What would you tell the naysayers who claim you have no political experience?
My experience in Liberian politics is something I’m very proud of, the fact that I don’t have ‘experience’, because if you look at the country today after 170 years, if that’s the kind of experience it would take to change Liberia, that’s not the kind of experience we want or need. Liberia needs a different set of experiences. Running a big corporation requires … you’ve got to make resource allocation decisions, you’ve got to manage people, you have to manage budgets. In government, you have to do the same thing. With any business, you have to hold people accountable. We need to do that in government as well. So my experience is relevant in many ways, but it’s different, and it’s the kind of experience Liberia needs.
The economy is a big issue here in Liberia. According to the IMF, Liberia has the fifth highest prices for food staples on the continent. What will you do for the Liberian consumer?
We are going to look very quickly at all of our taxation and regulatory policies with a view of reducing or eliminating so that Liberians can be successful in business. We’re going to look at all the reasons why rice is as expensive as it is. We’re going to look at how we can strengthen the Liberian dollar; all these actions to take the pressure off Liberian consumers. Because inflation is running high, unemployment is high, so we have to take some dramatic actions to change the economic environment. We’re making it too difficult for business, particularly Liberian businesses, to be successful. We’re going to reduce regulation. We’re going to simplify things. I will make sure that Liberians are not spectators to their economy.
You say you will lower salaries for of elected officials and give money to underpaid, overworked civil servants. How, exactly, will you accomplish this?
First of all, on Tuesday, Liberians need to elect ANC legislators. The entire House, as you know, is up for election. We have 69 people running. We want to try to get a majority in the lower house. And I think there’s a good chance that we will. That will make it a little easier, because they’ve all pledged to reduce their compensation. It is obscene- in one of the poorest countries in the world, our legislators make more than legislators in the richest countries, like the United States, for example. That is sinful. And the Liberian people understand this. Through peaceful means, we’ll put pressure on the legislature to reduce. And we’ll do it in the executive branch. We’ll also reduce compensation to pay people more money who actually do the work.
You’re also talking about per diems?
Yes. Not just salaries, all of the allowances. The amount of gas or petrol allowance for people. Scratch cards. We have to look at everything. Because, again, you can’t live too far above the people you govern. When you live too far above the people you lead, you don’t feel the pressure, the pain, and so there’s no incentive to change. An average teacher make about 100-150 US dollars a month. A legislator, all in, makes anywhere between 15 to 17,000 US dollars a month. That cannot be right. The wonderful news is that we live in a democracy in Liberia, and citizens can put pressure on their legislator to change, and I think we’ll be successful in doing this. We’ll certainly be very persistent.
Ebola ravaged the country. Can you give some specifics on how you would improve healthcare?
All of our policies are focused on those areas that impact most Liberians. We have set our priorities with primary healthcare and preventative healthcare. The reason why this is important is because most Liberians are impacted by malaria, typhoid, diarrhea; our mothers, sisters, wives having children. And primary healthcare will address those basic needs of our people. We’ll look at water and sanitation as well, because that’s where you get challenges with Ebola. We talk about infrastructure as a priority, water being a priority. And then preventative healthcare, helping people before they get ill.
You’re originally from Maryland County in the rural southeast of the country, where roads are non-existent. They are cut off from the rest of Liberia. Rural voters have been suffering here. You’re a native son-- what do you say to them?
I say to them, ‘We are going to fix your roads.’ I like to be practical. We are going to fix the roads in Liberia once and for all because we are going to aggressively look at privatizing infrastructure, public-private partnerships, and bring foreign investors to try and fix our roads. But in the interim, there are parts of the roads that every year are impassible and have been so for 170 years. We will fix those paths right away. Because it will take time, frankly, to get the road entirely paved. We have to be practical. Because of the heavy rains, you basically have 6-7 months a year to fully work on roads. That will take us time. We will fix it, but not right away. But in the interim, we know where those parts are, so between here and Maryland, depending on which route you go, there are 10 or 12 impassible areas that are cut off. We will fix those right away, so that the southeast, not just Maryland, but starting from Sinoe, all the way through River Gee. We have to fix those parts so that people can get to and from. And then we will privatize so that we can fix roads across the country.
This interview has been abridged; for the complete interview, listen to the sound above