Shouting loudly at the top of their voices, ordinary Liberians aggressively argued their points of view, and sometimes even took the law into their own hands.
Force rather than logic and law was the judge. This is the behaviour that greeted me when I first joined Oxfam in Liberia in 2004, just a year after the end of 14 years of bloody civil war. The country was still in a state of shock – the conflict had claimed around 250,000 lives and Liberia’s infrastructure was decimated.
The country was producing little, there were no street lights, not enough health clinics, drugs or staff, not enough schools, books or teachers. There were no paved roads in Monrovia. Liberia had the world’s longest toilet queue with under 60 per cent of the population having access to clean water or a lavatory. Poverty was wide-spread, with an estimated 86 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the violence and were living in makeshift camps across the country. There were increased incidences of mob action and intermittent cases of violence.
The huge UN presence was everywhere and all newcomers had to be advised and schooled on security. The UN peace-keeping mission is still active today but troop numbers are expected to tumble to just 4000 by 2015 down from a peak of 15,000.
Time has healed some of Liberia’s wounds - when I returned in 2011 holding conversations without shouting in Liberia was now the norm rather than the exception. Today, I hear ordinary Liberians talk passionately about their country, its future, and their aspirations. They also talk openly about some of the country’s challenges such as; high level corruption, lack of jobs, revenue generation from concessions, the need for investment in the health, education, administration, agricultural and other key sectors. I hear and listen to many Liberians call for a new body politic; a new political approach; a new wave that delivers development for the majority of Liberians.
I also hear Liberians give due credit to the Government for gains made in various fields. Today, Monrovia has paved roads, street lights, traffic lights, functioning government institutions, running water (although more work is required). Today, the country is stable and safe with less crime compared to comparable countries in the world. Today, I see huge investments in the hospitality industry; I see new banks and even ATMs. I see many schools, many markets, and many health clinics. I see the departure of humanitarian focused international NGOs, and I read about progress in all sectors of the economy. I see more and more ordinary Liberians involved in production.
Oxfam and other NGOs have made a small but significant contribution in Liberia. More than a million Liberians have access to safe drinking water and dignified toilet facilities. More than 2,500 rural based subsistent farmers have reduced the period they are without a crop to eat or sell to two months. The combined efforts of communities, government and NGOs means poverty is declining in Liberia but not yet at a rate which will see the country meet its MDGs targets by 2015.
Deep divides continue to exist between urban and rural areas and indeed between men and women. Women in Liberia are still disproportionately affected by poverty and violence against women remains a serious problem.
Liberia’s population is young and thriving, but there is a huge obstacle which is stunting growth of the country and individuals – unemployment. Job creation is slow and the economy here in Liberian is unable to absorb many of the young men who drive around speedily on their mopeds up and down the country. A literacy rate of 20 per cent is also stifling growth.
Many ordinary Liberians tell me the liberalisation of the airwaves has given them many avenues to raise issues of national concerns. The two democratic elections have provided them with room to not only choose but to ask questions and receive answers. But they say “there is a lot more to do if we are to be like our neighbours or regain our pre conflict status”
Last year, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf was re-elected and she pledged to make Liberia a “middle income” country. Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, strongly believes that building the country’s infrastructure holds the key. Though many Liberians tell me “we are still a long way away“, today, 10 years into the post conflict era I sense hope in the air.