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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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The many dignitaries who attended the inauguration in January of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President of Liberia could not have failed to notice, while being driven in air-conditioned luxury cars, the dreadful state of the capital, Monrovia. But Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African head of state, says she is up to the challenge of reviving the fortunes of a failing state.

Monrovia, like other parts of Liberia, is war-ravaged. There is no running water or electricity – except in hotels and the homes of the wealthy. Partly destroyed buildings are full of bullet holes – testament to a recent violent past. Between December 1989, when rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his insurgency against the regime of Samuel Doe from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, and August 2003, Liberians witnessed only two years of peace.

Taylor, who exploited the country’s huge timber resources to fund his rebellion, used his financial and military might to win the presidential election of 1997. Liberians who were keen to see peace in their country voted for Taylor because there was always the threat that he would return to arms if he did not succeed in his quest for leadership of the country.

Once Taylor came to power, he reneged on power-sharing agreements with his former allies who, ironically, included Johnson Sirleaf. As he entrenched his position, human rights abuses became the order of the day. A small coterie of Taylor supporters took charge of the financial resources of the country – particularly in the shipping registry business, which was providing an annual income of $20 million. A huge majority of Liberians were left to fend for themselves.

Tim A Hetherington / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

It was in this atmosphere that new rebels emerged, recruiting disaffected young people to their cause. Most of these young Liberians had previously fought on the side of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia but they had been discarded by Taylor once he had achieved his political ambitions. This time, the rebels used neighbouring Guinea to launch their attack in 1999.

The fighting was particularly vicious. It led to hundreds of thousands of Liberians fleeing to neighbouring countries and some 500,000 being internally displaced. This time around, Taylor was unable to use the country’s natural resources to acquire weapons because the UN had placed sanctions on his regime for allegedly supporting rebels in Sierra Leone.

By 2002, Taylor’s Government was backed up against the wall and he decided to hold peace talks with the rebels in Ghana. But while talks were going on the rebels continued their assault and, with Monrovia under threat, Taylor decided to step down to halt further carnage. The Economic Community of West African States brokered a deal whereby Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in August 2003.

An interim government held power in Liberia until presidential and legislative elections took place in October and November 2005. This was how Johnson Sirleaf, 67, came to be elected president. Liberians had become so disenchanted with the political classes that they backed ex-footballer George Weah in the first round of the presidential election. But Weah, a former World Player of the Year who plied his skills in Italy and England, failed to get the necessary 51 per cent in the second round. Johnson Sirleaf cut deals with the 20 other candidates and this, plus the fact that there were more registered female voters than male voters, helped to secure her a place in history.

Now she faces the onerous task of reviving an economy that has gone for 16 years without investment. Liberians will hope that her background – she previously worked for the UN Development Programme and the World Bank – will help rather than hinder in the creation of jobs and the provision of basic services for a hard-pressed population.

Fact file

Leader President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Economy GNI per capita $110 (Côte d’Ivoire $770, United States $41,400). Utterly ravaged by the civil war years. At least the isolation and sanctions imposed as a result of Charles Taylor’s excesses will end following Johnson Sirleaf’s election.
Monetary unit Liberian dollar.
Main exports diamonds, iron, rubber, coffee and timber.
People 3.2 million. People per square kilometre 29 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 157 per 1,000 live births (Côte d’Ivoire 117, US 7). Health has 5% of government spending, compared with 9% spent on the military.
Environment The new Government will have to ensure that proper forest management policies are in place to control commercial logging. It will also have to make sure that iron ore mining in the Nimba area, one of the world’s largest reserves of high-quality ore, is environmentally friendly.
Culture Most Liberians belong to the Mende, Kwa and Vai ethnic groups, which are split into nearly 30 sub-groups. The descendants of ‘repatriated’ US and Caribbean slaves constitute only 5% of the population – Liberia was created in 1822 by US philanthropists with the idea that freed slaves would be resettled in Africa.
Religion 40% traditional African religions; 40% Christian; 20% Muslim.
Language English is the official language, though it is spoken by only 15% of people. There are at least 30 local African languages.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Both unemployment and under-employment are vast. Liberians living below the poverty line constitute 80 per cent of the population.
Literacy 56%. Education ground to a halt during the long years of war. Children are more familiar with the workings of an AK47 than a computer.
Life expectancy 42 years (Côte d’Ivoire 46, US 78). Years of conflict caused health and social systems to collapse – life expectancy is down from 55 years when last profiled.
Freedom The days of impunity are gone. Liberians have entered a new chapter of accountability and democracy, backed by an independent National Commission on Human Rights.
Position of women There is a great deal of violence against women that the new President says she will address through legislation that will also provide equal opportunities for girls.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and, as in many African countries, is a taboo subject. Gay activity has to take place in secret.
Previously reviewed 1993
New Internationalist assessment President Johnson Sirleaf has considerable experience in the field of economic and development management but Liberia will need all the external support it can get if it is to make headway. For the next few years, the UN will provide security while a new national army is being created. One thing the Government has in its favour is that Liberians are weary of violent conflict and this should ensure that the democratic process is not derailed.

New Internationalist issue 388 magazine cover This article is from the April 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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