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Lighting up Liberia

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
January 8, 2007

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Optimism surrounded the 2006 inauguration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Some heralded the significance of Africa’s first elected female head of state. Others spoke of the U.S.-educated economist’s record of honesty and the possibility of a government untainted by corruption. And many Liberians, victims of a fourteen-year civil war (PBS) that left their country in shambles, simply hoped for electricity and running water in Monrovia. This was one of Johnson Sirleaf’s campaign promises, as she told a CFR meeting in March.  

Twelve months later, the U.S.-educated economist known as the “Iron Lady” has made inroads tackling some of her country’s thorniest problems, drawing praise from the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, and other international bodies. She brought running water and electricity (BBC) to part—not all—of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, which had been without power for fifteen years. She negotiated a revised deal (Reuters) with Arcelor Mittal Steel, a $900 million agreement that the previous, unelected transitional government had signed that allowed the corporation to set its own royalty rates. And UN timber sanctions were lifted, paving the way for reopening an industry (CSMonitor) that could bring in some $100 million a year and create thousands of jobs. As a result of these changes, the International Monetary Fund predicts a healthy 8 percent growth in gross domestic product in 2007. A Wilson Center panel looks at whether Liberia is ready to manage its own natural resources.

Yet the shadow of civil war still hangs over much of the country. Aside from its ravaged infrastructure, Liberia stands at least $3.5 billion in debt after twenty years of dictators looting state coffers. Many former warlords now sit in the national legislature, and an estimated 100,000 former fighters have found no gainful employment. Unemployment afflicts at least 80 percent of the population, and UN sanctions remain on the diamond industry, despite efforts to have them lifted. The justice system needs wholesale reform and “impedes progress in all other areas,” says an International Crisis Group report. Many Liberians await the results of justice outside their borders: The trial of former warlord Charles Taylor is scheduled for April 2007 in The Hague.

Despite the monumental problems Liberia faces, Johnson Sirleaf has convinced its citizens to maintain optimism while they await more substantive changes. “It’s going to take a while,” she tells the Economist. “It won’t be a quick fix, we won’t do it in one year or two but we’re going to be making progress year after year… In five years we’ll have made a big difference.” In a new CFR.org Podcast, Steven Radelet, economic adviser to Johnson Sirleaf, says the government is making “some tangible progress,” but there is a “real balancing act” between showing Liberians immediate economic gains and building institutions to sustain long-term growth. 

To rebuild Liberia, she will need all the help she can get. Much of Johnson Sirleaf’s first year was spent building confidence in her country—lobbying international donors for funds (the United States gave $85.7 million in aid in 2006, up from $36 million the previous year) and convincing the United Nations to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping mission in Liberia until mid-2007. Her efforts have produced results with an unexpected group: Liberians living abroad (CSMonitor). In a kind of reverse brain drain, many highly educated Liberians are returning to help rebuild their country. “It’s a concrete manifestation of the confidence people have that peace is here to stay,” says William Allen, director of Liberia's Civil Service Agency.

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