Liberia: We Must Help Her Succeed
Liberia: We Must Help Her Succeed
Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Liberia: We Must Help Her Succeed

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and First Lady Laura Bush traveled to Monrovia this week to watch as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in as Liberia's president and the continent's first democratically elected female leader. Their presence at the inauguration signaled a serious American commitment to Liberia's future. The question is: will the U.S. match its money to its rhetoric?

Sirleaf becomes chief of state of a country devastated by a fourteen-year war, one without electricity or drinking water, landline telephones, or more than a handful of roads passable year-round. She will face an impatient populace. There are still more than 10,000 demobilized ex-combatants from Liberia's war who have yet to find a slot in any reintegration program, though demobilization officially ended over one year ago. Refugees and displaced persons are returning to find their homes, their fields, and the schools their children attended gone. With the arrival of a legitimately elected president, they expect their basic needs to be satisfied and soon.

Sirleaf also will have to decide whether to press Nigeria to end the temporary asylum afforded Charles Taylor, who once featured on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the three worst dictators in the world, and send him to answer the indictment for crimes against humanity issued by an international tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Liberia's sources for rebuilding a shattered infrastructure and healing a nation are surprisingly limited. The U.S. is by far the biggest donor, followed by the European Union and the United Nations. Liberia's West African neighbors do not have much development aid to give, but they have contributed soldiers to the 15,000 man peacekeeping force and sent troops even before the UN mission began, when nobody, including the U.S., was willing to put boots on the ground. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) cannot resume normal flows of aid until Liberia's large debt arrears is either paid off or forgiven.

One might assume that a country like Liberia - so poor it does not even make it onto the UN's 177 nation Human Development Index -would have had its debt forgiven long ago. However, such forgiveness is not just a carrot, but also a stick in the hands of international diplomats. Rampant theft by the transitional government caused the internationals to hold off on erasing Liberia's debt until transitional leader Gyude Bryant, signed on to a plan to introduce tight oversight into the government's ministries and parastatal companies. This mechanism, called the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) has now been signed into law.

International actors negotiated hard to insist on the importance of this oversight to make the government of Liberia accountable to its own people. They got what they asked for, and now they must live up to their own end of the bargain. Liberia's debt to the World Bank and IMF should be annulled as soon as possible, and donors like the US should dedicate new monies immediately to Liberian reconstruction. Present signs are worrying. The foreign aid bill just signed into law has only $50 million earmarked for Liberia, but it will take much more than that to give Liberia the help it needs, especially since the U.S. has undertaken the huge responsibility of retraining the entire Liberian army from scratch. The Administration should remove all doubt that it can cobble together the necessary funds by announcing a multi-year bilateral aid program of at least $100 million per year for the new government, starting now.

Strings attached to assistance have their place, and it is especially important to apply the GEMAP, not as a means of undercutting the sovereignty of a duly elected government, but precisely in order to take the heat off Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in her work to root out and punish corrupt individuals and practices. She will have enough other challenges without having to take the political flak for firing or prosecuting corrupt officials who could become spoilers to the peace process. And this is exactly why she needs a new boost of American assistance for her administration to hit the ground running, and to give the Liberian people a visible peace dividend.

One kind of dividend that could pay off in a big way would be an American commitment to restore water to Monrovia within the next six months. The World Bank has already done the feasibility study, and is just waiting for a donor to plug in the necessary funds. Why water? Clean water is a prerequisite for better sanitation and hygiene in Monrovia. Potable water will help cut down communicable diseases, and the unglamorous, but necessary manual work involved in laying the pipes for the new system could absorb many of the remaining ex-combatants who are not enrolled in reintegration plans.

Projects like this are not sexy, but the stakes are deceivingly high. If President-elect Johnson-Sirleaf does not get help solidifying her administration in the coming months, it will open a space for detractors, ex-combatants, and other interlopers ready to try their luck by resorting again to violence. In such a catastrophic scenario, the US and the rest of the world could be coming back in several years to clean up the aftermath of another humanitarian catastrophe, one that will cost orders of magnitude more than jump-starting the new government today.


Former Senior Adviser
Former Project Director, West Africa

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