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Liberia, a remarkable African success story, still needs help

On the doorstep of extremist-led instability in West Africa, Liberia may be the most remarkable post-conflict success story of the modern era. But a paradox threatens to unravel the country's hard-won gains: Despite progress, central drivers of violence remain.

By Benjamin J. SpatzOp-ed contributor / September 23, 2013

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speaks during an interview with Reuters at her office in Monrovia Aug. 17. Op-ed contributor Benjamin J. Spatz writes of next steps for Liberia's progress: 'In the immediate aftermath of war, it was sensible to build the hardware (tangible goods, such as roads, schools, and clinics) before tackling the software (these deeper societal rifts)....But now is the time to focus on the software.'

Reuters

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Monrovia, Liberia

Liberia's civil war ended 10 years ago, closing one of the most brutal chapters in human history. One in 4 Liberians was displaced or killed. Instances of cannibalism epitomized the inhumanity as Liberia became an archetype of anarchy, greed, and evil.

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Today, Liberia may be the most remarkable postconflict success story of the modern era – thanks to smart US foreign policy and the Liberian people's choice of peace over war. But a dangerous paradox threatens to unravel the country's hard-won gains: Despite the progress, central drivers of violence remain. The war has ended, but underlying social and economic tensions continue – as is likely to occur in other countries affected by civil war, from Syria to Libya to Congo.

The unresolved issues in Liberia boil down to three interrelated challenges – exaggerated in perception, but grounded in fact – that have polarized Liberia since its founding in 1847: elite dominance over the majority indigenous population; the mutual disconnect between the capital, Monrovia, and the rest of the country; and lack of trust in government. If left unaddressed, this cocktail promises future instability.

Acting now is critical. Patience wears thin, particularly among Liberia's volatile youth, amid an environment of increasing national discontent, selfish politicking, widening economic inequality, and regional fragility.

Over the past decade, Liberia's successes are a model of postconflict transformation and US engagement abroad. Truly stabilizing this steadfast ally in a historically bad neighborhood – on the doorstep of West Africa's recent extremist-led instability from Mali to Nigeria – leverages past investments and is smart, long-term policy. This requires doubling down on Liberia's progress.

And the progress cannot be overstated.

Today, where drug-addled child soldiers once roamed, US-trained troops respond competently when called to action, most recently sending a peacekeeping platoon to Mali.

Future child scholars, not child soldiers, attend free and mandatory primary school. Illiteracy, which once soared above 80 percent, is decreasing thanks to US-sponsored programs.

The economy is rebounding after shrinking by 90 percent, and government coffers have increased more than 1,000 percent since 2003, when the national budget equaled that of the public school district in Carthage, Mo.

Countrywide immunizations and health-care services – with major US support – have halved mortality for children under age 5.

Long-absent electricity illuminates homes and businesses; President Obama's Power Africa initiative promises even more. Smooth roads have replaced cratered streets. New buildings stand in place of bullet-riddled wrecks.

Such a turnaround is historically rare and unambiguously impressive.

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