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Liberian Leaders Predict Boom for Poor West African Country

Liberia is set to become one of Africa’s leading economic powers, says Richard Tolbert, the man tasked with the reconstruction of the country. The West African nation emerged from decades of civil war in 2004. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently embarked on an ambitious development strategy to improve the lives of her country’s 3.5 million people. Liberia is rich in minerals and other resources, but its economy remains largely devastated. In the final section of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the vision some of Liberia’s leaders have for the future of their country.

“Liberia is waiting for the words of history to be written,” says Adelaide Gardiner, a spokesperson for the country's Diaspora Community in the United States.

Her optimism reflects the sentiments of many Liberians who welcome their government’s commitment to peace, democracy and good governance.

Sirleaf has pledged to uplift Liberia’s economy and to place it on a par with some of Africa’s leading powers. Through a series of reforms, her economic advisors are seeking to reconstruct the country’s dilapidated infrastructure and to boost exports – including rubber, timber and precious minerals. Major oil and diamond explorations are also set to begin.

Just 18 months ago, the president said, it would have been correct to label Liberia “a failed state”.

“Our infrastructure was in ruins, our GDP had declined by more than 80 percent, there was very little economic activity, and not much reason to invest … Our economy was largely criminalized … We’re proud to say that all of that has changed.”

All the same, for many Liberians living in poverty and struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day, the future appears bleak. But in an interview with VOA, Tolbert - Sirleaf’s chief economic advisor – insisted, “Liberia is not a poor country! It is a place that has merely been poorly managed.”

Tolbert asserted that the war and its “terrible aftermath” had made Liberia a stronger country.

“I believe that we are on the verge of a new day, a new age. I think the future is very bright, and I think anyone who is a part of this process is going to be rewarded not only financially, but also personally. I think it’s a very exciting time. I love what I am doing, and I think anyone who comes to Liberia right now, will also be challenged and rewarded,” he maintained.

Olubanke King-Akerele, Liberia’s Minister of Trade and Commerce, said the country’s future was “littered with grave challenges” but that the country can overcome them.

“Liberians have a tremendous amount of human resources that left the country – the diaspora. They all will be coming back. We hope to encourage them coming back for investment, joining forces with the larger investment community. We want to see and we look forward to see a dynamic economy. Liberia is going to grow. We want our people to be part of that growth and seeing a new day,” the Minister said.

According to the government, Liberia’s future will be built upon what it has termed ‘Four Pillars’: peace and security; good governance and the rule of law; the rebuilding of infrastructure and delivery of basic services; and revitalizing economic activity and the private sector.

Sirleaf said key to Liberia’s future was “investment that brings in new ideas, technology, innovation and global markets that create new jobs … We want firms that are prepared to add value to our raw material, and we would like to see productivity, wages and profits grow over time.”

The president said Liberians were hard at work “rebuilding their lives”.

“We are working hard to revitalize agriculture, as the bedrock of the economy, as it provides the livelihoods of the majority of Liberians and is essential for reducing poverty,” Sirleaf explained.

Gardiner, a longtime friend of the president’s, agreed with Sirleaf’s contention that Liberia’s future would largely be built upon private sector investment. However, he cautions foreign investors seeking to profit from Liberia’s reconstruction.

She urged them not to expect “overnight riches” and warned them against corruption. Gardiner said foreign investors should pour their capital into Liberia in an effort to make profits, but also to develop the people of the country. She stressed that investors who rushed into Liberia and were motivated solely by profit would not be welcome in the country.

“The primary element to securing a prosperous future for Liberia will be the President’s ability to put in place development institutions that will outlive her,” emphasized Thierry Tanoh, the Africa Director of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

The President of Coca Cola Africa, Alexander Cummings – who was born in Liberia – said he was convinced that Liberia’s future would be dominated by “rapid development”.

“I was in Rwanda in 2004, about ten years after the genocide, and I saw how in ten years they were able to rebuild their country. I saw optimism and infrastructure being built and developed. I think Liberia can do the same – but even better and faster … I think the leadership by Mrs. Sirleaf and her government - I think the investment projects that they’re putting in place – all of this leads me to believe that the country will develop itself very quickly.”

Gardiner was certain that Liberia would be “booming” in five to ten years’ time, with a thriving tourism industry.

“Liberia is going to be a new Liberia. Everything (there) is going to be ‘mod-con’. We’re going to rebuild Liberia from the ground up. I see Liberia as a place that my children and my grandchildren would love to be, and I invite everybody to come and have a look and see Liberia for themselves. We have beautiful beaches; we have beautiful forests; it’s a beautiful place!” she exclaimed.