Can Africa's first woman president get Liberia back on track?
WASHINGTON — When Condoleezza Rice traveled to Liberia to celebrate the inauguration of Africa's first woman president Monday, it was an inspiring sign that women of African descent are reaching new levels of political leadership and recognition. Yet Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, will need more than photo-ops with the America's first female African-American secretary of State to lift her country out of the ruins of two decades of war. Dr. Rice and other US officials who traveled to the inauguration must bring a serious commitment to help jump-start Liberia's economic recovery.
Ties between the United States and this country of 3 million people run deep. Liberia was founded in 1822 as a haven for liberated African-Americans and even in its early years, the country received substantial US support. After civil strife erupted in the 1980s, more than 100,000 Liberians migrated across the Atlantic again, and their remittances helped keep many families in their homeland alive during the war that ended two years ago.
Now that Liberia is struggling to transition to peace and democracy, the US government cannot turn its back on this resource-rich, yet fragile country.
One important step is returning Liberia's stolen wealth. Indicted war criminal and former Liberian president Charles Taylor and his cohorts have reportedly stashed more than $3 billion in Swiss, US, and other international banks. In the post 9-11 world, the US has developed new and effective tools for tracking the finances of international terrorists. These tools could also be used to locate and return the ill- gotten gains of those who have terrorized and robbed their own people. Returning the funds the Taylor regime stashed in US bank accounts would help Liberia get back on its feet, while deterring future corruption.
The Bush administration should also cancel the 30 percent of Liberia's crippling $3.3 billion debt that is owed to the United States. The last time a high-level US government official went to Liberia was 20 years ago during the Samuel Doe dictatorship. Under Mr. Doe's watch, American military aid to Liberia, often in the form of loans, increased 10-fold. Doe also racked up enormous debts as his cronies stole elections and built their machinery of repression. Why must the Liberian people now foot the bill?
In 2004, a senior US Treasury official promised 100 percent cancellation of debts owed to the US as well as support for cancellation of Liberia's debts to other international institutions. Nearly two years later, these promises remain unfulfilled. Particularly given President Johnson-Sirleaf's experience as a former senior loan officer of the World Bank, there couldn't be a better time to negotiate the complete cancellation of Liberia's illegitimate debts.
US officials should also use their clout to get US corporations that operate in Liberia to stop exploiting the Liberian people. For example, recent court cases filed in Liberia and in California have charged Bridgestone/Firestone with employing forced labor, child labor, and destructive environmental practices on the company's vast Liberian rubber plantation. According to the International Labor Rights Fund, the company imposes such a high daily quota that workers have no choice but to bring wives and children to help them tap rubber trees if they are to earn the measly daily wage of $3.19.
In 2004, the US Congress earmarked $200 million in aid for Liberia, but more could be done to ensure that this money actually helps the poor. Thus far, an estimated $100 million of these funds has been allocated to the US private military company DynCorp to train and equip 2,000 Liberian soldiers. With an illiteracy rate close to 80 percent and the increased vulnerability of women and children to disease and HIV/AIDS, Liberia desperately needs resources for the core building blocks of development: health and education.
The Johnson-Sirleaf administration could well be the last best hope for peace and security in Liberia and West Africa, given the wide-ranging impact of Liberia's conflict. US support for Africa's first democratically elected woman president must move beyond dignitaries attending her inaugural festivities to a set of concrete policies and practices that help give Liberia the quick infusion of revenue needed to stabilize its economy and society.
The return of stolen assets, debt cancellation, responsible investment, and aid targeted to human needs could help transform a symbolic trip into a turning point where the US begins, at long last, a meaningful and mutually beneficial engagement with Liberia.
• Emira Woods, originally from Liberia, is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.