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Life Improves for Liberians but Uncertainty Persists


In January last year, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female head of state, and a wave of optimism swept the West African country after almost 25 years of civil strife. The President and her key officials have embarked on a strategy to develop the tiny but mineral-rich Liberia into one of the most powerful economies on the continent. In the first of a five-part series examining the country’s efforts at reconstruction, VOA’s Darren Taylor provides an overview of the Liberia of the present.

Senior officials of the Liberian government, in their efforts to gain massive amounts of foreign investment, are obviously keen to focus attention upon the developments that have taken place since Sirleaf’s inauguration.

“Hundreds of miles of roads have been built; electricity has been restored to parts of Monrovia (the capital) for the first time in fifteen years; pipe-borne water is being fed to Monrovia for the first time in more than a decade, and hotels and other infrastructure are being constructed,” Liberia’s Minister of Trade and Commerce, Olubanke King-Akerele, enthused in an interview with VOA during her recent visit to Washington, D.C.

However, Liberia – a small nation of less than 100 000 square kilometers bordered by Guinea, Sierra Leone Cote d’Ivoire and the Atlantic Ocean - remains largely undeveloped and extremely impoverished.

“It’s quite obvious that with 25 years of civil war, the basic infrastructure of the country has been devastated - as far as roads, lights, water, sanitation, airports, seaports - they’ve been pretty devastated … But they’re coming back,” said Richard Tolbert, the former Wall Street banker who is now Sirleaf’s chief economic advisor.

“As a counter to that (destruction), despite the fact that the physical infrastructure is pretty much devastated, I would say that the spiritual infrastructure is very much in place,” Tolbert quickly added, in keeping with his pledge to himself to “always look at the positives ahead of the negatives” in his attempts to haul Liberia from the doldrums.

As the Chairman of Liberia’s National Finance Corporation, Tolbert is the person effectively tasked with the country’s reconstruction. He faces a daunting challenge: More than 70 percent of Liberia’s employable workforce lives on less than a dollar a day; most cannot read and write; up to 80 percent of its 3.5 million population is without formal employment.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a reported per capita GDP of about $163 in 2005. The IMF projected only modest increases in the years ahead up to 2010.

But Tolbert preferred to look “on the bright side of the storm cloud” that Liberia would appear to be at the moment.

“You have a population that is very, very much vibrant, alive, and welcoming to foreign investment. The physical side (of Liberia) can be rebuilt. The spiritual side of the country is already built, and we’re going to build on that,” he vowed.

King-Akerele said that of all the recent reforms made in Liberia, the “most significant” for her was the “peace and security” that had “descended upon the streets” of the country – largely as a result of the presence of 15 000 United Nations peacekeepers – one of the largest such occupations in the world.

“The country has just come from war. There’s a lot of excitement, because there is hope. Hope has been rekindled, as a result of the leadership of President Sirleaf, who’s a visionary leader who is hardworking; has done a major job in terms of promoting Liberia (and) inviting people to come back to the country, and, in fact, encouraging Liberians that there is a future,” the minister gushed.

Alexander Cummings, the President of Coca Cola’s Africa division and a Liberian himself, visited Monrovia recently to investigate the possibility of one of the biggest companies in the world creating a regional hub in Liberia’s capital city. In contrast with previous visits to his homeland, Cummings said that he was met in Monrovia by people who were “full of smiles and confidence” … but, also, desperation.

“They’re impatient. It (development) is never fast enough. But they’re beginning to see electricity return to at least parts of Monrovia, beginning to see roads being repaired. Schools are open. Security is returning. They believe in the future of their country once again!” Cummings exclaimed.

Adelaide Gardiner, of the Liberian Diaspora Business Community in the United States, said what was most important to her at the moment was “seeing Liberians sharing with one another” and “reconciling” after years of drug-fueled fighting that had been characterized as amongst the most vicious yet seen in Africa.

“We have a reputation in all of Africa of being the most warm-hearted and generous people. We are the people who actually will take our last dollar and give it to a stranger; we will invite strangers into our home to come and share what we have,” Gardiner said. “Liberians are actually a kind people (despite the violence that they exacted upon one another during the war).”

But Mohamed Kamara, a businessman in Monrovia and a member of Liberia’s International Business Organization, which facilitates contacts between local and foreign enterprises, said uncertainty was also a “major factor of life” in the country at the moment.

“What people are afraid of, basically, is how the economy is going to grow and how people are going to get employment opportunity. The major challenge facing Liberia is this investment plan. We need investors in our country to create job opportunity for our people,” Kamara pleaded.

Gardiner was “encouraged” by the reports she was receiving of foreign businesspeople “streaming into Monrovia every day” to analyze investment opportunities.

“They love Liberians!” she whooped. “People tell me that living in Liberia - in spite of what’s going on - it’s still one of the best countries to live in Africa. We don’t have anything, but people are happy there, and they say that this is better than living in some African countries that have everything going for them.”

It was Cummings’s “unshakeable” belief, and that of many others, that Liberia and its people were set to prosper.

“You can feel it in the streets,” Cumming’s asserted. “This wonderful mix of apprehension and optimism.”