A Fresh Start for Liberia

Report Africa

A Fresh Start for Liberia

February 10, 2004 5 min read
Nile Gardiner
Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow
Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.

Gyude Bryant, the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, carries with him the hopes of a West African nation of 3.3 million people, only now emerging from over a decade of civil war.[1] So far, the United States has taken the lead in rebuilding Liberia. Contributing further short-term aid and helping to establish institutions of democracy and civil society should be the U.S.'s next steps. The Bush administration should also continue to press for former President Charles Taylor to face justice for his alleged crimes against humanity.


The Legacy of Charles Taylor

Former President Charles Taylor has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.[2] In addition, the United States has offered $2 million in reward money for the capture of Taylor.[3] Taylor intervened in the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone in support of the Revolutionary United Front, which claimed 50,000 lives. Taylor was also the central figure in a series of Liberian civil wars, which claimed up to 250,000 lives between 1989 and 2003. He now lives in exile in Calabar, in Southeastern Nigeria, where he fled as part of an agreement to bring peace to Liberia.


Taylor's seven-year rule, from 1997 to 2003, left Liberia as one of the most impoverished countries on earth, with a GDP of just $562 million and a per capita GNP of only $188. Liberia is drowning in foreign debt, which amounts to $3 billion.[4]


In many ways, Liberia's despair is symbolic of the problems faced by the African continent as a whole. Much of modern-day Africa continues to be blighted by poverty, disease, misrule, corruption and inter-tribal rivalry. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world's poorest region, with a GDP per capita income of just $568 and an average life expectancy of only 48 years.


How the United States Can Help Liberia

The United States has taken the lead in generating international aid for the rebuilding of Liberia's shattered infrastructure and economy. The U.S., together with the United Nations, has succeeded in raising over $500 million in international donations for the country. Secretary of State Colin Powell has pledged $200 million in U.S. support, and the European Union has pledged another $200 million.


International donations will be critical in the coming weeks to get Liberia back on its feet. The aid, though, will need to be stringently monitored in a nation rife with corruption and still racked by violence.


The money will help provide short-term solutions to Liberia's myriad problems. The long-term prosperity of the Liberian people, however, will depend not on aid (indeed a culture of dependency on foreign aid would be highly destructive), but upon the restoration of the rule of law, the creation of a thriving free market economy, and the building of a stable democracy. Immediate steps will need to be taken by the Liberian government to ease restrictions on trade and investment.


The Bush Administration should work closely with the Liberian Transitional Government by:


  • Assisting in the rebuilding of the Liberian courts and legal system;
  • Helping train a new Liberian police force;
  • Promoting foreign investment and trade with Liberia;
  • Advising on the privatization of state enterprises;
  • Offering expertise in organizing free and fair elections; and
  • Raising the issue of debt forgiveness with major creditor nations.

In addition, the United States should continue to offer logistical support to the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia.


Bring Charles Taylor to Justice

The U.S., together with Great Britain, the Commonwealth (including South Africa), and the European Union, should increase diplomatic pressure on Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to hand over Taylor for prosecution. Taylor continues to live a life of luxury in a presidential guesthouse under the protection of the Nigerian government.


Sustained U.S. pressure to bring Taylor to trial will demonstrate that Washington is committed to fostering democracy and human rights in Africa, as well as in the Middle East. The capture and impending trial of Saddam Hussein has sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world and has already reaped immediate results in rogue states such as Libya.


At the dawn of the 21st Century it should not be acceptable for tyrants to terrorize millions of their own citizens, whether it be in the Middle East, Europe, Asia or Africa. The trial of Charles Taylor would send a stark message to dictators across the African continent that they can and will be held accountable for human rights abuses.


Until Taylor is brought to justice for his crimes, it will be difficult for the Liberian people to move forward with the creation of a stable Liberian nation. The former tyrant continues to cast a giant shadow over the Liberian political landscape, and his trial will help exorcise the demons of his brutal dictatorship.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

[1] Bryant was selected to lead Liberia's Transitional Government following the forced exile of President Charles Taylor. Before taking office in October 2003, Bryant was a successful businessman and chairman of the Liberia Action Party, one of the country's leading opposition groups. National elections are due to be held in October 2005, and Chairman Bryant will lead Liberia until the inauguration of a newly elected government in January 2006.


[2] The Special Court for Sierra Leone is an ad-hoc tribunal independent of the United Nations, and should be distinguished from the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent multilateral institution which is opposed by the United States. The Sierra Leone Court is funded partly by the U.S. and Great Britain, with a mandate to run until 2005.


[3] The provision was included in the November 2003 supplemental funding bill for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.


[4] See U.S. Department of State, "Background Note on Liberia," http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/6618.htm.



Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow