A Q&A With Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Liberia's president in 2005, she inherited a country wrecked by civil war and began to transform it. Today, school enrollment is up 40 percent, Monrovia has power and running water, and trade in diamonds and timber is up again. NEWSWEEK's Jina Moore met recently with the former World Bank economist to talk about terrorism, the resource curse, and Obama's Africa agenda.

Is Obama keeping his promises to African leaders and their people?
He did not make great promises, and we did not expect great promises. What he did is set the principle on which U.S. assistance will be based. We in Africa must take the first step to justify that confidence and the support we want.

What should top his Africa agenda?
Infrastructure. Infrastructure enables us to attract private capital and investment, recognizing that we cannot continue to depend on aid. We've got to be able to build our economies.

Critics have called the U.S. military's new AfriCom a U.S. attempt to counter Chinese influence in Africa. Do you agree? Is Liberia still willing to host AfriCom headquarters?
It's still on the table. [But] AfriCom as a means of trying to compete with China? We don't share that view. If there's any way to compete with China, it's through the private sector. If you look at the investment China has made in Africa, in minerals and fisheries and agriculture, you find that it's far, far more than U.S. investors.

As rumors circulate that Al Qaeda has moved into the Sahel, is terrorism coming to West Africa?
No, I don't see that. If there's anything we're concerned about, it's drug trafficking. West Africa has been used as a major transit point for drugs from Latin America. To the extent that drug trafficking also supports terrorist activities, then we need to be concerned.

Liberia is pursuing offshore drilling. But after a conflict fueled in part by diamonds and timber, Liberia also knows the resource curse. Is the country ready for oil?
I think so. It's a changed world. Before, despotic governments could get away with [embezzlement]; today we have a very empowered society in which accountability is demanded by the people.

As of last year, more people world-wide live in cities than in rural areas. How is Africa handling this population shift?
Urbanization is a big issue in Africa. I think we have to do much more to turn rural areas into mini-cities, where they have the same kinds of opportunities.

As the first female elected head of state in Africa, you've earned a reputation for advancing women's causes. Can a man effectively empower women?
I will say yes. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has done tremendously well in empowering women—I think his results are even better than my own. Today, Rwanda's Parliament has over 50 percent women. We've not been able to achieve that. We've put women in strategic places, but I don't have the critical mass of women to, say, have an all-women cabinet, which I would very much like to do.

The sun seems to be setting on African strongmen. What is the future of leadership on the continent?
I see democracy, defined by us as participation by people, and choices. In 1979 we had only three democracies in Africa. Today we have 18, and those 18 are standing out because they've shown that with democracy, development seems to foster. There may be one or two laggards—we don't move at the same pace—but it's gaining a foothold, and there's no way it can be reversed.