EU Ambassador to Liberia: Systematic Weakness in Liberia’s Healthcare System


Monrovia – As the first woman to have headed the Assembly of the International Criminal Court, Ambassador Tiina Intelmann, the head of the European Union delegation in Liberia, is as seasoned as they come.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

“There are systemic weaknesses in the health care system. I think there is a lot of donor will to contribute but there are some systemic weaknesses that have unfortunately not allowed the health care system to become as resilient as we have wanted  – Ambassador Tiina Intelmann, Head of European Union Delegation to Liberia

Entering the rugged terrain of a post-war nation making a transition from war to peace, Ambassador Intelmann’s arrival to Liberia came at an opportune time.

The country was on the verge of recovering from the deadly Ebola virus outbreak and the EU envoy, at the time of the presentation of her letters of credence to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was excited to be a part of Liberia’s recovery.

“At the UN, we heard many good things about Liberia beyond the Ebola crisis. I am glad to be here because the EU’s relations with Liberia are excellent and historical thus I look forward to working together with the government being in the driving seat,” Ambassador Intelmann said at the time.

Since then, the envoy has made her mark in not only cementing Liberia-EU ties but voicing her concerns when needed in helping to keep the government in check as she did recently when President Sirleaf issued Executive Order 84, reducing Liberia’s Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ) from six nautical miles to three, aimed at revitalizing commercial and semi-industrial fishing in Liberia.

FrontPageAfrica recently sat down with the Ambassador for an exclusive interview in which she addresses among other things, EU-Liberia relations, the fisheries controversy as well as issues of governance and corruption. Ambassador Intelmann also weighs in on the recent wave of arrests of some prominent figures of the Liberian civil war in Europe and the United States and what it means for Liberia to bring those responsible for atrocities to book. 

FRONTPAGEAFRICA:  Ambassador, how would you describe the current state of Liberia-EU relations?

AMBASSADOR TIINA INTELMANN:  I would say that the state of our relationship is very good. Recently we had a political dialogue in which we exchanged views about a number of issues – the most important issues that we have.

Our development cooperation portfolio is advancing very well; so in general we are quite satisfied. I should probably add that we are working with the government of Liberia based the Cotonou Agreement. The Cotonou Agreement is an agreement concluded between the European Union and developing countries from different regions of the world, including the countries in Africa.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Liberia was on target to meet Millennium Development Goal 4 relating to the reduction of child mortality by two-thirds by 2015. As you know maternal mortality is still among the world’s highest and the European Union has made enormous Humanitarian aid totaling €75 million (US$ 100 million) from 2008-2012. The EU has also made Contributions in development aid & debt relief with more than €1.37 billion (about US$1.8 billion) by the European Commission & EU Member States from 2008-2011. Are you satisfied with matters of transparency regarding these funds? Has those goals regarding the reduction of child mortality been met?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN:  Well, concerning infant and maternal mortality, unfortunately, when we look at numbers, after Ebola these numbers have gone up. Right now, we are not specifically funding any health care projects in Liberia.

If we look back, before Ebola a lot of work was done: donors were already putting considerable amounts of money in the health care system. During Ebola, the European Union contributed 1.2 billion [Euros] globally to fight the epidemic. When the epidemic ended we saw that there were so many others in the health sector who wanted to contribute, including our own members states. Thus, we felt that we would go as initially planned and focus on other sectors.

Of course, we are not happy that the mortality rate has gone up; we hope that the Liberian Government is looking very seriously into it. There are systemic weaknesses in the health care system. I think there is a lot of donor readiness to contribute but there are some systemic weaknesses that have unfortunately not allowed the health care system to become as resilient as we would have wanted.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Liberia is going through a transition period, particularly with so many international assistance in the health care sector waning. Don’t you think there is a future for the EU to come back to help with the infant mortality issue because it’s a big problem in Liberia. More importantly, a lot of donors, especially Americans are pulling out because the war is over and so is Ebola. But with the election of Donald Trump, we are seeing a dramatic decline in aid, especially from the US. Is there a room for EU and revisit that?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: We may look into it, but of course the needs here in Liberia are immense. All we are doing we’re doing  in partnership with the Government of Liberia, so right now we have a number of very well focused sectors in which we are assisting and it is done at the request of the Government of Liberia.

