Free at last?

Sunday Herald
Monrovia, Liberia

Sugar Hill, Monrovia, and the pungent smell of exhaled opium wafts out of the glassless window of a wooden shack. Close by, a young boy sifts through a field of rubbish looking for plastic bottles to re-sell, while behind him another child squats to defecate among the smouldering junk. There are no toilets here – no schools, no jobs and little hope.

“I’ve been living here for 15 years and nothing’s improved,” says Iota Trotman, 35, a trainee mechanic and father of four. “The whole area’s polluted, there’s rubbish everywhere, there are no schools or jobs. Even our children have to work. The president is trying hard but she’s not doing enough.” When pushed, Trotman admits that the end of a 14-year long civil war in 2003 is, at least, some improvement.

But his view is repeated in many of the poorest parts of Liberia’s damaged capital, Monrovia. “We are frustrated,” says Julius Boimah, 43, to nods of approval from his friends in Paynesville, a city suburb of broken roads and filthy buildings. “People are anxious because of all the promises that were made we have seen so little.” It’s hard to argue with a man who is queuing for an hour in the early morning haze to pay US$5 for two gallon jugs of clean drinking water for his family.

Today Liberia’s president and Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, returns from Washington DC, where she has been arguing the case for her country. She arrived there last week as the leader of a country whose economy has been almost literally shot to pieces, which strains under a debt of $3.7 billion run up by the unscrupulous warlords-cum-presidents who ran Liberia before democratic elections in late 2005.

One-third of this debt is interest owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – and Liberia’s inability to pay off these arrears means it is not eligible for debt relief. But while Johnson-Sirleaf is not returning home having removed the $1000 per capita debt burden on her people entirely, she has made it a little easier to bear by securing promises from America, Britain and Germany to forget about $691m owed to them. She also persuaded donors to pledge an additional $355m.

But as an unimpressed Boimah puts it: “We hear about all this aid money but we don’t see it.”

Certainly it is hard to see in downtown Monrovia. The zone that would ordinarily pass for a central business district does have a couple of banks (but there are no ATMs), but otherwise the arearesemblesagraveyardforold buildings. Two scarred and blackened multi-storey hulks tower over the city centre, testament to the fierce fighting which engulfed the country during the civil war that cost 200,000 lives.

One bridge connecting Monrovia to the suburb of Bushrod Island is flecked with bullet holes; another has simply collapsed into the brown river below. Other buildings lack walls or roofs or were eviscerated by looters years ago.

“People expect a peace dividend,” explains Nigel Clarke, acting country director of Save The Children. “They are waiting to see if peace brings the jobs, healthcare and education it promises.”

For now there is some grumbling but most seem willing to give peace – and the president – a chance. However, Clarke warns: “There will come a crunch time in the next two years when people are either satisfied, feeling that they have a stake in this process, or they feel dissatisfied.”

One ominous fact is that, of the 100,000 former fighters disarmed since the end of the conflict, 10% of them were children and few have anything to do. Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters in Washington at the end of last week’s conference: “Many youngsters spent more time in war than in school.”

The solution will be jobs, and for that more is needed than just further handouts from rich nations – Liberia needs private investment to counter the 85% unemployment rate. United Nations Security Council sanctions on the export of Liberian timber have been lifted, although those on diamonds remain; US tyre giant Firestone is once again operating its rubber plantation in the country and steelmaker Arcelor Mittal signed a $1bn deal late last year to mine iron ore. These are the kind of deals Johnson-Sirleaf needs to strike if she is to bring her people the peace dividend they so desperately want.

Liberians may grumble but they are not yet disillusioned with their leader – nor are they content to sit around waiting for handouts. In this tropical heat, an abandoned building will quickly be overrun by thick jungle; here in the city it is the people who engulf the ramshackle buildings.

Every one of the seseemingly collapsed, derelict, hopeless spaces is being used. In one, a makeshift restaurant serves the stodgy staple “fufu”, made from cassava, with soup; in another, burnt out by arsonists years ago, traders sell their wares. One building comprises a whole chain of secretarial schools set up side by side, their computers and typewriters lining the pavement. Next door, dozens of families have made their homes.

Abraham Massaley, 30, returned to Liberia from Egypt following the 2003 peace deal. Disappointed with the lack of jobs he found here, Massaley used $750 that he had saved to buy two second-hand computers and started his own business teaching typing and computer skills. “There are more people wanting to learn these skills and I can earn $15 on a good day. My dream is to one day open an internet café,” he says.

Everywhere there is a relentless bustle and movement. Young men push wheelbarrows loaded with a stereo and pile of cassettes, blasting out music as they go; water sellers slosh about between their jerry cans and youngsters weave between vehicles, hawking chewing gum, pens and newspapers.

To give Johnson-Sirleaf her due, she has been in power scarcely more than a year and has taken over one of Africa’s most notorious “basket cases”, yet the economy is growing at 10% per annum, you can walk the streets in safety, and some areas have drinking water and some electricity.

On the internal political front, she faces other kinds of problems, as the resignation last Thursday of Edwin Snowe, the speaker of Liberia’s lower house of parliament, once again highlighted.

A one-time political ally of former president Charles Taylor, Snowe was voted out by a majority of the 64-member assembly in mid-January after he failed to answer question sover alleged breaches of protocol, but he was reinstated when the supreme court ruled his dismissal was unconstitutional. He finally resigned late on Thursday, though he retains his status as a member of parliament.

“After one month of trying to uphold the rule of law in our country I decided today to turn in my resignation as speaker of the 52nd Legislature of the Republic of Liberia,” Snowe said.

He has also accused other law-makers of being paid $5000 each to vote him out of office. Snowe is a former son-in-law of Taylor and remains subject to a UN travel ban imposed on Taylor’s allies in 2001.

Taylor,forced from office by international pressure in the face of a rebel advance on Monrovia in 2003, is awaiting trial in The Hague for alleged war crimes linked to a civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Such political disquiet, allied to other obstacles, is an indicator of how difficult it is for Liberia to go it alone without continued support from the international community.

As one Western diplomat put it: “Expectations are high and the feeling is that if the United Nations and others stay things will not flare up again.” But the 15,000 troops of the UN mission in Liberia and its 1200 police will not be here forever and already a gap is opening up as emergency relief pulls out and development aid is slow to replace it.

The emergency medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that it cannot continue to run hospitals in the country indefinitely, though the lack of any state-run alternative has been a major factor in it deciding to stay inLiberiauntiltheendof2008. Although the government talks of free healthcare for all, this is not a reality: 90% of the health system is run by aid agencies. Life expectancy is only 41 years and for every 1000 babies born, 157 will die as children.

Save The Children’s Clarke says: “There is a danger of Liberia coasting towards a situation where emergency money dries up and there’s not enough economic development at the local level.”

If Liberia is failed by the international community and its own new leaders, there will be reverberations beyond its borders. None of its West African neighbours are stable: Sierra Leone – the setting for the recent movie Blood Diamonds – is emerging from its own decade of darkness and civil war which ended in 2002; Guinea is in turmoil under its ailing and sick president Lansana Conte,who has declared martial law and sent his army in to quell protests against his 23-year rule. And the Ivory Coast has been split between rebels in the north and government in the south for five years.

The region needs a success story and Liberia might yet offer it. Doubtless there is a long way to go,but the continued support of the international community indicated in last week’s discussions in Washington should help Liberia on that journey.

The country’s greatest resources, however, are its people – who have endured years of brutality, violence and corrupt rule, yet show such resilience – and Johnson-Sirleaf, a totemic leader who commands respect without resorting to a gun and knows how to talk the talk of international aid to get what she wants.