Ellen’s elephantine task

After a year dominated by tsunamis, earthquakes and conflict, the small West African country of Liberia is seen as an unusual success story. The civil war was ended by international intervention, orderly and transparent elections were held and Africa’s first woman president was elected on a mandate of popular reform. Attention, and therefore aid, is focused on Liberia.

Yet, as world leaders — including President Thabo Mbeki, American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush — arrive to hail Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as a groundbreaking feminist at her inauguration on Monday, even more radical changes have been taking place behind the scenes. International donors led by the World Bank, Johnson-Sirleaf’s former employer, have insisted on an unprecedented blueprint to try to force good governance in a region that has been stuck in a cycle of corruption and war for decades.

The Government and Economic Management Assistance Programme (GEMAP) hopes to limit the opportunities for theft by installing international representatives in every revenue-generating arm of the government. Although ultimate authority will rest with the head of state, every major expenditure will have to be signed off.

Parastatals such as the national oil refining company will be periodically, and publicly, audited. Major donors such as the European Union and American government have made it clear that, if Liberia expects aid for reconstruction, it had better comply.

For decades, public office was an excuse to loot the treasury. The transitional government, made up of the warring factions, carried on the tradition, spending millions earmarked for development on new jeeps.

A report issued by the United Nations last month estimates that “chronic corruption and incompetence” lost the country more than $30million last year — nearly half the annual national budget.

Alan Doss, the UN’s top official in the country, believes that the endemic corruption was one of the key causes of the original conflict. “As the private sector, for example, has largely disappeared, the struggle for the control of public resources becomes, in effect, a vector for conflict. So I see GEMAP, in some ways, as a conflict prevention mechanism.”

Johnson-Sirleaf likes to say her government will be different. “We will have three criteria for government employees: honesty, competency and respect for human rights.”

Liberians, and the international community, have heard the rhetoric often enough. Even with the plan in place, say analysts, fundamental problems remain.

Mike McGovern, the West Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group, believes that, if the plan is seen as a temporary, quick-fix solution or donors fail to match the government’s commitment with significant funding, it could fail and the country could slide back into war.

Many of those elected last year are former militia leaders or have ties to the exiled former president Charles Taylor, currently under indictment for crimes against humanity. Edwin Snowe, Taylor’s former son-in-law and one of several politicians on the UN travel ban list is expected to be elected as Speaker of the House, the third most powerful position in the land.

Under his tenure, the state-owned Liberian Petroleum Refining Company registered a loss of half a million dollars last year, despite receiving payments totalling $8,5million.

For now, the bullet holes in the capital are being patched up and painted over and the waist-high piles of garbage are being removed. Liberians are preparing to present their best face to the world this Monday.

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