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IBERIA celebrated its 166th independence anniversary on July 26th this year. In line with the distinct tradition of selecting individuals across the social divide as orators to give the nationally televised independence speech, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf picked a prominent lawyer, Councillor Varney Sherman, as the orator. Events to mark the anniversary also included the dedication of several development projects in the three counties selected to host the celebrations this year. It was an opportunity to reiterate the government’s commitment to building a stronger democracy and improving the social conditions of a nation that witnessed one of the worst civil wars on the continent. It has been ten years since the civil war, which lasted for fourteen years, and government efforts at improving living conditions for the majority of Liberians have been impressive if we consider the depth of decay the country is emerging from. There is no doubt that there have been immense challenges, some of which would require many more years to fix- Nigeria still struggles to correct some of the social consequences of a civil war that ended over thirty years ago. The independence celebration is also a moment of reflection on the nation’s journey so far; two civil wars that shattered the lives and dreams of millions have given rise to a perceptible feeling of vigilance in safeguarding the nation’s new found peace. Across the country, memories of this conflict have reshaped the social outlook of the people but have not dampened the legendary verve with which the average Liberian lives life. This zeal to survive has been a major factor in effecting one of the fastest recoveries any nation ravaged by war has ever experienced. Estimates suggest that since the end of the civil war, and particularly since 2005, with democratic elections and a new government in place, Liberia’s GDP growth has been accelerating, reaching 9.4% in 2007; a strengthening agricultural sector, led by rubber and timber exports, increased

TUESDAY, JULY 30, 2013

growth to 5.1% in 2010 and 7.3% in 2011, making the economy one of the 20 fastest growing in the world. A United Nations ban on Liberian diamond export, which was put in place in 2001, was lifted in 2007. Like most African nations, Liberia is still grappling with political and economic challenges that have defined the course of its

bullet holes that stood as constant reminders of a macabre past, in equal measure. In some ways even, Monrovia, indeed the whole of Liberia, had acquired some kind of Hollywood status for many of us impressionable young men in the 90s, considering that we had never seen a conflict that played out in such sinister acts as young men with ladies’ wigs on

history over the years; like in other African states also, the government of Liberia struggles against all odds to reposition the country for growth; this has not been an easy road to travel. On my first visit to

their heads and wearing boxer shots- or sometimes even going into battle stark naked and feeding on

Liberia At 166: Slowly,

But Surely, Picking Up The Pieces light traffic and rain the day I arrived, cars drove past seeminly oblivious to memories of a time when

President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson Monrovia in 2010, some of these challenges were evident. The civil war years, which exposed the rift between Liberia’s social classes and played out the consequences of ignoring public demands, had brought the country to its knees. Liberia in 1990 had become the launch pad for a series of conflicts borne out of public anger against governments that had seen themselves as infallible and the frustrations of a people who had been left with no other means of addressing their social and economic demands. As I arrived, the feeling of anxiety could only have been surpassed by my sense of relief that I had finally achieved a dream. I had made up my mind that Monrovia, considered during the 70’s as a West African melting pot, could hardly disappoint me: its natural beauty would excite but so also would its decrepit buildings, with

human parts- brandishing AK47 rifles in one hand with human skulls hung on stakes at checkpoints. To many, these scenes seemed more like clips from a movie by a producer with a feral imagination. Driving into town from the airport, I could start replaying some of the clips in my head. I constantly battled with conflicting scenarios: ECOMOG troops battling fierce resistance from rebel formations to seize the stretch between Robertsfield and Monrovia had given way to a smooth thirty minutes drive that had some of the best sceneries of verdant forests and serene homes I had ever seen; belligerent young men moving in zig-zag formations as they fired indiscriminately, in motions that seemed more like dance moves than war tactics, Tubman boulevard had given way to a wide nylon tarred road with a

people scampered across those same lanes for safety; the streets around Congo town had no special memories for me but images of fleeing AmericoLiberians (known locally as Congos) who must have realised that years of president Doe’s shackles and attacks from rebel groups who carried out a war of extinction against them left no options for them besides fleeing made the area an interesting stop. Tubman boulevard runs through Sinkor, where the famous Spriggs Payne airfield, liberated by ECOMOG troops, is located. Sinkor was the scene of heavy fighting in both civil wars and two massacres occured there. Everywhere across this city with a population of over a million, the memory seemed engraved on decrepit structures, the faces of young men and women, and it had obviously changed

perceptions, inspiring a nationwide insistence on sustaining the new found peace. Downtown Monrovia still had war scars everywhere I turned: to borrow the words of Liberian American writer Helen Cooper, parts of downtown ‘still looked like the set for an African “Apocalypse Now”. My visit was on an invitation to attend an ECOWAS regional conference themed “Two decades of peace processes in West Africa; achievements, failures, lessons”, which was also a commemoration of seven years of the end of the devastating conflict. I have always wanted to go back and see the changes that a stable democratically elected government has been able to make in seven years. Even if I haven’t visited, I have followed the political happenings in the country ever since. There is no doubt that the challenges ahead for Liberia are immense; still reeling from the total collapse of its public services, and the emigration of its most valued brains and investors, Liberia has an unenviable task ahead. Considering how difficult it is to meet the demands of a struggling population still coping with the myriad effects of war and a government that struggles to sustain its public wage bill. It is admirable that the people and government have continued to show the same resilience that saw them through the war years. The commitment to strengthening the foundation of democratic and responsible governance yielded positive results. President Sirleaf that “The first six years of our administration was our period of stabilization – where our goal was to formulate the laws, strategies and policies to

reform state structures by changing procedures and technologies to make existing systems more effective. In this second term, our goal is to transform our nation economically, as well as socially. For Johnson Sirleaf, there is no doubt that the task of governance has been immense, but she is no spring chicken to Liberian politics; her active participation in Liberia’s political field spans several administrations and some of its most trying periods of political transition. In fact, her role in the creation and dissolution of past regimes is legendary; many remember her for her outspokenness against the Doe regime, which she had been a part of and had resigned from, in the face of imminent prosecution. Without faltering, Sirleaf kept up the pressure against that administration. One of her most celebrated moments in her opposition to the policies and programmes of the Doe administration was a speech at the United Nations in which she referred to that administration as one run by “simpletons”. Mrs. Sirleaf dared return to the country after that; the consequence of that outspokenness was a stint in prison that didn’t do much to alter her position. She kept up the pressure, becoming one of the key players in exposing the failures of that government. Today, her efforts are admirable under the circumstances. Public reaction to unacceptable government policies have been fervent so far and this seems to have been the result of the government’s commitment to free the political space and to allow room for criticisms and contrary opinions to thrive.

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Nigerian observer 30 07 2013  
Nigerian observer 30 07 2013  

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