LIBERIA: 'We want to be at peace with ourselves and our neighbors'
Few countries have suffered the ravages of civil war more deeply than Liberia. Fighting that erupted in 1989 essentially ruined the country's infrastructure, and plunged Liberia into a 20th Century dark ages, from which it has yet to emerge. The capital, Monrovia, continues virtually without central electricity, running water or fixed-line telephones, while many streets are potholed or washed out.
In this country of some three million people, once a model for sub-Saharan economic success, over 80 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line.
The first glimmer of light came in the summer of 2003, when the international community finally got involved, spurred on by the worsening situation on the ground, when rebel forces of LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) entered Monrovia after occupying other major towns, and fighting between them and government forces threatened to completely destroy what was left of the state.
President Charles Taylor left the country for exile in Nigeria and an interim government, under businessman Gyude Bryant, was installed to manage the nation's affairs for two years, until national elections in October 2005.
Bryant faced an overwhelming task. Where to begin? The country was infested with armed militias, many of the fighters children, the economy was virtually ruined, and the name Liberia had only negative associations for most.
"We suffered unbelievable destruction in the last 20 years," explains Charles A. Minor, Liberia's ambassador to Washington since early last year, in a recent interview with Diplomatic Traffic. "We became a pariah state." For someone who knew Liberia when it was one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, seeing his country in a shambles today is painful. "If you saw Liberia in the 70s and 80s you would see just how far back we've gone," the ambassador laments.
An international donors' conference in February 2004 raised $520 million for Liberia, enabling it to address some of its most pressing problems.
The first task was to disarm the militias, which not only had terrorized citizens for years, but also had enticed children into one of the only lifestyles that earned them a living. "Many children could see the only way up as through violence," Ambassador Minor says. He notes that whereas the number of militia fighters, men and women, had been estimated at 60,000 once a program to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate them into civilian life got underway, over 100,000 sought to benefit from the program.
The ambassador says the disarmament program has been successful, but integrating that many people into an economy that is practically dysfunctional is a major challenge. "The problem is to get people trained and back into gainful employment," he says. But Liberia is not a place one would easily invest in, and where jobs will come from in the short term is not at all clear. The unemployment rate has remained around 85 percent.
There is some encouraging news on the investment front, however. Firestone, which many years ago established a huge rubber plantation in Liberia, but which had largely withdrawn from the country during the fighting, recently agreed to invest in its Liberia operation and raise its output of rubber from the current level of 1 percent of world production to 10 percent.
At the same time, the government is now encouraging investment in the mining sector. With iron ore, gold, diamonds and other minerals, as well as timber (and possibly oil, offshore Monrovia), Liberia has good long-term prospects for investment.
And investment will be facilitated by the removal of UN-imposed sanctions. "Sanctions have become punitive," the ambassador says. On first taking power, the transitional government did not want sanctions removed, determined not to open the door to any illegal activity. But now, having brought its diamond mining industry under the internationally-accepted Kimberly Process, which regulates the sale of diamonds through a strict registration system, the ambassador says Liberia is hopeful the diamond sales sanction will be lifted by the middle of this year.
The most recently-imposed sanction, on timber sales, he hopes will be lifted before the end of this year.
Finally, travel by certain Liberian officials had been sanctioned, and this continues for several individuals on a UN list.
Meanwhile, a United Nations peacekeeping force, UNMIL, deploys 15,000 troops throughout the country, and currently all but one of the 15 provinces is safe for civilians. This, at least, has allowed for most of the 1 million people internally displaced by the fighting to return to their homes and begin to pick up the pieces of shattered lives.
Ambassador Minor is well aware that Washington's attention can easily be pulled from one crisis to another, and that Liberia is no longer uppermost in the minds of decision-makers. He sees much of his work being to keep the State Department and other relevant authorities focused on his country. He notes that in 2004, Washington contributed $200 million (as part of the $520 million) to Liberia, but needs far outpace resources. "Our shopping list is relatively long," he states.
In fact the government doesn't have the funds needed to fix the basic infrastructure, even in the capital. It hopes to find private companies that will buy utilities now owned by the government and run them commercially.
He says that Liberia is on track for October 11 parliamentary and presidential elections, with "a solid majority" of the people in favor of holding a vote this year. In fact there are already 30 candidates for president, as if "there is no other job in the country," the ambassador jokes.
There have been reports that Charles Taylor is preparing for the elections from abroad, although this would violate the conditions of his Nigerian exile, and no doubt jeopardize the protection of Abuja, which has enabled him to ignore the demands of the UN tribunal in Sierra Leone, which has called him to testify about his role in the atrocities committed in that country's civil war by militias he had been allied with.
The ambassador discounts these reports, however: "I haven't seen too much proof of his involvement in elections." And although Nigeria is paying a price for sticking with its agreement to offer Taylor a home by refusing to bow to international pressure to hand him over, "They are willing to pay that price."
Above all else, after years of war Liberians want to live in peace. "We want to be at peace with ourselves and peace with our neighbors," the ambassador says. "We want to get back to civil life." He says Liberians are resilient and "have the spirit and mind to lift themselves up. They want a new Liberia."
Ambassador Charles A. Minor
Charles A. Minor is the Liberian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States. He presented his letter of Credence to President George Bush at the White House in Washington D.C. on July 15, 2004, after confirmation his country's National Transitional Legislative Assembly and commissioning by Chairman C. G. Bryant, Liberia's Transitional Leader.
Ambassador Minor has had a distinguished career in corporate direction, management, corporate and human resources development, development economics and private enterprise. Prior to leaving Liberia in 1983, Mr. Minor was for two years a Vice President at the National Housing and Savings Bank and prior to 1980, he was for a number of years at the Liberian Produce Marketing Corporation (LPMC) where he rose to the position of Acting Managing Director in 1979.
In the twenty years Mr. Minor was away from Liberia, he was in academia and consultancy. After advanced studies in the U.S. he was engaged as a Consultant with Arthur D. Little (ADL) of Cambridge, USA, 1985 - 1988. On behalf of ADL he implemented a World Bank Industrial Sector Adjustment Credit Program for Ghana, involving the training of over 200 Ghanaian bankers and industrialists in enterprise and financial restructuring. Following the successful completion of that program, Mr. Minor and his wife Comfort, with other Ghanaian colleagues, including Ghana's former finance and current education Minister Yaw Osafo-Maafo, established and ran a consulting and training company which carried out a range of activities including training young professionals at the African Development Bank, privatization of state enterprises, business restructuring.
In 1993, Charles Minor became Management Development & Human Resources Director of the African Management Services Company, (AMSCO) a UNDP and IFC special purpose company, operating out of Amsterdam in The Netherlands and mandated to develop Africa's private sector and train African managers. He later became Deputy Managing Director before leaving AMSCO in July 2003.
Ambassador Minor, a chartered director and member of the Institute of Director in London, has graduate degrees in development and human resource economic and in management. He has also been a university lecturer in the United States, Ghana and Liberia. He was active in students and youth activities during his student days.
In January and February 2004, Mr. Minor was involved in the final preparation of the Donors' Conference on Liberia's Reconstruction and the organization of the visit of Chairman Bryant to the United States.
Mr. Minor and his wife have three children, two grand children and many dependents. His eldest son, Charles II, is a scientist working in Cambridge, U.S.
Mr. Minor is also Ambassador-designate to Canada and Mexico.