Her Excellency Chief Dr. Jewel Howard Taylor, the Vice President, Republic of Liberia is a rare gem; one Liberian politician whose tree of political relevance and strength cannot be cut down with razor blades. The former first lady has been a senior senator in Liberia’s parliament representing Bong County where she performed excellently to the admiration of the Liberian people. The first female Vice president in the country in this interview with Michael Adeboboye, President, Congress of African Journalists/CAJ International Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Madam Taylor fondly called in the political landscape of Liberia speaks on her perception to life, marriage with the former president Charles Taylor and divorce, Africa, support for President George Weah’s second term bid and other interesting issues. Excerpts:
Question: Watching some of your interviews, I picked one on January 19, 2023; where from your responses to questions on LNTV, you were pictured as a good person and a committed Christian, who knows what it is to love and fear God; a mother and wife who knows what it takes to build a good home and raise great children. H.E, is there anything I am missing in the perspective and are you a perfect being without spot or blemish?
The truth is that I am not a perfect person or an angel. In fact, no human being is perfect. But if I were to think beyond your question, on a scale of 1 to 10; I would give myself an 8. I can say in my own defense that I am a woman with a good heart, who has the fear of God, who because of my belief system has remained in the trenches fighting for women’s educational, political and economic empowerment for over 20 years. This is by the grace of God. I believe that I am a good role model and an example of a good citizen. I continue to try to be a great sibling, mother and grandmother. I strive to be a committed and dedicated social worker – doing my best to provide opportunities for females -a job I have done for over 20 years; and I am a loyal and committed friend. But key to your question is: Have I made mistakes in my life? YES indeed, as all men born of a woman. Have those mistakes determined the choices I make or determined who I am? NO. For I have a central compass which guides my steps. Though I have stumbled and fallen many times, I know that challenges are only steppingstones for learning and becoming wiser. Sadly, as it is in life today, women are adjudged more harshly than their male colleagues in similar circumstances. Let’s look at a few issues: some issues being raised about me in some quarters are about me having some friends with shady characters. I want to note that in the journey of life, each one meets many persons along their journey; the bad, the good, the ugly, the beautiful, the brilliant, the simple, the cowardly, the brave, the friends for life and those for a moment. This entire spectrum makes up the Kaleidoscope of one’s life. This year, I have turned 60 years old. I now have before me less years than what has passed. As a result, I have met, engaged, collaborated and interacted with maybe over 30,000 persons. The picture to see is that – if I have in my journey met 3 or 4 persons who may have a shady character or have been accused of one crime or the other – is it fair to judge my entire life, including all the great impact I have made in the lives of many, especially females across the globe; as being a woman with questionable character thus unworthy to stand where I am in this time in history? I believe that this is the thrust of those who cast doubt about who I am. But I believe a person’s life should be characterized by a sum of all they are and not on some hateful unsubstantiated rumor or allegations that because I have friends who may or may not be “so-called good citizens” – that means I am a sham and pretending to be good. My life has been an open book since I became Liberia’s First Lady in 1997 up till now and believe that my records speak for me. Clearly, the laws which guide our society and make it civilized sets one cardinal rule: “that all are considered innocent until proven guilty” and it goes further to say that no one should be accused of the crimes of others. I think that those who want to make me seem less are mistaken. I have many friends, acquaintances and others I have met casually; but allow me to clear the air this once: that my life and the positive activities I have and continue to be involved in tell the story of who I am and show the positive impact on the lives of others, not only members of my family, but this positive history also cannot be erased. I am a simple woman, with a deep passion to doing all within my power to make a positive difference in my generation, especially for females; and one who is determined to leave a trans-generational impact on my world. Let me also state that I, as a woman, have had challenges, disappointments, losses, triumphs, victories. I have shed tears and laughed until I felt as if my sides would burst open. I have seen and experienced joys and sadness; and have had both valley and mountain top experiences. But through it all, by the special grace and mercy of the Almighty God, I have lived an impactful 60 years and the fruits of my contributions to society show my heart and set the true value of my life. I only hope and pray that this interview will lay bare the facts of my life and state that the rumors, are mere conjectures and stories, only an attempt to try to discount my story, thinking that by doing so, it will be sent to the dust bins of history and perhaps discount the fact that I am as a strong impactful African female. But this situation reminds me of the Poem by Maya Angelou – I RISE, which I kindly ask you to print for the readers: “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I’ll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom because I walk like I’ve got oil wells pumping in my living room? Just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, still I’ll rise. Did you want to see me broken, bowed head and lowered eyes, shoulders falling like teardrops, weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don’t you take it awful hard’ because I laugh like I’ve got gold mines digging’ in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise that I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history’s shame I Rise from a past that’s rooted in pain. I rise I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear. I rise bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.”
