Remarks by Bruce Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, at the Liberia forum sponsored by The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa and Howard University’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center.
Ms. Paolo, Ambassador Bull, and other distinguished guests; it is an honor for me to be here today to share the Department’s views on recent developments in Liberia. As President Obama said last May, “the United States and Liberia are close friends and long-standing partners.” Liberia is emerging slowly from a very difficult period in its history. It has been over seven and a half years since Liberia’s stakeholders signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and five years since the inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s democratically elected president. So now is a good time to take an assessment of where we stand, and address some fundamental questions.
Bilateral relations between our countries remain very good, and Liberia has enjoyed a number of success stories. Monrovia’s most notable accomplishment is achieving a staggering $5 billion in international debt relief and putting its own fiscal house in order. The Liberian government’s ability to abide by IMF and World Bank fiscal policies has allowed it to establish credibility in the eyes of donors (which has not been the case for decades) and to pave the way for the approval of credible development projects that should benefit all Liberians. Of great sentimental and symbolic importance to Americans and Liberians alike, the Peace Corps resumed operations last August after a 20-year absence. Not only do these volunteers provide valuable service and lifelong ties to Liberia, but their placement demonstrates U.S. faith in the stability and security of a host country. Liberia also has been a regional leader in promoting transparency. Last October, it became the first West African state to enact a Freedom of Information Act and already has acceded to the Kimberley Process (KP) and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
|Down Town Monrovia|
Of course, Liberia faces major challenges. Official estimates vary but after decades of civil war, about 40% of Liberia’s population is illiterate, and some 80% lives in poverty, and is unemployed. About a third of Liberians are malnourished, not fully immunized, and do not have access to safe drinking water or proper sanitation. While these daunting problems are not going away soon even with the best of governance, Liberia faces fundamental challenges that are among the root causes of its chronic instability. Although public financial management has improved, corruption remains prevalent and a significant threat to Liberian democracy. Liberia’s Auditor General has aggressively and thoroughly tracked government revenue from practically every ministry, but the government follow-up has been very disappointing. Some crucial bills affecting key resources such as timber and maritime revenue have been passed without adequate attention to key details. Furthermore, the government must begin addressing a wide variety of issues affecting national reconciliation.
To its credit, the Sirleaf government understands Liberia’s development priorities and has worked hard and closely with its partners. With Fiscal Year 2011 assistance at almost $220 million, the United States is Liberia’s largest donor. We have spent over $1 billion in assistance for Liberia since 2003. USAID oversees a $15 million threshold program from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (signed in July 2010) with Liberia, which focuses on improving land rights/access, increasing girls’ primary education enrollment and retention, and improving Liberia’s trade policy and practices. Liberia is one of 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with preferred market access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Last May, President Johnson Sirleaf participated in the launch of the White House’s “Feed the Future” initiative, which will help to create greater food security and independence in Liberia. We also continue to work with Monrovia on issues like maternal health and education.
Most importantly, development entails a sound economy built on trade and investment. Liberia has adopted sound fiscal policy and seen strong economic growth. The government also understands the importance of international transportation and the development of natural resources, evidenced in the inauguration of direct trans-Atlantic flights by Delta Airlines, the three-year contract signed with Chevron to explore for oil offshore, and cooperative arrangements reached with firms to manage the airport and seaport. However, as global firms continue jockeying over Guinean ore transit rights, Liberian officials have experienced technical problems on bids for mineral and railroad concessions. It now also must avoid the “oil curse.” Liberia’s government must balance the maximization of short-term profit-taking by a few with the development of domestic capacity and delivery of public services. To that end, Liberia must work with its partners to ensure bids are done transparently, efficiently, and maximize corporate social responsibility to benefit all Liberians.
Let me note one new initiative we are pursuing with respect to Liberia. In late February, we are working to support the travel of a “tech del,” a technical delegation, of American women to travel to Liberia. These are women who are leaders in the U.S. information technology sector who will travel to Liberia to meet with business, government and civil society leaders. There, they will explore the potential for use of IT platforms such as applications for cell phones, SMS and social media to help Liberia realize its potential. Further, they will be able to learn about how Liberians are thinking about applying these technologies to national challenges. There may well be examples, models and ideas in Liberia that will be of international interest.
For years, we have welcomed the Government of Liberia’s pledge to focus on development, tackle corruption, promote national reconciliation, commit to the rule of law and reform the judiciary. To the extent that Liberia remains committed in these endeavors, I want to make sure that everyone–especially the people of Liberia–understands that the United States is going to be a constant friend and partner in these efforts.
Voter registration has just begun in Liberia for presidential and legislative elections scheduled for later this year. Given that Liberia’s National Elections Commission has had five years and strong donor support to prepare for these polls, we expect it to be well prepared. The candidates and their parties need to show their electorate that they are organized and unified. Most importantly, they must demonstrate a clear strategy to ensure economic success, political stability and internal security. Liberians must ask their candidates, “What are you going to do to improve our quality of life?” Empty promises and rhetoric are not enough. The best measuring stick of success for these polls will be how much Liberians realize that a multi-party democracy responsive to the people and rule of law is the best way to effect positive change. The United States has budgeted over $17.5 million through the next two fiscal years for the elections and for political party building. We are working with Liberians and donors alike to support a free, fair, and peaceful process.
Liberia, indeed, has an important role to play in maintaining peace and security in West Africa. With the consolidation of a democratic system in Sierra Leone and the recently successful inaugural elections in Guinea, Liberia has an opportunity to use its own elections this autumn to solidify its place among the community of democracies and demonstrate its political maturity as an example for Côte d’Ivoire. Liberia is not yet able to contribute peacekeepers to UN missions, particularly as long as it continues to host a major UN operation and its new armed forces continue to receive close mentoring from U.S. military personnel in Liberia. But Liberia can–and does–contribute to regional stability through its support of U.S. positions at the United Nations and at other institutions. Liberia’s coordination of, and support for, relief efforts towards the almost 30,000 refugees from Côte d’Ivoire is another welcome contribution. Furthermore, there has been an extraordinary level of cooperation between our two countries on countering terrorism as well as drug trafficking. As Liberia’s police, military, and border officials exercise greater professionalism, Liberia will increase its sovereignty and in turn, place less stress on U.S. and other international resources needed to address critical issues elsewhere.
To this end, and for its own security, Liberia should implement the asset freeze on Charles Taylor and his associates, as mandated by the UN Security Council, especially while the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) remains firmly in place, and well before Taylor’s trial adjourns and elections are held. Freezing these assets is the best way to ensure that Taylor and his supporters cannot wield significant influence as the Government of Liberia builds support for its development/reform agenda.
In summary, while the Government of Liberia has made important strides on economic, political, and security conditions, there is much more to be done for Liberia to exercise its full sovereignty and to achieve true stability and security. The current Liberian Administration understands that one key to success in these areas is close collaboration with the UN’s newly-established Peace Building Commission, which is focused on Rule of Law, Security Sector Reform, and National Reconciliation.
As UN forces gradually depart and Liberia becomes a net contributor to security, the government and people of Liberia will recognize that the United States and Liberia’s other friends actually will stand better prepared–and with greater resolve–as mutual, equal partners in developing Liberia’s long-term prosperity.
Finally, I want to commend all Liberians in advance for their commitment to democracy. Liberia is their country. Ultimately, they all are the solution to Liberia’s problems. Liberians must hold their leaders accountable for progress, and Liberia’s leaders must demonstrate they are committed to Liberia’s best interests, and not their own. Regardless who wins the legislative and presidential elections this fall, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s greatest legacy arguably is to usher in a sense that democracy is the regular way of doing business in Liberia.