Friday, March 28
It was not surprising to read negative comments on the Bridge Loan, provided by the US Government. See this blog, March 19.
A bridge loan may carry an interest rate between 12- 15 percent. As you may recall, the US became Liberia’s new creditor for the US $ 900 million (rounded figures) previously owned to the International Monetary Fund.

Thursday, March 26
The love-hate relationship between Liberia and Firestone will never end. Though Firestone is no longer an American-owned company – it’s Japan-owned – it is hard to think of Liberia without Firestone. And maybe that is not a bad thing!

Today I read that the amended and restated concession agreement between the Liberian government and Firestone Liberia Inc. was ratified by the House of Representatives (- more on the Liberian House of Representatives in my future blogs). One of the agreed articles of the recent agreement implies that Firestone-Liberia shall pay annually to Liberia a surface rental equal to US$2.00 per acre for a total of 118,999 acres including an annual income of US$237,980.00.

With the downfall of the US dollar it is a limited success for the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But more important is: what else has been agreed upon? And I mean structural agreements, not annual scholarships or contributions to education and training, how important this may be on an individuel basis. What are Firestone’s future tax obligations? Contributions to national research activities? Research is the key to the future!

Monday, March 24
Oh, astonishing Liberia! Although belatedly, today I read an extremely interesting CNN report on pygmy hippos in the Sapo National Park in South-West Liberia. The pygmy hippo is one of the most elusive and secretive large mammals on our planet. Pygmy hippos are much smaller in size and spend more time on land than their giant relatives, where they feed on leaves and other swamp vegetation. The animals survive in isolated pockets in rivers and swamps in the dense west African forests of countries including Liberia. The pygmy hippo (hexaprotodon liberiensis) is classified on the IUCN Red List as endangered, with its rapid decline put down to habitat degradation and bushmeat hunting.

The pygmy hippo is rarely seen in the wild. However, experts from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) set up special hidden cameras in Liberia's only national park – the Sapo National Park - and the first images of the wild pygmy hippos were recorded within the first three days. The ZSL team set up the extensive monitoring of Sapo National Park to try to discover how much the hippo had suffered from Liberia's brutal civil wars. The team of British conservationists were astonished to discover the wild pygmy hippo had not been wiped out by the fighting as previously thought.

The Sapo National Park is located in Sinoe County, Liberia. It is the country's largest protected area of rainforest and its only national park, and contains the second-largest tropical rainforest in West Africa after Taï National Park in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. The Sapo National Park is located in the Upper Guinean forest ecosystem, a biodiversity hotspot that has "the highest mammal species diversity of any region in the world", according to various sources.

Sapo National Park can be called a unique place. It hosts about 125 mammal species and almost 600 types of birds, including a numbered of threatened species. Prior to the formal designation of Sapo National Park in 1983 there had been no systematic study of chimpanzee populations in Liberia. Since then, various surveys have confirmed the existence of the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) in Sapo National Park, located primarily in the park's center and western areas, with estimates of the population ranging from 500 to 1,640. Seven species of duiker antilopes are found in Sapo National Park.

Though human settlements and commercial activities such as agriculture and logging are prohibited in the park, pouching and illegal logging do occur. One of the allegations refer to illegal logging activities of the Oriental Logging Company, linked to its Chairman, the Dutch businessman Gus Kouwenhoven, and his business affiliate, then President Charles Taylor.


Thursday, March 20
The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs today confirmed that Gus Kouwenhoven stays on the UN and EU lists of persons facing a travel ban despite being acquitted of smuggling weapons and war crimes in Liberia by a Dutch court last week. In 2001, the involvement of President Taylor in the civil war in Sierra Leone had led to UM arms and diamond embargoes and a travel ban for the Taylor regime, Kouwenhoven included since he was a close associate of President Taylor. In 2004 the UN Security Council also ordered international banks to freeze his – Kouwenhoven’s - assets. The European Union automatically endorses these UN decisions.

