Liberians' payback hour

Katharine Houreld
12 January 2006

Four years ago, Aloysius Toe* buried his oldest son. Six-year-old Murphy died after drinking dirty water, a common cause of death in Liberia, which has had no piped water or electricity since the outbreak of civil war in 1989. But despite two years of peace and tens of millions of dollars in aid, corruption means the family is no better off than the day the fighters laid down their arms. Now the youngest daughter is sick, with the same fever and diarrhoea that carried off 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,” remembered Toe, who works as a rubber-tapper at a large plantation. “But this government, nothing is improving, the water is still bad. They just take your money and go.”

His small and smoky shack is not far from Capitol Hill, where international leaders, including American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush, will be attending the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Monday 16 January in the country’s capital, Monrovia. After a year dominated by tsunamis, earthquakes and conflict, the small west African country is seen as an unusual success story. The 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. Attention, and therefore aid, is temporarily focused on Liberia.

Also by Katharine Houreld in openDemocracy:

“A taste of freedom” (September 2005)

“I am woman, hear my roar’” (October 2005)

“Liberia’s elections: striving for peace” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable, please consider donating to openDemocracy to help our work for democracy

Yet just as world leaders arrive to hail Johnson-Sirleaf as a groundbreaking feminist, even more radical changes have been taking place behind the scenes. International donors led by the World Bank, the new president’s former employer, have insisted on an unprecedented blueprint to try to force good governance in a region that has been stuck in a cycle of corruption and war for decades. In Liberia alone, hundreds of thousands of civilians were raped, mutilated and murdered as factions struggled to control the country’s treasury.

The Gemap cure

The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (Gemap), hopes to limit the opportunities for theft by installing international representatives in every revenue-generating arm of government. Although ultimate authority will rest with the head of state, every major item of expenditure will have to be signed off.

Parastatals such as the national oil-refining company will be periodically, and publicly, audited. Major donors such as the European Union and United States government have made clear that if Liberia expects aid for reconstruction, it had better comply. After successfully forcing the government to agree to such demands, Gemap’s authors have received enquiries from United Nations missions in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Haiti.

“Gemap is a response to a failure of governance, an emergency safety-net,” said Eric Nelson, the 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 in Liberia, public office was an excuse to loot the treasury. The transitional government, made up of the warring factions, carried on the tradition. It spent millions earmarked for development on new jeeps while the Toe children drank dirty water. Schoolchildren huddled by expatriate compounds to do their homework by the security lights as the politicians took holidays in Europe.

One disgusted western diplomat observed: “we didn’t bring peace, we bought it. We put them in government and gave them two more years of official looting rights.” A report issued last month by the United Nations estimated that the “chronic corruption and incompetence” lost the country over $30m last year – nearly half of the annual national budget.

Alan Doss, the United Nations’ top official in Liberia, believes that the endemic corruption was one of the key causes of the original conflict. He hopes that the new plan can help to ensure peace after the 15,000 UN troops stationed in the country begin to go home:

“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. As the private sector, for example, has largely disappeared, the struggle for the 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 thinly-veiled colonialism, it is wildly popular among those living on the rubbish-strewn streets of the capital. “We love Gemap,” said storekeeper Henry Williams, 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?”

Johnson-Sirleaf likes to say that her government will be different. “We will have a zero-tolerance approach to corruption,” she tells the crowds. “We will have three criteria for government employees – honesty, competency, and respect for human rights.”

After the party

Liberians, and the international community, have heard the rhetoric often enough. Even with the plan in place, say analysts, fundamental problems remain. “It’s a very fine balance between intrusive and overbearing…we are always going to be sensitive to charges of neo-colonialism, imperialism and racism,” says Mike McGovern, the West Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group. “But we have never had any illusions about expats being more honest or transparent than Liberians – both Liberians and international staff will need full oversight.”

McGovern believes if the plan is seen as a temporary, quick-fix solution or donors fail to match the government’s commitment with significant funding, the plan could fail and the country slide back into war. Many of those elected in October-November 2005 are former militia leaders or have ties to the exiled former president, Charles Taylor, currently under seventeen counts of indictment for crimes against humanity.

Edwin Snowe, Taylor’s former-son-in-law and one of several politicians on the United Nations travel-ban list, is set to be elected as speaker of the house, the third most powerful position in the land. He is planning to form a “majority bloc” in the legislature to represent the opposition.

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

Observers such as McGovern say Snowe’s election would send a “troubling signal” about politicians’ intentions to tackle corruption. Under his tenure, the state-owned Liberian Petroleum Refining Company registered a loss of half a million dollars last year, despite receiving payments totalling $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 at Monday’s inauguration. But if the change is to be more than skin-deep, it will take several years and deep commitment on the part of the national government and international community to break the culture of corruption.

For the Toe family, it cannot come quickly enough. Aloysius plans to take a rare holiday on the day of the inauguration and listen to the ceremony on his radio, decorated with a battered sicker of his new president. His youngest daughter Mammee will claim her usual place on his lap. “There will be changes, by the grace of God,” he said softly.

*The name Aloysius Toe has been used in place of a real name and is not meant to refer to any persons living or dead.

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