Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
African Methodist Episcopal University
May 16, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for having me here today. I am thrilled to be back in Liberia where my international journey began as a graduate student decades ago. And I’m thrilled to be back in the country where I had the honor of serving you as U.S. Ambassador from 2008-2012.
Since 2012, I’ve only been back to Liberia for one day, and I’ve really missed the country and its wonderful people. This time I’ve got four days only, and I’m packing the schedule with as many events as I can fit in! This for me is the most important event.
I’d like to offer my thoughts on where Liberia has come from, the challenges that it still faces, and how all of us can do our part to secure a bright future for Liberia and its people.
First of all, let me congratulate all Liberians on the tremendous progress your country has made in recent years. To quote your president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s people have moved from tragedy to triumph. The 15 year civil war that ended in 2003 devastated the country in every aspect imaginable. GDP fell by 90 percent.
But 13 years later, Liberia has become a champion of democracy and peace, and has taken some important first steps in the difficult task of rebuilding its economy and strengthening its educational and health care delivery systems even in the face of an unprecedented challenge like the Ebola epidemic. You have shown your commitment to foster an open society by joining the Open Government Partnership, and the Partnership on Illicit Finance, and you have put in place laws and mechanisms to improve transparency, accountability, and fight corruption.
It is also notable that during the past 13 years of peace, Liberia has held three free and fair nation-wide elections; two presidential and one Senate mid-term.
Liberians showed their tremendous resilience and faith in the midst of and the aftermath of the Ebola crisis.
Now, the task ahead is to make sure Liberia stays on this positive trajectory. Liberia has moved up the democracy ladder and it is moving toward a more prosperous future.
Despite this impressive progress, Liberia continues to face daunting challenges, and real risks of backsliding remain – we cannot let that happen.
The Ebola epidemic exposed the fragility of Liberia’s heath sector and economy.
Over 50% of Liberia’s population is under 18. This presents great opportunities, but significant challenges as well. To accommodate this population bulge, Liberia must create jobs, it must develop infrastructure, it must diversify its economy, and improve its education system. More importantly, it must remain stable.
All of these things are going to be a challenge to Liberians given depressed economic conditions and in particular the global slump in commodity prices, which impacts Liberia’s principal exports and contributes to low economic growth.
While the government can do very little to affect commodity prices, much more can be done to improve the country’s investment climate. According to the World Bank 2016 Ease of Doing Business indicators, Liberia was ranked 179 out of 189 countries surveyed. As you yourselves undoubtedly feel, this is not good enough, and as a result, Liberia is being left behind by some of its more dynamic regional neighbors such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
One of the major challenges to the private sector in Liberia and Africa writ large is corruption.
We must fight corruption if we want to see the country progress. As President Obama said last year in Ethiopia, “Nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption.” Corruption robs countries of vital resources needed to move forward on development. Liberia cannot afford to lose these resources, so all of us must commit to working together to stop corruption at all levels and stop people from using their political connections to fill their bank accounts and build their mansions.
Liberia must also stay focused on maintaining peace, enforcing the rule of law, and providing security – now, more than ever, as Liberia prepares for the challenge of taking on sole responsibility and the reins for the security of its people. I am confident that Liberia is ready for this challenge, but it will require resolve, ingenuity, and agility in the face of challenges – the same attributes that have brought Liberia so far from its darkest days.
Adding to the challenges facing Liberia, West Africa, and Africa — a persistent terrorist threat. I have just come from Nigeria where we discussed with your neighbors and partners how to tackle Boko Haram, which is having a devastating impact on Africa’s most populous country. We have seen terrorists strike not just Nigeria, but Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire – targeting Africans and tourists and threatening to undermine many of the gains the region has made over the past years. People, let me tell you, Liberia is not exempt from the threat.
Capacity building and commitment by Liberia’s security services must be a priority.
These are just some of the current challenges, and they are challenges that Liberia’s current and next administration must be prepared to address as well. But in the face of numerous obstacles, Liberians have remained incredibly resilient, and that’s why I know that, ultimately, Liberia will succeed.
As Liberia moves forward, the United States will continue to be a dedicated partner. The U.S.-Liberia relationship dates back nearly 200 years. Since 2004, the United States has contributed over $1 billion in foreign assistance to this country. We are fully invested in Liberia’s promise, and like you, we want to see that promise realized.
Liberia has one of the lowest electricity access rates in the world. In Monrovia, only 6.7% of the population has access to electricity. By 2030, Liberia aims to connect 70% of Monrovia to the electricity grid and provide access to 35% of the rest of the country. The United States, through Power Africa, is committed to continuing to support Liberia’s efforts to meet these goals.
President Obama’s Power Africa initiative is making a major impact by supporting energy sector development through the expansion of the grid in Monrovia and the construction of small-scale, renewable pilot projects. Power Africa is also building government capacity and providing training and advisory support to key energy sector institutions.
We’re also making progress in implementing the $257 million Liberia Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. The MCC Compact aims to improve road infrastructure as well as support the expansion of access to reliable and affordable electricity. To achieve those goals, the compact includes funding for the rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee Hydroelectric Plant, development of a training center for technicians in the electricity sector, and support for the creation of an independent energy sector regulator. This is a big deal.
