Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: B. Elias Shoniyin

Featured image: World Fellow B. Elias Shoniyin, courtesy of his Twitter page. 

By Shayaan Subzwari

Could you give me some background about yourself?

Recently, I was the Deputy Foreign Minister of Liberia, but I resigned from the position last May. And I served in that particular role for about four years between successive administrations. I also served for twelve years in the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Nobel Laureate and the first woman president. Following her administration, an opposition party won the election at the end of 2017, and in January 2018, power was ceded to the new administration. I was called upon by the administration and participated in the same role until, as I indicated earlier, last May, when I resigned. And prior to that, I also served as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for International Economic Cooperation and Integration. Before that, I was in the role of the Assistant Foreign Minister of International Cooperation, beginning in early 2006. But, prior to my government service, I also served with several nonprofit organizations, including as a contact to UNICEF by the Minister of Health of Liberia, and also for Habitat for Humanity.

What made you decide to go into nonprofit and public service?

Liberia saw a very bloody civil war from December 1989 to 2003. And during that early period of Liberia’s crisis, I was at my career’s formative period, when I was still forming and structuring my career. Prior to the crisis, my career aspiration was to become an aeronautical engineer, but as a result of the crisis, the economy got worse, and families were no longer empowered to fully fund the aspirations of their children. So, I was just navigating my own way, figuring out what opportunities in my way that I would take. And also, jobs became very limited—there weren’t many options for jobs—so we were just looking for anything that would keep you working, building a career, and also raising some resources as well. So, that was how my path took towards nonprofits—it was not deliberate. 

Can you elaborate on your work with the Liberian Foreign Service?

My latest role in government was as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that role, I had multiple responsibilities, and in the absence of the Minister, I would serve as Acting Foreign Minister, which I did on multiple occasions. Particularly for one period of six months, when the Minister of Foreign Affairs resigned in August 2015. But, the core part of my responsibilities at the time was the Foreign Service. So, as a result of the crisis again, the Foreign Service became very politicized—there were many unprofessional Foreign Service officials who were appointed to the Foreign Service outside the law, who did not meet the minimum qualifications or requirements for the Service. During the period of finding peace in Liberia’s crisis, there were a number of factional governments that were established and comprised of the warring parties. Those warring parties in charge of foreign affairs actually posted their supporters to the Foreign Service.

So one of the first things that I tried to do was to return to the basics and set a minimum requirement threshold that Foreign Service officers should meet. And we thought there were many who met them, but there were also many who did not. So what we did, as there were many who had been in the field for a period of time and had accumulated experiences, we thought that maybe we should design training programs where they could be trained, and once they met the requirements of the training program and successfully passed the program, they could continue. But for those that did not even meet those minimum requirements that were made, they obviously had to be recalled from the Foreign Service. And the reforms did not only happen with regards to the personnel, but it also happened with regards to the structure and the processes of the Foreign Service. Very extensive reforms and changes were made in these areas, and very successfully as well. 

And in that role, my office supervised the geographical bureaus—we have a Bureau of European Affairs, Bureaus of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and the Bureau of America. So part of my role was to supervise the work of these very important institutions within the Foreign Ministry. 

What brought about your resignation from your post as Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister?

I served at the appointment of the current administration in good faith, but I began to see that the administration and myself were working with different purposes and that there were a number of very serious conflicts in terms of policies. And so I thought it was integral that I should just step aside rather than to implement policies that were against my principles and values.

The Liberian Observer has claimed that your resignation was a result of “non-cooperation… with the deputy minister.” How do you feel about what the media has said about you, and overall, what has your relationship with the media been like?

The media in Liberia is extremely checkered. There is a small group in the media that tries to seek objectivity and fairness and professionalism, but I would say that most of our media is very subjective. The United States State Department reported in 2015 that Liberia’s media is a commotion. So there are elements in the media that sincerely try to do the right thing, but there are many that seek fanatic sources. So sometimes in government, you can try to do the right thing, but in doing that, you offend someone who supports the status quo, and they then take to the media to smear your character. But at the end of the day, the majority of the people know what you stand for, and so the good always wins. I’ve had those kinds of challenges on several occasions while in government. But overall, I personally think that I have a good relationship with the media and that the Liberian media does respect my work and appreciate my contribution. 

