The United Nations General Assembly has brought a number of African heads of state to New York City. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was happy to detail how far her country has come in recovering from 14 years of war, when she spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, non-partisan think tank, publisher, and member organization. She even joked that a young boy in her country now says he wants to grow up to be vice president. Asked why, he said that being president of Liberia is clearly “women’s work.”
Despite a number of major acc
omplishments, President Sirleaf cautioned that her “success has its pitfalls.” “When I took office in 2006, we had a dysfunctional economy, a brain drain of our most accomplished citizens and our infrastructure was destroyed during the conflict,” she said. Today, Liberia is still facing major challenges: youth unemployment, corruption, and an urgent need for better ports and roads and more electrical power to continue Liberia’s economic expansion.
And yet, Mrs. Sirleaf boasted of her country’s estimated 8.8 percent growth rate this year, a quadrupling of student enrollment, the elimination of her country’s external debt, and the presence of a professional army, trained and equipped with the help of the United States.
Although proud what she and her administration have been able to do, President Sirleaf warned that the euphoria of her election and re-election has gone away. “Everyone wants more…now…in their own villages and neighborhoods,” she said. She described her plans to “Lift Liberia 2030,” a long-term economic development plan that will launch in November.
President Sirleaf said that with planned increases in electrical power, Liberia can transition from a commodity exporter to a manufacturer, able to value to the country’s natural resources. She cited the rubber industry as an example. “Instead of shipping rubber out of Liberia, we should be processing it,” she said in her speech. But she warned that too many of her citizens are unskilled, untrained, and unemployed. A major challenge remains providing vocational and technical training for former child soldiers to make them employable in vital industries like mining and finding ways help them cope with the trauma young men and women suffered during the war years.
Child and maternal mortality remain too high, she said, but she was proud of the free health care that her government is now providing for every child less than five years old.
When she spoke one day earlier at the United Nations, President Sirleaf said she would never allow her country to be used to destabilize neighboring countries and she condemned all attempts to undermine what she called the peace and democratic gains in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire.
The heads of state are using their New York visits to influence world opinion and encourage foreign investment before and after the United Nations “debate” that continued through October 1st.
In another address at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a column in The New York Times, Tunisia’s president Moncef Marzouki provided a sobering assessment of the changes in his country, the first to experience an “Arab Spring” almost two years ago.
“Bitterness and a sense of impending catastrophe have replaced the enthusiasm that followed the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt,” he wrote. He warned Western governments that the current protests in the region do not mean that Muslims have given up on democracy.
President Marzouki wrote “The goal of these violent extremists is not political participation; it is to create chaos.” Echoing Liberia’s Presient Sirleaf, he said. “We are in a race against poverty.”
He all but begged the West not to abandon Northern Africa. The West, he wrote, “must continue to aid Tunisia in strengthening democracy and the rule of law, securing our borders to stop arms from reaching extremists, and creating economic opportunities that give our citizens hope.”