Sometimes fragmentation becomes an issue. To have a set of priorities attached to the money that you have is better than trying to do everything.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Another important issue is the issue of rape Last year, an EU-wide survey reported that one in three women have reported some form of physical or sexual abuse since the age of 15. The report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Violence against women described Violence against women as “an extensive human rights abuse”. Here in Liberia we have seen a major increase in similar cases but curbing these issues have been difficult. As major international stakeholders, particularly the UN and other NGO pack up and leave, Liberia could find itself vulnerable in that regard. How do you thing the EU can help Liberia on this issue especially in the wake of what we are seeing, a somewhat declining trend of interest from the United States of America under President Donald Trump toward Africa?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN:  Rape is crime, it should be investigated and prosecuted –that is it, full stop. Gender based violence is a heinous human rights violation. We condemn it. It should be condemned by everybody, investigated and if there are grounds for prosecution, it should be prosecuted. The European Union position is very clear on that.

Now, what we can do – as you know we give budgetary support to the government but the budget support is conditional. Some of the conditions that we have attached to the budget support are also related to the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of crimes like rape.

However, at the end of the day there is very little that donors can do. You have to have a massive change of mentality in your country; you have to engage yourselves to prevent these crimes and create an environment where people do not feel they can commit these crimes. There has to be a total condemnation of any such act. Otherwise there is very little that for instance me coming from Europe can do.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: In January this year, the EU announced that it will provide EUR 35 million in support of agricultural development and the General Auditing Commission (GAC) in Liberia. Your support to the GAC has been crucial over the years. In fact it was initial funding to the GAC that
helped the anti-graft agency record more than one hundred audits of various government ministries and agencies. Domestically, many Liberians are frustrated over the lack of prosecution of these cases and question why key donors like the EU continue to pour funds into an area that is not yielding much as far as transparency and accountability is concerned. Is the EU content? Are they getting a fair return on their investment?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Well, the European Union very strongly believes in audits. Internally in our EU systems every project, every program that we are doing is later subjected to audits. We also believe that within the Liberian government audits should happen, that the auditing commission should be strong, independent and courageous in putting forward its findings. I think that this is exactly the case.

Now come the next steps: what is done with these audit reports? Where do they go, are the necessary next steps taken? Here I think improvements could be taking place in Liberia. In general we are satisfied with how the General Auditing Commission has been working.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: But, what more do you think can be done because the last time we reported I think It was 120 audits, since 2006, but Liberians believe that people are not being prosecuted for corruption but yet you keep giving more money into the program can Liberia do to ensure that at least the next government coming in makes sure that prosecution follows the audits because we can have all these for generations but if it is not implemented they’ll keep doing the same thing.

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN:  Yes, you’re right, but I just want to correct that not necessarily after each audit somebody should be prosecuted. There may be things that have gone right, other things not entirely right but could be improved. It’s not that every time that the auditing commission issues a report somebody needs to go to jail – no. However, there are these cases when wrongdoing has happened. These need to be investigated and prosecuted when there are grounds for it.

That path has been lacking. Even when we see attempts to prosecute or at least investigate, the adjudication phase somehow never happens and that points to a very considerable weakness of the judicial system.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We are seeing declining numbers regarding rubber, iron ore, diamonds and other natural resources. Many diplomatic and political observers say agriculture is the key to Liberia’s future. Farmers however are complaining that there are not enough incentives for them to make the leap from farming to feed themselves to farming to export outside. Road infrastructure have been partly to blame particular from Lofa considered the bread basket for Liberia. What do you think the Liberian government can do to prioritize farming for the future?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: I don’t see agriculture as an alternative. Let’s put it this way: Liberia is part of the world economy, you can sell commodities if there is demand for them and demand is fluctuating – the demand for iron has recently not been so great, the same applies to rubber and other commodities.

This means that prices go down, it also means that all the companies that are working here are temporarily not interested in producing and selling them. All of these risks should be put in the planning the government does for the five-year period, for the ten-year period, for the 20-year period, whatever period the government takes for planning.

Coming back to agriculture: normally, one would say that in a country where the climate is favorable for agriculture like in Liberia, where there is enough land and enough work force, the country should be able to feed itself. The only import could be food stuffs that you cannot grow yourselves.

