Liberia’s Moment of Opportunity

By Robert L. Jonson, chairman of RLJ Companies, which is a member of the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund. He is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative (THE WASHINGTON POST, 14/05/07):

Last September, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf captivated an audience at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York with descriptions of the extraordinary challenges facing her country. Sirleaf’s courage and vision inspired me and a group of colleagues to commit to revitalizing the historic but dormant relationship between African Americans and Liberia. After all, Jewish Americans have been vital to Israel’s welfare. African Americans should play a similar role for Liberia.

As part of our commitment, we pledged to mobilize investment capital to support Sirleaf’s reconstruction efforts. This led to the creation of the $30 million Liberia Enterprise Development Fund, which is designed to make credit available to Liberian entrepreneurs working to build viable, job-creating businesses.

We also pledged to take African American leaders to Liberia. Last month, our 25-person delegation visited businesses in Monrovia, toured villages in the countryside and met with Liberians from all walks of life. We were awed by the challenges but moved by the sense of hope and faith Liberians have in their future. Every Liberian with whom we spoke said that the country will not return to war. Liberians want to rebuild their lives by finding jobs, restoring their homes and educating their children.

As it turned out, our investment mission to Liberia was the first by a group of Americans in over 25 years.

The United States has a special obligation to support Liberia. The country was established in 1847 by freed American slaves, and its first few presidents were African American. While Congress and the Bush administration have taken several helpful steps, more needs to be done — and soon.

First, the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act should be amended. Section 520 requires the administration to notify Congress of every program it intends to fund in Liberia. This delays unnecessarily the disbursement of the $270 million the United States has made available to Liberia and conveys the impression that Washington is indifferent to Liberia’s challenges. Other countries under this constraint include Sudan and Zimbabwe. With Liberia’s encouraging progress on economic and political reform, it is wrong that our government has not rescinded this burdensome requirement.

Immediate progress also needs to be made on relieving Liberia’s debt. Liberia cannot pay the $3.7 billion it owes. The Bush administration, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union need to resolve this so that the Sirleaf government can access new sources of development assistance. Moreover, Liberians need to see tangible results from their government’s development efforts. A far-reaching debt-reduction program would be a well-deserved boost for Sirleaf’s administration and would visibly distance this government from the corruption and mismanagement of previous regimes.

Few issues are as critical as Liberia’s security situation. Fifteen thousand U.N. peacekeepers are there now. There is agreement among the government and foreign government donors that Liberia’s new army will be a force of 2,000. The United States should take the lead to ensure that the United Nations does not withdraw until Liberia’s new force is fully trained and equipped. Attention also must be paid to the development of a coast guard.

The Bush administration could display its confidence in Liberia’s future by locating the new Africa Command there. Few countries are as pro-America as Liberia, and it was a staunch U.S. ally during World War II and the Cold War. The placement of a U.S. military command in Africa is overdue. Liberia, with its strategic coastal location in West Africa, is well suited to serve as a host.

Promoting U.S. investment in Liberia should be another priority. In many sectors, Liberia has world-class natural resources. Under an agreement ratified a week ago, Mittal Steel will invest more than $1 billion to extract iron ore from northern Liberia. Firestone, which has been in the country for 80 years, is working to significantly increase its rubber production. Other opportunities exist in timber, mining and infrastructure development.

Attention also needs to be given to encouraging an American carrier to make direct flights to Monrovia. This would aid the growth in commerce and make it easier for Liberian residents in the United States to travel home.

President Sirleaf has put special emphasis on attracting foreign investment and strengthening her domestic private sector. She understands, correctly, that a strong private sector is essential to growth. A strategy for attracting American investors in areas such as energy, housing and road-building should be a priority for the Bush administration.

Liberia deserves American support, and African Americans especially must come forward to reestablish the historic bond between our nations. The Sirleaf government is working tirelessly to create a better and more prosperous future for citizens. We bear a special responsibility to ensure that she succeeds.