Sunday, June 5
Important message to all readers
My blog 'Liberian Perspectives' has been moved to: http://blog.liberiapastandpresent.org and the present link will cease to function as from July 26, 2011... Liberia's Independence Day!

Many thanks for following my posts in the past and I invite you to continue to visit 'Liberian Perspectives' in its renewed and even more attractive form! And - of course - comments are always most welcome!

Dr Fred Van Der Kraaij ('VDK')


Sunday May 22
More investors coming to Liberia

Liberia is not a poor country. It has abundant natural resources: gold, diamonds, iron ore, oil and timber. Its agricultural potential notably includes rubber and palm oil. In the 20th century this small West African country, the size of Ohio, had the world's largest rubber plantation, was Africa's largest producer of iron ore, and had the world's largest mercantile fleet. A bloody coup d'état in 1980 changed this situation. Master-Sergeant Doe assassinated the Americo-Liberian president William R. Tolbert Jr., a Baptist pastor, and became the first indigenous president of Africa's first and oldest republic. However, from a thin, soft-spoken 'liberator', Samuel Doe turned into a greedy, corpulent dictator, who rigged elections, violated human rights and imprisoned political opponents - among them, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Prince Johnson, one of the warlords in Liberia's civil war, brutally tortured Doe to death in 1990. Another warlord, Charles Taylor, was elected in 1997, after the first civil war (1989-1996). Soon followed the second war (1997-2003). The 14 years of civil conflict killed an estimated 250,000 people, mutilated many more, and traumatized even more. When the civil war was over, the country had to start from scratch, foreign investors had left, the modern economy was ruined. Liberia was back to the situation in 1822, the year the first black colonists and people of mixed race arrived from overseas, the U.S.A., and imposed their rule on the indigenous population. Liberia started the 21st century with an elected president, former warlord Charles Taylor, who was forced to resign in 2003, subsequently went into exile, but was later handed over to the Sierra Leone War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, in the Netherlands, where he was charged with eleven criminal charges related to his alleged involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war (1991-2002). The verdict is due this year.

Liberia's hope now is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former international banker and international civil servant, and already for decades one of Liberia's most prominent citizens. She performed important functions in Liberia: in the late 1970s she was Minister of Finance serving in the Tolbert Administration. She became president of Liberia in 2006 following multi-party elections, defeating internationally acclaimed football star George Weah, and thus became Africa's first democratically elected female president.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's skills, experience and international connections have resulted in an impressive number of important achievements, in particular the cancellation of the country's staggering US$ 4 billion dollar debt and the signing of concession agreements with foreign investors. Liberians themselves do not have the capital needed to invest in major, large-scale productive activities in the country, exploiting the country's economic potential. This is an old story that has haunted the country's past and played an important role in its internal politics. It even was a major cause of the country's first coup d'état, in 1871. But let's return to 2011.

Liberia's three million people are among the poorest of the planet. 85% of the people live on less than US$ 1 a day. I will not quote more statistics - most statistics are 'guesstimates'. However, unemployment in the modern economy is sky-high, salaries for paid jobs extremely low, and people in the subsistence economy survive at an extremely low level. Hence, any investor - foreign or domestic - is expected to provide relief, opportunities and hope.

Since the start of her Administration, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has managed to convince a growing number of foreign investors to come and invest in Liberia. Like in the 'good old days', the late 1950s end early 1960s, when Liberia had double digit growth figures and ranked among the fastest growing economies of the world.

President Sirleaf achievements
Among the foreign investors in the country's rubber sector are the nowadays Japanese owners of the former US rubber giant Firestone. She has atracted important foreign investors in the gold and mining sector too, but may be her biggest success was the multi-billion dollar deal with steel giant Mittal to exploit the rich Yekepa iron ore deposits and rehabilitate the former LAMCO mine, in the north of the country, bordering Guinea. This week it was announced that a US$ 3.1 billion investment in the palm oil sector was agreed, with a Malaysian investor. This raises total foreign investments in the palm oil sector to over US$ 5 billion! The investments will be spread over the coming years and Liberia may thus become one of the world's major producer of palm oil and related products.

