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Liberia's 'Iron Lady' In It For The Long Haul
ISSUE 250
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By Greg Mills

Sunday Tribune, October 29 2006

My arrival at Robert's International Airport offered little hope: an angry, shoving series of queues dominated by aggressive ladies in bright dresses, posters declaring Liberia should be "gun free" - while UN helicopters cluttering the flight ramp reminded it was not - my passport being handed back and forth, more checks, stamps, forms handed over, filled in, handed back, over and back again, touts, baggage collection and customs check, baggage opening, baggage tag check, touts, exit, touts, and more touts.

All in a building the size of an average foyer, in stupefying humidity, weather, as Barbara

Greene put it in her account of her 1935 journey across Liberia, "that takes every drop of energy out of your body".

Outside, a small jostling crowd had gathered, in the background the helmets of Swedish UN "solyas" popped out of the hatches of their white-painted Armored Personnel Carriers. In front of the crumbling terminal was a big, white American SUV with the registration plate KIA1.

Liberia was never a colony. It was established as Africa's first independent country in 1822 by freed slaves from the United States.

Today the descendants of slaves comprise less than 5 percent of the population, though as an elite oligarchy they have retained virtually unbroken control of the economy and Liberia's turbulent politics since its constitution in 1854.

For the country is today best known not by its liberation path-breaking, but its ongoing and devastating civil war which began in 1980 when Liberia's tenth president, William Tolbert, was overthrown in a military coup led by Master Sgt Samuel Doe.

A decade of mismanagement, corruption, ruinous violence and abuse of power followed until Doe was, in turn, deposed in 1990 when rebel factions (including the National Patriotic Front militia led by future president Charles Taylor) mounted an uprising. Doe was murdered by forces allied to warlord Prince Johnson.

The civil war was eventually suspended by a 1997 peace agreement brokered by the Economic Community of West African States.

Taylor won the subsequent presidential election, but not only failed to eliminate armed opposition to his rule, he also transformed Liberia's fiscus into his private bank account.

Taylor 's rule collapsed in 2003 under the combined impact of rebel attacks and UN sanctions imposed in retaliation for his involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war.

A peace deal signed in Ghana in August 2003 provided for the creation of a two-year National Transition Government of Liberia.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a US-educated economist and finance minister under Tolbert, won the subsequent presidential elections, and took office in January 2006.

The 68-year-old Johnson Sirleaf faces the twin challenges of trying to rebuild the country and of fostering reconciliation through a South African-modeled Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

She has declared "zero tolerance'" of corruption, difficult to achieve where a policeman earns only $20 (about R153) monthly and ministers scarcely $30 (about R230).

The "Iron Lady" has a tough task on her hands. There is not much of an economy to speak of.

Most of Liberia's three million people are supported by aid or by working in agriculture (about 80) or services (15).

Its principal forms of income were traditionally the great rubber plantations (about $100 million (R676 million) annually).

Some income was also provided by iron ore deposits and small alluvial diamond diggings.

In more recent times, under Taylor, it became a conduit for smuggled gems from Sierra Leone when the latter was under sanctions.

Recorded exports fell from $440-million in 1988 to $2- million in 1997. Today unemployment is stuck at 85 percent.

Like failed states from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Liberia's collapse has its roots in politics.

Above all, wealth inequities along ethno-political lines. Here the Americo-Liberians get most of the wealth.

Other common causes of conflict are the centralized power of the executive; fragile and complex patronage-driven alliances between the elites and tribal authorities; contamination from a toxic region (the war in neighboring Sierra Leone and ongoing political violence in Guinea and Ivory Coast); fragmentary justice systems; an outdated land registry system, the effect of mismanagement on the institutions of governance; natural resource rivalries, and endemic poverty arising from a lack of opportunities.

These conditions have been exacerbated by the large number of displaced people, and the resulting friction with local communities.

