Reuters – President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf listens to President Obama as he welcomes her in the Oval …
By David Lewis David Lewis
GBAOTA, Liberia (Reuters) – From her street stall packed with cheap sandals, Joylene Korpu has seen vehicles from the mining firms cruise in for talks with local big-wigs deep in the Liberian bush.
But so far, she says, that is all that villages such as Gbaota, near rich veins of iron ore that are luring investors from across the world, have seen of their mineral wealth.
“Right now, nothing good is going on. It is only between the (mining) representatives and big people from the county,” she said. “They are not helping the citizens there.”
In the seven years since the guns fell silent in Liberia after 14 years of near-constant fighting, billions of dollars in mining and agricultural deals have been signed. But for many locals, the sense of unfulfilled expectations remains high.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is sure to be favorite for re-election in polls due next year, but she faces a race to convince voters that the impact of these deals will trickle down and reduce mass unemployment, rather than fill the pockets of government officials as many Liberians fear.
In the capital, buildings and lamp posts riddled with bullet holes serve as a reminder of a conflict which claimed tens of thousands of lives and became infamous for its brutality and the widespread use of child soldiers.
Now, apartment and office blocks, car showrooms and banks are springing up on the main drags, evidence of confidence and investment in the future.
Yet roads remain largely in tatters and the country produces negligible amounts of electric power, none of it outside Monrovia.
Seven years on, U.N. peacekeeping bases are scattered across the country, filling the security vacuum, and aid agencies still provide basic services to most.
While critics say she has not done enough to fight corruption or ensure reconciliation between communities, most analysts agree that Johnson-Sirleaf should be praised for her efforts to put the country back on its feet.
But opponents like George Weah, the retired footballer who came second in a 2005 election, and Prince Johnson, a former warlord popular in the north, are lining up against her. So, has the former World Bank official, known locally as Ellen, done enough?
“It would appear to be a no-brainer but I don’t think it is a slam dunk, and I suspect she knows that,” said one diplomat.
PLENTY OF GROWTH
After 14 years of near-constant conflict, Johnson-Sirleaf has overseen the return of a clutch of investors, mainly those seeking to tap into Liberia’s share of the Nimba iron ore vein, but also rubber and palm oil.
Liberia secured $4.6 billion in debt relief in June and the World Bank expects growth this year to touch 6.3 percent, up from 4.6 percent last year. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a rise to around 8.5 percent for 2011 and 2012.
Billboards tell people to pay taxes but the economy is largely informal. Small-time market owners say margins are tiny but peace has at least let them to ply their trade rather than run for cover. Lebanese and Indian traders are cashing in on aid workers and peacekeepers in town.
One outfit, the IFC-backed AccessBank, which set up shop two years ago to offer small loans to poor Liberians, is a measure both of progress, and how far things still need to go.
The bank has handed out 8,000 loans, worth some $9 million, and says it is recording repayment rates of over 99 percent.
“For educated people, things are definitely improving. Take university graduates, they are more confident and have higher expectations,” Kim Guenkel, AccessBank chief executive officer, told Reuters in his office overlooking the city’s bridge, which was the scene of some of the war’s fiercest battles.
“But if we look at market traders and the unskilled sector, I couldn’t confirm any improvement in their situation.”
Investors coming into the country are scooping up young graduates straight out of universities, but complain that the talent pool is shallow.
Every comment on how far Liberia has come is balanced with a word of caution on how fragile is its stability, especially with conflicts elsewhere adding to pressure from donors for cuts in the numbers of U.N. peacekeepers who currently help keep a lid on simmering land and ethnic disputes.
Such is the impact of the $500 million-a-year U.N. mission, that many question the consequences any cut in troops would have on the economy, let alone on security.
NOT ENOUGH JOBS
The flurry of contracts has underscored investor confidence in the country, but it will take more to cut unemployment, believed to be around 80 percent in the nation of 3.5 million.
“There are only so many people that can be employed in the extractive industries,” Ohene Owusu Nyanin, the World Bank’s Liberia country manager said.
“One third of the population lives in Monrovia … Over time, we need to get people to go back and participate in agricultural production.”
As part of an ambitious drive to become a middle-income country in 20 years, the government wants to use the influx of investors to revamp up-country infrastructure, develop regions and entice people out of Monrovia.
Since the nation was established by former American slaves 163 years ago, successive governments have been dominated by the Americo-Liberian elite in Monrovia and stand accused of neglecting the counties and marginalizing native Liberians.
All sides are now set to campaign on decentralization.
Johnson-Sirleaf marked this year’s independence day by traveling up north in Nimba country, where a new Chinese-built hospital should win over some up-country voters.
But to bridge the gap in government talent, she has had to turn to Liberians formerly living abroad, who are lured back by a sense of patriotism, as well as the topping-up of meager monthly ministerial salaries of $600-800 by donors and philanthropists.
The move has improved capacity but also touched a raw nerve, as some feel those who did not have to endure the fighting are now reaping rewards. “It is a divisive issue,” said Nyanin.
Pledges to clean up corruption have also been hit by a string of scandals against officials in government and those overseeing development funds set aside by investors.
Resource watchdog Global Witness also says some logging companies, backed by lawmakers with interests in the timber industry, are seeking to reduces taxes on the sector, thereby denying the state million of dollars in much-needed cash.
Samuel Kofi Woods, minister for public works, conceded the government must do more on corruption, but remains optimistic. “I believe that the path that we have been set upon has become irreversible,” he said.
But with one eye already to next year’s elections, many Liberians want Johnson-Sirleaf to step up the pace.
“She is bringing some changes but not enough,” said Emmanuel Mankpo, a 20-year-old resident of Monrovia.
“Maybe she will do more next time.”
(Additional reporting by Patrick Wells; Editing by Giles Elgood)