Underwriting Liberian Rebirth: Political Reform and Economic Progress

By Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Underwriting Liberian Rebirth: Political Reform and Economic Progress


Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen, Harvard International Review


The 3.5 million people of my small West African nation of Liberia ended a most auspicious year on November 8, 2006. That day marked the first anniversary of an historic vote by the people of a nation founded almost 160 years ago, when freed American and later Caribbean slaves joined indigenous Africans of varying ethnic groups to become Africa's first independent state. On that day in 2005, our people decisively chose a new government to direct their affairs for the subsequent six years. Liberians made the historic decision of democratically electing their own, and indeed Africa's, first female head of state. In a real sense, that act signaled our people's firm commitment to breaking with the past 25 years of debilitating instability, which included a devastating civil war for more than half of that time. When that process of political change was formally consummated with the swearing-in of my inclusive and human rights sensitive administration on January 16, 2006, Liberia laid the political infrastructure for a new dawn. A long awaited national renaissance was underway. It was a sweet victory for a people that had endured so much for far too long.

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Within a mere 10 months in office, my administration has already taken the first vital steps on the long road to national economic recovery, all of which are taken in pursuit of the hitherto elusive goals of shared growth and development. But our nation is fully aware that we cannot confront the enormous challenges ahead on our own. We will need to draw strength and support once again, as in our past crises, from our partners and friends--regionally and internationally. Such strategic partnerships for development are imperative. Given the unequivocal commitment of my new administration to conducting our business differently from how it was done in the past and the resilience and determination of our people, however, I am fully confident that as a nation, we will surmount the enormous challenges that lie ahead in our reconstruction endeavors.

From Relative Prosperity to Absolute Poverty

In less than three decades, Liberia underwent a tragic collapse from experiencing post-war growth and relative success to being one of the poorest nations on earth. The seeds for this dramatic collapse were sown many years prior to the 1980 military coup that triggered the decline. For many decades, political and economic power in Liberia had become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. Together with a closed political system that over time had bred corruption, this restricted access to the decision-making process limited the space for civil society participation in the governance process. These limitations fueled ethnic and class animosities and rivalries. Political agitation and tension in response to years of monopolization of power and privilege added to the problem. This resulted in the 1980 coup d'etat led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, which toppled then-president William Tolbert. The military coup was followed by periods of severe instability, which culminated in a deadly 14 year civil war that began in 1989.

That instability, which was exacerbated by the actions of the Charles Taylor administration and a series of earlier interim regimes, also resulted in continued sharp declines in our national fortunes. By the time an internationally brokered cessation of hostilities took effect in August 2003, Liberia had qualified as a failed state for many years. The economy had completed a free fall that had lasted two decades, with national incomes plummeting almost nine-fold from twenty years earlier, to annual per capita levels of well under US$200. Our national budget dwindled to as low as US$80 million in 2005, in stark contrast to some US$900 million in 1980. We were by then externally indebted to the tune of some US$3.5 billion (now about US$3.7 billion). Poverty, both income and non-income based, had implanted itself among our people in an alarming manner. …

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