And these states face similar vulnerabilities in their peace settlements: the situation in both Afghanistan and Liberia demanded the inclusion within government of warlords.

As with many states emerging from war, the question is less what the problems are, but rather where and how to break the cycle of underdevelopment.

In a country the size of Portugal, only six of its 10 000km of roads are paved ( Portugal's figure is 86 percent) and most of these are poorly maintained.

There is no national power grid, and two telephone mainlines for every 1000 people.

Monrovia (named after US president James Monroe) is a sad reminder of the absence of progress and impact of deliberate destruction.

The potholes, limited generator-supplied electricity and the absence of drinkable water for most inhabitants corresponds with the omnipresent hulks of half-finished or half-destroyed mould-encrusted buildings.

No wonder people have turned en masse to fundamentalist Christian Pentecostal preaching to try to relieve their suffering.

Crudely hand-painted billboards reflect this and other quirks of Liberian society - from the " Third Rock Enterprise Church" to " Hope International School", and my two favorites " International School for Aviation" and "Monrovia Investment Corp Filling Station and Auto Parts".

The impact of the war is most keenly felt on its people, around 250 000 of whom were killed and over 400 000 of whom fled to neighboring countries.

Average per capita income is today just $120 (R920) annually (down from $1 269 in 1980) and it's GDP a little under $500 million (R3,8-billion).

No wonder Liberia did not even merit a mention among the 177 countries surveyed in the UN's 2005 Human Development Index ranking quality of life.

With an estimated unemployment rate of about 80 percent, the destruction of the health and education sectors has resulted in infant and maternal mortality estimated to be among the highest in the world, at 157 and 780 per 1 000 live births respectively. The national literacy rate is around 37 percent.

But there has been progress. In July 2006, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz cited the election of President Johnson Sirleaf as a positive development for Africa.

" Monrovia," he exaggerated, "got water and electricity for the first time in 15 years". He should really have said "some of Monrovia". But GDP growth was 21.2 percent in 2004 and 9.8 percent last year. Statistical life expectancy increased from 41.4 years in 2002 to 42.4 years in 2003.

The figures do not adequately reflect the post-war growth. There is more money in the system than the GDP shows, and this is not just the roughly $500 million (R3,8-billion) Liberia receives annually in foreign aid over and above the $750 million (R5,7-billion) costs of maintaining 15 000 UN peacekeepers.

The increase in cellphone usage (there was just one cellphone per 1 000 people in 2002, and totals more than 300 000 subscribers by 2006) and flows of diaspora remittances (there are around half a million Liberians in the US alone) offer some hint.

There is little doubt that if sales of beer, cigarette and detergent, were scrutinized, one could arrive at a more accurate (and positive) growth figure than that offered by the World Bank and other agencies.

So the impressive President Johnson Sirleaf, facing such an endless "To Do" list, has had to role up her sleeves and get stuck in quickly, despite her very limited domestic resources, cash, skilled workers, agitating opposition politicians and a restive population.

With no direct foreign donor budget support, she has had to think and operate creatively within the confines of her meager government budget of just $125 million (R959 million).

As she observes, "We are a small country with vast natural resources, but where leadership and management have not been our strong points."

Her first challenge - to get the ball rolling, and put her stamp on things as quickly and firmly as possible - has been achieved through her 150-day initial programme to deliver electricity and water to the capital.

She also has to unlock the areas of greatest multiplier effect in the economy, linking infrastructure spending to economic needs, particularly aiming to open up the rural areas and market access through secondary roads and, ultimately, electrification. All of this is needed to unlock growth.

And finally, she will have to leverage her impeccable international reputation for all its worth.

Johnson Sirleaf's difficult task is to plan for the long-term while bringing visible, immediate benefits to the population to counter gnawing fatalism and destructive factionalism.

If anyone can do it, she can.

• Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg.

• This article was originally published on page 22 of The Sunday Tribune on October 29, 2006


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