Four months after the opening of a Liberian embassy in Dakar, Senegal,
the new ambassador has pledged to further the relationship between the
two West African countries. He also hopes to facilitate the passage of
Liberian war refugees who want to go home.
Johnny McClain is Liberia's new ambassador to Senegal. He is in a unique position - almost all the Liberians living in Senegal are refugees who fled here during the Liberian war. That war ended five years ago, and some of them say they are ready to go home.
McClain said that getting them all back to Liberia will not be easy.
"Talking to many of them and knowing the situation, I will conclude that first of all, the country is not totally ready to absorb the refugees that we have in the sub-region - all of them. In Dakar, we have about 500 or more and as long as they have been here, most of them have not been to school to acquire skills to make them marketable in the job area. And so I think that is the main threat for them," McClain said.
Senegal was never earmarked as a country that could absorb Liberian refugees, largely because of its distance from Liberia. Most war refugees fled to Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea. But those who did find themselves in Senegal were given some support by UNHCR.
McClain said that has now come to an end.
"The other thing, I think, that impedes their movement is being able to repatriate themselves, because I am told that the U.N. repatriation program here has ended," he said.
While some refugees are eager to return to Liberia and help rebuild the country, McClain said that others are more reluctant.
"I encouraged some of those who had the means to go back home, to go early and face the challenges that other Liberians are facing. Every Liberian comes from a place, a village or an urban area, with relatives who would be willing to assist them, rather than to prolong the agony of staying abroad and doing nothing," McClain said.
Some of the refugees in Senegal have been here for as long as 10 years. Others fled the horrors of the Liberian war as it was coming to an end, and have been drifting from country to country ever since.
McClain said he feared that some refugees do not believe that Liberia is at peace. He said that although many are too traumatized to face the past, they can still try to face the challenges of the future.
"I am not able to propose a quick fix. As long as we have some limited funds at our disposal, we will encourage - especially the younger people, who still have a future - they can go back home and go to school instead of just being here, for [the sake of] being away from home," he said.
The ambassador also hopes to further educational links between Liberia and Senegal. Senegal is home to some of the best universities in West Africa. McClain said he was hopeful that there will be scholarships on offer for Liberian students who are willing to learn French.
"I came on a scholarship myself from Liberia [back in] those days, so I am trying to see if I can obtain some assistance from the government or from NGOs, to bring some of our young people to go to school. And it is because of my French background that I was able to work at the U.N. So those are opportunities that we can take advantage of for the future," McClain said.
The new ambassador said he also plans to establish a annual commission of representatives from both countries.
"We are now working on - and this suggestion I must admit, came from President Wade - we are now working on establishing a mixed commission in areas like mining, fishing, things like that. It will probably meet once a year to see how both countries can collaborate and help each other," McClain said.
Throughout Liberia's 14-year war, there was no embassy in Senegal. It is hoped that the presence of the ambassador will help cement Liberia's nascent relationship with the rest of West Africa.