You are always talking about strong and independent women. What are your ideas about this and how are the concepts contributing to nation’s building taking into consideration, the African perspectives?
By the grace of God, as many before me, thankfully I am an exemplary example of that phenomenon – a strong, independent, committed and determined African Woman and a positive role model for millions of females. Those on whose shoulders I stand today; my mom, siblings, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Winnie Mandela, taught me how to survive in the world with their blood, sweat and tears, thus showing lessons for life. Their message was simple but clear – DREAM BIG, STAND UP, STEP UP, PLAN, PREPARE, BUILD, SUCCEED, GIVE BACK TO SOCIETY AND MENTOR OTHERS. This concept of not looking back and moving forward until the dream is fulfilled and the task is done, and you succeed is the vision to all women of the world, to never allow themselves to be kicked down and remain down. We must use our tears and anguish as the stamina which propels us forward for there are many more behind us, looking at us as guides to follow. This is what our dreams, hopes and aspirations are built upon. The building blocks for helping women to stand up, be counted and contribute to building better societies no matter what the obstacles. This is our story of who the African woman is; what are the circumstances surrounding her? what have they done for centuries and what are their legacies? Knowing what I know today, I salute each of them (both past and present) for they are Africa’s true legends, calling out to others – keep walking, keep moving, keep building, keep your eyes on the horizon, keep the Faith. WOW! What a heritage!
Following your advocacy for the protection of the girl child and women empowerment, how would you assess the progress Africa is making in respect to women’s’ political empowerment?
Indeed, there is much to be grateful for, for Africa has come a long way, from keeping women in the back rooms, to allowing them to sit to listen, to allowing them to add their voices, to allowing them to participate and today in many areas, allowing them to begin to lead.
The truth is that, though we are moving forward, it is a very slow process. But in the past 25 years, much has changed for which we are grateful. Our dream is that someday, very soon, it will no longer be a discussion here and there or cajoling our male counterparts to see reason or begging them to do what is only right, but all African nations will be as it is in Rwanda. During that day, it will be a generally accepted way of life for both genders to work together to build a more peaceful and sustainable world.
Howbeit, I admit this process requires the full support of all women. This process is the collective work of strong relay runners. Ones who understand what is at stake, those determined to work, not until they are tired but until they change the trajectory and showcase the importance of women in this journey and remaining committed and staying in the race till, we reach our goal. There is still much more to be done. Until child marriage is nonexistent, FGM is abhorred by all nations as this practice is still being done in so called civilized nations of the west, until both genders are treated equally and not stigmatized by societal and traditional norms and until all the shackles which hold women back are removed. This is the cause for which we remain committed.
Personally, I can freely say that you are a very strong woman, coming from the background of your marriage to warlord Charles Taylor, becoming a Senator twice in a male dominated nation (the Republic of Liberia) and now becoming the first female Vice President. However, in politics, there are several challenges you will be facing as you continue climbing the ladder in politics, can you tell us some of the challenges you face and how as a strong woman you are dealing with them?
(Smile)…the answer to this question will be in my memoirs soon. However, let me say briefly, that the experiences of my life have shaped me into becoming the JEWEL OF AFRICA, as I have been fondly called. It is said that pure gold or the most exquisite diamond goes through extreme heat and pressure. That may sum up the story of my life. But my story is not unique. It is only one of those stories of strong and successful women. These similar challenges are faced by all women who desire a better life and of those who are willing to work to change the dynamics in their time. They range from bias, discrimination, limited opportunities, sexual and gender-based violence, lack of sponsorship and or mentorship, stereotyping, cultural and traditional biases, mistrust and even at the top – more harassment but in a subtle way, mental abuse and marginalization and sometimes outright hate speeches as if it is a mistake that we are counted at the top where we should not be. At times, I am still amazed at the reaction. But over time you learn to deal with it by remaining focused, being determined, taking one step at a time, never giving up and keep smiling. Is it easy? NO, it isn’t. But this is what makes us ‘WO-MEN’. We continue one step after the other, one generation at a time; and slowly but surely, we make it, one person at a time. Making cracks in the glass ceiling which hold us bound, until one day the ceiling will come down.
