Oct 21, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Liberian Wars

Back in Liberia after a trip to Japan, president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told government officials to “follow or get out of the way”. By “follow” she meant her lead and the projects she has for developing a country plagued with poverty, divisions and the fresh memories of the the civil war(s).

Leymah Gbowee, left, and Ellen Jonhson Sirleaf

Nobel laureate Sirleaf faces a tough scenario. Elected and re-elected on high hopes of getting Liberia on a positive path, she has come under attack recently from inside and out. One of the most notorious of those attacks came from long time ally Leymah Gbowee, the peace activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the president. Gbowee criticized Sirleaf for not doing enough to curb corruption and nepotism in the government (two of the president’s sons are government officials; another just stepped down). As she came out publicly with her reservations against Sirleaf, the activist resigned as head of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The move also came after she was accused of mismanaging funds, which she denies.

It is hard to pin down who to side with. Transparency International said in a report this year that Sirleaf “has demonstrated a strong leadership on anti-corruption issues”. Still, Liberia has endemic and wide-spread corruption that does not seem to be waning.

Obviously, no one with a brain could expect her to finish the job in a couple of years. Experts have been studying corruption forever and there is no silver-bullet here. Besides, it doesn’t help that there were two civil wars totaling about 14 years in Liberia since the 90’s; that the country has 85% unemployment, 63.8% of people below or at the national poverty line, a GDP per capita of US$ 500 (ppp) and ranks 182 out of 187 countries at the UN Human Development Index. In other words, it is a deeply problematic place.

While her officials keep being accused of corruption, Sirleaf insists the government is about to begin a series of new projects to speed national development.

Many of those projects will no doubt focus on Liberia’s natural resources. Almost 80% of the economy is based on agriculture, and exports are basically rubber, coffee, palm oil, iron and other commodities. The rest of the world is very mindful of that: Liberia has the highest ratio of foreign direct investment to GDP on the planet. State funds are thus largely tied to the country’s natural resources, and when speaking of corruption and mismanagement we are also talking about this particular type of wealth.

Sirleaf is a big advocate of foreign investment, and has done everything possible to open up the country for them. There has been some positive results. Up to 2011 the government had secured over US$ 19 billion in investments, the majority in the iron ore and palm oil sectors. FDI could amass US$ 2 billion in taxes and royalties in the next decade, according to the IMF, with improvements extending to roads, ports and power plants.

But there are many, many downsides as well. A study completed by Columbia University last year mentions that job creation is low and that government corruption and financial mismanagement “have compromised the good intention of concessionaire-financed Social Development Funds and contributed to a rising mood of distrust and hostility regarding some concessions”. It further states that indigenous communities have been marginalized during the negotiations and implementation of projects, resulting in high tension around several FDI projects, while members of affected communities experience little improvement to living standards as a result of them. Finally, the study concludes that “institutions lack the full ability to effectively monitor compliance of concession agreements and penalize infringements”.

Liberia is also rich in diamonds and gold. It is interesting how at this point one almost cringes at this descriptions… It seems a recipe for disaster under the current rush of undeveloped countries to secure foreign investment, which on many occasions result in lack of transparency, corruption, embezzlement and increased domestic tensions.

Sirleaf’s challenges are far from new or original. But she better rush to get things on the right path again, if she wants to leave power as the symbol of progress and peace that she was on the eve of her first victory.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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