If you want to eat reindeer meat, probably you would have to import reindeer meat from the north of Europe because reindeer cannot live here. Having sufficient territory and available population should be conducive to agriculture. Thus, whatever you do with your natural resources, there is ample room for agriculture and even manufacturing in Liberia.

Agriculture should be developed; I think you should all benefit from your own produce. Liberians should be proud to eat Liberian.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The EU countries, unlike others like the Chinese and the Americans who in most instances expected something in return for their investment, appear to be different. You look back and you see that the EU has not really demanded resources for what they have done for Liberia. When you look the track record of the EU in comparison to other countries, it’s very low compared to what the Chinese and other countries are getting.

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: We do expect things in return: we expect good governance; we expect that in Liberia you’re able to build up a society in which every citizen feels at home. We hope that over time Liberia will become a middle-income country.

We certainly hope that Liberia will create an enabling environment for foreign investment, including European investment. I mean high quality investment, not people who want to come for a couple of years, make big profits and go away but people who want to stay for a longer time.

These are the expectations that we have; these are not expectations for tomorrow or today but for a longer term.  We wish to continue working with the Liberian government and also with the next administration towards that goal.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We recently obtained copy of a communication you sent to the President expressing surprise at the signing of an Executive Order which tends to half Liberia’s Inshore Exclusion Zone (IEZ), currently reserved for artisanal fishermen, reducing it from six nautical miles to just three, which is poised to allow industrial vessels, including trawlers, to fish much closer to the shore. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EFJ) also warned the Liberian government that it risks undermining the country’s food security if it continues with its plan to allow industrial vessels greater access to fish in its coastal waters. Where are we now with this? Are you satisfied with the government’s promise to address some of the concerns expressed by the EU?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: First of all, that letter was not sent for public consumption but it ended up in public domain. This in itself is a sign of how seriously Liberians are taking this issue. For the European Union, it is by far not the most important issue in our relations; it’s one of the issues but not one of the most important issues. Again, the fact that the letter ended up in the public domain, ended up being broadly discussed in the media shows how important these issues are for Liberians.

What we have said in that letter is – firstly- that we have a bilateral fisheries agreement with Liberia and under that agreement we would have expected that Liberia tells us in advance about any planned changes. Because if you have a contract with somebody and you have signed the contract you would expect that the other party also acts according to the contract.

Secondly, as friends of Liberia the letter said that in Europe we have made a lot of mistakes and we do not want Liberia to make the same mistakes. We would like Liberia to handle its fish stock in a sustainable way. I come from a sea that is attached to the Atlantic Ocean and we live around that sea.

In Finland, Estonia, Sweden we have been fishing in that sea for quite some time and now the fish is somewhat depleted. We’ve seen what excessive fishing does so we would like to tell Liberia: you have fantastic fish, you have tuna, you have other species of fish that live here.

If you fish sustainably, in the long run it is much better. So these are the two issues we have said, but again, the fact that this letter was picked up, discussed, is a clear sign of how much Liberians themselves attach importance to this issue.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: In a hundred days or so, Liberia will be heading to the polls to elect a successor to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The incumbent has enjoyed enormous international support since her election in 2005. What type of leader would the EU like to see replace her? What kinds of issues would the EU like to see the candidates in this year’s election addressing?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: The European Union delegation and also some European Union member states have contributed massively to the upcoming elections. We understand the crucial importance of these elections. We have also tried to promote a dialogue between the political parties as to the importance of conducting peaceful elections, accepting the election results and if there are questions, following the judicial path and not the path of violence.

Liberians are good and intelligent people, they need to look at the issues that the candidates are raising, they should look not only at the vision that the candidates are having for the future of Liberia but at their ways of achieving this vision.

Sometimes it is very easy to be captured by the big vision that a candidate has, but I am quite confident that the general public would also ask the candidates: “How are you doing to achieve that? Since this is the path you are setting for us and this is the life we would have to live one day after another, year after year after elections.”

