Opinion

Liberia: What it takes to push peace-building to the next level

Liberia shows that recovery is complicated and hard – but possible.

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Liberia is, by any standard, a dramatic peace-building success story. The country is stable, and investors are slowly returning. Yet there is much to do. The key to ongoing success lies in leadership, job growth, and developing a culture of self-responsibility.

Liberia illustrates just how hard, and yet how important, the slog is to move to the next level in building peace after conflict. It’s one thing to put troops in place from outside, but another altogether to get the economy working and generating employment. Without jobs, lasting peace will remain elusive.

Liberia’s second civil war ended in 2003, by which time Charles Taylor’s kleptocratic regime controlled less than one-third of the country. Various rebel groups led by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy had laid much of the infrastructure to waste. Then a turn for the better: A peace agreement was followed by the arrival of 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops, an interim government, and, in 2005, the election of the Harvard-trained economist and never-say-die politician Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first female head of state.

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The president kicked off her six-year term with a 150-day action plan, which included the return of refugees and restoration of electricity to some parts of the capital, Monrovia. She has assiduously cultivated international contacts and used her unique African status to gather much sympathy, even though the support has been less forthcoming. The current government budget is just $360 million, not much for 4 million poor people, a population growing at 4.5 percent annually – the fastest rate worldwide.

But it’s not just the volume of money that’s the problem. Making an immediate impact after the conflict ends is relatively easy. Taking things to the next level involves more than providing potable water, roads, ports, and electricity, however challenging this may be. It requires aquiring the soft infrastructure of training, skills, work ethic, and mind-set right in getting Liberians working again.

And as the experts observe, that is no easy task. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 14 years of fighting. Cities were picked clean of infrastructure and skills. Those that could upped and left for refuge 150 years ago to places like the United States, where half a million live today.

The head of the Ghanaian battalion in the city of Buchanan, a veteran of six global peacekeeping tours, pointed out that it means that “Liberians have to take responsibility for their own country if it is to make progress.” Until now they have preferred to rely on aid donors.

Right now, Liberia cannot feed itself and there is little appetite to work the land. But if Liberia is to be a sustained success story, it will have to get people working on the land where its biggest comparative advantage exists.

Low population density, rich soil, and plenty of water make it the perfect location for growing rice and other staples. As Patrick Mazimhaka, a veteran Rwandan and African Union politician notes, “One thing we have not got right is how difficult it seems to be for people to go back to agriculture after long wars.”

Liberia’s reluctance to return to agriculture could be about safety and land tenure. But another obstacle could be the fact that Liberia remains a country fraught with internal cleavages.

Not only are there schisms between the descendants of returned slaves (so-called Americo-Liberians or Congos) and local ethnic groups, but also, different tribes and different religions. The country’s slogan, “The love of liberty brought us here,” seems to apply only to the 5 percent of the population made up of the descendants of freed slaves who, until Master Sgt. Samuel Doe’s brutal regime in the 1980s, ruled Liberia since its creation in 1854.

The damage to local mind-sets by long-term violence must be repaired. The key in doing so is leadership.

Many are mired in a pernicious combination of apathy and entitlement, where carelessness and petty corruption is pervasive.

Not far from the gates of a $10 million hotel complex is squalor. It is not an unusual sight to see a local drop his trousers and defecate on the beach apparently oblivious to passersby.

It’s changing this careless attitude, and ingraining a culture of responsibility, that is the biggest, and probably generational, challenge that Liberians will have to handle if they are to continue to ascend the recovery ladder.

Greg Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. His latest book, “Why Africa is Poor – And What Africans Can Do About It,” is out midyear.

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