BY: Kobby Asmah
The Vice-President of Liberia, Her Excellency Mrs Jewel Howard Taylor, was in Ghana to pay her last respects to Lieutenant General Joshua Hamidu, former Chief of Defence Staff, who was a family friend and very close to her former husband, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and was very instrumental in bringing peace to Liberia during those turbulent years.
The Editor of the Daily Graphic, Mr Kobby Asmah, caught up with Mrs Taylor after the burial and she granted this exclusive interview on a wide range of issues bordering on her life, relationships, politics, governance, and the economy. Below are excerpts.
Kobby Asmah: Your Excellency I want to welcome you to Ghana once again. What informed your visit this time round?
Jewel Howard Taylor (JHT): Thank You for your warm welcome Editor but as you are aware, Ghana has been home for many Liberians and I used to visit once a while. But as you said, my visit this time was to attend the funeral of a family friend.
When I heard about his passing I decided to come and pay my last respects. He was a close friend of Charles Taylor. I also want to use this opportunity to thank Ghanaian leaders and regional leaders who intervened in Liberia during the crisis in order to bring peace to the country.
Kobby Asmah: Talking about peace in Liberia, so how is your country sustaining this peace?
Jewel Howard Taylor: As you know peace is a sine qua non for everything and luckily we have had this peace cemented with the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the President and for years we managed to put in place structures and laws to ensure that we will not derail from the peace. Once you have peace all other things are possible.
Currently 60 per cent of our population are the youth who are mostly war babies and we pray that what happened will not recur. We have all come to the realisation that people will no longer be taking power by force.
The struggle has always been about power but the ballot box should be the decider, to give power and to transfer power democratically.
Kobby Asmah: From a First Lady to Vice-President of Liberia. How did it all happen?
Jewel Howard Taylor: I will take it first as a woman because women were relegated to the back. We are the nurses, teachers, secretaries and housewives but that has to change now and women ought to know what they are born to be; you need to know what you are cut out for.
I was into banking but I remember in 1981 everything was in chaos in the country and before I entered the university I didnt know what to read so my father called me and said: “You’re going to the university now but you may not do political science”.
Many years later, here I am when I was warned by my father that politics is not for women.Getting into politics was not easy because when I expressed the interest, the backlash was too much: “ Wife of Charles Taylor go and sit somewhere”, among others, but I was not deterred I persisted and luckily a law was passed to allow 30 per cent of women to run in the elections due to gender equity.
Kobby Asmah: How easy or difficult was it for you to get into mainstream politics?
Jewel Howard Taylor: We were asked to do whatever we needed to do to get registered so I ran around trying to find out what I needed and fortunately, I was able to meet the deadline and my political party did not follow me to the campaign; for them it was a joke because they thought I was not going to win.
But I got elected, I had the second highest number of votes at the Senatorial level across my country and once I started working with the understanding that the role of a politician especially when you are in the Legislature, your duty is to listen to the people that you lead, make sure that you have the idea of what they want and advocate it and I became good at that.
Kobby Asmah: How did you transit into parliament and for that matter become an effective legislator?
Jewel Howard Taylor: I had to go back to school to learn different things to be well informed and I got my Law degree while I was at the legislature in my first term because I needed to understand the laws of my country in order to properly represent my people.
I was put on the budget committee and the national budget is “this large” so the first time it was brought to my desk I was like I do not think this is the field I belong to, as it became quite tough to analyse the budget so I decided to go get an MBA in finance in order to understand the issues. That sent me back to school.
So once you find your passion, first thing you do is to get prepared, second thing is to remain committed and focused no matter what because if you step up the criticisms are 100 times more than what they do to the men. Because if a man is married he will never be asked about his educational level and his years of experience. But once a woman steps up, she will be harassed.
Kobby Asmah: As a female politicians who has held positions, including a First lady and currently Vice President of Liberia, what are some of the challenges you are regularly confronted with?
Jewel Howard Taylor: It’s not easy Mr Editor. The higher you climb, the tougher it is. There will come many challenges from new counterparts and even colleagues who will be your loudest critics when you make a mistake so what I had to do was to find a way not to just rely on my pretty face sitting in the legislature.
“I wanted to make my voice count and be important because a lot of things were happening like the laws being changed and a new framework was being put in place”.
When I got back from the Law school I was put on the judiciary committee, a very serious committee that looked at all of the MDAs. So I learned and I became Secretary to the committee, doing all the research work.
You have to deal with all of that and once you do that you have to know once you get into a place where you are comfortable in your setting you understand the environment that you work in, you must remain committed until you get to a point where you have succeeded and once you have succeeded you have to turn back and mentor other women.
Kobby Asmah: You are the first female Vice-President of Liberia. What is guiding you in the performance of your work?
Jewel Howard Taylor: : “I also think that it is the same experience you use whether you are a First Lady, Senator or a Vice-President. But the higher you climb, the more difficult it is. I am the first female Vice-President of my country and because it has always been men occupying that seat, they allow a lot of issues to pass but by the time you sit as a woman, people will be wondering what you will be doing”.
But primarily, the Vice-President position across Africa is like a nominal position; you have to wait until you have an assignment from your boss. So you have to sit and wait, you cannot have a loud voice, you cannot be too opinionated and I am opinionated because I have learnt to be an activist before becoming an advocate for a lot of issues.
Kobby Asmah: Do you sometimes feel embattled as a Vice President?
Jewel Howard Taylor: There have been times that I felt so embattled in this process that I wanted to quit but got encouraged by Ellen Sirleaf who visited one day and said: “As far as I am concerned, the last and most important lesson I will tell you is that once you step on our stage you cannot fail or step back. I have to keep walking regardless of the challenges.
