Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States William Bull on Challenges, Managing Loyalty With Service, Maintaining Liberia-US Relations & Working With Diaspora Liberians’ Unending Crises In The U.S.
Washington, D.C. –
Prior to answering the call as Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador William VS Bull was regarded as one of Liberia’s seasoned diplomats, having served as Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Liberia to the United Nations, Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Ambassador to United States of America and several Deputy and Assistant Ministerial positions and risen through the ranks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1972. In the aftermath of the recall of former Ambassador Nathaniel Barnes, Bull was whistled in for replacement. In this exclusive interview, Ambassador Bull whose takeover from Ambassador Barnes was reported to be initially marred with a hesitance from the veteran diplomat, now speaks of his involvement in curbing the huge division crises within some Liberian-US based associations with particular focus on the United Liberian Associations In The America’s (ULAA) and how he would professionally handle his loyalty to the President and service to his country in terms of it not interfering with his diplomatic task. The senior diplomat with a huge diplomatic experience that spans over three decades also had his return to Washington, DC greeted with the task of ensuring that the post-war nation maintains its long-standing bilateral ties with his oldest traditional nation. To this, he voices out what he says is the significant improvement of the Liberian-US relations for which he refuses, though, to take any personal credit.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Ambassador, you took over what is regarded as Liberia’s biggest diplomatic mission about eight months ago. What would you say have been your biggest inroads and challenges since you came to Washington, DC?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Thank you very much for visiting the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC. As you know, prior to taking up this assignment, I served as principal Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. This Embassy is our most important diplomatic mission in the world due to the long-standing historical ties which bind Liberia and the United States and the fact that the United States is Liberia’s most important development partner.
Since my assignment here, we have continued to promote and enhance the close cooperation between Liberia and the United States and to encourage continued assistance to Liberia’s development agenda. As a post-conflict country that is pursuing a path of democratic governance and respect for the rule of law, the Liberian experience could be a model for other post conflict countries.
At the level of the internal administration of the Embassy, we have five diplomatic officers and several local employees who serve as members of the administrative and technical staff. Due to the demands on the Embassy, we face several challenges. However, the staff is serving with dedication and has continued to provide services to the public and Liberians in the United States. This include meeting their consular requirements, passport renewals, visas and other services. The Embassy also works to ensure that the relationship between the Embassy and the various Liberian communities remain very strong and cordial.
Over the last few years, the Embassy has established the Diaspora Advisory Board to promote the interest of the Liberians in the United States as well as work closely with the Embassy in pursuit of some of our objectives here. As you know, Diaspora Liberians represent a very important segment of our citizenry based on their financial and professional achievements. The fact that they make remittances to their relatives back home is very important. And we want to make sure that we have a very good relationship with them to see how we can encourage Liberians here to give back to their country.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: It might be difficult to be précised in answering this question but can you give us an estimated figure of Liberians residing here in the United States-including those on permanent status and those not? Does the Embassy have any record or any means of tracking Diaspora Liberians?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Unfortunately, we do not have an accurate account of the exact number of Liberians in the United States. As you know, Liberians residing abroad are generally expected to register at their Embassy or consular office upon their arrival in a foreign county. Most Liberians do not and this is a problem. According to various estimates, there are upwards of over 300,000 Liberians residing in the United States. There is a category of Liberians estimated at about 3,500 who are presently on the Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) status. Many of them could be affected if their request for change of status to permanent resident is not approved. You know that there is pending legislation now for these Liberians to be given permanent resident status. But if this fails, then it would affect them. We are grateful that President Obama has followed the tradition of his predecessors in extending the DED for Liberians and we remain hopeful that this course of action will be pursued as a last resort.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Now, let’s look at some key issues which are having some impacts both here and back home in Liberia. We understand there are continuing crises amongst various Liberian associations and groupings here in the US, noticeably with the umbrella group ULAA [United Liberian Associations In The America’s]. What has been the Embassy’s own involvement in trying to resolve some of these crises because it is known that a house divided far-away from home can have no impact back home?
AMBASSADOR BULL: No, you’re right. The Embassy is very concerned about the divisions which exist among many Liberian organizations here. You referred to ULAA which should serve as the umbrella organization for all organizations here in the United States. Unfortunately, when we arrived here, we discovered that there are two leaderships of ULAA both headed by presidents. The Government’s position is that the two groups should reconcile their differences and work in the interest of their members. Unfortunately, in spite of the appeals the two groups are unwilling to come together.
We must acknowledge that there are associations representing Liberia’s various political sub-divisions that are promoting development activities in their respective counties. There are also Liberian associations in various states and we continue to maintain a close working relationship with them. Some leaders of ULAA had the opportunity to assume state power but they did not live up to the expectations of the Liberian people. After years of civil crisis, one would hope that all Liberians would learn from the mistakes of the past and resolve to work together in the interest of our country, especially in view of the substantial gains being made by President Sirleaf to build democratic institutions and accelerate the development of our country. These policies and programs enjoy widespread international recognition and support.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Doesn’t such situation put you and the Embassy in a tight position about whom to recognize and work with? I’m sure both leaderships do invite the Embassy to attend some of their functions or programs. How do you go about doing that?
