Assistance for Africa: 'Don't turn your back on my country'

One year after she was sworn in, Liberia's President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, faces an increasing struggle to maintain stability in her impoverished nation. One of her biggest worries, she tells Leonard Doyle in Monrovia, is that much-needed international aid may be about to dry up
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The Independent Online

For a democratically elected leader, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's daily commute to work borders on the unusual.

First come the armed outriders who order cars to the gutter. Then comes a blare of sirens as the President's convoy, complete with decoy limousine, barrels down the once-grand Tubman Boulevard. Nigerian United Nations soldiers armed with heavy machine guns take up the rear: the international community is taking no chances with Liberia's best hope of democratic leadership in decades.

When a fire gutted the executive mansion on Liberia's independence day in July, almost claiming the lives of four west African presidents - including Liberia's - everyone suspected a plot. Rebels loyal to the former leader, Charles Taylor - by then in detention - were suspected. A South African forensic team found that dodgy wiring rather than foul play was responsible. Air conditioners and chandeliers switched on specially for the visiting presidents of Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Ghana overloaded a dilapidated system.

For the President struggling to put her put her Humpty Dumpty-like country back together again, the fire was one more burden to bear.

Graham Greene, in his seminal travel book, Journey Without Maps, describes crossing Liberia with a chain of porters in 1935. In the republic founded for freed American slaves he found one of the few areas of Africa untouched by colonisation. Some 70 years of misrule and war has left much of the country in as desperate a situation as he found it. So poor is the country that finding a simple bed net to keep off the hordes of malarial mosquitoes is a almost impossible. Equipped with his vials of quinine, Greene had better access to health care than many Liberians do today.

Beyond the veneer of civil society in the capital, Monrovia, almost everything seems on the verge of collapse. There is no mains electricity for most of the capital and a few miles outside entire sections of the main road have been washed away. The UN has restored some sewage and water, but most are still without.

There is no national television. TV masts, donated by Japan some 20 years ago, were stripped clean by looters who also took the electrical cables. The Defence Ministry is a squalid tenement occupied by squatters - unpaid former soldiers. The Interior Ministry is home to war refugees.

One bright spot is the national football stadium, which Chinese workers are busy restoring. Doubtless Beijing miscalculated that the football star George Weah rather than Johnson-Sirleaf would now be in charge. And Africa's first woman president would doubtless have preferred refurbished hospitals to a football stadium. But with her country flat broke, its economy in ruins and 15,000 UN soldiers providing a veneer of security, she is grateful for all the help she can get.

Sitting down to talk to The Independent in her temporary quarters in the Foreign Ministry, topmost of her mind was the worry that the international aid was about to dry up. She has good reason to worry. Several aid agencies have already left and the Global Fund has recently rejected funding for malaria and tuberculosis drugs for the coming year.

Now there are fears that post-civil war Liberia is dropping off the radar of Western countries more interested in fighting the "war on terror" than in propping up a predominantly Christian country of three million.

President Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated economist who defeated Weah last year in the presidential campaign, fears that aid to her country is taking second place to the assistance being given to countries which the West fears could become havens of Islamic extremism. "It will be catastrophic if aid is to be reduced," President Johnson-Sirleaf said. "If the promised aid does not arrive, especially for our health services, it will have serious consequences for Liberia." Liberia remains a tinderbox after the civil war, where rebels used cannibalism and rape as weapons of war. Its towns are filled with young unemployed ex-fighters which the UN describes as "a very serious source of tension". Poverty is everywhere. Half of the population gets by on less than half a dollar a day. It is one of the poorest places on the face of the earth.

She fears a fresh crisis as the increase in aid promised at last year's Gleneagles G8 summit goes to Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as Darfur in Sudan. London and Washington dispute this. The UK points out that its bilateral aid to Africa has gone up from £826m in 2004-5 to £1.1bn in 2005-6 and will be £1.25 bn in 2006-7. In the US, aid to Africa under President George Bush has gone up from $1bn (£506bn) to $4bn and is projected, Congress permitting, to rise to $8bn by 2010.

There has, indeed, been a substantial increase in aid as was promised by Tony Blair and the other G8 leaders in their undertaking to double financial assistance to Africa by 2010. But in the first year much of the extra money has been spent in the form of debt relief for Iraq and Nigeria. To keep the Gleneagles promise of doubling aid to Africa by 2010, another big increase must be confirmed by the G8 at their annual meeting in Germany, and the Democrats in the US Congress must also vote for the large aid increase.

