AB: One of the most important aspects of the presidency is working with the House and the Senate to pass legislation. In your twelve years as Vice President, you presided over the Senate and managed to pass many important pieces of legislation, concession agreements, and other accomplishments that have shaped the country. What did this experience teach you about how to successfully govern and work with the House and Senate?
JB: Our society is beset with a lot of problems. This is the only country in West Africa where you have 20 parties, so many independents. These people do not understand, they do not believe they are committed to anybody, they make decisions based on their own interest, they’re not reporting to anybody, they’re not committed to anybody. It is difficult. They approve documents based on incentives, any kind of thing. We first have to start with our electoral law to limit the number of political parties. So, you have people who have self-interests but this is a problem with the whole society that needs to be corrected to show what responsibilities are.
AB: Besides the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is at the top of mind for many Liberians who are still struggling to get by. If elected president, what would you do to get Liberia’s economy moving again?
I don’t believe in the budget that is projected, I don’t believe in the income sector. I know Liberia’s resources. The resources to support the budget are much more than have been reported. There is a problem of confidence, there’s a problem of some deliberate effort to keep the budget as it is. There’s no way you can tell me with all of what is happening we remain at $500-600 million all through the year. But again, I am saying that things are what they are because that’s how people see them to be.
There’s no care about what happens outside the city, nobody understands how people live up country. They don’t care. But I believe that measures can be in place to boost the budget of this country to $1 billion a year. And I know that can happen because I know there’s so much under-reporting in the country, people are not committed, people are not sincere, this is all part of the corruption. Because society is not educated enough, that they will account to, people don’t even know their own constituencies, they don’t know the obligations they have to them and that’s what happens. But they don’t also realise that what’s happening effects everybody.
You get sick and they have to take you to the hospital that has no medication, maybe you might be privileged to go outside the country but how long can you do that. So, I believe that the Liberian economy can take a leap, in no less than 2-3 years. With my agricultural background, I can boast of being the only person starting the rural areas in production, processing and quality control, then moving into the marketing part of agriculture, then from there becoming a minister. So, I understand and I know that agriculture can substantially transform our economy. We should be able to feed ourselves, but you have to reasonably understand, have to reasonably appreciate what you have as a diet and come up to the task. You do not appoint people to those places based on friendship. We have a lot of qualified people around, these days you don’t reinvent the wheel, there’s a lot of places to go to get education from to be able to make things happen, but you have to be open to it and that all comes with who you are, how you’re able to take knowledge and transform it – and if you’re interested in doing that you can do it.
AB: While the Unity Party government under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and yourself made immense progress in Liberia’s economic and social development, you have said yourself that some opportunities were ‘squandered’ in these years. If elected president, how would you do things differently this time around?
JB: Maybe squandered was a strong word but I can tell you that I came on board with President Sirleaf for being the first female leader of Africa. She was a darling of Africa. If we had committed our time to rebuilding this country full time and taken advantage of every opportunity we had, doors that were open would have stayed open. It’s like you lose a spouse, everybody will go to see you for the first week to console you. After that they are gone. So, you have to know that the help that is coming is not forever, it’s for a time and you have to fully maximise the use of that help.
I remember when Nancy Pelosi came to Liberia and she said, ‘Ellen you lead the world, I like Liberia, I will make sure electricity is here.’ There are a lot of things we could have taken advantage of. Maybe it might sound offensive but I sat and the President knows that every time she asked me of a person, can they deliver and she asked me what you think about the implementation, there were a lot of things we could have done, there were a lot of projects we could have undertaken and we delayed. Some of them were just last-minute efforts and when you are a developing country at the receiving end you make sure whatever comes you use it effectively, whether it is good natured or not because those donors, those people who are giving are not there forever. So, we missed out on a lot of things that we could have taken advantage of. I don’t have regret to say it.
AB: How would YOU do things differently if you came to power?
JB: You don’t sit down to prescribe the implementation of what opportunities you may have, they depend on what you’re taking about. You have a country, you know very well you’re not going to build an economy when there are not rules. Your own resources, they disappear without you knowing because you don’t know who is there doing what. You have to able to create those opportunities that will make people in the rural community, people who live elsewhere, to see that their life can be better. And I know for sure that when I say road number 1, road number 2, I know for sure that with good roads prices will come down, bad roads create high prices. With roads you have a healthier society because what they want will reach them. You ask a school supervisor to go to supervise a school – if the road is bad, they’re not going to go but pretend that they go. So, the role of government is to create that enabling environment. Tourism can prosper here. So, make those things that make things happen and I know for sure that I have an idea of what can make things happen in this country. I could consider to tell you all that’s going to happen but I can definitely tell you that the possibilities are there and they will happen under my administration.
Read the full interview in the September–October issue of Africa Briefing Magazine, out next week