U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and team meeting with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and party (file photo).
Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan has been involved in Liberian politics since student days during his country’s long period of conflict and civil strife in the 1990s. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tapped him to join her first Cabinet in 2006 as budget director. In 2008, she named him minister of finance and in 2012 made him foreign minister. In an interview, conducted in Dubai last November during one of his diplomatic missions abroad, he discussed the government’s foreign policy priorities. Excerpts:
The overarching thrust of our foreign policy is development diplomacy, economic diplomacy. I try to get significant support for the country in our rebuilding effort, whether it’s in education, health or energy, where we have a serious situation to deal with. We have one of the highest [electricity] rates in the world at 54 cents per kilowatt-hour.
And so we are inviting people who can address the energy sector. We are also looking at our petroleum sector. There was a discovery of oil; we are now trying to ascertain the commercial viability. Big players have come in, like Exxon Mobil, Chevron and others, but we are inviting others because we still have some blocks [available]. We have laws that are transparent and competitive. So we are drifting a little bit from the normal concerns of foreign affairs to assist the country on its path of economic progress.
Do you encounter skepticism about Liberia and the reality of the recovery?
Definitely. The Liberia of 10 years ago is a far cry from Liberia today, and we have to update investors and governments because, evidently, the images from our war were traumatizing. If people remember those images, they are afraid to come to Liberia. But it’s not just Liberia. The Mano River Region was a crisis hotbed – Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. Now all of these countries are on a solid path to democracy.
Sierra Leone ended their war. Democracy is thriving. There was difficulty in Cote d’Ivoire, but democracy is being restored, and they are on a path of reconciliation. Guinea had parliamentary elections, although with challenges. So the region has turned a corner.
Investors need not just look at what we do as a country but at the whole region. There are many opportunities. For example, we have concluded arrangements whereby Guinean iron ore will be shipped through the Liberian port of Buchanan, which is good for both countries, a win-win.
These are partnerships that we are starting to help our countries to integrate regionally. We are telling the world that we have a different story across our region. It’s a good story. We are saying: come and be a part of the progress.
Does your previous role as Finance Minister assist as you undertake development diplomacy?
Yes it does. Maybe because of our foreign policy trust, the president thought to shift me from finance to foreign affairs. But let me say that the minister of finance has to represent the country also. In my former capacity, whether in Washington, DC, meeting people at the IMF or the World Bank or the U.S. Treasury, I represented the country. And I made it my business to always carry the Liberian ambassador with me.
One of things that engaged a lot of attention in my former capacity was seeking debt cancellation for Liberia. We had been buffeted with more than $5 billion in external debt. Our debt-to-GDP ratio was one of the worst in the world. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power, our budget was just about U.S. $80 million. So obviously our capacity to pay that debt was completely non-existent. We did lot of shuttle diplomacy from one capital to another, putting forth the case for debt cancellation. And in 2010 we achieved that. So all those things, all those skills that we used are very useful for foreign affairs.
As Foreign Minister, when I have met investors, they were not talking politics. They were talking business; they were talking economics; they were talking country risks; they were talking guarantees. They were talking issues that only someone with economic/financial background could address. And so it makes for effectiveness, it makes for concreteness in our diplomatic approach.
Liberia seems to be on good terms with all the major powers. How do you manage relations with the countries that want to be your friend?
I think Liberia has done a wonderful job pulling in all the significant partners in a win-win way, whether it’s the U.S. government or China or many others. The U.S. government is in Liberia big time. China is in Liberia big time supporting other sectors. They are a major partner.
Japan is also in Liberia big time. One of our highways in Monrovia will be done by Japan. They are going to extend a two-lane road to a four-lane road. I signed that agreement amounting to about U.S. $50 million. The Japan-Liberia friendship hospital has been rehabilitated.
It helped a whole lot in the 80s, so they are coming back in a big way.
Japan always gives us a food aid grant that we monetize. We sell the food, and they also provide petroleum aid. We sell the petroleum. And monies generated from there we use for economic development. We invest in education and social services.
Regarding the very strong relationship with the United States, one of the things that happened is the institutionalization of the relationship through the Liberia-U.S. Partnership Dialogue. As President Sirleaf has said, this will outlast presidents who are now in office. We now have an institutional framework of engaging.
But besides that, the U.S. government has been with us through thick and thin. Most of the assistance we received for the rebuilding of our army came from the U.S. government. USAID is assisting a lot of sectors.
Whether it’s the economy, agriculture or education, their presence is ubiquitous in a positive way. The Peace Corps have returned to Liberia and are rendering significant service to our people. So the U.S. government continues to be Liberia’s significant partner, though we have other partners that are helping us. The colossal nature of the challenge we face requires partnerships from across the world. That’s why we are positioning ourselves to receive the world, though we don’t forget our old friends.
Would you share your story and how you came to where you are now?
I was a student leader from high school. I attended a technical and vocational high school called the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata.