What have been some of the greatest difficulties you have faced in encouraging recovery and development in Liberia following Liberia’s Civil Wars?

The biggest obstacle was the mentality – the change in mindset. After a period of 14 years of crisis, the entire moral compass of the society was eroded. During that period, it was almost anarchy and a state of survival. Everybody was living just to survive to the next day, and they would do anything to survive, whether it meant cheating, being dishonest, and so forth. So once we returned to normalcy, trying to change that mindset has been the most difficult thing.

And when you try to do it the right way, you get a gang of those who have been benefiting from how they have run the system, and they turn on you. But I have survived that because once I am doing the right thing, I get confident, I get bold, and I feel no form of intimidation. Because at the end of the day, the truth will always rise up. 

What was your contribution to fighting Liberia’s 2014 Ebola crisis? How do you think this crisis has affected Liberia’s history, and do you think it attests to the resilience of your country as a whole?

It’s very sad. The Ebola crisis significantly eroded the progress that Liberia had made, and it still continues to impact how the country lives and how the country develops and progresses. In 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed the leadership of Liberia, the Liberian economy was actually in freefall—the GDP numbers were in freefall. I remember that the annual budget of the entire government was just $83 million. And she was able to back a very extensive and broad reform of all sectors and the reforms saw significant rewards and gains. Because by 2014, in just 8 years, Liberia was already seeing 8% growth from 0% growth. 

And suddenly when Ebola struck, the growth rate went back to zero, and so we had to struggle and determine new ways of doing things and deploy new reforms to adapt to the situation at the time. And unfortunately, the Ebola crisis came at a time when Liberia’s two main exports, rubber and iron, saw a significant decline in the international market. So, it was a double-hit. Resuscitating the economy was an extremely difficult task, but nonetheless, the government did what it could, and by December 2017, Liberia’s economy was seeing about 3% growth. So, that sparked up some hope again for the continued development and progress of the country. Unfortunately, the GDP rate has fallen again—it is actually under 1% after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ceded power.

Could you expand on what your contributions were in handling the Ebola crisis?

Through the Ebola crisis, I was in the role of Deputy Foreign Minister of International Economic cooperation, so my role was to mobilize resources, talk to friendly governments, and engage and support the president and foreign minister’s agenda in pursuing quality cooperation for Liberia. So I had the honor at the time to share the resource mobilization committee at the foreign ministry since I was running the office responsible for that. But I had a huge, dedicated team that provided support, and we did many things to draw attention to the crisis and mobilize international support, which we saw very significantly in terms of response. We saw the German government providing an air bridge and the United States deploying 3,000 soldiers to provide support and resources to treat the sick. We saw China also establishing an Ebola center and some military came in as well. Japan also significantly supported Ebola centers across the country. And from many other countries, including African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, all hands were on deck at the time. 

So the efforts of the president with our support at the foreign ministry yielded some very significant results, which led to Liberia being the first to contain the virus of the countries in the region. The virus was in the West Africa region, and the three countries that were hit hardest at the time were Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Among the three, Liberia was the hardest hit, yet we were the first to emerge and successfully contain the virus. So, it was because of all the internal and external support, cooperation, and dedication of many very good people that allowed the virus to be contained.

What do you think of the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo and how it is being handled? Additionally, what about the lack of international media attention that this crisis has received? Do you have any recommendations for how the crisis can be handled?

It has to do with the government’s own position on what is happening because first, the government has to take the lead and see the extent and the scale of the crisis to be able to determine a strategy as to how they can deal with it. I am not in the DR of Congo, so I cannot be presumptuous as to what they are doing, but I am sure that they are doing what’s in their power. They probably need a little bit more reinforcement of their internal efforts to be able to draw international attention to the crisis, but on the other hand, it may just be global fatigue from all the times that Ebola has risen. 