Foreign investors need political and macroeconomic stability and sound macroeconomic policies that are conducive to economic growth, and they do not want to deal with predatory, corrupt politicians, civil servants or other people. However, Liberia was declared the world's most corrupt country in 201o by Transparency International and the 2010 Human Rights report of the U.S. State Department also was not very flattering for the country, accusing the Liberian judicial system of corruption.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had proven her important stabilizing role in the present political and economic environment. Her engagement in fighting corruption is equally important. She is convinced that Liberia has to recover, the country has to be reconstructed after the devastating years of the recent past.

In October of this year presidential elecions will be held. Among the main candidates are the imcumbent president, the 72-year old Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Winston Tubman, nephew of Liberia's longest serving President William Tubman of Americo-Liberian descent - who ruled the country for 27 years; Prince Johnson, nowadays Senator in the Liberian Legislature, and who tortured President Doe to death; and Charles Brumskine, once a Taylor ally, now an independent candidate.

To be continued


Tuesday April 12

Which way, Ivory Coast?

April 12 is a date to remember. Liberians immediately think of April 12 1980: the day Master Sergeant Samuel Doe seized power and the country made a U-turn from which it still has to recover. Ivorians now have their own 'April 12': the day Alassane Ouattara finally got hold of the presidency, after the arrest of his opponent, the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo who refused to give up power peacefully after losing the elections. Early December 2010 both men were sworn in as the country's new president. For the past four months, the country has been on the brink of a civil war - and it still is. Alassane Ouattara got 55% of the votes, Laurent Gbagbo 45%. While publicly fighting, the two opponents seem not to dislike each other. However, after the fighting started, tens of thousands Ivorians have fled to neighbouring Liberia, maybe even more than a hundred thousand. See my December 9 posting, 'Liberia and the Ivory Coast Crisis', which also explains the power vacuum left by the death of the country's first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, in 1993. Since then, the country has experienced turmoil. Will that be ending now? Where will Ivory Coast be heading to? In my opinion there are three options. First, and let's look at the Ivorian scene from a positive and optimistic angle, Allassane Ouattara - his name indicates his Burkinabe origin - manages to install himself as the country's legitimate president and convinces his fellow-countrymen to forget about revenge. After all, some 45% of the people voted for Gbagbo. The exodus of Ivorians now taking place contradicts the probability of this option. People who are fleeing and leaving the country are not thinking of revenge but they may translate the feelings of people in their community who decide to stay. The abundance of weapons in the region is another reason to worry. This brings me to the second option. Another civil war will ravage the region - after the wars in Sierra Leone and in Liberia. In this option there will be rising numbers of IPDs, internally displaced persons (Ivorians who look for a safe shelter within their own country) and of refugees, people fleeing to neighbouring countries: Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Liberia. It will be clear that in this option the regional perturbation may inspire governments of countries involved - directly or indirectly - to intervene, openly or covertly. This reaction might not be restricted to neighbouring countries. The regional 'policeman' - Nigeria - may be willing to intervene, to confirm its positions as the region's superpower. This brings me to the last option: foreign intervention.
Just as France intervened military in Ivory Coast, which made yesterday's arrest of Laurent Gbagbo possible, Nigeria may have its own reasons to intervene. After all, Nigeria did come to the rescue of Liberia, in 1990. The reasons are known, allegedly 'special' relations between then Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida and the Liberian President Samuel Doe. This week, presidential elections will be held in Nigeria and most likely the incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan - who took over from president Yar'Adua who died in office - will win the elections. Once he is elected in his own right, President Goodluck Jonathan may decide to confirm Nigeria's aspirations, not only to belong to the G20 - the world's leading 20 economies - in 2020 but also to be a superpower in Africa. After all, Nigeria is not only the second economy in Sub-Saharan Africa but with 150 million inhabitants also Africa's biggest country. One out of every five black Africans is Nigerian.

As April 12 1980 was a U-turn for Liberia , I hope that April 12 2011 turns out to be a U-turn for the people of Ivory Coast. The country has all the potential to become one of the region's leading economies, after Nigeria and Ghana. As the French say: 'Affaire à suivre' - which means: To be followed.