H.E, having considered and getting divorced, would you want to describe your marriage with former Liberian President and warlord a dark era?
In hindsight, I can now say that my marriage to Charles, was not an ordinary one because of the times and season (Civil War and Conflict). But the question gets a little more complex when you add the adjectives – warlord and dark era. It presupposes that he was an evil and cruel genius and goes deeper to question; why did she marry him in the first place? You will have to wait for my biography to be completed. But let me say that when I met Charles, he was neither a warlord nor an evil genius. As I look at the different sides of the man Charles Ghankay Taylor, let me say that on the one side he was charismatic, a dependable father, a loyal friend and a caring leader among others. The other side of him, during his war years before he became President of Liberia is a story to be told by those who were a part of the struggle. I was not a part of this phase of his life and will not describe what I didn’t see. You may then ask – why then did you divorce him? The answer is simple – JEALOUSY. As there were just too many Mrs. Taylors and, in that scenario, the wildest got the attention (smile). I was lost and had no idea how to cope; and so, I withdrew from his personal circle and lived in a personal environment of confusion, anguish and inner pain. After a while, seeing no clear way forward; I made a crucial decision to get a divorce, set my sights on my own dreams, created my own pathway and following it to end of my rainbow.
To be candid, some personalities and opinion leaders still wonder why you continue to bear the name of your divorced husband even after your divorce with him and some feel, rightly or wrongly, that selfishly you have divorced him, but you are using this name to continue riding on his horse of political strength to reach to the top. What do you want to say to this?
Let me say that this opinion is unfounded and not true. You see, there are many Mrs. Taylors all around. Each of them had the opportunity to work to make their lives count and be a part of Liberia’s STRONG WOMEN. They have each chosen their own paths and live today as they are doing. I, on the other hand, determined that I would be an agent for positive change and have worked very hard. The fruit of that hard work is to have become one of Liberia’s STRONG WOMEN. My work, impact, commitment and dedication have lifted that name and not trashed it in the mud. But it’s a name that I chose on January 31, 1997. I was asked by a famous female reporter from BBC, Ms. Elizabeth Blunt this question – After being married to Mr. Charles Taylor, what would you like to be called? And I said – my name will be JEWEL HOWARD TAYLOR. And that has been my name hence. To those who feel I am using this name for fame or favor need to look at both sides of a coin. The first angle is that I am a known female politician. If I were to change my name, what would happen to the legacy that I have by the grace of God painstakingly built over the many years? I would become unknown and would have to keep giving one explanation after another in order to prove that I was not fake. Since I have built a brand name – JEWEL HOWARD TAYLOR, It’s easier to recognize who I am at all levels. For once you hear the name – Jewel Howard Taylor, you know that I am the original and that there is no duplicate. For though there are many Mrs. Taylor (fake and real), I am thankfully the only Jewel Howard Taylor. The other angle is the perspective that I am riding his horse of political strength. The true answer is in the fact as you look at how God has given me the grace to go from one level to another you will see that I have charted my own path and I am walking on my own road. I could have just gone from being First Lady to NO LADY. I decided that there was more to give my nation, I braved the storm and heeded my CALL TO SERVICE. So today, by the grace and mercy of God, I am riding on my own horse. Especially when you note that my life’s dream was to be the Governor of the Central Bank. I had no political bone in my body, I thought. But once I was able to surmount the fear of the unknown, making a choice to become a politician and seeing the positive impact that a nationalist can make in that space, I found my own horse -advocacy and activism for female political and economic empowerment, and joined others in this noble crusade for the growth and development of my beloved Liberia. The journey has been rough and tough, but it is my own journey. Though there have been many who would like to pull me down (GOD FORBID). Thankfully, there are thousands who APPRECIATE THE WORK I AM DOING and cheer me on. But I keep in mind a sober reflection as in the words of the old negro soul song “there is a race, that I must run, there are victories to be won, give me power Lord, every hour, to remain true to run this race.”
Let me switch the conversation to the African economy: I can remember in a forum in South Africa, sometime in December 2022, you made the case for African nations and businesses to invest in the continent. How much of realism has shown up in this context?
