- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MONROVIA, Liberia

Downtown Clay Street embodies the contradictions of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s Liberia. Dilapidated homes, unfinished con- struction projects and aban- doned vehicles serve as a reminder of war and neglect, but Monrovia College, with its high school students in blue-on-dark-blue uniforms, pre- sents a promise for order and education.

The street has been illuminated since late last year, when Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s government turned on lights in parts of the capital for the first time after 14 years of war.

Although public electricity and piped water have been restored to pockets of Monrovia, neither service has reached homes. The mechanized growl of generators remains fixed on the city’s soundscape, and water buckets are still a necessity.

However, the ardor for Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is undiminished.

Young and old admirers, particularly female, said they respect her as “a difference maker,” the mother of the nation and the first female president in Liberia and West Africa.

A taste of freedom

Sando Freeman, 22 and pregnant with her first child, said life has improved since the “three world wars” from 1989 through 2003, “because right now, we cannot hear the gun sounds. We are living free, moving freely.”

Still, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration receives little credit for creating an environment where people feel secure walking or driving at night.

That security is provided by the United Nations, which has deployed more than 14,000 peacekeeping troops and 1,200 police officers. It is the principal guarantor of Liberia’s security, said Alan Doss, the top U.N. official here.

No date has been set to downsize or withdraw the U.N. forces, Mr. Doss said, but he is scheduled to present an update to the U.N. Security Council in September. The Liberian army and police continue to recruit and train personnel to take over defense duties.

“Where a government is unable to look after its own security and it has to depend on the security of others, it, in a way, suggests the ceding of a measure of sovereignty to whoever looks after your security,” said John H.T. Stewart, a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is examining violent and financial crimes committed from 1979 to 2003.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf also has no absolute authority over the government’s financial operations, thanks to the Western-backed and -sponsored Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program.

GEMAP monitors public finances and expenditures through detailed reports of activities as a means of limiting corruption that government ministers said plagued the transitional administration from 2003 to 2005.

Mr. Doss credited GEMAP for significantly increasing government revenues over the past year and helping improve control of expenditures, while it canceled or renegotiated more than 100 concessions and contracts to benefit Liberia.

Though he offered no date for completion, he said a steering committee that meets every three weeks keeps the program under review. Heading the committee are Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and her ministers of finance and planning.

Information Minister Lawrence Bropleh predicted that international supporters will find within the next year or so that the program is no longer necessary because of the government’s commitment to transparency in its regular reporting of its revenues and expenditures.

Good first year

That zeal for honest government during Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s first year in office has impressed Liberians.

“She’s a good ruler because she don’t like corruption,” said Daniel Marshall, an electrician working at the National Investment Commission.

Critics say Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf finds dissenting views equally distasteful. Rep. Edwin Snowe, an opposition member who challenged his removal as house speaker, said Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has built an “imperial presidency” and is averse to an independent-minded legislature.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered Mr. Snowe’s reinstatement as speaker and summoned 43 lawmakers to testify today on their no-confidence vote, specifically on Mr. Snowe’s accusation that several parliamentarians had been paid to vote against him.

A former son-in-law of ex-President Charles Taylor, Mr. Snowe told The Washington Times that Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf held meetings with a few lawmakers regarding a change in the speakership and said $5,000 was given to lawmakers to sign a resolution to remove him.

“It’s not about moving Snowe or not moving Snowe,” he said. “If we’re going to have people spending money on lawmakers to institute a leadership change, then it threatens our democracy.”

The U.N. Security Council maintains a travel ban on Mr. Snowe for his ties to Mr. Taylor, who faces trial soon at The Hague, and for reportedly having provided money to Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Snowe also served as managing director of the Liberian Petroleum and Refining Corp., the state-owned oil company, in the transitional government.

Mr. Bropleh dismissed the complaints of Mr. Snowe, saying he insults Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf without facing repercussions. Mr. Bropleh said the accusations are absurd and unsupported by evidence.

He said Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf wants a robust House of Representatives in order to advance her agenda.

Liberians, government ministers and the United Nations agree that Liberia needs more development to improve the lives of its citizens.

Mr. Bropleh said that in the past year, the government scored major gains in education, where primary school enrollment is now above 80 percent, and health care because of the reopening of hospitals and clinics.

Potholes are being filled and traffic lines are being painted as part of road repair projects.

Rule of law an issue

For Mr. Doss, Liberia’s government has not gone far enough to strengthen the judiciary and the rule of law.

He said law courts are functioning ineffectively in every part of the country, and he hopes more Liberian police will be deployed inside and outside Monrovia.

Mr. Doss and several Liberians interviewed cited jobs as a major issue. Hundreds of thousands of young people, as well as former combatants who fought for various warlords, are looking for work.

The United Nations estimates unemployment at more than 80 percent.

Lawrence Randall, who heads the Liberia Media Center, a news and development organization, warned of an astronomical rise in crime if the government fails to address the issue.

“What is security in the absence of job creation?” he asked. “You can’t eat security.”

Even rice, Liberia’s staple food, is more expensive. A 120-pound bag costs about $25.

Mr. Randall noted the devaluation of the Liberian dollar since Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s Jan. 16 inauguration last year. One U.S. dollar is now worth 60 Liberian dollars.

Government ministers and Mr. Doss advise Liberians that progress requires patience.

“This is no longer a failed state,” said Mr. Doss, “and I think that’s something to be pleased about.”

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