The UN and Liberia: Good Intentions and Stark Realities

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 22, 2003

In his beautifully crafted inaugural speech, the Chairman of the new Liberian transitional government made some remarkable observations about the past of the nation and where he intends to take Liberia. He promised to fight nepotism, corruption and tribalism amongst other divisions that have characterized the social fabric of Liberia since her birth more than a century and half ago.

In an interview a few weeks ago, the Special representative of the UN Secretary General, Mr. Jacques Klein, said that before his term comes to an end, he would like to leave behind a new Liberia with a vibrant civil and political society where political parties would be real institutions driven by ideas and not created to suit one person. Finally, this past weekend, the UN Office in Monrovia issued a statement expressing the hope that appointees or elected officials to the transitional government must have a clean record and must not be tainted…

In a perfect world, all this would be achievable. It would only take some coordination between the United Nations and the Bryant government to make sure that Liberia is “cleansed” before elections are held in 716 days. This is however Liberia, a place far from being anything like a perfect world. If anything, it has become the reflection of everything that can go wrong in a country.

Mr. Bryant can promise all he wants but how could he avoid nepotism in a political system built on 150 years of nepotism? When does nepotism start and where does it end? In making his various appointments, will he collect resumés from Liberians from around the world, some with incredible amount of experience and probably now retired, others with prominent names who would jump at the chance of serving the country in their old days or would he just look around Monrovia and pick among those he has done business with in the past few years, limiting his choice to those who, like himself, lived and worked quietly under the Taylor regime? Will he start auditing ministries and public corporations to ensure that everyone who works in those institutions has the requisite qualification? Will he make sure before submitting a budget that payrolls are not padded with the names of friends and family members of former government officials?

Mr. Bryant promises to fight corruption. Every government promises this laudable fight. But how can Mr. Bryant fight corruption? He is inheriting a bankrupt state. People who have worked for government have not received pay in 2 years.

The average Liberian lives on handouts from the international community or remittances from relatives in America, except when they are lucky to work for an international organization. The highest salary in the Liberian government is about US $28. The price of a bag of rice fluctuates between $27 and $30. How would the government ensure that every family could at least afford a bag of our national food?

As long as they are not receiving decent salaries (paid on time), people would “hustle” to survive. In order words, nurses will sell drugs, teachers will sell test results, police and immigration officers will take bribe, accountants will steal, technicians will sell parts of state vehicles, ministers will take bribe, assemblymen will “hustle” anyone coming before them for confirmation. How does one go to work for 12 months day in day out without receiving salaries?

Every high level government would want cars. They would seek “decent” housing, with electricity, telephone and videos. They would have family members coming to them by the dozens. And of course this being Liberia, they would have those second homes and multitudes of children to care for. Some already have their families in the US and would have to support them. Where is that money coming from? How can the Minister of Public Works – for instance – run his house hold (this may be the first Liberian government with no woman for decades), fuel his car, run electricity in his home and buy a bag of rice on a $26 salary? This is the reality of corruption. Mr. Bryant can have all the great intentions, but where is the money? How can you fight corruption when you have nothing to give in place?

The UN Factor
Mr. Jacques Klein has very noble intentions. He could influence the course of events in Liberia and by 2005, could help the creation of a vibrant civil society and strong political parties. To achieve this, he must reverse the old UN strategy of aid and humanitarian services. Rather than importing hundreds of UN “experts” from around the world whose upkeep would cost millions of dollars every month and who would have very little impact on Liberia’s recovery, he can invest UN money in Liberians.

The UN could invest in Liberia by helping the government meet its expenses. There is already a precedent: the US is now “reconstructing” Iraq by infusing money in the society and paying state functionaries. The UN can help the Bryant government by paying salaries of government workers in US dollars at a rate that would allow them to make a decent living. This would allow the government to focus its attention on social issues and use the few tax dollars and the Maritime Fund to rebuild schools and health centers through the country.

This system would also allow the government to recruit professional Liberians wherever they may be to come home and serve their country. There are many Liberian professionals in this country that would jump at the chance to go home to Liberia to work in their area of specialization if offered the same salary UN gives to expatriates. The advantage of using Liberians is that they would somehow invest their earnings in the country and this would trickle down to many areas of the society and economy.

However, nobody should expect the UN to support the mediocrity that has characterized the Liberian civil service for the past three decades. The Bryant government needs to clean the system and get rid of the mostly unqualified manpower that various factional governments have filled every institution in the nation with since the Samuel K. Doe days.

For example, in 1998, some 3,000 former fighters were provided Immigration and other Security ID cards and deployed at Roberstfields at the time when there were only two flights per week to Monrovia. And even higher number of fighters were sent to the police and to the different security apparatus, with no training of any sort. In 1992, the Interim government found out there was 900 people on the payroll at the Executive Mansion but only 300 were working there at the time. Many of those receiving government checks were friends and relatives of successive presidents, some living in US, some in Grand Geddeh or Maryland, among them some 150-market women. By 1994, there were 10,000 soldiers on the government payroll but the Chief of Staff could only account for about 2,500 men. Nothing was done in any of these cases to clean the system. After successive “transitional governments” and the Taylor regime, one can just imagine the current situation.

The Bryant administration could start looking into this issue with the help of the UN. There are thousands of Liberia professionals that the UN could recruit around the world to come help with the process of rebuilding the structures of the Liberian state. The expertise of Liberians would benefit the country in more than one way. Some Liberians have already packed their bags and emptied their bank accounts, heading for home. But not everyone is ready to take such a chance and this is where the UN becomes an important player. The UN can help Liberians rebuild their country.

There are realities in Liberia today that demand difficult and painful solutions. Because this government will not be running for re-elections, it has the rare chance to make decisions that a “political” administration could not make. But does the Bryant government have the power to carry out this type of sanitation of the civil service? This is where institutionalized corruption and nepotism exist and are to be fought.

Is the UN capable of doing away with its old habit of importing foreign manpower that have little interest in investing in the long-term prospects of a country or would it take a creative way of dealing with reconstruction in Liberia? If Jacques Klein limits his mission to peace building and distribution of humanitarian aid, he would have something great. But his dream of vibrant civil society and a good political system will remain just that: a dream. So far he delivered what he promised, but delivering Liberia of the ghosts that brought its downfall require more than disarmament and food stamps. Rebuilding Liberia will take the participation of the middle class. Liberia’s middle class has been in exile since 1980, wave after wave.

Such an intervention of the UN would imply of course less power and control to the Bryant administration. But as things stand, what real power and control does it have? Sharing the burden means sharing the power. In real term, every minister would have a “chaperon.” This could be a trusteeship of a different kind.

Between good intentions and realities, the choice is not always easy. Good intentions are built on illusions and hurt nobody. Dealing with reality is like making an omelet: it calls for breaking eggs.