Promises of Debt Relief, AFRICOM and Awards mark Presidential US Visit

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 22, 2007


President Sirleaf (L) and President Bush
If there ever was a political Oscar night, the Africare dinner honoring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could pass for one. There were Chris Tucker, Cicely Tyson, Barbara Lee, and Debbie Lee. Robert L. Johnson showed up with a coterie of media personalities. On the political side, the who’s who of Congress was on hand. According to Africare President Julius Coles, this was the most “successful fundraising evening” of his 5-year tenure at the head of the largest African-American humanitarian non-governmental organization devoted to Africa.

It was a night of pageantry, somehow kicking off the fall season in Washington, DC and people dressed appropriately. For President Sirleaf, it was a day of promises and recognition. Earlier, she met with President George Bush and discussed constraints facing her government. On her mind, was the spiraling debt that is crippling her war-torn country, the thousands of idle jobless youth and the hundreds of thousands of jobless Liberians, with little formal education, all cramped in the city of Monrovia.

President Sirleaf said to Africare that the award goes to the Liberian people, who, by electing her to lead the nation, have set the bar high. She said the “big man” politics has failed Africa and therefore there was a move to another stage.

President Sirleaf (L), US First Lady Laura Bush (R) at Africare dinner
U.S. First Lady Laura Bush came in to make remarks. But rather than the usual niceties on such occasions, she took a good twenty minutes or more to deliver what many observers perceived as her longest public speech since her days on her husband’s campaign trail. This may be because she said she had developed a great admiration for President Sirleaf. She delivered a presidential speech on the US – Liberia relationship. She spoke of the strong ties between the two nations, the fate of women and children, education and other issues that she cares about and shares with President Sirleaf.

In her remarks, President Sirleaf paid homage to the great men and women who received the Bishop L. Walker Award before her, including Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell, Dorothy Height, Bill Clinton and so on. Her twenty-five minute speech was centered on the progress her government has made so far, balancing the budget, getting some basic services to the people, and most importantly, sending children back to school.

Two issues were prominent in President Sirleaf’s speech and they somehow constituted the central themes of what she would say at her many appearances in and around DC, about AFRICOM and about debt relief for Liberia. In her words, AFRICOM will benefit Africa in general and Liberia in particular, because it will serve to create that missing link between the US and Africa, provide training, capacity building and help Africans to cultivate more harmonious relationships between the military and the civilian commends. As the UN draws down on its peacekeeping troops in Liberia, she perceives AFRICOM as a possible deterrent to would-be-troublemakers.

After AFRICOM, the most important topic on her agenda that she discussed with her US colleague was the issue of the spiraling debt that would cripple her government if it were not addressed swiftly. She insisted as she has always done, that Liberians today must not be made to pay debts that were accumulated by other governments that did not benefit them. Most of the money Liberia currently owes results from interests that have piled up over the years. With close to four billion in debt and growing daily, the debt issue is far from being resolved. So far, cancellations or promises of cancellations have amounted to a few hundred million dollars, with the US taking the leadership in that direction during Liberia’s Private Sector and Donors Conference earlier this year.

The capacity for the Sirleaf government to carry out its ambitious programs hinges on the issue of security and money. Building schools, health centers, roads and creating a climate conducive for the development of a vibrant private sector and establishing a governance system based on the rule of law are all intertwined. The issue of security is paramount for investors to move their money into Liberia just as is the rule of law that would protect them. Without a private sector, government will not have the money to carry out its social programs.

Liberian Cultural Troupe at Africare Dinner
As she continues her journey this week, President Sirleaf will meet more policy makers and will hold more meetings with congressional leaders, especially with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with whom she will appear at a National Democratic Institute award ceremony on Wednesday.

Beyond all the awards and pageantry that honor their president, Liberians are looking for signs that the new spirit of partnership professed by both the Liberian government and the US administration is a reality. Partners always haul each other out of the hole. Can the US really help Liberia with its debt issue in a timely and substantive way? The other major constraint the President will face is the bureaucratic bottleneck. President Bush may promise money, but those who hold the strings to the federal purse are bureaucrats or other elected officials who do not necessarily share his enthusiasm for neither Liberia nor providing aid to any country. Many of the promises made to Liberia a year ago have yet to materialize.

A possible positive outcome of this presidential voyage may be that slowly, Liberia’s image may be changing and this can bring in investors, as well as encourage Liberian entrepreneurs in the Diaspora to relocate or invest in their own country.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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