I believe that at this point, Africa is at the cusp of its finest hours yet. With the acceptable plan of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the sky is just the beginning of the African Renaissance, which Former South African President Thabo Mbeki spoke of more than 30 years ago. He made a call for Africa to begin to look inward, believe, plan, develop, commit and dedicate all efforts to the African Renaissance. I am a believer in the concept that Africa is the last frontier, thus African Nations must do all within their power to become the powerhouse of the future in a responsible way. Today, much is ongoing to break the biases, remove the barriers, collaborate, partner and work within our Continent which will have the largest population in the next 10 years and yet still controls the remaining 50 or more percent of the world’s resources. It is incumbent upon all well-meaning African leaders to support this new African Agenda, which will make Africa independent, free from economic slavery, and give our young people the hope to believe again.
Youth unemployment rate in Africa is alarming. In Liberia, the youth population is about 70% and mostly unemployed. How is your government addressing this?
Youths are critical for the growth and development of any nation. They present a case of a DOUBLE-EDGE SWORD. On one edge, when abandoned and unemployed, they can be used as instruments to instigate violence and undermine the progress of our nation; on the other edge, when empowered and employed, they can be the engines of growth, innovation and transformation. At the heart of our Government’s Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD), we highlighted POWER TO THE PEOPLE and ECONOMY and JOBS to address issues of youth employment. With Loan from the World Bank, we successfully implemented the Youth Opportunities Project (YOP) which was a Ten Million United States Dollars (US$10M) project to improve access to income generation from targeted youth. The Project targeted 15,000 youth from age 15-35 years with 50% being vulnerable female youth. The project focused on life-skills and business training, agro-inputs and tools, and labor subsidies to engage in communal farming, majority of whom were youth in the rural areas. This support allowed them to have productive employment, engage in other income-generating activities, and contribute the development of their communities. Moreover, His Excellency President George M. Weah Launched a US$22M (Twenty-Two million United States Dollars) USAID Youth Advance Project funded by USAID on March 31, 2022. This project seeks to empower more than 21,000 youth in Montserrado, Bassa and Lofa Counties through basic education and foundational skills for improved livelihood and productivity. Notably, the President had earlier launched the Recovery of Economic Activity for Liberia Informal Sector Empowerment (REALISE) project on January 14th, 2022, which focuses on the empowerment of over 19,000 vulnerable youth to reduce poverty and create self-employment. The REALISE Project is a 10 million United States Dollars project being supported by the World Bank and Government of France. There are many more interventions of our government to tackle youth unemployment and they cut across major sectors to include health, education, gender, and agriculture. We continue to see youth unemployment as a major priority, and we are committed and will remain engaged with development partners to address same.
If you can just take a view of your government’s performance in Liberia, what would you want to say would be the feelers of the Liberian people in the upcoming elections?
Amidst the challenges, our government inherited an economy grappling with the shocks of a decline in Foreign Direct Investment through the scaling down of UNMIL, the departure of major Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and the alarming rate of donor fatigue. These occurrences were occasioned by the fact that Liberia had enjoyed relative peace and stability for more than 10 years and should be prepared to take ownership of its economy. We embraced these challenges from day one and began working with the IMF to help in creating macro-economic stability and reducing inflation. We created a balance in wages through harmonization, reduced recurrent expenditure, and created fiscal space for expenditure on various developmental projects. Through fiscal discipline and expansion of our tax base, we increased our internal revenue capacity which has augmented our current budget to about 794.5 million United States Dollars, the largest in post-war Liberia. At this point, I am truly proud of what we have achieved, considering Covid 19 and the global economic Crisis. There are marked improvement in Education, Health, Agriculture and Gender amongst other sectors. For example, in our Energy sector through the expansion of electricity across the country; is becoming relatively stable, thanks to the purchase of additional power under the ECOWAS Power Pool. In health the county systems are improving, some highlights in this sector are the construction of a fully equipped facility for the Military (the 14 Military hospital); there is a brand new, fully furnished and equipped Emirates Hospital in Gbarpolu; We can now boast of the opening of our first post-war Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Company, and we are doing more to equip JFK and all public hospitals across our country. We have also improved the wages of Doctors, Nurses and other health practitioners. They In the education sector we have instituted a free tuition policy for public schools at tertiary levels; the payment of WASSCE fees for 12 graders across our country; building and equipping TVET institutions across the country and the building of needed additional schools in the country. On the overall, I am proud of the achievements so far and the commitment of our partners to do more. President Weah will take the message of our achievements across the nation to seek a second mandate. This will be done on our Governance Record.
I am however, looking at the realities across our nation, expect a resounding mandate from the people of Liberia for a second mandate to continue the amazing work being done.
