Monrovia – Swedes around the world are celebrating the Swedish National Day Saturday. In Liberia, like most countries, the day will be missing the fanfare and usual programs due to the global impact of the deadly Coronavirus pandemic. Celebrated annual on June 6, in honour of two historical events: Gustav Vasa being elected king on June 6, 1523) and the adoption of a new constitution on June 6, 1809). This day normally offers a rare chance to see Swedes waving the flag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, Swedish Ambassador to Liberia, Ingrid Wetterqvist sat down for an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica as she looks back on Sweden-Liberia ties and how post-COVID-19 could alter future assistance to Liberia.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Madam Ambassador, Sunday is National Day in Sweden, this year is different because of the coronavirus. What’s the significance of this day in terms of this particular year?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: The significance of this day…The coronavirus is running around the world so we are actually trying to find new formats to celebrate… 20 years before it used to be just the Swedish Flag Day. The Day is picked because of its historical events for since a very very long time….
But National Day has its significance for Embassies, especially your nation and what it stands for, we’re just trying to move all this to virtual platforms just like how all our meetings have changed from real meetings to virtual platforms. There’s nothing we can do further than that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Since 2016, there have been lots of contribution from Sweden to Liberia in peace building, democracy… in the midst of this coronavirus, how do you are you impressed with the way this framework has helped your relations with Liberia?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: My colleagues who work directly with development cooperation have consulted all partners in Liberia looking at how the virus and the measures taken by Liberians authorities impact what they are doing – whether they can proceed with that was the plan or if there is going to be delays so if they also would have to change their working modality. So, I think there is always some changes done on the ground but the overall envelope for Liberia doesn’t changed. So, we still go by our commitment.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Do you think that this coronavirus will in anyway alter the way Sweden and the EU have been dealing with countries like Liberia in terms of donor support?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: No, I don’t think so. I think our working modalities are changing, going virtual and that’s a learning exercise on our side and the Liberian side and for all our partners, but the concerns as regards to developmental challenges, they are the same.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What do you see in your assessment of the tides between Liberian and Sweden up to this point and how does the future look like?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: Well, we’ve had an office here since 2004, we’ve had an embassy here since 2010, so, we’re celebrating 10 years as an embassy. I foresee this going into the future, at least an equal amount of time. We are here on a long call as a development cooperation trying to be stable and reliable partner. It’s a good relationship, it requires attention in its details all the time.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: One issue that has been on the minds of a lot of Liberians is this issue of the Schengen visa. Before the coronavirus, there were a lot of Liberians during expenses in terms of traveling to Ivory Coast or Nigeria or other places for visa. At one point there were news that the Swedish Embassy was about to start, why do you think the EU countries have not been able to come to an agreement in terms of finding… the French Embassy tried it sometime this year but… What’s holding back the issuance of visas here?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: We have been allowed by the Swedish government to issue visas for Sweden inside the government to government cooperation. So, this has been going on since 2018 and somewhere between 50 and 100 per year for whom we are issuing visas.
The French Ambassador, when he arrived, made the promise of opening a visa office and he managed to open it at the Royal Hotel and that was a great success for all parties in particular here. Now, I think COVID shut it down because it shuts down anything that is traveling but I think the commitment remains there.
Visas belong to the area of Home Affairs. Home Affairs in the member states in the European Union, it’s a different policy there and foreign affairs. All ambassadors would essentially like to see a visa-free world because movements intensify relations. Those in our administrations that are responsible for Home Affairs want to see this regulated and you can’t have unforeseen numbers of people moving forth and back and you don’t know what could happen. So, they have different interest and of course they’re legitimate and we have do is to strike a balance of this very contested area.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: A few days ago, because of the virus you held the Stockholm Forum virtually. How was it for you? It is any normal for you in terms of dealing with people and projects, I’m sure that are a lot of projects that the Swedish government is doing here but you can’t meet face-to-face with people. How do you think this conference helped, especially for the issues of women during the coronavirus?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: You mean the Stockholm Conference for Peace and Development – that was the first for everybody. This is an annual conference usually taking place three days in Stockholm with people traveling from all over the world and really not open to the public.
