Liberia's ex-fighters seek work

With 80 percent unemployment, some may become mercenaries in a neighboring nation.

Shortbread is her top seller, followed by corn bread. But this former child soldier also makes a mean cinnamon roll for any sweet tooth who can afford to splurge.

A few years ago, Marthalyme Mandeh was one of thousands of children recruited by both rebels and government forces in Liberia's brutal civil war. Now she supports herself with her own baking business, thanks to skills she learned in a nine-month training program to help reintegrate ex-fighters.

More than 100,000 ex-fighters have been registered in similar programs since the UN-sponsored, government-run reintegration process began after the war ended in 2003. But success stories like Ms. Mandeh's are few and far between.

With more than 80 percent of Liberians unemployed, the economy is so weak that most trainees can't find work. Observers worry that throngs of young, jobless veterans will be recruited to fight in neighboring Ivory Coast, where a tenuous peace threatens to unravel. The cash-strapped Liberian government has recently launched emergency employment programs to prevent this scenario from undoing its progress – and to avert the spread of war in this interconnected, oft-conflicted region of Africa. But government officials and aid workers say cuts in international donor funding have severely limited the effectiveness of the job-creation programs.

"One of the biggest problems in post-conflict environments is that, in the conflict phase, the [donor] money flows freely, but the environment is not yet conducive [to improving the situation]," says Charles Achodo, a policy adviser on ex-fighter reintegration for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Liberia. "But, when peace comes and you have the capacity to do stuff, the funds dry up."

Once it begins to look like nation-building, says Mr. Achodo, "it's a tough sell" to get countries to continue to send funds. "Donors have a short attention span."

Indeed, once a country achieves even a fragile peace, it's difficult for donors such as the US, Japan, and the European Union to justify prolonged "emergency" aid at levels above the development cash they give to scores of similar poor countries.

Yet experts say that yanking the funding too soon in a war-ravaged country's raw, "postconflict" period can have disastrous effects, particularly here in West Africa, where wars tend to spread quickly across porous borders.

A committee of British lawmakers highlighted how fresh conflict can wipe out years of aid in a report released last week. A civil war in a poor country could cost $54 billion, while the worldwide aid budget in 2004 was $78.6 billion, the report says. It calls on the British government to "direct sufficient resources towards conflict-prone and conflict-affected states in order to forestall the high cost of conflicts and their long-term impact."

In Liberia now, all eyes are on neighboring Ivory Coast, where observers say some former Liberian generals and commanders are waiting for fresh fighting to begin so they can cross over into Liberia to recruit young, jobless ex-fighters.

The conflict next door

When Ivory Coast teetered on the brink of civil war last fall, both Ivorian government forces and rebels reportedly came across the border into Liberia to recruit veteran fighters. The recruiting price jumped from $450 to $750 at the height of tensions, according to the West Africa Network for Peace (WANEP), one of many groups that monitor the border. That kind of money is hard to resist in Liberia where more than half of the people get by on less than 50 cents a day. A return to full-scale war in Ivory Coast was averted, but the main issues are largely unresolved.

Earlier this month, the head of the 15,000-member UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Alan Doss, cautioned that any instability in Ivory Coast could pose a threat to Liberia. UN forces in Liberia and Ivory Coast recently carried out joint patrols along the border to prevent mercenaries from crossing over. Mr. Doss maintains that there's "no tangible evidence of wholesale recruitment" of Liberians to fight in Ivory Coast.

But time may be running out. "If we do not deliver tangible results ... the risk of descending back into chaos is very high," said President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at a recent speech at Georgetown University in Washington. "In postconflict countries, in particular, there must be a smoother, faster shift from humanitarian aid to longer-term development support."

The Children's Assistance Program, the small local organization that trained Ms. Mandeh how to run her baking business, says that turning away ex-combatants due to lack of funding is a huge – and heartbreaking – problem.

"Until the private sector kicks in," agrees Sedia Bangoura, deputy minister of labor, "the government needs to find a way" to fund training and employment programs.

Emergency employment

In July, the Ministry of Labor started the Liberia Emergency Employment Program (LEEP) and has since registered 500 workers to participate in public works projects. One-quarter of the jobs go to women and priority is given to ex-combatants.

The target is to employ 50,000 people in the next two years. But there's currently not enough funding to give jobs to any more than the first 500 people, says Ms. Bangoura with a sigh.

Bangoura hopes that upcoming donor conferences will inject new funds into LEEP. But even if they secure pledges from donor countries, the funds are often slow to arrive.

Liberia recently set up an employment fund for private donations to LEEP. "We have to solicit from all over," Bangoura says, mentioning a recent donation of $150,000 from a Liberian living in the US. "I hope we can have more individuals stepping up to the plate like that."

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