I hope that people who are going to elections also realize what mandate they’re giving to the members of the Legislature, not only to the President but also the role of the parliament in each democratic country is very significant. I am not entirely sure that each and every Liberian has fully understood that.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Still on elections issues, Liberia is a small country less than five million a lot of people don’t know the issues and we don’t have any debates so it’s difficult to get from a candidate, especially so when you have two dozen candidates running for President, even in the legislative race you have about 10 to 15 persons running for one seat, is this something that in the future the EU might consider like sponsoring the debate as something that could help the democracy as a sovereign nation coming from war?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: I believe that the debate should not be sponsored from the outside. Quite a lot of years have passed since the war and I think you are mature enough to start asking the candidates some critical questions and also to promote the debate, I am quite sure that the media can launch this initiative.

In my own country there is no outside actor who promotes debates among the candidates, it would be considered inappropriate. There is a role here for the media: if you invite a candidate for a debate, this debate is followed by people on the radio or on TV.  I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the media to invite some of the candidates to express themselves.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Back to the nautical miles’ issue. How does the future look for EU-Liberia relations in the wake of the recent disagreement over the slashing of the nautical miles?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Well, as I said we have the bilateral fisheries agreement between the European Union and Liberia, that fisheries agreement is beneficial for Liberia and also for us. Under that agreement, Liberia has issued some fishing licenses to European vessels, our vessels do not come close to the shore, they pass Liberian waters to go to the south but of course Liberia gets money from these fishing permits. In line with this agreement we also build capacity of some of your structures. As it is usually the case with these bilateral agreements, there is a stock taking exercise that is taking place in every six months or every year. As we speak the fisheries agreement joint committee is meeting in Brussels to iron out all outstanding issues. I trust that they are discussing in a spirit of good cooperation.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: You have had a stellar diplomatic career ranging from your time as permanent representative of Estonia to the UN in New York to President of the Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court before coming to Liberia as representative of the EU. I’m curious to know what is the thinking of the EU regarding the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia? This is crucial in the wake of recent arrest of some Liberians in Europe who had ties to the civil war in Liberia?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: When you look at the United Nations Security Council resolutions you’ll see very frequent and strong references to reconciliation and that it is basically job not done. You cannot fail to notice that the job of reconciliation still needs to be pursued and it would be to the benefit of all Liberians, so I fully agree with the United Nations Security Council and with more experienced colleagues who have been here for a longer time that you need to invest in reconciliation.

Concerning the arrest that has now happened in Europe and possibly happen in other countries – these are judicial matters and I am quite confident in our judicial systems. Our judicial systems are very focused and resilient and they will be able to deliver judgments that are sound.

Yes, I have quite a long background in accountability issues from the International Criminal Court. You may however remember that there was also a Special Court for Sierra Leone that was established by the United Nations Security Council in connection with the war that took place in Liberia and Sierra Leone and certainly some very good judicial work has been done here.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Domestically some Liberians say that it’s strange that our country is not implementing its Truth and Reconciliation recommendations but we’ve seen Liberians outside filing complaints against people who were involved in war, do you see any contradictions in terms of implementation, could we do more to bring these people to book?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Well, at the end of the day it is up to Liberia as a nation itself and to the  government to decide what they want to do, how they want to do things. Having been involved with international criminal justice, I have also learned that sometimes when the jury delivers a guilty verdict, it orders the person to apologize.

So, there are all kinds of ways of healing, not only putting another person in prison but also a Palava hut or a simple apology.

I think I am old enough to understand that the world is not black and white but clearly more would need to be done for Liberia, for you yourselves to feel comfortable. I have to say that Liberia is not the only country that has had a very difficult history, when I look back at my own country, we were subjected to 50 years of a very brutal regime where we had no say about our future.

A lot of people were also killed. There were extrajudicial killings, deportations. When all of that ended, there was accumulated anger and frustration among the population. A lot of nations all over the world have had to heal, the better you do it, the more deeply you do it, the better it is for the nation.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA:  What’s your personal impression of US President Donald Trump and what’s the EU’s position on his decision to bow the US out of the Paris Climate agreement. How does this affect Africa you think?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Mr. Donald Trump is the elected President of the United States of America, he has been elected democratically so this is where we are and I don’t think I’m in the position to express any other opinions. Having said that, of course the decision concerning the climate change agreement is very regrettable.

On the positive side, Europe and Africa made a joint statement endorsing the Paris Climate Agreement, China is on board. The understanding of how important this process is, that we are together on this planet – at least for the time being, there is no place out there to go –  so we need to take care of our common home and that common home is unfortunately not in a very good state.

