When Delta became the first American airline in many years to fly into Liberia last month, billionaire Robert “Bob” Johnson had a prime seat on that plane. That’s because the inaugural flight was part of Johnson’s ongoing effort to spur investment in the formerly war-torn West African nation.
Since hearing Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf lay out the challenges facing her country during the Clinton Global Initiative in 2006, Johnson has been determined to re-ignite the historic relationship between African Americans and the nation founded by former American slaves.
Johnson has committed to investing $30 million to help fund Liberian entrepreneurs and last year opened a luxury resort there. He has taken delegations of African Americans to Liberia and is encouraging African Americans to invest in the country the way that American Jews support Israel.
The first black American billionaire is a busy man, but he took a few minutes to answer questions from The Root about his Liberian push and why African Americans should invest in Liberia, even at a time when so many are struggling at home.
The Root: How did you come to form a relationship with Liberia?
Robert Johnson: I formed a relationship with the country of Liberia as a result of my participation in President Clinton’s Global Initiative. I was introduced to, and talked with, the president of Liberia. I was impressed with her vision for the future of Liberia, her commitment to a democratic Liberia, and was aware of the longtime relationship between us and Liberia historically.
TR: What is your vision for this relationship?
RJ: What I’d like to see happen is to be of help to President Sirleaf and the people of Liberia in an effort to restore their country after 15 years of civil war to a very vibrant, functional, free democracy with a free-market economy that provides jobs and economic development; to make Liberia an economic success story in West Africa; and to create a strong middle class for the 3.4 million people living in Liberia.
TR: Talk about your leadership in this area.
RJ: I have worked very hard to get Delta to fly direct flights, I have a four-star hotel right outside of Monrovia and I am getting involved in housing development.
TR: What role specifically do you think African Americans should play?
RJ: African Americans should understand that we have a long, historical and cultural tie to Liberia. Liberia was founded by freed slaves from America. The first 10 presidents were former freed American slaves. Their flag is like ours. As African Americans, we should look at Liberia the way Jews look at Israel. This should be one of our primary causes, to make Liberia the gateway to West Africa economically.