LIBERIA: Africa’s First Woman President Slowly Heals Her Country
Thomas Cromwell

Ruined by years of civil war, Liberia has since January 2006 pinned its hopes of recovery on the first African woman elected head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a graduate of Harvard in public administration and a long-time official with the United Nations.

But the high expectations were bound to outstrip any likely pace of development on the ground, as the new president faced an almost insurmountable set of problems inherited from over 15 years of ruinous civil war.

The most fundamental problem was the wrecked infrastructure. The capital Monrovia had been without electricity, running water or a landline telephone system for 15 years. Streets in the capital and roads around the country were dilapidated or washed out. And unemployment levels topped 80 percent in a country where almost all industry had been shut down by years of war.

Where to start? What to do?

Liberia’s ambassador to Washington, Charles Minor, sat down with recently to talk about the efforts to develop his country has made under President Johnson.

He noted that, “Expectations of the people were extremely high,” and that with a very small tax base and a heavy debt burden, “the government was not able to deliver on what the people expected after years of suffering.”

He stressed that Johnson Sirleaf brought with her a host of valuable connections and relationships, especially from her years as a senior UN official. But to reverse a decades-long brain drain by attracting talented Liberians back to their homeland has not been easy, given the small number of well-paying positions available.

“We have been fortunate to have such an experienced person as president,” he said. “She brings to the job experience in development and a lot of friends with whom she has worked.”

There were a host of immediate problems to tackle for the new president. Many civil servants were months late in getting pay, schools had remained closed for long periods due to limited funds. And core industries like diamonds and timber had been shut down by UN sanctions, designed to cripple the previous government of Charles Taylor.

The ambassador said that some of these problems have been successfully addressed. He said the government was now able to pay salaries on time, that sanctions have been lifted and that several major investments by international companies have started to encourage a wider business interest in Liberia.

With peace, traditional sources of government revenue have improved as well. These include the Marine Registry, port fees and customs duties. Consequently, the government has increased civil service pay by 30 to 50 percent, Ambassador Minor said.

Among the significant new investments, Firestone has recommitted to develop its million-acre rubber plantation in Liberia, the largest in the world. The company promises to provide better housing, education and healthcare to its workers, and will build a plant to generate energy from rubber trees that are no longer productive.

The plantation has produced some one percent of world rubber consumption in recent years, but Firestone plans to raise that figure to 10 percent. Liberia’s proximity to the United States and Europe give it an edge against major rubber-exporting rivals, such as Malaysia.

Another major deal, estimated to be worth $1 billion, has been struck with Arcelor Mittal, the world’s largest steel producer, which will mine Liberia’s rich iron ore reserves in the Bomi Hills, and restore the railway (originally completed in 1951, but long since out of use) that links that area to Monrovia Port. Before the civil war, Liberia was the fifth largest iron ore producer in the world.

One of the first things to strike visitors to Monrovia in recent years has been the lack of electricity. Private generators have filled the gap, but only for scattered buildings and often on a sporadic basis. Many stores and homes have relied on oil-fuelled lamps.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Liberian president after her election: “Your election has electrified the world, so we will help electrify your country,” according to the ambassador’s paraphrase. Sounds good, but still only some areas are supplied with power, by various “medium-sized” generators, the ambassador said.

Before the civil war, which ran from 1989 until Taylor agreed to leave the country in 2003, the major source of electricity was a hydro plant. This plant was destroyed and ransacked during the war. “The government is considering bids to rebuild the hydro plant,” the ambassador said. But whatever solution is found, it will be a good while before power flows from that source or the capital, let alone the rest of the country, enjoys adequate electricity supplies.

Despite Washington’s long-standing support, which is based on the historical links between Liberia and the United States, which dates to the 19th Century when Liberia was created as a homeland for freed slaves, both the European Union and China are also actively working to help the country get back on its feet.

As in many African countries, China is offering to build roads (including a new highway to connect the main airport, Roberts Field, with Monrovia), and is also contributing to the construction of a new campus for the University of Liberia.

The United States is training the security forces in Liberia, as well as funding several other projects. The new Liberian Army is planned as a small force of only 2000, whose main mission is to guard the borders and fulfill other security tasks.

Demobilizing the troops that fought for the Taylor government, as well as the rebel soldiers of the opposition LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), many of them boys, has taken considerable time. It will take more time to purge the bad habits and bad memories that were fostered by the years of civil war, which saw extensive use of child soldiers.

Ambassador Minor said that running water has been restored to most of the capital, and that there are now three cell phone companies in the country, filling the need created by the collapse of the landline network.

The diamond industry is now no longer under UN sanction, and is closely regulated using the Kimberley Certification. Likewise, the timber industry is no longer under sanction, but cutting trees is only allowed in tandem with replanting programs.

And only a relatively short list of former Liberians officials is prohibited from international travel under UN sanctions now, the last vestiges of a regime that severely hampered development under the Charles Taylor government. The ambassador noted that those who had engaged in the arms trade or similar activities frowned on by the international community are still on the no-travel list, but most other former officials are now free to travel.

But bringing Liberia back to even pre-war conditions will take much more time. The ambassador pointed out that during half of the year the country is inundated by heavy rains that make transport and construction extremely difficult.

And with the dearth of both capable people and financial resources, every new task the government tackles presents a new set of challenges to the president and other leaders.

The path has been eased by debt relief from donor countries, currently amounting to over a quarter of the $4 billion owed by Liberia internationally. Another third is owed to multilaterals, such as the World Bank, which the ambassador said is more difficult to resolve, given the various parties involved in the decision-making.

Once these debts are negotiated to settlement (after a month or two), the ambassador believes that debts to commercial banks will be much easier to settle. “Then you can get back into the credit market,” he said.

There are projects that might interest US investors, the ambassador said, such as rebuilding the airport at Roberts Field, or Monrovia Port, or other major infrastructure projects needed by Liberia.

Slow though the recovery has been, it is progressing. GDP grew by eight percent from July 2006 to June 2007, and unemployment is down below 70 percent, the ambassador said. It is a long, difficult process, but there is hope.