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Can Buchanan Road show Liberia path to prosperity after war?

Published Oct 1, 2013

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About 150km southeast from Monrovia, down the newly constructed Buchanan Road, is the port of Buchanan. The road itself represents much of the transformation that Liberia has experienced over the past seven years.

The pothole-free tarmac surface now gives the people of Buchanan easy access to the country’s capital city all year round. Previously, the wet season that saturates the land for almost half the year, made the journey too difficult for most.

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At the airport on the outskirts of Monrovia sits a UN Mi-26, the largest helicopter to be produced in the world. That is the way many visitors used to get to Buchanan.

It is also a good metaphor for the attention that the country continues to receive from the UN Mission in Liberia peacekeeping operation, which comprises 8 000 troops and costs $500 million (R5 billion) a year. International donors also provide at least half of the annual government budget of $600m, on top of their bilateral programmes.

Further down the Chinese-built road are new bridges and galvanised-iron barriers. “Madame built this for us”, says our driver, referring to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s widely revered president and 2011 Nobel peace laureate who has presided over Liberia’s impressive recovery.

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A few kilometres further and the road hits Harbel, where the multinational Bridgestone-Firestone company runs the largest rubber plantation in the world. It is a stark reminder of the West’s dependence on nature and Africa’s resources to feed its petrol-guzzling habits.

The port of Buchanan sits on the mouth of the St John River. It was established in the 1950s to export iron ore from the mines in Nimba and Yekepa counties, to which it is linked by rail. The port has been split since shortly after it was built, between the operations of the private iron ore concession holder on the one side and the National Ports Authority (NPA) on the other.

Global iron and steel giant ArcelorMittal is now the concession holder, having taken over from the Liberian American Swedish Minerals Company, which became one of the many casualties of the Liberian civil war in the 1990s. ArcelorMittal is responsible for the majority of freight that goes through the port – 2.1 million tons of iron ore a year versus 351 000 tons of other freight processed by the NPA.

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This is a success story in itself. The NPA handled only 18 vessels during all of 2010. By September it had already moved 98 this year. This flow has been built from nothing. In 2006, the port was not operating at all, it was just a graveyard for a few rusted hulks.

Liberia is planning significant development for both sides of the port. ArcelorMittal has pledged $75m to double the port’s annual output to 4 million tons of iron ore, all of which will take the 42-day journey to China.

On the NPA side, plans are under way to renovate port buildings and double the number of berths to six, allowing for as much as 9 million tons of cargo a year, including the ability to offload fuel.

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“I am confident this it will happen,” said a senior local politician, “but I cannot say when.”

The port manager was eager to point out that the renovated port should include a free trade zone, incorporating packing and storage facilities. “It is most important that value is added,” he said, hopefully.

The plans seem impressive, and as far as ArcelorMittal’s side goes, are feasible and funded. What is not clear is how the 30-fold increase in freight – mainly timber and wood chippings to heat wintery European homes – will get to Buchanan. The railway is operated purely for the extraction of iron ore. The road may offer some improved access, but with the ports of Harbel and the Freeport in Monrovia within two hours’ drive, such significant increases in freight are hard to envisage.

This problem is also a metaphor for the struggle to create jobs and add more value to natural resources in Liberia and other states clawing their way back up after years of conflict.

Mohammed, a Guinean who came to Liberia to find work, said that the country was at peace since “Tey ah tied arr faht’in an tey neva hah e sah gud”.

But this will not necessarily remain just so, especially with large numbers of listless, frustrated youth unemployed. Sixty-five percent of the 3.5 million-strong population is under the age of 35, and about half are estimated to have only basic education. Continued growth and development is, therefore, a priority to keep them constructively busy.

And this indicates the big challenge for Liberia, as well as for other post-conflict countries. It is not enough to get just the hardware (ports, roads, railways and airports) right, but also the human software. Both combine to shape the prospects for growth and development.

The crucial “softer” issues are mindset, nutrition and food security, skills, public administration, the proper functioning of borders, the extent to which identity questions or policy issues shape political choices, and self-respect.

One key lesson from Liberia for outsiders is the need, after conflict, to immediately help local leaders over the “hump” of low capacity, fractious politics, insecurity, and institutional frailty, which inevitably occur in the aftermath of fighting. This can be a dangerous period as international partners watch and wait to see what will happen, before disbursing vital funds.

Another key lesson is in the importance of the leaders setting the country’s own priorities rather than having poverty as the priority and hope as their strategy. Power, access to markets and policing might have been three obvious areas for Liberia’s leaders, with the benefits of hindsight of nearly eight years of post-conflict democratic government.

In such circumstances faster and more flexible donor commitments would be helpful. So-called pioneer investments by donors as seed money for businesses, embedding key experts in technocratic posts such as mining and revenue collection, reducing political and financial risks for private investors, and expediting key infrastructure will all help.

More than anything, however, the success of Liberia’s transition from war to peace pivots ultimately on its ability to create jobs outside the public service. That requires a private sector and policies and practices that encourage its growth. The road to Buchanan shows the way.

* Anthony Arnott and Greg Mills are with the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.

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