That is what is difficult because there are all kinds of expectations. As a senator I could talk about any issue but now, as Vice President, you have to be careful as you walk making sure you do not overstep your boss as if you know it all.
As women you know we have the power of trying to fix things and that is something that has given me a difficult time because you cannot fix anything. Maybe you can quietly say it but you cannot drop in and fix anything.
Kobby Asmah: How has it been like married to Charles Taylor, a former Liberian President?
Jewel Howard Taylor: I think my former husband chose a difficult path coming into a war and a revolution where many lives were lost and turning things around. So he did not get the chance to be the president he could have been because if you are fighting a war, that is your priority not building schools or development.
You have to look at how Liberia was first created and the Congo people created Liberia, but they came from across the seas to set up the governance system that was practised in America because that is what they knew and that is the Liberia we find ourselves in today.
They were a small population but they were the most educated who educated their children and were able to buy property for their children and grandchildren.
They always seem to have much more and because of this inequality in the system for 174 years, for many years nobody complained until in 1980 when they were still in power controlling everything because the indigenous people did not have much education.
But the fact still remains that it was their country and so it got to a point where as a country we needed to open up the space a little bit more to include everyone and bring everyone on board so this is what the war was about but there were different opinions from different people.
“Now we have won political power, but we needed to win economic power and that was what the fight was about; how to get economic power for the majority of our people”.
So it was quite a difficult assignment and I had to find something to do to get involved with the process instead of sitting back and looking. I am a banker by initial training but I had to find a way in our sector to provide contribution to women and children who where my love or my passion for my country, for helping those who were less fortunate. So though we had a difficult life in that war setting I found my voice, passion and what God had initially made me to be.
Kobby Asmah: Was it so scary during those turbulent moments for you to go about your duty as a First Lady?
Jewel Howard Taylor: No I was not scared because when you are involved in something, others sitting outside may be a little bit afraid than you really are. But all I knew was that I had to make an impact so I got involved in the process trying to help. In 2003, the entire country had moved to Monrovia, the capital city, and I knew that there were rebels all over the place in long queues.
I took the line that dealt with pregnant women and disabled people so I could stand on my feet for eight to nine hours sharing rice and other necessities. This was to make sure that the pregnant women and disabled people were treated differently from those who were able. There were times that some rebel leaders insisted that they should be served first but I stood my grounds and told them that every bag of rice would be divided until the last one was given out.
“So I was not afraid or I did not think that my life would have ended there but the more I did the better chances that fate or God spared my life and that of my children”.
Kobby Asmah: Your Excellency, what motivates you?
Jewel Howard Taylor: Love for country and love for underprivileged girls. As a young girl growing up, my father had seven children and there were six of us who were girls and one boy. So he decided that girls could do just what any boy could do. So we got the same opportunities in schools in Monrovia.
Both of my parents were healthcare professionals and they had to do three jobs just to send us to private schools.
They always said that education was the light and the key and I heard that the first time when I was five years. In every three months my dad called us to share his experiences and encouraged us and told us how difficult life was but if you were strong you would make it. So I have never forgotten about that.
I am also a mentor for young girls of an NGO that provides education for underprivileged girls. I go into the inner city communities and try to provide opportunities for education, mentoring and training for them to get a chance because I believe that women are good at everything that we do and when we have more women that are empowered then the quicker our country will develop, the quicker our societies will be where they should be.
Kobby Asmah: What will you like to be remembered for?
Jewel Howard Taylor: I would like to be remembered for as a person who cared and made a difference. So that is what I have done for my political career; how I could make a difference to create an equitable Liberia and that is what I’m still involved in.
Kobby Asmah: I know you are an author of several books, Please can you throw some light on this?
Jewel Howard Taylor: Author of several books! Not yet, I have bits and pieces in place but I think I need to find time to do that. I have a few ideas in mind and I have started to put somethings together already. I am writing this book and I will title it: “Daring to be,” because I think that is my life story.
What I want to do is to write a book so that women across the world can read it and know that they can be what they want to be if they follow the steps because there is no shortcut for women and I want that to be an inspirational book that will be read to inspire.
When we grow, we learn things without knowing the roles and so every time that you get into an assignment you have to now go and learn what the boys learn when they are young.
Teamwork, working together, planning and developing and learning together and girls on the other hand do not work together and by the time we grow up any woman that enters a space automatically feels jealous instead of staying focused on work which is so disruptive to our success, so I think we need to learn more on how we can erase that from the foundation of our children as they grow up.
So there is still a lot to do in terms of making sure that women are brought up to speed but this is where we are.
Kobby Asmah: From where you sit as an author how do we inculcate reading habit among the African child?
Jewel Howard Taylor: In Liberia we have reading clubs and we are encouraging the elementary and junior high school children too. So we find interesting books and read them on television, go to schools to sit and read with them and encourage them.
What is good about African authors is that our children do not just see what is just written by westerners so we have most of the brilliant writers across Africa. So we bring those books in. We read the western books but we also bring the stories of Africa like our history, the pride of who we are and the work that our people have done so that an African child can see the greatness of what Africa is because when they start to see, read and hear it at an early age they will be inspired.
Kobby Asmah: As you leave Ghana to Liberia, what special message do you have for Ghanaians?
Jewel Howard Taylor: I caution Ghanaians not to beat the war drums anytime they are confronted with challenges as it is not the right way of resolving problems.
Whatever issues emerge, whether good, bad or ugly, it is important for people to discuss those issues and the right solutions found to them, rather than beating the war drums that would derail the enviable peace of the country.
Coming from Liberia, a war-torn country still struggling to find its feet, I know what it means to have peace and security as well as what war can do.