- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected, female president, arrived last week in Washington for a working visit with President Bush. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf won a special runoff election in November, defeating international soccer star George Weah. Her electoral victory signals a monumental shift in West African political trends. Her presidency is demonstrative of a population yearning to re-establish a free market and a democratic society. These conditions are unique for Africa, and Liberia represents a singular opportunity to stabilize the region and establish a model for African development.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf now faces the herculean task of rebuilding a country that for two decades was the battleground of greedy warlords and dictators.

Still, external observers optimistically point to her indomitable spirit and famed incorruptibility. Her prior business, governmental and NGO successes suggest she will salvage this historically prosperous country that is now without basic infrastructure. But her experience and political acuity will not alone suffice to rebuild Liberia and triumph over 85 percent unemployment. Successful redevelopment requires substantial support from the United States and sustained investment by the corporate community.

There are striking historical reasons why America should involve itself.

Liberia has been a quiet and invaluable U.S. ally since its conception by the U.S. Slave Trade Act of 1819. Critically, Liberia was the Allies’ primary supplier of rubber during World War II, and has since hosted an ultra-secret Omega tracking station, the African Voice of America transmitter and strategic U.S. military facilities. Nor is this shared ideological congruency surprising: Liberian society has a virile democratic tradition engendered by a constitution modeled on our own.

But rebuilding Liberia is not only a moral obligation; it is, make no mistake, imperative to U.S. national security. Liberia’s ties to America are frequently underplayed here, but those very ties define its position in Africa. Amid the Millennium Goals, failure of a favored American ally like Liberia would signal the rest of Africa that such promises about aid and development are hollow rhetoric. Renewed civil unrest and further disintegration of civil society could permanently destabilize the region.

Conversely, a resurgent Liberia will anchor West Africa, serving as a beacon for emerging democratic movements.

The Bush administration made a promise to Africa and must now follow through on that commitment to growth by unveiling a Marshall-style infrastructural recovery plan, by creating a Liberian Enterprise Fund to jumpstart the economy and furnish working capital, by fast-tracking relief from Liberia’s $3.8 billion foreign debt burden, by bridging the $12 million gap to complete demobilization and restructuring of Liberia’s security sector, by providing substantial funding for education and health care and by increasing numbers of Peace Corps volunteers.

Still, U.S. government money can only lay the foundation for growth. Ultimately, it is the corporate community that can ensure success.

Guarantees for foreign investment are now in place — Liberia boasts vast natural resources, such as diamonds, gold, iron ore, timber, rubber, coffee, cocoa and undeveloped offshore oil reserves. Marry these untapped resources to a literate, Anglophone workforce in an atmospherehistorically committed to capitalism and you have conditions unique in Africa, arguably the world.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s business and development expertise make her an ideal partner for foreign investors in Africa. She maintains it will be the private sector, rather than the public sector, that will determine Liberia’s future. In fact, she has demonstrated her commitment to business by appointing 25-year Wall Street veteran Richard Tolbert as chairman of the National Investment Commission. The commission is responsible for attracting and assisting foreign investment. Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s message is clear, “Liberia is once again open for business.”

We believe the corporate community should echo that message by creating a Corporate Council on Liberia, to be modeled on David Rockefeller’s effort for Jamaica. Comprised of corporate executives and entrepreneurs who have business interest in Liberia, this council would be an indispensable sounding board for the president and her economic team as they undertake the challenge of rebuilding.

Today, Liberia is a foundering state buoyed by a hopeful population; America must not allow this close ally to fail. More than mere morals, the security of Africa and perhaps the world are at stake. If the corporate community and the U.S government join with the “Iron Lady” — as Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is known in Africa — Liberia can again become a model republic anchoring Africa with a free-market economy that will be a beacon to its emerging neighbors.

Ambassador Andrew Young, who served at the United Nations, is co-founding principal and chairman of GoodWorks International. He is also a former congressman and mayor of Atlanta. Peter V. Emerson is a director of the Southern Africa Enterprise Development Fund.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide