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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 11:28 GMT
Focus shifts to Liberia's recovery
By Jonathan Paye-Layleh
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Liberian electorate
Liberians are keen for a peaceful election
With the Liberian elections now over - the first since the civil war ended, the focus is shifting to the challenges facing the new rulers.

"Liberian politicians call people 'the masses' when they are still seeking their votes, but once they are elected, they will remove the 'm' from the masses and call them 'the asses'," says James Murray, a company messenger amidst the frantic election campaigning.

This scepticism of the political establishment stems from more than 150 years of chronic bad governance, corruption, ethnic exploitation - and an infrastructure and economy ruined by 14 years of civil war.

The guns may now be silent, and refugees returning to their homes following the 2003 peace deal which saw former President Charles Taylor exit to Nigeria and the arrival of some 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers, but Liberians are frustrated with their lot.

Monrovia has been without electricity and water for over a decade. There are tens of thousands of teenagers who have never seen electric light.

"I feel ashamed when foreigners come here saying Liberia is the largest and darkest village in Africa," says Charles Cooper, a Monrovia shopkeeper.

"As Africa's oldest independent nation we should be ahead or on par with other African nations in making progress; but sadly, the whole of Liberia gets dark before nightfall."

Stabilising Liberia

To say the task that lies ahead for the president voted into State House in January is enormous is an understatement.

Re-plastering pockmarked buildings, switching on electricity, reconnecting water, improving rural sanitation, getting buses on roads, halting the exodus of teachers to organisations that pay them, buying school textbooks and stamping out rampant corruption are only some of the challenges.

And Liberia's battle scars are as emotional as they are physical.

Liberian voters
Liberians must put the ugly past behind them, not by preaching rhetoric but by introducing genuine reform
Aid worker Massa Konneh
Under the peace deal, a truth and reconciliation commission has been set up. But given the ethnic dimension of the civil war, reconciling Liberians is going to require skilful handling.

Until Samuel Doe's coup in 1980, power in Liberia had always been in the hands of the Americo-Liberians - the descendents of freed African slaves from America, who had ruled the country since independence in 1847.

These early settlers did not believe in educating the less privileged, indigenous populace, wanting to keep them firmly under their thumb and power firmly within their grasp.

It is a policy which reverberates to this day, with an illiteracy rate of 80% - blamed for much of the political unrest.

According to aid worker Massa Konneh, who works at a displacement camp outside Monrovia, the resentment between the haves and have-nots in Liberia was starkly illustrated during the civil war.

Many child soldiers have confessed to killing people simply because they felt they were better off than them. Education - particularly of these young soldiers - is seen as the key to stabilising Liberia's future.

The country is awash with some 106,000 ex-combatants, disarmed by the UN, who have yet to come to terms with living without guns.

Communities who bore the brunt of the fighting are hoping the new government will not only introduce rehabilitation and integration programmes for the former fighters but send them to school.

"Disowning the former fighters or distancing oneself from them will not solve the problems," says trader Marie Whetie.

"They are now a national disease that any government taking over should try to cure."

'Ugly past'

But in the eyes of the international community, corruption - which engulfed the transitional administration of Gyude Bryant - is a major stumbling block to tackling poverty.

"The low level of transparency and accountability and good governance in Liberia is troubling and represents a real threat to the economic, social and political reconstruction of Liberia," outgoing US Ambassador John William Blaney said.

Supporter of George Weah's CDC party
Former footballer George Weah is one of the presidential candidates
He added that he felt there is no need for any of Liberia's three million inhabitants to live below the poverty line, given the country's rich natural resources.

He was characteristically candid about what he saw as the failure of Mr Bryant's team to tackle the issue, and warned that Washington would consider imposing travel bans and freezing the assets of those caught with their hands in the till.

"If Liberia is to stay on course and keep the confidence of its friends in the international community, it must move further against corruption," Mr Blaney said.

Despite these challenges, there is an air of optimism that Liberia is finally on the road to peace, partly fostered by the presence of UN blue helmets.

Every political twist and turn is hotly debated and presidential aspirants' credentials critically analysed - on street corners, in taxis, at work and in bars.

There is no escaping the fact that Liberians are demanding that for once politicians live up to their words.

"After all this killing and destruction there must be a government that is focused and straightforward," says Massa Konneh.

"Liberians must put the ugly past behind them, not by preaching rhetoric but by introducing genuine reform."


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