I hope also that Liberia will ratify the Climate Change Agreement; we are contributing to Liberia under this agreement already with six million [Euros] helping to rectify some of the issues Liberia is not able to rectify itself and that would probably contribute to the well-being of the planet, for instance, recycling waste here.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What has been your impression since you came here, what’s your impression with the people, what’s been your best moments in Liberia?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: I’ve been around quite a lot here in Liberia, of course we have a huge development portfolio and maybe that keeps us a little more indoors while talking with the government, but rest assured I’ve been around quite a lot.

Maybe the best moments have been being invited to some of the tea houses where you can have a very genuine exchange about things that are happening here listening to ordinary people who do not maybe think at each and every moment that this is a European Union Ambassador and you should just ask for money. Unfortunately, what happens with me is where I go people tend to ask for money.

Having these genuine exchanges have been beautiful. We have now been able to do a European Film festival here. Maybe with limited success for the time being, but we will continue because culture could be more present in Liberia.  Yesterday, we had a beautiful, beautiful event: we launched a book that is a collection of  Liberian legends of all the tribes. These legends were collected many years ago.

The book had gone missing so this is a re-edition of that book and the illustrations were done by a Liberian-born European artist, Luka Bai Varaschini who was born and raised in Robertsport.

He loves your country deeply and when he first showed this book to us with his illustrations he didn’t ask for money, he only said, “I’m looking for a possibility to have it printed again so that these legends are not lost.” Of course we immediately thought that would be a fantastic thing to do. Moments of somebody genuinely contributing to Liberia and maybe going out of his way and not expecting immediate gratification, these moments are genuine but unfortunately, they are rare.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The Forestry Agreement, is it still on, are you happy with how it’s going?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: We’ve concluded the Forestry Agreement, that’s basically very similar to the fisheries agreement. What we want to do is to bring some law and order. You know that the forest was cut during the war, and part of the activities were funded from the export of your forest.

Forest on the other hand is like the fishery stock, you can make money out of it, you just have to do it carefully so that forest grows back. You cannot cut it down in one go, you have to do it sustainably – the same with the fisheries.

So, we told the Government of Liberia that we can help you, we can help set up a system whereby you log sustainably and when you export logs you’ll also get tax money. This has been happening. On its side the government of Liberia said: we are going to put the system in place with your help so that all exports from Liberia are going to be subject to the same system, even if we export to Indonesia or China, all exports are going to be subject to the same system so that we get tax money.

This agreement has brought tax revenues to Liberia and we hope that all of the capacity building that we have done is going to be continued and taken over by the government. Our program will end soon so it is up to the government to continue it, to get tax money. We have built the Forestry Development Authority outside town, everything is set up but now it’s up to the government to continue.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Finally, what message do you have for Liberians as we prepare for this year’s elections? What do you expect from the incumbent government, the National Elections Commission and those heading to the polls?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Of course Liberia is a small country and many people are struggling to get by on a daily basis. However, if you just take a little bit of time to sit down in the evening and think about the benefit of your country as a whole: maybe not to throw out trash where it just suits you, or maybe even when you drive on the road and you see the signs that the maintenance of that road is done with European Union taxpayers’ money do not throw trash out of the car window! The European taxpayer is essentially there to clean up that trash!

Unless you have love for your country and you want to contribute, things are not going to get better.

FRONTPAGEAFRICA: When your time is up here and you go back, what would you like to point at as your biggest legacy in Liberia?

AMBASSADOR INTELMANN: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about legacy in Liberia. Your President’s legacy will be quite significant. If we look at her impact at some of the global processes within the United Nations for instance or the African Union, she has left her mark there – it’s a very precious mark. Not every country has a politician who has been so visible internationally. Probably inside the country you do not realize that but that’s a big thing and you should be very, very proud about that.

Well, concerning my own particular legacy, I really don’t know but I really feel that as we have been going, probably the understanding of how we as the European Union work has gotten better. The expectation is that we do not come here to lecture, we want to be partners, we want to feel that the government is in the driving seat.

We have mixed results but we keep reminding all the time that unless the government takes ownership and the people of Liberia take ownership nothing will happen.  On a personal level, this has been a wonderful journey, a wonderful experience.