We continue to help Liberia recover from the devastating Ebola outbreak. Ebola killed thousands, drained vitally-needed resources, slowed economic growth, and delayed key development projects. The United States led a worldwide response that has helped Liberia bring Ebola under control.
And our commitment endures; we are working with Liberia to build resilient health systems, continuing research on Ebola and other emerging diseases, and beginning programming through our Global Health Security Agenda to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats.
Through our commitment to Liberia’s peace and security, we have supported the development of the Armed Forces of Liberia. As we enter into a new phase of collaboration with the AFL, I want to congratulate the officers and soldiers who have truly developed into a professional force for good. These dedicated men and women have proven capable of safeguarding Liberian sovereignty.
President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative has been a tremendous success. Through YALI, we have brought 31 Liberians to the United States over the past two years for six weeks of academic and leadership training. This year, we are doubling the size of the program Africa-wide and will have 25 YALI Fellows from Liberia.
These YALI Fellows are simply outstanding. I meet with them whenever I visit Africa, and later today I’m excited to meet Liberia’s 2016 Fellows. YALI Fellows are already making major contributions to Liberia. Recently, YALI alumni from Liberia founded their own NGO, the Mandela Washington Fellowship Liberia. They are implementing a program called iMentor, which engages and mentors young community leaders in four counties through a train-the-trainers program on leadership and community activism. Just this past weekend, the group conducted an iMentor program in Brewerville for 400 local youth.
These are just some of the examples of the benefits that the strong U.S.-Liberia partnership is providing to Liberia. They demonstrate the rapid progress Liberia is making. But ultimately, Liberia needs to be in the driver’s seat for its ongoing development.
The same goes for democracy. Only Liberians can determine the course of Liberia’s democracy and the kind of democracy you want. And a strong, inclusive democracy is absolutely essential to secure the progress Liberia has made.
This brings me to upcoming elections.
For the U.S., democracy and governance are a key priority. There are more than a dozen elections on the continent in 2017. Liberia’s 2017 elections are an opportunity for it to create its own destiny and a strong democracy. Showing great respect for the constitution and the people of Liberia, President Sirleaf is stepping down after two terms in office. This is a big deal given what we have seen elsewhere. She is committed to a peaceful transfer of power in accordance with the law, and I applaud her for that crucial decision.
That decision gives you, the people and youth of Liberia, an historic opportunity. You will really be the first generation to see the peaceful transition of power from one living, sitting president, to another, both elected by the people. When this happens, Liberia will be an example of a true democracy in Africa, and for you to elect a leader for other countries on the continent to emulate.
The elections are well over a year away and it is far too early to turn away from the business of governing. It is not, however, too soon for you to think about what shape you want your country’s future to take. The upcoming elections, rather than being a challenge, are an opportunity for you to demand that presidential candidates put forward a vision of unity, peace, and democracy and elect a leader who will carry Liberia towards that future.
For many of you young people here today, this will be your first opportunity to vote for president. Look carefully at the candidates, their platforms, their records. Ask them what their vision is for Liberia. Ask thoughtful questions and demand responses. This, men and women, and I stress women, is your opportunity to help shape the future of the country.
You must get away from personality politics. Stress issues. Thus, politicians must stand on platforms and not personalities.
Once the political season begins to heat up, politicians must be conscious in their actions and their words that they don’t contribute to violence. I say to you, do not allow yourselves to be used as political pawns. Politicians must actively work to promote national unity and demand a peaceful process even while competing to earn votes. They need to think about others, and not just about themselves. And they must think carefully about their policies. Those who would take the country backward should rethink their strategy. Liberia’s elections will be on the world stage.
On election day, get out and vote! You will reaffirm your commitment to peaceful change through democratic processes, rather than riots and taking to the streets. Candidates, likewise, will need to accept the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box.
If your candidate does not win, do not immediately assume fraud or rigged elections. Liberia has very good procedures in place to handle electoral disputes.
Recognizing that significant challenges remain with respect to the organization of the elections, we are still confident that the National Elections Commission will run free, fair, and transparent elections, just as they have done in the past. We are also certain that the Liberian security agencies will be able to secure the polling stations and ballots and work alongside the NEC to ensure these elections are a success.
Let me stress, violence must be avoided at all cost. No one should die in an effort to express their political beliefs. Politicians should be clear on that.
And finally, as important as the 2017 elections will be, it bears repeating that they are still more than a year away, and Liberians can’t afford to focus solely on elections. Elections are just one milestone in a democracy. Democracy is a constant process requiring consistent, continued efforts to move forward.
When I think about Liberia’s future, I think first of all the hard-working, resilient, intelligent, and kind Liberians I got to know during my years here of working in this country. Because of you, I have tremendous confidence in Liberia’s future. I know that Liberia will continue to grow into its role as a leader in Africa.
To the students here today, and to all Liberians, I urge you to listen to the words of your president, who said at a Harvard University graduation ceremony, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Dream big, and believe in yourselves and your country.
We know that as Liberians, you can take charge of your fate. We saw this in your response to Ebola. And the United States stands with the people and the government of Liberia as you chart your path toward a peaceful and prosperous future and become an example of democracy and prosperity for the rest of Africa to follow. Thank you so much.