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Ellen Sirleaf
Ellen Sirleaf
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Ellen Sirleaf Interview

Nobel Prize for Peace

July 4, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Ellen Sirleaf

Going back for a moment to the Liberia of your childhood, paint a picture of what it was like politically and socially at that time. Was there a lot of strife? Was it a relatively peaceful period?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: If we're talking about my childhood, yeah, very peaceful. Underdeveloped countries, not too many of the comforts that one would find other places. But a happy childhood, free from violence, free from lawlessness. The extended family system made everybody someone else's keeper. Of course, that all was changed when the trouble started in 1979. When we had the Rice Riots, and a year later in 1980 a coup d'état, the whole environment had changed. But during my childhood, and up until the time when I was moving up professionally, the country was a great place to be. Everybody knew everybody. It's a small country, small population. So it was easy to move around, easy to pursue what one wanted. The difficulty started after.

What happened in 1979? What were the Rice Riots?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: There was, as we have now, commodity price increases and shortages of basic commodities, and rice was one of them. Rice is the staple of our country. So the price of rice went up and there was an attempt to try to stabilize the price by increasing it, so as to provide incentive for domestic production, and that led to riots. Now the riot said to be based on rice really was also a result of political turbulence, because there already was the movement to challenge the status quo. We had had the monopolization of power and privilege in the country for a long time, and the educated indigenous population was already emboldened. So the shortage of rice provided an excuse for that. But that led to over-reactive force by the government that left a lot of people dead. People were then imprisoned, and so the soldiers then, a year later, decided to stage a coup d'état. These were uncommissioned officers, and as you know, there was tremendous brutality associated with that, where 13 people were tied to stakes on a beach and shot. So many people were killed. I was then an official Minister of Finance, the head of my Ministry.

Working for President Tolbert?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes, it was the Tolbert government. I was in the Ministry as a Deputy at the time of the Rice Riots in '79. The Minister then was removed. I was actually appointed Minister after that in '79. So when the coup d'état came, I was the Minister of Finance. The previous Minister was shot. There were four of us, of all the cabinet, that were spared, that were not killed or something. I was sent away on virtual house arrest for a while.

President Tolbert was killed, wasn't he? Along with most of his cabinet?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The President was killed. There were 13 persons, not all of them cabinet ministers. I think about ten of them were cabinet ministers that were all shot.

The leader that took over then was Samuel Doe. Could you tell us about him?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Samuel Doe was a sergeant, a very young sergeant who led the rebellion and led all the action that took over. He pronounced himself the leader and proceeded to govern. Of course, he started off making sure that the order was totally challenged and uprooted. But it didn't take very long for him to adopt some of the same practices that he and his colleagues had criticized so much. As a matter of fact, even worse, because they introduced violence into the society and they ruled by fiat, by decrees. The criticism of the settler population monopolizing power was simply replaced by his own ethnic group monopolizing power. And of course, there was not much done. A lot of corruption, not much development. And the brain drain, most of the talented people left the country. Capital flight, most of the businesses closed and sent their money out, and that started the economic freefall that we're only just recovering from.

How did you end up under house arrest?

Ellen Sirleaf Interview Photo
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I was in a house the morning of the coup, and I was called to report and I didn't. I waited until it was safe enough to go. So I was escorted every day to a house, to stay there and to come back every morning and report. Now if you're talking about the house arrest later on, during the general elections, that's much further along the way.

We'll get to that too. You must have been in fear for your life. So many other Ministers had been shot to death.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Oh yeah. Everybody had fear for their lives, particularly anybody who was working in the old order. You had to have a fear for your life.

At some point you went to Kenya. Is that right?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Yes. When I left the country, at the end of 1980, I actually went back to the World Bank. I was on leave from the World Bank when I came back in 1977. I went back to the World Bank for a year, but then I had a very good offer from Citicorp. That's what took me to Nairobi as a Vice President of the Citibank regional office. I lived there for five years.

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