Tuesday, March 8
Addition to my March 1 posting on 'Bullet or ballot propelled changes in Africa'

There are over 50 'countries' in 'Africa' - the smallest being the Seychelles, population wise, the biggest of course Nigeria - so the fact that I missed two countries in my last posting may be pardoned. Nevertheless, a serious error. Since I was focusing on the countries where presidential elections would be held I did not mention the two Presidents who as far back as 1979 (!) assumed the Presidency: Angola's President José Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who became President in a coup that led to the execution of his deposed uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema.

Nowadays 67-year-old José Eduardo dos Santos, who succeeded Agostinho Neto who had died in office, is known as Angola's silent leader. Presidential elections are not held in the country. President Teodoro Nguema suffers from prostate cancer and prepares his corrupt playboy-son-turned-minister Teodorin for the Presidency of this oil-rich country, Africa's Kuwait. Very recently, 'Teodorin' came into the news because of his purchase of a 375 million dollar yacht. But who's to blame? The 'bad guy' Teodorin, the oil companies, the Swiss banks or the German shipyards?

By the way, this dynasty thing of African leaders, I don't get it. When Gabon president Omar Bongo, Africa's longest ruling President, died in June 2009, he was succeeded by his son Ali . Four years earlier Togolese President Eyadéma had died and he was also succeeded by this son, Faure Ngassingbé. And when in 2001 President Laurent Kabila was shot - by one of his security guards - his son Joseph still managed to get a popular vote allowing him to rule as the president of this vast Central African country. Wikileaks recently revealed that Joseph Kabila bribed members of the Congolese Parliamant to ensure his forthcoming re-election, in November of this year.

Some people have qualified the present decade as 'The Scramble for African Oil' - referring to the Scramble for Africa, the colonial conquest of Afica, as from the 1880s onwards. Of course, it is not only oil. Also coltan, for instance, in Eastern Congo, which keeps the war in this vast Central African country going.

So far, we only dicscussed African presidents and no kings, although the line between them seems to be thin. Consequently we haven't mentioned King Mwsati III of Swaziland who rules since 1986.

There seems to be a big gap between the populace and the elite - in almost every African country - and where leaders are not inclined to listen to the people, their day will come.

A big question remains: How to judge people who with the connivance of Swiss bankers, Western oil companies, and European and US political leaders - who sought their own interests - took advantage of the circumstances and enriched themselves, illegally.

The ballot or the bullet????


Tuesday, March 1
Ballot or bullet propelled changes in Africa in 2011?

In January, Tunisia's President Ben Ali fell and in February Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. Will in March the Libyan people oust its leader, Muammar Muhammed al-Gaddafi aka Colonel Gaddafi? Where will Gaddafi go to? To his friend Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe?Will he join Ethiopia's former dictator, 'the Red Emperor', Mengistu Haile Mariam, who lives just outside the capital of Harare, or will he share the fate of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu who was dethroned by a people's revolution and after a two-hour trial executed? Both Gaddafi and Ceausescu created a pervasive personality cult and in the end were completely disconnected from reality. Or will Colonel Gaddafi follow former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's footsteps in The Hague and stand trial before the International Criminal Court for human rights violations, mass murder and crimes against humanity? Will his reign come to an end by revolutionary forces or will there be a US-led military intervention to stop an emerging civil war causing tens of thousands mainly migrant workers to flee to neighboring countries? How many uncertainties there are, there is no doubt that Gaddafi is on his way out. His widely televised delusional speech yesterday reminds us of the Iraqi Information Minister who standing before a camera in 2003 denied the advancement of US troops while bombs exploded behind his back.

It is the end of an era. In 1972, three years after Colonel Gaddafi had seized power and dethroned King Idriss I visited Libya and was very much impressed. The country's capital Tripoli was well organized, the bonanza of the oil revenues was clearly visible in this sparsely populated country of less than two million people. Nowadays, the per capita income in this North African country is among the highest in Africa, only surpassed by the tiny Central African oil state of Equatorial Guinea.

