  Nobody wants to come to your door everyday to ask for rice or to send their children to school.  You don’t want to do that, so why would you want other people to do that?

When you are in leadership you understand that when people stood for you in line, and to vote for you, to support you, they were saying to you we trust you and we will entrust you with our resources, that you manage them to benefit us.  The fact that you ignore that and begin to think they are supposed to be looking on whilst you do that, I don’t think anybody can forgive them for that.

Corruption should be dealt with, but again in all of this it has to start from the head. You have to demonstrate that you have to stand firm, you cannot say it and do otherwise.  I believe this country can develop, this country can benefit and everyone can live well, as long as we don’t come to think that everybody should be working for us, whilst we send our children abroad, whilst we education our children in boarding schools. I don’t believe in that and I would never engage in that.

Corruption – well, you can’t wipe if completely.  But I can tell you, for me, corruption is a poison that destroys everything it touches, and if we don’t deal with it – Liberia, Africa – we’re not going to move anywhere and it’s about time that someone deals with it effectively.  We all must first declare our assets, make sure the public know what we are bringing to the table and everything that you do you, have to have a system in place.  People always have the temptation of getting away it, but you have to put a system in place, you have to make sure that people are compensated well for what they do, you have to make sure that people have integrity, institutions are working, they are fully in control and the people themselves that you put there are people who are reputable, people who love – you see the first thing is love of country.

A couple of years ago I came up with the slogan “Think Liberia, Love Liberia, be Liberia”.   You do not put people in office because of friendship, you have to know the character you put in office and to make sure than these people abide by rules and regulations that protect the society.  That’s what they call public service.  I think most people do not understand that public service means to serve the public.

If you want to make money go into business.  If you want to serve people come to public office, come with hands clean and willing to serve.  Most people come to public service with an intent to amass wealth, that’s not where you belong.  And so, a system must be put in place to make sure that people are quite aware but also in a way to make them love and appreciate their country and want to see the good of it.  And also the people, the poor people, the people who stood in line for them, the people who they’re supposed to serve.

I have said that most often as soon as we take office we take our briefcases to travel.  All public officials, all ministers must first go around the country – their country – and see the needs there.  What are you going to tell people elsewhere when you don’t know what is happening at home.

I believe also that leaders must be able to create a society that makes people feel they’re all a part of that.  I have said that we have 15 counties in Liberia, every county should have a minister, they must be represented, they must all know that they have obligations to this country.  And they must know that the resources…… I can tell you Liberia, we’ve been stalling at $600 million.  Liberia has a lot of resources that have not been recorded and not been reported – this is corruption.  This is being not sincere to the public, you make them look like they are poor, make them feel like they are beggars. We have to fight that.

So you bring people in for their competence, for their credibility to make sure that they’re here for public service and not for wealth amassing.  So I believe it can happen. Leadership means that first you have to be able to show the people that you’re committed to it.  I have lived in my house here for 40 years, I’m still happy being there – because if I were doing private business,  maybe I would have built a skyscraper, but I didn’t come up to do this because I wanted to be rich, because I have passion for the country, I have passion for small children that I see.

We have created a lot of hooligans around because they don’t trust the society, they don’t trust the leadership, so everybody begins to scramble for everything. You have to demonstrate that you want a system that is equitable, that they get good drinking water, a society that people can get good medical facilities, a society that their children can be educated.  But they have to pay and their resources must be channelled properly.  I think I have every reason to believe that when they see that you can demonstrate that your children, yourself, your home they have nothing to do buy fall in line.  Corruption can be minimised in Africa, but leadership must ensure that.

The final part of the interview will be published on Saturday


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