The foregoing shows how complicated international law can be. The UN sanctions have legal status and UN member states are obliged to respect and enforce them. Nevertheless, these sanctions have a political rather than a juridical base. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now investigating whether it is justified to inform the UN Security Council of the necessity of removing Kouwenhoven from these lists imposing sanctions.

Wednesday, March 19
The goverment of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has succeeded in normalizing relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In particular, all sanctions by the IMF against Liberia have been lifted. As former World Bank officials she and Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh know their way in Washington DC; they know how the two Bretton Woods institutions work. From now onwards, HIPC, PRS and PRSP will be household words in Liberia.

HIPC stands for the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative. It was launched in 1996 to provide debt relief to the world’s poorest and most indebted countries; it was followed in 1999 by the Enhanced HIPC initiative. One of the conditions to gain access to this debt relief scheme is to have a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) document or Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP).

Liberia has a debt of US $ 4.7 billion, owed to global institutions (including the two Bretton Woods institutions), other governments and private-sector creditors. IMF and World Bank officials acknowledge that this huge debt – large part of which was contracted by former Presidents Tolbert and Doe – is unpayable. Moreover, the necessity to rebuild the country after decades of mismanagement, corruption and destruction of infrastructure and institutions makes it essential to free vital resources needed to finance the nation’s reconstruction.

The important step was made possible after Liberia cleared it arrears of Special Drawing Rights (SRD) 543 million, or nearly US $ 890 million to the IMF. Liberia had been in arrears to the IMF since 1984 (under the Doe Administration). Following the clearance of its debt to the IMF, Liberia is now a fully paid up member of the IMF with full voting and related rights and access to IMF financial resources for the first time since 1984.

However, there is a snake in the grass. The clearance of Liberia’s large arrears was financed from a bridge loan provided by the US Government. That is to say, arrears to the IMF were replaced by a debt to the USA. Also, the country is now eligible for new financing arrangements under the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and other Fund Facilities – all on a loan basis, albeit concessional loans. Moreover, the normalization of relations with the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWI) will pave the pay for Africa’s oldest republic to start receiving funds from foreign governments and commercial creditors.

The HIPC debt relief scheme will enable Liberia to have it’s US $ 4.7 billion debt cancelled, which is a laudable goal. But I am not so sure that replacing old debts by new debts will lead Liberia to the road of economic recovery. In the end, it risks to be the same old story over and again. Liberia’s history is interpersed with loans provided by foreign governments and other external souces that proved to do more harm than good. It started with the 1871 loan which led to the country’s first coup d’état and the death of President Edward Roye, followed by the loans of 1906 and 1912, the infamous 1926 Firestone Loan, and many more.

I hope I will not be misunderstood by the foregoing. In my view, close collaboration with IMF and World Bank is not a bad thing. I just doubt whether financing the financing of Liberia’s recovery by attracting new loans which are not directly productive will provide a long-term solution for the country’s problems. But Liberia faces a Catch 22 situation: either it depends on external funds from international financial institutions and bilateral governments or it has to rely on foreign investments, internal funds (= domestic savings) being unsufficient or absent. It reminds me of a Liberian friend who once wrote to me: ‘We need external funds to develop and foreign troops to keep the peace’. I wonder whether the majority of Liberians share his opinion.


Saturday, March 15
Many more atrocities committed by witness Marzah, ordered by Charles Taylor, according to his testimony before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Gruesome details of atrocities both in Liberia and Sierra Leone, it surpasses one’s mind. My initial reaction was ‘This cannot be true.’ Subsequently I thought ‘Why should someone tell or confess this?’ It puzzles my mind.

Maybe the most shocking confession made by Marzah relates to cannibalistic acts allegedly committed by former president Charles Taylor. It is not the first time such accusations are publicly made. It reminds me of the allegation made by Taylor’s former Defense Minister, Tom Woewiyu, cited by Stephen Ellis in his book ‘ The Mask of Anarchy’ (1999). Marzah’s testimony also disclosed involvement of Nigerian ECOMOG military personnel – bribed by Charles Taylor - in the transportation of arms to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. How reliable will this witness prove to be?