As referred to in my posts of November 5 last year and January 4 this year, the year 2011 is a year of elections in Africa. The power of the ballot box. Presidential elections are scheduled in 18 African countries: 6 in West Africa (Benin, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Liberia, Niger and Nigeria), 5 in Central Africa (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sao Tomé & Principe) , 3 in Eastern Africa (Djibouti, Seychelles, Uganda), 3 in Southern Africa (Madagascar, Zambia, Zimbabwe), and 1 in North Africa: Egypt. But are the people of these and other countries willing to wait for a democratic opportunity to change their leaders? Already in Egypt, the population made it clear that it did not want to wait until election time, though the change was peaceful.

Is there a possibility that the revolutionary mood in North Africa spreads to Sub-Saharan Africa? In six Sub-Saharan countries the sitting President has been in power for over 20 years and is not considering leaving. Among them Paul Biya, also called the Gaddafi of Black Africa. In February 2008 he merciless crushed a demonstration against hs government leaving hundreds of young Cameroonians dead. Paul Biya has been President of Cameroon since 1982 and although presidential elections are slated for this year, no one expects him to relinquish power. His only senior in Africa is the notorious 87-year old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, in power since the country's independence from Britain in 1980. The 2008 elections were widely disputed and forced Mugabe into a coalition government with his arch rival now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe is increasingly facing calls to resign but refuses, claiming 'Zimbabwe is mine - I will never surrender.'

Two other Presidents shot their way to the Presidency: Yoweri Museveni (Uganda, 1986) and Blaise Compaoré (Burkina Faso, 1987). In the February 18 elections, last month, Museveni won more than two-thirds of the votes in elections rejected by the opposition as fraudulent. Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré had his mandate easily renewed in November 2010.

Prime Minister, not President, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Idriss Deby of Chad also came to power through the barrel of a gun - both in 1991 and are not considering another job. Deby easily won the February elections of this year in the oil-rich Central African country. Meles Zenawi - increasingly accused of political repression and a disregard for civil liberties - occasionally announces his departure as the country's de facto leader but nevertheless holds on to power.

There are no clear signs that there will be many substantial political changes in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 - neither by the bullet nor by the ballot. But íf a revolt would erupt in countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda or Zimbabwe nobody can be surprised.


Friday, February 11
The January 25 revolution in Egypt and the hypocricy of Western political leaders
After the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, Pharao country Egypt fell last night. President Hosni Mubarak resigned - most likely because the army refused to fire at the demonstrators occupying Tahrir Square for 18 days in a row. After Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who's next? Ghadaffi of neighbouring Libya, Africa's longest 'serving' president? In 1969, the then 27-year old Colonel Ghadaffi ousted King Idris 1st and became a King himself. Or will another Arab leader be the next one to fall?

What surprises me most, listening to the comments of world leaders reacting on the stepping down of President Mubarak, is their hypocricy. Yesterday they would have been proud to meet with the Egyptian leader, now they hasten to declare that he was a dictator and that the will of the Egyptian people prevails. They never raised their voices after rigged polls and elections confirming Mubarak in power. Mubarak was re-elected on four occasions: in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. All US Presidents, without exception, befriended and flattered Mubarak: Ronald Reagan, Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, Bush Jr, and even Barrack Obama.

It is all about geopolitics. Egypt is pivotal in the Arab world, pivotal in the conflict with Israel . Meanwhile, the erroneous comments of CIA Director Panetta on events in Egypt underline my statement that many people who comment on events abroad are not really knowing wat is going on (see my January 18 posting).

The 25 January revolution started on Facebook when Google executive and political activist Wael Ghonim called for a demonstration against Mubarak. The power of an electronic social network was stronger than that of an aging, 82-year old President who clinged to power. Two weeks ago already his family had left Egypt and now Mohammed Hosni Mubarak follows - unless he will be arrested and has to account for his 30 years in power. A spokeman for Swiss banks today announced that the bank accounts of the Mubarak family were frozen. But why now and not earlier? It is alleged that the Mubarak family owns between 50 and 70 billion dollars, some sources even mention an amount of 90 billion dollars. If the US secret agency CIA knew this, it is implicitly co-responsible for the enrichment of the Mubarak family. The US goverment yearly transferred a billion dollars to Egypt. In case the US secret service agency wasn't aware of the enrichment of the Mubaraks, the organisation is incompetent and president Obama has a serious problem.