You are a leader of the Liberian Senate. You had been elected to the Senate twice before becoming the Vice President. So, you have both executive and legislature experiences, do you really see the law-making arm of government in Africa carrying out its duty of checking the executive arm, in respect to abuse of power?
This is a question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. But I believe that members of the Legislature in any nation; especially in African nations are the custodians of the POWER OF THE PEOPLE; and should be held responsible if things do not go according to the right trajectory. The Constitutions of all Nations give the rights and responsibilities to them to protect, uphold and exercise their duties and functions. The real question may be – why does it seem as if they do not do so in many circumstances? Maybe an assessment and a report on this matter should be conducted, to determine the answer, provide the report to all African Nations except a few. Let them see what their constituents say and help to change the way business is being done. Indeed, this is an awesome responsibility for all. Our continent now needs patriotic citizens who will work with the Heads of State and Judiciary to build a more equitable and prosperous Africa.
With abundant deposit of natural resources and human capacity endowment in Africa, why do you think the continent is still lagging in terms of real development especially in the area of economy and what do you think the continent needs to be fixed?
African Nations must deal with electricity, opening continental trade linkages, removing all barriers to trading with each other, invest in technology and innovation, and find better means for transportation and logistics amongst other; all necessary for the African Renaissance. We must also encourage home grown solutions to African problems and find a way to bring back our best and brightest from across the diaspora to help us rebuild Africa.
H.E can you please react to this: “The current Vice President of Liberia, Mrs. Jewel Howard Taylor, has never been far from controversies prior to her ascendancy, firstly as Senator of Bong County and then later as Vice President of the Republic of Liberia.”
I guess controversy (both good and bad) are a part of politics. Do men shy away from it? NO. Why should I, and then act as if controversies determine one’s future? In fact, in the famous book 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green – there is a portion under Rule No 6 which says, “Court attention at all costs.”. It goes on to say – notoriety of any sort is good. And it is better to be slandered and attacked than ignored. “You see for most women, we are taught to be quiet, go unnoticed, do not cause a stir, be a lady. But politics is not for the faint hearted but the lionhearted. So, there may be many, many controversies if one remains in office; but I believe that those who know the real Jewel Howard Taylor know better. So, I don’t worry anymore about the noise, the rumors, the lies, the hate. I just keep up my stride and focus on my dreams, my passions, my duties and my commitments.
“In 2022, Liberians were shocked about how controversies spread from Obi Cubana to Sheik Bassirou Kante – implying that Vice President Taylor reportedly got involved with suspected hard core Money Launderers” as stated in a report. H.E, what would you want to say about your connections with the personalities mentioned and the issue raised?
As I said earlier, there are some who want to believe the negative things; for reasons of envy or jealousy or wrath; who knows. Truthfully, I have met many kinds of people in my political sojourn, as I continue moving forward, I am certain that I will meet many more personalities. My focus is to remain fixated on keeping my heart in the right place, working hard to keep my priorities in place and never letting anything either too good or too bad, change me from my path or shift me from my goals. All that is important is that they are only rumors, which are not true.
“According to the report, the United States Court’s disclosure that Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor had ‘very close personal relationship’ with Sheik Bassirou Kante who was arrested by the U.S. government for money laundering and wire fraud came as a surprise to many, also as a local daily FrontPage Africa uncovered that Nigerian millionaire Obi Cubana was arrested in Nigeria in November 2021 shortly upon his return from Liberia where he reportedly held discussions on possible business partnership with Vice President Taylor”. Can you shed light on this?
I am not sure what a very close personal relationship with Sheik Bassirou Kanye means, but I met him while providing humanitarian aid to less fortunate Liberians and we collaborated on several such projects. Our relationship was helping the less fortunate; and did not go beyond that. If some are insinuating that I had a sexual relationship with him – that is so far from the truth. As it relates to Business Tycoon Obi Cubana, he came to Liberia for the first time as mentioned in search of business opportunities in the tourism sector. He was a delegate on a trade mission with many others who had similar ideas. As one of the voices for showcasing Liberia’s many opportunities, I met the delegation and afforded them a chance to see Liberia as a great investment opportunity. I believe any patriotic citizen will take advantage to showcase their nation, try to attract investors and seek good and legitimate partnerships which will help Liberia’s economy expand.
Kindly tell us, will you prefer to run with President George Weah as his Vice in the coming presidential election or would want to take another political route?
I am fully committed to supporting President George Manneh Weah in his bid for a second term and I am doing all I can in whatever capacity I am asked to serve. Indeed, President Weah has my full commitment and support.