Liberia Ten Year On Draft .pdf

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Original filename: Liberia Ten Year On Draft.pdf
Title: Microsoft Word - Liberia article 3.9.docx
Author: Finlay Young

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The   security   guard   shrugged   as   the   small   man   in   tinted   glasses   and   his   female  
companion   were   ushered   through   the   faux-­‐marble   entrance   of   Liberia’s   plush   new  
Royal   Grand   Hotel.   Flying   visits   from   the   unfamiliar   global   friends   of   their   Nobel-­‐
winning  President  Ellen  Johnson-­‐Sirleaf  are  commonplace.  Last  week,  it  was  Bono  and  
Condoleezza  Rice,  arriving  with  a  US  delegation  to  mark  ten  years  of  peace.  “I’m  starting  
to  understand  this  success  that’s  unfolding  here,”  said  Bono  later  that  day.  
 
As  they  travelled  through  the  capital  Monrovia,  Bono  and  Ms  Rice  will  have  passed  the  
leafy   campus   of   the   prestigious   state-­‐run   University   of   Liberia.   Access   to   higher  
education   is   at   an   all-­‐time   high   in   Liberia,   yet   last   week   not   one   of   25,000   high   school  
graduates   passed   the   annual   entrance   exams.   The   university   had   decided   to   conduct   a  
fair   admissions   process,   based   on   benchmarks   rather   than   the   normal   bribes   and   family  
connections.  Fog  of  corruption  lifted,  the  enduring  failure  of  Liberia’s  education  system  
was  placed  in  stark  relief.  “I  felt  sure  I  passed,”  said  Decontee  Gweh,  a  27-­‐year-­‐old  single  
mother  who  spent  over  a  week’s  salary,  30  USD,  on  the  entrance  exam  fee.  A  university  
official  decried  the  students  as  “yet  to  show  their  willingness  to  prepare  themselves  for  
the  future”.  
 
At   the   busy   intersection   just   beyond   the   university,   traffic   policemen   in   dark   blue   US-­‐
styled  uniforms  operate  in  sight  of  the  National  Police  Headquarters.  Here,  unlike  many  
of  the  Liberians  who  pass  each  day,  Bono  and  Ms.  Rice  will  not  have  handed  over  grubby  
Liberian  dollars  to  facilitate  their  passage.  According  to  a  damning  Human  Rights  Watch  
Report   issued   this   month,   “The   police   force   is   riddled   with   corruption   and   a   lack   of  
professionalism   and   accountability.”   Transparency   International’s   2013   Global  
Barometer  assessment  confirms  Liberia’s  corruption  issue.  75%  of  those  surveyed  had  
paid  a  bribe  to  a  public  servant  in  the  previous  year.  
 
This   rampant   petty   corruption   dovetails   with   frequent   high-­‐level   graft   scandals,   but  
reporting   on   the   misdeeds   of   powerful   Liberians   still   carries   some   risks.   Rodney   Sieh,  
editor   of   the   critical   Front   Page   Africa   newspaper,   was   last   week   imprisoned   after   he  
was  unable  to  pay  1.5m  USD  libel  damages  the  civil  court  awarded  after  he  outlined  the  
corrupt  deeds  of  a  sacked  government  minister.  According  to  Mr  Sieh,  no  media  outlet  
has  won  a  libel  case  since  the  war.  
 
With   these   challenges,   whither   Liberia’s   vaunted   success?   Vitally,   remarkably,   Liberia  
has   maintained  its   peace,  allowing  the   economy   to  expand  dramatically.  However,  it   is  
ultimately  the  stardust  and  political  nous  of  Mrs  Sirleaf  that  has  distinguished  this  tiny  
West   African   state.   Among   disappointing   African   “big-­‐men”   presidents,   Africa’s   first  
elected   female   leader   was   an   “Iron   Lady”   with   a   heroic   tale   to   tell.   Mrs   Sirleaf’s  
government   embraced   the   narrative   of   human   rights   and   international   investment.  
Millions   of   dollars   of   international   aid,   foreign   direct   investment   worth   billions,   and  
numerous  plaudits  duly  rolled  in.    “Any  objective  analysis  of  where  Liberia  was  a  decade  
ago   politically   and   economically   with   where   it   is   now   would   have   to   conclude   that   a  
major  transformation  is  underway,”  says  Georgetown  Professor  Steven  Radelet,  former  
Chief   Economist   for   the   United   States   Aid   Agency   and   an   economic   adviser   to   Mrs  
Sirleaf.  
 
That  Liberia  has  improved  dramatically  from  those  dark  days  of  its  civil  conflict  is  not  in  
doubt.  However,  the  concern  for  Africanists  with  longer  memories  is  that  the  country  is  
being   borne   back   into   its   more   distant   past.     From   the   1960s   to   mid   1970s,   earlier  
reforming   presidents   presided   over   booming   double-­‐digit   growth   thanks   to   an   “open-­‐
door”   economic   policy.     Far   from   a   golden   age,   visiting   American   economists   in   1966  
coined   the   term   “Growth   Without   Development”   amid   corruption,   non-­‐existent   service  

delivery   and   chronically   unequal   wealth   distribution.   Coup   and   conflict   eventually  
followed.  
 
Similarly,   the   impressive   growth   figures   of   today   do   not   tell   the   full   story   of   a   formal  
economy   that   remains   plantation-­‐based,   reliant   almost   entirely   on   the   export   of  
unprocessed   rubber,   palm   oil,   timber  and   iron   ore  by  international  concessionaires  who  
now   control   around   50%   of   the   entire   country’s   land   mass.   This   model   demands   only  
unskilled   labour,   not   an   aspiring   middle   class   of   university   graduates.   Optimists   view  
this   as   a   difficult   first   step   in   the   right   direction,   citing   the   impressive   absence   of  
presidential  spending  largesse  in  the  Sirleaf  era.    Pessimists  see  that  political  power  is  
still   entirely   centralized,   with   the   President   personally   appointing   almost   every   key  
position.  Nepotism  still  begins  at  the  top,  where  Mrs.  Sirleaf  has  appointed  three  of  her  
sons  to  key  positions.  Enabling  wealth  is  accumulated  by  the  few,  while  the  poor  watch  
on  and  bemoan  scant  government  services.    Such  clear  disparities  feed  social  cleavages.  
 
Ten   years   on,   cautionary   reminders   of   Liberia’s   past   are   fast   disappearing,   with  
increasing   numbers   of   repatriates   reclaiming   and   rebuilding   war-­‐damaged   properties.  
However,   at   the   other   end   of   town   from   the   gleaming   new   Royal   Grand   Hotel,   on   an  
emerald  hill  overlooking  the  city  and  the  sea,  the  Ducor  Hotel  stands  derelict.    Wartime  
graffiti  runs  the  walls  of  what  was  the  finest  five-­‐star  hotel  in  Africa,  where  in  a  previous  
time  a  similar  mix  of  international  consultants,  business  executives  and  the  tiny  Liberian  
elite  gathered  to  toast  the  country’s  success.  This  place  has  seen  boom  times  before.  
 


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