AMBASSADOR BULL: While this is problematic, these are Liberian organizations and we have indicated that we would like to see them work together to promote the interests of Liberians here in the United States. However, whenever we are invited, we decide whether we will attend and who will represent the Embassy.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We know for sure that the Embassy has less it can do in terms of making a difference relative to the news that we receive back home regularly that don’t speak well about some Liberians’ involvement in ugly acts like alleged drug and murder cases. Does the Embassy, on the other hand, have any outreach program routinely that gathers an update of Diaspora Liberians’ activities and that would provide a kind of counseling though we know that are a few consular sections in some of the 50 states here in the US?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Well, the Embassy has consular offices that are in some of the states but more importantly, we deal directly with the Liberian associations throughout the United States. They do extend invitations to us and we have continued to engage them. Quite recently, we were in Minnesota to participate in the funeral of the late Mayor [Steve] Lampi of Brooklyn Park who worked very closely with the Liberian community. That State has one of the highest concentrations of Liberians residing in the United States. While in Minneapolis, we had the opportunity to meet the Governor of Minnesota and other State officials. We also met Liberian community leaders and held discussions regarding their activities and ways in which we can work together.
Yes, we do have problems with Liberians who violate American law, but this is not unique to Liberia. It is the Embassy’s position that those who violate the law will have to bear the consequences for their action. Notwithstanding, we provide consular services and ensure that the rights of the Liberians are protected.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let’s shift a little bit to politics. An ambassador like you is appointed by the President back home but the ambassador serves all Liberians. How do you shift between the requirements of your loyalty to the President in terms of protecting her interests here politically and probably having to meddle with an opposition political figure that pays a courtesy call on you while visiting the US? How much care is exercised that the report doesn’t get back home that the ambassador here in the US is playing political cards with other opposition politicians?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Well, since I have been here, we haven’t had any situation where a political leader of another party visited the Embassy. But I don’t see that as a problem. They are Liberians and have a right to come to the Embassy and if we’re asked to provide services to them we would be happy to do so. The commitment to serve the country is paramount. As you correctly said we are appointed by the President and as a matter of integrity must be loyal and patriotic. We must also promote the interest of Liberia as well as the achievement of the goals and objectives of the Administration.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: This question stems from the background of news reaching back home that your predecessor, Ambassador Nat Barnes, was pushing his personal political agenda while serving his diplomatic mission here in the US. Barnes’ alleged ‘political activities’ seemed to have been strengthened by the fact that he hails from the opposition Liberian Destiny Party. Just for the record, are you a member of the ruling Unity Party, the UP?
AMBASSADOR BULL: I’m a supporter of the ruling party and a member of the Organization, Friends and Family of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As a career officer, my first loyalty is to Liberia and to serve my country with commitment and integrity. I’m here to protect the interests of Liberia in the United States, ensure the protection of Liberian citizens and to do all I can to promote the ties of friendship and cooperation between our two countries and peoples.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How would you respond to some speculations in the aftermath of Ambassador Barnes’ recall for you to take over which was said to have been met with some form of hesitance from you?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Hesitancy?
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Yes, I mean there were reports that you didn’t want to take over the post while you still served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs back home?
AMBASSADOR BULL: I was asked by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to come and take up this assignment and the fact that I’m here indicates that I accepted to come and serve my country and to continue to serve her Administration. With God as my Helper, I shall continue to faithfully do so.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What would you say is your much heralded contributions to this biggest and oldest bilateral assignment since your take-over of this mission on August 29, 2010?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Liberian-United States relationship is very cordial as I indicated earlier. The United States Government is very supportive of President Sirleaf’s government and its development objectives.
The United States is not only our principal development partner but the relations between our two countries remain very, very close and mutually beneficial. I will not take credit for doing anything extraordinary but to say that since I’ve been here we have maintained a very good working relationship with officials of the US government and members of Congress. We also continue to encourage American private sector involvement in Liberia and support for our development goals. We have instituted new procedures to improve the efficiency of the Embassy and its compliance with financial and other requirements of the Government. I and my staff are proud of the accomplishments thus far.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What is the most challenging of this diplomatic work vis-à-vis the biggest diplomatic mission?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Well, as would be expected we have many challenges both in terms of demands on our time in order to effectively participate in the many functions and activities in Washington, D.C. Right now, the Spring Meeting of the IMF/World Bank has just ended and we had to get involved with members of the Liberian Delegation and attend some of the meetings.
In addition to the many official functions, we have Liberian communities all over the US that request our participation in various activities. It is a challenge to address all of the competing demands but so far we are succeeding. We believe that given the challenges that our country faces Liberians residing in the United States must be encouraged that they have an important role to play in the country’s economic development and renewal. You know the lack of capacity in the country is a serious constraint. This is why the Government is looking and encouraging Liberians in the Diaspora to help fill this gap. The Embassy has set up a Diaspora Advisory Board and the Government itself has established an office in the Presidency to address Diaspora matters. We believe that this is the way forward because Liberians must feel a moral obligation and be prepared to contribute and give back to their country.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Anything finally?
AMBASSADOR BULL: Nothing much except to thank you for visiting the Liberian Embassy. I admire your persistence. In spite of my tight schedule, you were focused on getting this interview since your arrival in Washington, DC and did not relent until you succeeded. I see why you were the only Liberian journalist selected to join other colleagues from all over the world to cover this World Bank/IMF Spring Meeting. It does demonstrate some level of achievement on your part and recognition of your interest in and commitment to your profession as a journalist. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors.