Liberia (March 1999)
by Philippa Atkinson, RRN Regional Representative, West Africa March 1999

The alleged support by Liberia for the rebel forces in Sierra Leone’s war epitomises the current problems facing the country in its attempts to rebuild a functioning and credible state following the civil war. While Liberian officials have continually denied any such role, strong evidence shows that, at the very least, Liberian border areas have been used by the AFRC/RUF for re-supplying. Many observers are convinced that links exist at the highest levels and that Liberia is playing an important role in the network controlling the exchange of diamonds for arms, ammunition and mercenaries.

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Charles Taylor’s close personal connections with Burkina Faso and Libya have contributed further to the general image of Liberia as a ‘rogue state’, heavily involved in the regional and global black economy and controlled by an elite far more interested in self-enrichment than good governance. Pirate companies have continued their close involvement in the illegal exploitation of Liberia’s resources, particularly in the mineral and logging sector. Here companies operate as in the war with little regard for reforestation and other environmental controls. The recent establishment of a mining subsidiary of Greater Churches Limited, a US operation banned in some US states for extortion, is not encouraging. The dynamic of the political economy appears little changed from the war economy, and patterns of economic exploitation may even have intensified with the domination of former warlord Taylor over the Liberian government since his landslide victory in July 1997.

The perception of Liberia as a rogue state is reflected in the restriction by donors of aid budgets for rehabilitation and development programmes. Strict conditionalities relating to governance and accountability agreed by major donors have been maintained, and to date very limited bilateral funding has been made available. US assistance still consists mainly of food aid donated through emergency channels, with some support for good governance and press freedom programmes funded through the non-governmental sector. The EC has further restricted its highly conditional disbursements following the replacement of the reputable planning minister, Amelia Ward, with someone well-known before the war for diverting public funds. International financial institutions have not yet reached restructuring agreements which would allow renewed disbursements, and only UN agencies seem to be offering unconditional support to government departments, despite earlier cases of embezzlement. Investors are also constrained by a lack of assurance from the government regarding issues of accountability, as well as by ongoing insecurity.

The lack of a so-called democracy dividend for Taylor as a result of these realities, while criticised internally, is seen by many in the donor community as the necessary and morally justified use of leverage to discourage such negative trends. The dilemma, however, remains between the potential for change through positive engagement as opposed to the negative effects of disengagement, of retarding the on-going peace process through a lack of resources, and of abandoning Liberians to the international crooks. While a peace dividend is observable in the country, the slow speed of economic rehabilitation, to some extent due to the lack of international funds for reconstruction, appears to be hindering processes of reconciliation. The economic costs to Liberia of the seven-year conflict have been estimated as approaching US$4bn, and while the impetus for rebuilding must come from within external support is also necessary to help replace lost capital and rebuild destroyed institutions.

More thought should be given by donors to mechanisms that can promote positive development, in conjunction with the existing negative incentives of limiting funding. There is public awareness both of the need for external investment and of the high levels of corruption within the government, but little connection is made between the slow rate of rehabilitation and the corrupt dynamic of the political economy. Limited support has been given by donors in an attempt to strengthen local mechanisms of accountability: US funding for the rehabilitation of the law school at Liberia’s university is one positive example, but far greater efforts could be made in this area of civic education.

An increased knowledge among Liberians of patterns of corruption could help empower them to demand greater accountability from their democratically elected government. Since the election, little use has been made of local press campaigns to expose and shame politicians involved in illegal activity – something attempted during the Abuja II disarmament process and recently employed effectively in Sierra Leone against corrupt politicians there by Freetown newspaper For di People. While the difficulties of channelling funding, given the current conditions, should not be under-estimated, and the need for conditionality remains, greater attempts should be made by donors to seek out positive and accountable rehabilitation initiatives.

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