GIVEN the proliferation of recent negative headlines around Liberia, it is easy to think the country is all about disease and conflict.
A debilitating outbreak of the Ebola epidemic has meant Liberians have had little to celebrate. On Monday the World Health Organisation (WHO) delivered more dreadful news—that the virus was spreading exponentially in the country, with thousands of new cases expected in coming weeks.
Liberia has been by far the hardest hit of the five countries that have reported cases of Ebola, accounting for half of the 2,296 casualties reported.
Experts are still trying to understand why this is so, with cultural beliefs, an overburdened healthcare system (pre-epidemic, the country had one doctor for every 64,000 people) and the role of the government all under sharp focus.
Amid the gloom, it is easy to forget that there is more about Africa’s oldest black republic than despair. We know in our headline we promised there would be no gory stories, but you cannot appreciate the modern-day West African country without a peek into its past. We pick out ten Liberian facts that paint another picture of an intresting and resilient country:
1: Liberia holds the record of the longest stable rule by a single political party—from 1877 to 1980, by the quaintly named True Whig Party. Founded in 1869, it was dominated by a ruling elite descended from black settler families who traced their origins to the United States.
While some may see this as undemocratic and concentrating power within a few, regular “elections” in this period were taken seriously, a record at the ballot that few other African countries can match. English writer Graham Green recorded of his travels there in the 1930s that everyone had “an air” that the elections, even if not under universal suffrage (only the minority elite voted) really mattered, and that despite the polls being a “foregone conclusion”, there was a sophistication to the whole process.
2: This ruling aristocracy—Americo-Liberians as they preferred to be called, were immensely proud of their American heritage—top hats and 19th century architecture and all, and even had a colonial system with unsavoury subjugation practices that would not have been too uncommon in America’s antebellum South. The last president of these elites—William Tolbert—was a cautious reformer, but the apple did not fall too far off the tree—he packed the public service with his relatives. It is a “family” culture that has vestiges in the country to this day.
3: Current president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, was one of a clutch of opposition leaders jailed by the soldier who toppled Tobert, Samuel Doe. The Harvard-trained academic is, in a speech, alleged to have described the leadership as one of “idiots”, not entirely untrue at the time. Her arrest finally forced the USA’s hand—the country had been a major player in Liberian politics, including through funding the national budget and equipping the military to airing Voice of America broadcasts and monitoring commercial navigation out of Liberia. Doe was an unmitigated disaster for Liberia, only sustained by US indulgence, and it is under his military rule that tribalism truly took root.
4: The country’s historical ties to the United States remain strong, with anywhere between 250,000 to 500,000 Liberians in the US - depending on which count you take - and under various immigration categories. But due to the stable democracy before the civil war there was little emigration, all of which changed in 1989. Even taking the more conservative figure, with a 2012 population of 4.2 million, this would mean 6% of its population are in their “spiritual” home. If the same figure were applied to Africa’s most populous country, there would be 10 million Nigerians living in the United States.
5: The country provided the setting for the first African military intervention force—the 1990 Economic Community Cease-Fire Monitoring Group, (ECOMOG), deployed by the regional ECOWAS bloc. As rights group Human Rights Watch noted, despite several abuses, the intervention succeeded in temporarily stopping the bloodshed and ethnic killing, and was regarded by many as a model of regional conflict resolution, and has had a role in informing the thinking behind the current push to form an African Standby Force.
6: Until coups and the civil war, which combined ran for 14 years starting in 1989, decimated its economy (with the help of various military leaders and warlords), Liberia had strong growth with a 1980 per capita income that rivalled Egypt’s. The subsequent decline was one of the world’s fastest—90% by some measures. The country is now one of the 20 fastest growing economies, on the back of natural resource finds. Indeed it has the highest FDI to GDP ratios, with close to $20 billion sunk since 2006.
But interestingly, almost all of its leaders have had national growth blueprints— Tolbert championed the Mat to Mattress plan, and William Tubman in the 1960s had Operation Production. Even Samuel Doe had his Green Revolution, while Charles Taylor, to much fanfare but little substance, launched his Vision 2024.
The country is now shaping a Vision 2030 plan that the administration says has learned from the past, and identified agribusiness and hydrocarbons development and reconciliation and integration efforts as among key pillars.
7: Liberia in 2013 recorded a Corruption Perception Index ranking of 83, a major improvement from 2007, when it ranked 150th of 180 countries surveyed. The ranking, published by Transparency International, measures how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be, though it has had its critics. By another bribery ranking by the same watchdog, it ranks second to last.
8: The country was the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve Millennium Development Goal four—of reducing the under-five child mortality rate by at least two thirds between 1990 and 2015. Over the last 10 years it has more than doubled its immunisation rate for the basic childhood vaccines, welcome news for a country that is expected to miss out on over half of the eight goals, alongside most of Africa.
9: Liberia maintains one of the world’s largest shipping registers—often pejoratively termed as “flags of convenience” or “ghost ships” but which are more accurately described as “open registers”. As at last year there were 4,000 ships on its books, only second to Panama.
The concept of an open register allows both domestic and foreign-owned vessels to register under a particular ensign, mainly to unlock tax and operational benefits that would otherwise be higher or non-existent under their national flag. Liberian authorities say its flag has a clean bill of health from the International Chamber of Shipping, meaning it ensures compliance with international rules, contrary to perception that standards are lower, and is a vital source of hard currency.
10: Liberia’s government is hard at work trying to improve its electricity access—currently only 3% of the population are connected to grid power, one of the world’s lowest, after the civil war took out its entire grid, alongside most infrastructure. It has under 20MW installed capacity. Authorities have not taken this lying low, they are aggressively courting investors—including angling for a slice of Barack Obama’s multi-billion dollar Power Africa plan, and have taken a lead in importing power from neighbours.
The country’s utility also has one of the most efficient revenue collection ratios—at 93%, and has significantly cut down systemic losses, important as it has Africa’s priciest tariff.
Experts estimate that with $1 billion, and a timeline of 30 years, Liberia could have 500MW of power and reach 89% of the population.
11: Liberia is one of the most Christian in Africa—close to 90% of Liberians identify themselves either as Christians or as a combination of Christian and traditional beliefs, putting it in the top ten “most Christian” African countries—headed by Equatorial Guinea and Zambia. Muslims account for about 10% of the population. But a curious feature of its civil wars were superstitious fighters who believed they were immune from bullets because traditional doctors had given them “charms” to protect them.
12: Women are a potent political force in Liberia—the country gave Africa its first elected female head of state. Liberia’s women are renowned for their role in ending the civil war, despite bearing the brunt. Sirleaf’s executive appointments has seem many gains—30% of cabinet level posts are held by women, and two-thirds of mayorships of country capitals. This is in stark contrast to elected positions—only 13 of 103 parliamentarians are women. But the senate is pushing for a “guiding” 30% representation law, while women entrepreneurs are beginning to thrive. Empowering women in a fragile country is key to Liberia’s long-term growth.