At the time we had President Samuel Kanyon Doe. We stood for the rights of students, and we had our fair share of challenges. Then the civil war came and took us off course.
As a young man, I spent a decade pursuing an undergraduate degree when I should have spent just four. But it was a period when we learned the hard way. We were not just in the classroom, but we were in the real room of the world getting to know the hard story of Liberia. I was elected president of the student union of the University of Liberia in one of the toughest periods of our history when President Charles Taylor was president. And at a point the entire society depended on the student community to speak out because many political leaders had fled for their lives. We had to fill the gaps.
What year did you become president of the student union?
It was 1998. I entered university in 1990. I spent a decade because there were intermittent closures. As I said , the entire society depended on us to stand up and advocate, not just for students but for the country in general. That was an onerous responsibility, but I think we rose to the challenge, speaking truth to power in peril of our lives.
Today democracy has been restored. This comes from the sacrifices of many, some of whom are dead. We say peace to their ashes. Some of us now have the opportunity to be government.
How does that history affect the way you perform your duties as a minister?
We don’t have to get lectures from anyone today to do the right thing.
All I need to do is to read the speeches I made when I was not in government. Those speeches challenge me as a government minister. In government now, I am one of those charged with righting our wrongs. I try to do my part. We as Liberians all need to commit ourselves to doing our part and doing it so well that our country will progress and not retrogress.
While you were student president, you had a notable encounter with the then president, Charles Taylor. What happened?
Taylor called a “Vision 2024” conference to craft a vision for progress of the country and invited a lot of stakeholders. I think he decided to use that to prove to the world that he was not the bad leader that people felt he was. A lot of individuals came, speaking on various issues, lavishing sycophancies to the president. They were not addressing core issues.
We insisted that he should hear from young people, and so he dedicated two days for the young people. As president of the University of Liberia Student Union, I decided to speak to my president in an honest way. At that time almost all significant opposition leaders had left the country, and one of the few opposition leaders in the country had just been killed. Ecomog, the West African peacekeeping force that had helped the country go to elections was practically driven out of the country.
The country had a bleak future. We couldn’t see where we were going.
I had to speak out not just for students at the university but for Liberia generally. I asked the president: Where are these people? Where are Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson, Prince Johnson, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf , Harry Moniba and all the others? I asked him: were they safe to return? I asked, are we really reconciled?
We also raised issues about the premature departure of Ecomog and the risks that provided. We raised concern about the restructuring of the army, because the framework was to have a multi-ethnic, geographically balanced, factionless army. But the Abuja Accord was not respected by the president, because the army was really dominated by people from his faction. So I raised that issue, and President Taylor did not like that.
He grilled me after my speech – he didn’t grill any other person. But through the grilling process, he allowed me to bring up more facts.
He said I misinterpreted the Abuja Accord because I said [it] was not being respected. So he told the Minister of Justice “go and bring me the accord and let him tell me where I have deviated.” When they brought the document and Mr. Taylor asked me to read, I refused. It was not the Abuja Accord but a communique Taylor had signed with the Nigerian leader [General Sani] Abacha. It was a two-man communique to scrap the Abuja Accord and not respect the spirit of the accord. As respectfully as I could, I said: “Mr. President this is not the Abuja accord.” He asked me three times. Respectfully I declined. He was not happy but he had to allow me go to my seat.
Did you take new safety precautions after that?
I had to be shifting sleeping places in Monrovia until things stabilized a little bit. But the entire country held its breath, because they could not believe that someone would talk to Taylor that way. When I was speaking, I wasn’t scared. But when I watched the clip on television later where I was hiding, I got scared. While I was talking, the camera focused on the security chief, Benjamin Yeaten. He had his gun and could have blown me off right on the stage!
Every Liberian has a story about what happened in his or her own track.
But we need to learn from our hard past and commit not to repeat some of the mistakes we have made, because if we make those mistakes and hope for a better outcome, we will be fooling ourselves. We need to remember that more than two hundred thousand of our compatriots lost their lives in this conflict. We in government have responsibility to inspire our people to make sure that they have faith in our actions. That’s the only way that we can bring them along and transition the country peacefully into the kind of prosperity that we all need.
How would you sum up the message you promote on behalf of your country and government?
For fourteen years we were embroiled in one of the worst internecine crises on earth. In 2003, Liberian political and military factions decided to study war no more. And for 10 consecutive years we have had peace. For 10 consecutive years, Liberia has been on the path to democracy. We are writing the new Liberia story. And our president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been championing Liberia’s re-entry into the global community.
In 2006, she made a historic speech at our Independence Day celebration saying: “Liberia is back.” With her leadership, we have tried to ensure that Liberia regains its rightful place in the community of nations. We have engaged the international community to put forth the new Liberia story. That is a story of development. We are lifting our people from the deep dungeons of poverty. The war obviously set us back and so it’s a herculean task, but we are repositioning our country as a country of democracy, as a country of progress, and we need win-win partnerships.