Security Council mission to West Africa - Ambassador Wittig's blog - Day 1: Liberia
Saturday May 19, 2012
We arrived in Monrovia coming from Accra (Ghana) in a large, Russian-manned UN-aircraft. The airport "Robertsfield" was built by Americans to be used as a military base and as a possible landing field for the space-shuttles (something that never materialised). The US influence is still very strong and visible. It's useful to keep in mind that Liberia was founded by American settlement companies - and released slaves in the 19th century.
Liberia is a unique case in Africa in many regards. It was the first African country to declare its independance in 1847 - more than hundred years before most African countries became independant states! The 4,1 million Liberians are very proud of that - and rightly so.
One of the reasons that the Security Council chose to visit Liberia is that it hosts a large peacekeeping force of roughly 11.000 soldiers, police and civilian personnel. This operation - set up in 2003 after a cruel and bloody civil war - is largely considered a success. As the situation in the country becomes more stable, the challenge now is to transform it gradually into a more peace-building oriented UN-mission. That was one focus of the meeting we had with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf - the first female President in Africa! At age 73, she is the towering figure in Liberia: well educated, very knowledgable, yet dignified in her appearance - and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She just won a second term in an election in November 2011 that was considered to be largely fair and free.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and five ministers of her cabinet briefed us on their plans: to initiate an "economic transition" (after a largely successful political transition), to tackle the rampant youth unemployment (in a very young country), to set up "rule of law"-structures in the army, police and judiciary - and to deal with a host of human development issues Enlarge image (© E. Tobey/UNMIL)
With all the good news on the political front - Liberia is still one of the poorest countries in the world. For the future draw-down of the UN-bluehelmets the President put the emphasis on a bigger and more effective police force: more UN police, less UN military. She asked for support from the UN and individual lead countries, foremost to create the "rule of law"-guided police that her country so much needs.
I asked her about the reconciliation process (after the bitter civil war) and about the fight against corruption. She said she was committed to both wholeheartedly - and explained the huge challenges involved. I commended her for having associated Liberia to the "Extractive Industies Tranparency Initiative" - an initiative aimed at ensuring that revenues from natural resources benefit the whole population and don't get lost in the hands of a corrupt elite. Let's hope that Liberia will make good use of its newly discovered oil reserves once they are exploited. In too many countries' natural ressources turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing...
Our evening ended with a state dinner offered by President Johnson-Sirleaf. Unfortunately it coincided with the Champions League final Bayern Munich vs Chelsea. My British colleague Mark Lyall Grant and I took turns eloping ("for the restroom") to follow it on a TV screen next door. It was the most nerve-wrecking official dinner I have ever attended! Mark and I watched the penalty shootout together. I was grateful to him that he restrained his joy when Schweinsteiger screwed it up. And we ended amicably in the spirit of British-German friendship with a beer at the bar (Mark paid).