West Africa Rising: Liberia aims to tap riches, wean itself off aid by 2021

After guiding Liberia to stability after years of civil war, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes to take advantage of the country's natural resources to transform it into a middle-income nation.

Sang Tan/AP
Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf leaves a room after a meeting with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London as part of the Africa Governance Initiative's ongoing work to reduce long-term poverty, on June 14.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

In her six years in office, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has restored relations with the western world, rebuilt tattered infrastructure, erased the country's external debt, and entered the race for the second term she long ago swore she'd never seek, but will likely win.

Last night, with 120 days ticking before ballot boxes open in Liberia, the president set another ambitious target for her little country that could: She wants Liberia to wean itself off aid by the decade's end.

"There's no reason why we cannot build upon the successes of today to ensure that ten years from now, Liberia should no longer require foreign assistance," she told a crowd of hundreds of Africa watchers in London.

It's hard to under-state the importance of that goal. An aid-recipient state since 1819 when James Monroe bankrolled its founding, Liberia has risen and fallen by the whims of donors, raking in 771 percent more aid than revenue in 2008.

That is changing, as visibly in Liberia as elsewhere in the region. The rise of China, the proliferation of mobile phones, and an explosion in the trading rates for rocks readily found in Africa's mineral-rich soil has boosted Liberia from a failed state to a welterweight contender in Africa's economic rise.

"Liberia is moving from the first six years of stabilization to the next six years of sustained economic growth and development," Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf said, estimating that by 2030, it could become a middle-income nation, like Brazil.

The way to get there, she added, "means harnessing our natural resources."

Rain forests

"With Liberia's natural resources and our relatively small population of 3.7 million, there is no reason that we cannot create a prosperous society," the president said.

She's certainly right about the country's resources.

A wetland nation the size and shape of Tennessee – except with more Antebellum mansions – Liberia holds half of West Africa's remaining rain forests. Nearly half – forty-five percent – of the country is thicketed with dense woodlands cherished for timber, rubber, pharmaceuticals, and bio-fuels.

Timber alone once accounted for as much as a fifth of Liberia's total economy, but also constituted a vital funding source for militias fighting its 14-year civil war, which is why the United Nations long maintained sanctions on Liberian wood. Those sanctions were lifted five years ago; just last month, the government further relaxed restrictions by dropping all import taxes on equipment used for logging, agriculture, and mining.

It seems to be working. The European Union last month signed a logging deal with Liberia that involves pasting bar codes to trees in the country's dense forests. ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steelmaker, will start exporting iron ore from the country this month. A second iron digger, Sable Mining, says its found a "major" iron ore deposit, and Chevron plans to drill an exploratory well for oil.

"The hydrocarbons and gas are of interest, that sector was very evident last night," Chatham House Africa Analyst Alex Vines, who hosted Johnson-Sirleaf's speech, told the Monitor.

Mr. Vines was a UN sanctions inspector in the end days of dictator Charles Taylor's regime.

"My impression of the country is that it has greatly improved," he said. "You can move around. There's electricity in Monrovia. But the need to find employment, especially for the growing number of under- and unemployed youth is really critical. The demographic pattern of Liberia is just like anywhere else in Africa. They need to find more jobs for young people."

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