Over an intensive four days of meetings in Atlanta, Oct. 18-21, Liberia’s vice president, Joseph N. Boakai Sr., had such a rigorous schedule with local officials and representatives of local organizations, he might as well have been a candidate for a U.S. office.
Mr. Boakai is no stranger to politics. Following a career in both business and public service as Liberia’s minister of agriculture from from 1983-85, he was asked by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be her vice presidential running mate in the 2005 general and presidential election at a time when the country was just emerging from a violent civil war.
Six years later in 2011, Ms. Sirleaf asked him to be her running-mate once again and continue his service as president of the Liberian Senate and as overseer of a large number of agencies under the government’s development agenda.
Then in March 2014, Ebola struck. Liberia suffered at least 4,800 fatalities from the most virulent outbreak of the disease since its discovery in 1976. The outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea claimed more than 11,000 lives altogether, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In May 2015, Liberia was thought to have been free of Ebola, but experienced a brief resurgence of cases. In September the World Health Organization declared the country free of the disease for a second time.
During an interview with Global Atlanta at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Mr. Boakai called Ebola “an intruder” that has been overcome. He said his country was especially grateful for the efforts of the U.S. and China, Doctors Without Borders and members of the African Union and the Economic Community of West Africa in combating the disease.
But he warned that the country couldn’t become “complacent” and had to use its newly-gained knowledge in identifying any future outbreaks.
“After we were declared Ebola free, we had another encounter,” he said. “Now we are better prepared to control and identify the problem and deal with it.”
The presence of Ebola Treatment Units and trained personnel who can determine whether an apparent case is caused by Ebola or another virus, he said, are now in place and can make a reliable and quick diagnosis.
Although Mr. Boakai did have appointments at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Carter Center, he made it clear that even his visit at Morehouse went beyond merely thanking local institutions for their efforts in combatting Ebola.
He was intent on discussing “post-Ebola recovery strategies” and rejuvenating his country’s ties with Liberia’s many partners in the University Consortium, which was launched in 2009.
The consortium is composed of U.S. and Liberian educational institutions that have collaborated on a wide variety of projects, including poultry production, training of government officials, and the establishment of a center of excellence on information and communication technologies.
Other projects have included the creation of an architecture curriculum, a mental health program, entrepreneurship and workforce development and STEM teacher training.
“A name plate is one thing, but making it work is what we want,” Mr. Boakai said underscoring his commitment to reinvigorating these programs.
In addition to rekindling the academic ties, Mr. Boakai said that the present would be a good time for local firms to look for business opportunities in Liberia, especially in the development of its infrastructure including road construction as well as tourism, which, he admitted, has been “unexplored.”
Meetings with officials from local firms such as Omega Paving & Construction Management Group LLC and H.J. Russell & Company indicated his interest in infrastructure development.
He also met with officials at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to discuss a Sister Airport Agreement, and Delta Air Lines Inc. in hopes of re-engaging the company to include Liberia as a destination.
Nor did he forget his agricultural background and discussed model chicken hatchery projects with University of Georgia experts.
And staying in tune with his political instincts, he visited with Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill to explore capacity building efforts with Liberian police forces, and met with Clayton County officials during a dinner at Clayton State University.
Yet his visit was not confined to only business-related meetings. He was warmly greeted during a Town Hall Meeting by local Liberian organizations including the Liberian Association of Metropolitan Atlanta, Patrons for the Transformation of Liberia, and Friends of Joseph N. Boakai Sr.
Also among the hosts at the Town Hall Meeting were Cynthia Blandford, the honorary consul general of Liberia based in Atlanta and the Lofa County Association of Georgia, which is composed of Liberians from the county in Liberia where Mr. Boakai was born.
Altogether, Mr. Boakai was in the U.S. for two weeks during which he also visit the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, where Thomas Eric Duncan died from the Ebola virus in October last year. Mr Duncan was the first American to die of the virus in the United States.
In addition, he travelled to the Twin Cities in Minnesota where the Liberian population is estimated to include 30,000 people. According to the office of the honorary consul general in Atlanta, Georgia’s Liberian population numbers approximately 15,000.