Wednesday, January 11, 2006

MONROVIA, Liberia — Four years ago, Aloysius Toe buried his eldest son, Murphy, 6, who died after drinking dirty water. It is a common cause of death in Liberia, where piped water and electricity have been scarce since a civil war began in 1989.

Despite two years of peace and tens of millions of dollars in aid, the family is no better off than when the fighting ended. Now Mr. Toe’s youngest daughter is sick, with the same diarrhea that killed her brother.

“I feel bad at times. When I lie awake in the morning, sometimes I think of him. He used to climb up on the bed and play,” said Mr. Toe, a rubber tapper at a large plantation. “But this government: Nothing is improving, the water is still bad.”

His small and smoky shack is not far from Capitol Hill, where international leaders, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush, will be attending the presidential inauguration Monday of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Liberia’s civil war was ended by international intervention. Orderly and transparent elections were held, and Africa’s first female president was elected on a mandate of popular reform.

As world leaders arrive for her inauguration, international donors led by the World Bank, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s former employer, are trying to bring good governance in a region that has been stuck in a cycle of corruption and war for decades.

A vital first step

The Government and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) hopes to limit opportunities for theft by installing international representatives in every revenue-generating arm of Liberia’s government. Though ultimate authority belongs to the head of state, every major expenditure will have to be reviewed.

The state oil refinery and other national companies will be audited periodically and publicly. Main donors such as the European Union and the U.S. government have made it clear that if Liberia wants aid, it must comply.

Since forcing the government to agree to such demands, GEMAP’s authors have received inquiries from U.N. missions in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Haiti.

“GEMAP is a response to a failure of governance, an emergency safety net,” said Eric Nelson, the World Bank’s senior economist for Liberia. “But this is only the first step. The quality of senior management in state-owned enterprises, for example, is going to have to change.”

For decades, holding public office in Liberia meant an opportunity to loot the treasury.

The transitional government, made up of the warring factions, carried on the tradition. They spent millions of dollars earmarked for development on new jeeps, while Mr. Toe’s children drank dirty water. Schoolchildren huddled by foreigners’ compounds to do their homework under the security lights while Liberian politicians took vacations in Europe.

Said one disgusted Western diplomat: “We didn’t bring peace, we bought it. We put them in government and gave them two more years of official looting rights.”

Peace through reform

The United Nations reported last month that “chronic corruption and incompetence” cost the country more than $30 million last year, nearly half Liberia’s annual national budget.

Alan Doss, the top U.N. official in the country, thinks endemic corruption was one of the main causes of the decades of conflict. He hopes GEMAP can help ensure peace after the 15,000 U.N. troops in Liberia depart.

“GEMAP is also about ensuring that the resources of Liberia — financial resources and, to some extent, the natural resources — are used for the benefit of the people of Liberia,” he said.

“As the private sector has largely disappeared, the struggle for control of public resources becomes, in effect, a vector for conflict. So I see GEMAP in some ways as a conflict-prevention mechanism.”

Although some Liberian politicians dismissed the plan as colonialism, it is popular among those living on the trash-strewn streets of the capital.

“We love GEMAP,” storekeeper Henry Williams said to nods from the crowd around his counter. “It will stop the politicians from stealing from us. Look at this country, the oldest republic in Africa, and what have we got to show for it?”

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf promises that her government will be different.

“We will have a zero-tolerance approach to corruption,” she tells crowds. “We will have three criteria for government employees: honesty, competence and respect for human rights.”

Liberians and the international community have heard such words often enough. Even with the plan in place, analysts say, fundamental problems remain.

“It’s a very fine balance between intrusive and overbearing. … We are always going to be sensitive to charges of neocolonialism, imperialism and racism,” said Mike McGovern, West Africa program director of the International Crisis Group.

“But we have never had any illusions about [foreign aid workers] being more honest or transparent than Liberians. Both Liberians and international staff will need full oversight.”

Breaking corruption culture

Mr. McGovern thinks that if the plan is seen as a temporary and quick solution, or if donors fail to match the government’s commitment with adequate funding, the plan could fail and Liberia could slide back into war.

Many of those elected in October are former militia leaders or have ties to exiled former President Charles Taylor, who is under indictment for 17 counts of crimes against humanity.

Edwin Snowe, Mr. Taylor’s former son-in-law and one of several politicians listed on the U.N. travel ban, expects to be elected speaker of the House, the third most powerful position in the government. He plans to form a “majority bloc” of opposition members in the legislature.

“We will meet every week and consult with opposition leaders on a regular basis,” Mr. Snowe told Reuters at his beachside mansion. “There are 822,000 registered voters in Liberia whose first choice was not Madame Sirleaf, and it is important that they are represented.”

Mr. McGovern said Mr. Snowe’s election as speaker would send a “troubling signal” about politicians’ intentions to tackle corruption. Under his tenure, the state-owned Liberian Petroleum Refining Co. lost a half-million dollars last year, despite receiving payments totaling $8.5 million.

For now, the bullet holes in the capital are being patched up and painted over and the waist-high piles of garbage are being removed.

Liberians are preparing to present their best face to the world Monday, but if the change is to reach below the surface, it will take years of commitment on the part of the national government and foreign-aid workers to break the culture of corruption.

For the Toe family, this cannot come quickly enough.

Mr. Toe plans to take a day off and listen to the inauguration on his radio, decorated with a sticker of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf. His youngest daughter, Mammee, will claim her usual place on his lap.

“There will be changes, by the grace of God,” he said.

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