Additionally, DR of Congo has had more than 36 outbreaks of Ebola. So, maybe for them, the world is seen as a case where every day is dangerous for them—where every day is not the first time or the second time. And historically, they have been able to contain the virus every time there has been an outbreak in the past, but this one seems to be running out of hand in a very surprising way. So, I would encourage the government to basically mount additional effort, not just internally, but externally as well. And also to convey in a very powerful way to the world the real situation on the ground. 

I’m not on the ground to be able to speak with such authority as to what effort the government is really making, but I can only encourage the government to put their best foot forward and to do the best they can. And if the outbreak is beyond their capacity, they should be ready to reach out to the international community in a very forceful way for support. 

Can you speak to Liberia’s relations with other nations, especially those within Africa such as in ECOWAS and the African Union? How have you worked to change Liberia’s position within Africa?

Liberia is a very active member of all the regional and subregional organizations within its reign and sphere in Africa. Liberia is a fundamental member of the Mano River Union. The Mano River Union is an organization that is comprised of four countries that share common characteristics and development needs. These are Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. This organization is used as a platform and framework for these countries to engage on issues such as security, integration in terms of infrastructure and road networks linking these countries for trade, and many more. These countries are so inextricably linked, that this institution has played a very meaningful role in ensuring that these countries work together more closely. 

When I was the Assistant Minister for International Cooperation and subsequently Deputy Minister, that was part of my core responsibility—to coordinate the government of Liberia’s engagement within the Mano River Union and also with ECOWAS—that is the Economic Community of West African States. Liberia is a founding member and has been implementing many of the protocols and treaties promoting integration and economic development within the West African Region since the formation of ECOWAS. And in fact, Liberia’s former president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, served as the head of ECOWAS in 2016 and hosted an ECOWAS summit in Liberia. 

On the bigger and broader scale, Liberia is also a founding member of the African Union and has chaired that body before in 1979. The African Union continues to play a very major part of the political, economic, and social life of Liberia and has been with Liberia along its development route, particularly in the post-war era. In fact, during the period of Ebola, the African Union played a very crucial role—doctors were deployed under the AU and more than 100 daily health workers across the continent participated to help fight the Ebola crisis in Liberia. 

Could you elaborate on the ties between Liberia and the United States, and how your work as Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister has changed them?

Liberia’s ties with the United States are extremely historic and traditional, considering the history of Liberia. Liberia was established by former African Americans, who turned to West Africa in the 1820s. So, ever since then, Liberians have seen themselves as an extension, in a sense, of the United States. The US has played a very significant role in Liberia’s post-war period in the transition from conflict to post-conflict. In fact, the US along with a host of other nations supported the deployment of the largest UN peacekeeping force convoy at the time to Liberia in 2003. And the US also supported the government directly with its post-conflict programs in many different ways and sectors. In fact, President Bush visited Liberia just after the return of Liberia to democratic governance. And for me, that was an extremely powerful symbol of confidence, which then created international confidence in Liberia. And subsequently, we have received many other great world leaders, including President Hu Jintao of China. 

What do you hope to accomplish in the future, and what is your vision for Liberia as well?

My vision for Liberia is extremely ambitious. I am really looking to see a prosperous country, and not just prosperous, but one where the level of inequality will be reduced and the citizens of Liberia will be able to receive healthy meals, safe water, and quality healthcare and education for their children. I am really looking to be a part of that process in the future—I don’t know in what way, but for now, I have chosen to give myself a few years to refresh and take a breather after serving for almost 14 years. Prior to my resignation, I had not taken a vacation for 5 years. So, I am using this time for myself and family, and in the next few years, I will probably be looking to return and to continue to contribute to the future of Liberia. 

Shayaan Subzwari is a first-year in Silliman College. You can contact him at shayaan.subzwari@yale.edu.