This brings me to my main point. Egypt is among 18 African countries where presidential elections are scheduled this year. Governments in Europe and North America pretend they are genuinely interested in real democratic, multi-party elections in Africa. Are they really? Or do they not want to endanger the supply of vital raw materials like oil from Nigeria and Angola? Are they really more interested in peace in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast than in the high costs of human tragedies as a result of civil war and the connected risks of instability in the region? Are they really concerned about democracy in Kenya or Ethiopia or is their real interest the containment of islamic influence in East Africa?

And what about the US interests for the presidential elections in Liberia? Why should they bother? Is it genuine interest and sympathy for this small West African country and its three million inhabitants or just geopolitics combined with a hidden desire to get rid of the tens of thousands Liberians living in the USA?

History teaches us that it is self-interest and not altruism that dictates the agenda of Western politicians. Even if this results in hypocricy.


Tuesday, January 18
Turmoil in Tunisia

Freedom! Democracy! Events in Tunisia show that not only Presidents rule in Africa (see my January 4 post) but also people in the streets have a chance to decide on the future of their countries. I was touched by the recent revolution in Tunisia. This country has a special place in my heart since I first visited it nearly forty years ago, in 1972. President Habib Bourguiba at the time ruled the country. He was the country's first president and his presidency was characterized by a pro-Western stance, the liberalization of the economy and a number of progressive reforms especially in the areas of education and women's rights. In 1975 he became President-for-life, but in 1987 his just appointed Prime Minister deposed him. President Habib Bourguiba had just celebrated his 84th birthday but was seriously ill, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Why for God's sake is it that some Presidents don't want to give up and want to hold on power even when they are physically and mentally no longer fit??

His successor's name was Zine El Abidine Ben Ali aka Ben Ali, Tunisia's second President and last week ousted by people in the streets who voted with their feet. It is a shame that after being president for more than 23 years, he did not feel the responsibility to stay and account for his deeds and/or misdeeds.

Something else comes to my mind. Tunisia was until recently considered one of the politically most stable countries in Africa though in the Economist's 2010 Democratic Index it only ranks # 144 out of 167 classified countries. I have lived in a number of 'politically very stable' African countries, in particular Liberia and Burkina Faso, formerly called Upper Volta. In 1980 I witnessed the second coup in Liberia's history whereas I went through three coups d'état in Ouagadougou, the capital of nowadays Burkina Faso, in 1980-1983: Colonel Saye Zerbo (1980), Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo (1982) and Thomas Sankara (1983). The latter seized power in a bloody coup together with his life-old friend, Blaise Compaore, who four years later betrayed him and became president of this poor, landlocked country. Blaise Compaore was re-elected in a landslide victory in November last year.

What does all this teach us? I think of three conclusions and lessons.

First, don't be misled by the label 'politically stable'. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that most reports on 'politically stable countries' come from people who hardly know these countries.
The following two conclusions particularly apply to presidents-in-power and their political advisors. 'Don't stay too long in power. Prepare for your successor.', is one of them. The cases of President Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast (1960-1993) and of President Mobutu Sese Seko of nowadays the Democratic Repulic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaïre (1965-1998) , very well illustrate the validity of this conclusion. The other conclusion and lesson is: 'Don't misjudge people but be aware of the signals coming from society.'

I was in Liberia and in Upper Volta during these events and coups, and can assure you that in both countries the regime change was not a complete surprise. As early as 1947 the American author Raymond Leslie Buell had predicted the collapse of Americo-Liberian rule in Liberia in his book 'Liberia: A Century of Survival 1847 - 1947' whereas in August 1983 the power struggle between potential plotters was evident. A few days before the coup I was even warned by a Burkinabé colleague with good connections in the military that 'since something is going to happen this weekend, it would be better to stay home.' Eventually, Captain Thomas Sankara was the first to strike and staged his coup on Thursday night..

What does this say about Liberia?

I tend to say to 'Ellen': 'Don't push your luck'. She has already done a tremendous lot for Liberia and much remains to be done. It will take more than two Administrations to achieve this. I sincerily hope that Liberia will have a stable government for the next few years - and certainly 'Ellen' will have a very important role to play in achieving it - but (recent) history teaches us that we have to listen to the voice of the people in the streets before it is too late!