The Long Haul Back to Normality: It Has Been Little over a Year since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Became the First Female Head of State in Africa When She Was Elected to the Leadership of a Collapsed Economy and a Failed State That Liberia Had Become. What Is Her Track Record a Year Later? Neil Ford Provides Some Answers

By Ford, Neil | African Business, March 2007 | Go to article overview

The Long Haul Back to Normality: It Has Been Little over a Year since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Became the First Female Head of State in Africa When She Was Elected to the Leadership of a Collapsed Economy and a Failed State That Liberia Had Become. What Is Her Track Record a Year Later? Neil Ford Provides Some Answers


Ford, Neil, African Business


When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took over as head of state in Liberia in January 2006, her rise to power was warmly welcomed by the international community. As an economist of some standing, she appeared to have both the personal and technical skills to lead the devastated nation to a more stable, prosperous future. Many analysts and journalists have now assessed her first year in power but how much can one person really achieve in a single year?

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As the experience of President Olusegun Obasanjo has demonstrated in Nigeria, it can be difficult to turn a nation's fortunes around in two full terms of office. Even in a country like Nigeria that possesses a burgeoning oil and gas sector, it can be difficult to enact the required economic reforms.

Only now with his time in power coming to an end, are the first real benefits of Obasanjo's administration beginning to filter through and many have compared the struggle to reform Nigeria with trying to turn an oil tanker around, as momentum takes such a long time to build up.

Liberia possesses more limited natural resources than Nigeria and must also contend with the impact of many years of warfare. It is difficult to overestimate the social and economic impact of the war years. About 8% of the 3m population were killed; many more fled their homes to relative safety in other parts of the country or even into Sierra Leone or Guinea. Much of the country's professional class left Liberia for employment overseas and the education system lacked the ability to replace them.

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In addition, military conflict and political and economic instability discourage investment of all kinds. Farmers do not try to improve their land for the future because they may not be around to harvest their crops, the government does not invest in power, water or transport infrastructure that maybe bombed. Both domestic and foreign investors fought shy of committing themselves to the country and control of many of Liberia's most lucrative natural resources fell into rebel hands.

The head of the UN's operations in the country, Alan Doss, summed up Liberia's dire recent economic record when he said: "Over the last quarter of a century it lost 90% of its income. According to the IMF, even if the economy grows at 10% per annum for the next 25 years, which would be pretty good by any standards, they will be back to where they started in 1980."

Small national budget

Despite the return to civilian rule, there is little prospect of government finances being able to cope with comprehensive service provision. Most education and health care is still provided by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and it will take many years to improve the country's port, road and power infrastructure so that it becomes an economic asset rather than a deterrent to investment. In truth, the state barely exists in many regions and in many ways Liberia is still a collapsed state.

The government's budget is just $129m--a frighteningly small sum in comparison with challenges to be addressed. At the same time, the term civilian rule is something of a misnomer. Around 15,000 UN troops and the national Liberian army are required to maintain law and order in the country, with some troops stationed at plantations and mines that were previously rebel controlled.

The disarmament and resettlement programme has gone a long way to breaking up the various rebel factions as cohesive military forces but there are few jobs waiting for them. As a result, as in Angola, the lack of a stake in a peaceful, stable country could prompt former fighters to turn to crime.

Much will depend on how well the national army and police force are able to maintain law and order without direct international support, although support for training is likely to remain even when the blue helmeted UN troops pull out. Indeed, recruitment for the police force and army is likely to provide the greatest opportunities for secure employment for the former combatants. …

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The Long Haul Back to Normality: It Has Been Little over a Year since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Became the First Female Head of State in Africa When She Was Elected to the Leadership of a Collapsed Economy and a Failed State That Liberia Had Become. What Is Her Track Record a Year Later? Neil Ford Provides Some Answers
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