Starting Monday March 17, there will be a two-week judicial recess. Taylor’s trial will resume on March 31.

Friday, March 14
I just read a CNN report on the trial of former president Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A former aid to Taylor, Joseph “Zigzag” Marzah, yesterday testified before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in The Hague, the Netherlands, that Taylor ordered his men to eat victims. Marzah said that Nigerian peacekeepers and United Nations personnel were killed and eaten on the battlefield by Taylor’s militiamen. He told the court more horror stories. What has happened during the civil war is unbelievable and I can understand that it is difficult to understand – sometimes also for Liberians but certainly for Europeans or Americans. How can the judges of the International Criminal Court and the Special Court for Sierra Leone comprehend, weigh and judge what happened and find out who is guilty?
The phenomenon of ritual killings, common in an important number of African countries, is hardly covered by the international media. As far as the Netherland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is concerned, it is not dealt with in the political reports ambassadors send to the ministry in The Hague. I am afraid other foreign embasasies are not doing a better job.

Wednesday, March 12
An old friend paid a surprise visit, Klaas Wit. We were neighbors in Harper, Maryland County, Liberia, in the late 1970s. He and Dr Regina Cooper led a village health worker training programme. The trained village health workers could, in the absence of qualified medical doctors, provide some relief to the sick and poor of this region who virtually were left on their own by the government in Monrovia and deprived of all advantages of (then) modern times. Klaas is curious to know what is left of this project which was a low-cost approach to tackle the health problems of rural Liberians. It was a project in the philosophy of the barefoot doctors.

The system of ‘barefoot doctors’ originated from China where it spread as part of the Cultural Revolution as from 1965. Its basic ideas with emphasis on primary health care and preventive medicine were important components of the Declaration of Alma-Ata, the output of a WHO conference in the city of the same name in Kazakhstan in 1978. In China the barefoot doctor system was abolished in 1981.

We spoke about the Tolbert administration, his assassination, Samuel Doe’s coup, the hanging of the Harper Seven (seven convicted ritual killers), and the conditions of nowadays Liberia after the devastating fourteen years of internal conflict. Klaas and I are both eager to see the country with our own eyes, to talk to the people we have known and who still are in the country. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faces an almost impossible task, to rebuild the country and to re-unite its people after the civil war. She has to start from scratch. Electricity and running water are out of reach for the majority of the people, not to speak of a daily decent meal.

Monday, March 10
I heard the surprising news of the acquittal of Gus Kouwenhoven, the well-known Dutch timber trader and millionaire, accused of arms trafficking for his business partner, former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The latter actually stands trial, also in the Netherlands. The court found unsufficient evidence to convict the Dutch conflict timber trader. The prosecutor apparently had done a lousy job and the judges said that in public, though in other words. Everybody – at least in Liberia – knows that it was impossible to do business in this country while not pleasing or helping the president and this makes it very likely that the Dutch trader and the Liberian warlord-president connived. But such circumstantial evidence is no base for a conviction in the absence of solid evidence. Whatever one may find of the court’s verdict, we in the Netherlands have a solid judicial system and rule of law. Better to have ten accused suspects set free for want of evidence than one innocent suspect wrongly convicted and put behind bars.

Sunday, March 9
I was too optimistic when I started this weblog last year. After the first attempt in October I was absorbed by the completion of a major evaluation exercise: the evaluation of the Netherlands’ Africa policy (fortunately bilateral relations only!). At the end of January it was ready. The minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, and the minister for Development Cooperation, Bert Koenders, sent the report to parliament, together with their policy reaction. One week later an impressive national conference took place, on Februay 13, which discussed the major outcome of the evaluation as well as related topics.

Hectic times were not over yet. At the end of February an international conference was held in The Hague, the Netherlands, partly occasioned by an evaluation report I completed last year. It focused on the Netherlands’ research policy in developing countries. The two weeks that have since elapsed were used to tighten social contacts I had neglected during the past five months, to sort out my overfloaded mailbox and to clean up my desk and office.