Inexplicably the Global Fund is also refusing to fund Liberia's malaria and TB programmes for the year, although these are two of the country's biggest killers. To make matters worse, now that the civil war is over, some aid agencies which specialise in providing emergency relief are leaving. The fear is that there are no long-term development agencies to take over from them. Demand for the services of those staying on, such as the British medical charity Merlin, are ever increasing.

"Liberia is a fragile state," Sonja van Osch, Merlin's country director, said. "Without continued support for at least another five years, people will continue to die unnecessarily from easily preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and measles."

But the government is crippled by $3.7bn of debt, most of it in arrears, and none has yet been forgiven under the Gleneagles deal.

The 66-year-old President remains widely admired, at home and abroad. She has kept corruption at bay by sacking officials and demanding transparency in contracts and has appointed experienced women to run the top ministries - Finance, Justice and Commerce - all her ministers follow punishing work schedules. Ms Johnson-Sirleaf appears determined to do things differently from other African governments. Her close relatives fly economy class, an attempt is being made to break down the tribal nature of Liberia's politics and the country has a lively, inquisitive press. But as the President's actions threaten vested interests in the country, her life remains closely guarded by the Nigerian troops.

She has learnt from her World Bank days not to upset donor countries, which have helped to rescue Liberia. But she expressed undisguised irritation at the Global Fund for its refusal to fund the fight against malaria and TB.

"It was a decision by functionaries and bureaucrats," she said. "They do not know the consequences of their actions, we will do everything to get [the decision] reversed." The Global Fund has agreed aid to Liberia in principle. But its technical review panel says that Liberia's detailed proposals are inadequate. Privately some people hint that the fund, normally one of the more agile international development agencies, fears that corruption in the healthcare system has not been sufficiently curbed.

Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of international donors for Liberia, the President appealed to the world not to turn its back on the country in the misguided belief that its crisis is over.

Jeffrey Sachs, who advised the G8 as head of the UN's Millennium Project, said the Global Fund's decision to deny funding for malaria and TB "defied belief". "What this country needs is to be flooded with bed nets impregnated with insecticide to fight malaria as well as all the drugs it needs to combat TB and Aids," he said.

The civil war left Liberia's population traumatised and its infrastructure looted and burnt to the ground. There is no economy to speak of and most people do not live beyond 40. But as Liberia's democracy sends out its fragile roots, that recovery is jeopardised by increasing violence, insecurity and poverty. Attacks on civilians by armed robbers - often former child soldiers - are frequent in Monrovia. Gang rape, another legacy of war, is also common. Schooling is almost non-existent; at least 87 per cent of the population is illiterate.

Liberia is so poor that as little as $5 per person - $15m a year - is all that is needed to provide adequate health care. All the government can afford is $3m - and that is donated - the result of which is that health in Liberia is "among the worst in the world, and may soon get worse", says a report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"Most of the African countries are concerned that the level of aid promised [by the G8] has not been reached," Ms Johnson-Sirleaf said. "Much of it has been made conditional on each government's own political and economic performance."

In July, Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development, visited Liberia and announced that British aid to the country would rise from £6m in 2006 to £10m in 2007 - a significant increase given that Liberia's total budget is only $100m.

Although 20 countries have Gleneagles debt cancellation, allowing them to increase spending on health and education from a combined $6bn to more than $13bn, Liberia is not one of them - because the country had not yet put in place good governance requirements which are a condition of debt relief.

Médecins Sans Frontières left Liberia this week. It leaves a network of clinics that doctors fear will soon be looted. It had hoped to hand the clinics over to the government or to agencies funded by the international community. "We work on the front line where people are being killed and wounded," said Jean Michel Piedagnel, a senior MSF doctor. "We need others to take over our work."

Liberia: the statistics

Population: 3.3 million

Life expectancy: 41 years. Malnutrition is widespread with 39 per cent of children under five suffering from stunted growth. Biggest killers are malaria, cholera, TB and HIV/Aids. There are 30 doctors (300 before the civil war).

Unemployment: 85 per cent

Illiteracy rate: 87 per cent

Economy: Liberia has plenty of gold, diamonds, iron ore, wood and extensive rubber plantations. The country's diamond and timber exports have been blocked by UN sanctions to prevent money flowing to rebel groups in countries such as Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

History: Founded by freed former slaves from America who settled on the coast of west Africa against the wishes of the indigenous population. The first native president was Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, who overthrew President William Tolbert and publicly executed him in 1980. In 1989 Charles Taylor began an uprising leading to more than a decade of civil war.

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