The public-service billboards along Liberia‘s roadways only begin to hint at the magnitude of challenges facing a nation trying to right itself after 14 years of civil war that ended in 2003.
Their stark messages underscore the lingering strife in a nation where 200,000 people were killed, and many times more were terrorized or displaced, in the spasms of rebellion, coups and tyrannical rule.
“Women are precious. Don’t beat them.”
“Make Liberia gun free.”
“Pay your taxes.”
“No sex for jobs.”
“Share ideas, don’t miss out. Go to school.”
“Rape is a crime.”
The near-complete breakdown of Liberia’s systems – education, transportation, health care, electricity, water, roads, judicial – presents a daunting question: What is the priority? This is a nation of 3.5 million people with an annual budget of $350 million. As a point of comparison, San Francisco, with a population of 800,000, has a budget of
In meeting with a group of Liberian legislators in Monrovia, it seemed curious that most listed roads as the nation’s top priority. Their reasoning: Without passable roads, Liberians can’t get to school or medical facilities. Without roads, there is no hope of increasing commerce. The roads-first argument seemed odd only until one ventured a few miles beyond the capital city and the irregular pavement gave way to a progressively treacherous obstacle course of dirt (mud, in the rainy season) and mammoth potholes.
Liberia has been called “America’s stepchild” because of its origins as a destination for freed slaves and its subsequent dependence on U.S. aid and commercial investment, most notably the 188-square-mile Firestone Plantation, established as a source of rubber for the emerging U.S. auto industry in the 1920s.
The nation’s irrepressible face of hope, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also has a distinct American connection. She lived in the United States for stretches of her life and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Yet Johnson Sirleaf kept returning to her native Liberia, serving in and out of government – and in and out of danger, particularly during the erratic and brutal reign of President Samuel Doe in the 1980s. She defeated soccer star George Weah to ascend to the presidency in 2005, and plans to run for re-election next year.
The 2011 election is regarded by U.N. and U.S. diplomats and by the Liberians themselves as thecritical test of the nation’s postwar health. If all goes well, the United Nations will complete the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops – now 8,000 strong – by the end of next year.
“We all must do all we can to make sure it’s free, it’s fair, it represents the people’s choice and that … the results are accepted by all,” Johnson Sirleaf recently told a group of visiting U.S. journalists. “After that, I think Liberia will be put on an irreversible course for democracy, development, peace.”
Potential for setbacks abound. Johnson Sirleaf’s likely opponents include Weah, who initially contested the 2005 result, as well as ex-warlord Prince Johnson, now a member of the Liberian Senate, whose claim to infamy was being videotaped drinking beer while overseeing the torture and murder of ex-President Doe.
Prince Johnson’s mere presence in the corridors of government is a measure of Liberia’s reluctance to fully confront its past in the way South Africa did after apartheid. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recommended that Prince Johnson, former President Charles Taylor and others be prosecuted for crimes against humanity – but the commission’s wishes carried no force of law. Taylor is on trial in International Criminal Court at the Hague, but not for anything he did in his own country. He is accused of a long list of war crimes for allegedly fomenting mayhem in neighboring Sierra Leone to pillage its vast mineral wealth.
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