When this came, all the plans had to change, we had to move into a time slot which will fit people sitting in the United States and people sitting in Asia so it became daily for 11 days from the May 22nd 1 O’clock and 4 O’clock Liberian time which means morning for the Americans and afternoon and evenings for the Asians.
I transformed everything into virtual and we would have had the event the traditional way but we moved into virtual sessions. We were using the reputation of Liberian women for fighting for their country and for development in this country. We wanted to talk about women in peace building. We tried to provide a platform that you could hear voice from someone who is really on the ground. We had Naomi T. Solanke who’s dealing with health issues and the minister for gender who represents the government. Keeping this window open for the world, we had 20 nationalities who’s sitting and 800 people had signed up, I think it’s very important for Liberia to have these windows open for other countries to see the strength of this country and not just the bad things which happened during the war.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Since the 2005 election, there has been a lot of support from the Swedish Aid Agency to Liberia in terms of fighting corruption, transparency, accountability and with the GAC especially. Are you impressed with that support and where we are now, are you happy with what’s being done with the money here so far?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: I’m impressed by the GAC, I’m also impressed by the revenue authority. I had a conversation with other agencies and I can see their challenges. Corruption is a bit like the coronavirus. It’s there but you can’t see it, you can’t see its effects… The GAC is trying, the LACC is trying, the Financial Intelligent Unit is trying, they have some successes but a lot of this is about attitude and what do you permit going on in your society. Not all of it is worth chasing after. A lot of it is having the virtue to stop it before it happens. You Liberians just need to decide enough is enough.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The world is in a very bad place now with this coronavirus and then the unrest in America because of the George Floyd killing. How do you see Sweden contributing to a better world, especially the press issues, challenges and stuffs? How do you think Sweden can contribute to help change the dynamics of the way things are going on?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: We do continue with the foreign policy priorities that we’ve had for many years and I think people know that the characteristics of the Swedish values. The government has currently in place something they call #DriveForDemocracy while we are showing our ideas, our democracy, its vast features. Freedom of the press is an integral and very important part of that because if that doesn’t work, you’ll not have the diversity of news, you will not have the mechanism for modern accountability that is requested. This is something that we’re using in our activities to showcase.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Since you became ambassador, we’ve noticed a lot of cultural exchanges. We’ve seen some musicians coming, jazz players coming also. There have been concerts in church, what’s the thing behind the exchange of culture between the two countries?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: Music is special, music travels across borders. Even people who don’t speak the same language can share the same love for music. It’s really a key that is unlocking unexpected doors. And we were lucky here because we found the best groups with a long experience in musical life here and he connected with the Swedish jazz musicians and they’ve been composing things together and since we’re turning 10 years an Embassy, we’re releasing a record. It was meant to be released this National Day but now it would be released in December. He’s called Charles Snyder. They will release one song per month.
There were several public concerts in churches, in the hotels, there were school concerts and there were master classes between Swedish musicians and Liberian musicians. They went up to Cuttington and they had a concert and workshops. They combined that with some work on entrepreneurship. We had a Swedish chef on the same occasion.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Are you happy with the way Liberia has been handling this coronavirus?
AMB: I was impressed by the fast response from the Liberian authorities. You were among the first to start reacting and understanding that this is important, the need to keep physical distance and the way the virus spreads. Now I think we’re all a bit perplexed why does it spread so slowly in Liberia? You’re copying a module that is coming from our country but it’s fast. We’ve had up to 4,500 deaths since the first case the 26th of February. So, there’s something we have not understood how this spreads and who are vulnerable and how to handle it. We think our society has an active debate on the cost. You contain the virus but you hit your economy, you hit your political life. I think this debate is going on here also but I think you need to take it further. This is a very difficult task.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The National Day is Saturday, is there any special plan for it in Liberia or it will be virtual?
AMBASSADOR INGRID WETTERQVIST: Everything is virtual so anybody who has a smart phone or a computer and can access Sweden live, you’ll be able to join in and celebrate with us. I’ll make a National Day Speech. I’ll highlight the 10 years we’ve been here we have achieved a good relationship.