Officials Make Slow Progress at Rebuilding Nation After War
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ In the capital, Finance Minister Byron Tarr is trying to run a government on taxes from the sale of beer, ice cream, fruit juice and cement.
Rebels led by Charles Taylor still control most of the countryside, where the West African nation’s main exports of rubber and iron are produced.
Tarr cannot even get his hands on the $15 million Liberia earns each year from registering ships. The money is tied up in lawsuits.
Nearly six months after a cease-fire with guerrillas, Liberia’s economic future looks dreary. For one, the government cannot pay employees.
″It’s hard to know where to start,″ said Tarr. ″There is no economy, we are trying to get one going.″
But times have been worse.
When Tarr was first appointed last fall, his office was a dark climb up seven flights of stairs and no financial donor agency would negotiate with him as an official representative of the Liberian government.
Following political science professor Amos Sawyer’s re-election as interim president at a national conference last month, Tarr visited the United States and other major Western donor nations and was promised help.
On his return, he found his ministry’s elevator working and electricity and telephone service restored to the seventh floor.
″Without a political solution, there is no economy,″ Tarr said. ″We are trying to get one going but too many people see our resources as a spoil of war to be relished. There’s not much power left to divide.″
Taylor has refused to enter into the transitional government supported by a six-nation West African peacekeeping force sent to Liberia in August to stop the civil war that claimed at least 10,000 lives.
The multinational force is in control in Monrovia and surrounding areas.
Tarr says the fiscal nightmare is a legacy of the 10-year rule of President Samuel Doe, who was slain by rebels last year.
Under Doe, Liberia’s foreign debt rose from $750 million to almost $3.5 billion with little progress to show for the heavy borrowing except a luxurious $7 million presidential office.
More than $26 million was deposited at the Republic National Bank of New York during the height of the civil war, but all but $5,000 was withdrawn.
The conspicuous corruption and advancing rebels drove foreign business executives from the country - in its 14th consecutive year of economic decline.
Liberia later became the first African country expelled from the World Bank and was deprived of voting rights in the United Nations for failing to pay debts.
Washington, owed about $10 million from Liberia, has been the main foreign aid supporter for the nation founded by freed American slaves in 1847. But aid has been banned until the economic situation improves.
Tarr’s recent trip to Washington focused on setting up a debt-restructuring program. He also said he was encouraged that concessions could be made toward the $600 million Liberia owes the International Monetary Fund and $120 million due the World Bank.
The African Development Bank has established a task force to assess Liberia’s needs, and Tarr said he was hopeful they would approve an aid package next month.
Beyond the initial problems, Tarr said the nation must undertake deep reforms, including reducing subsidies on rice and gasoline, slashing the public sector payroll and abolishing price controls and monopolies.
Gas, which peaked at $12 a gallon during fighting, has fallen to $4 a gallon. Liberian dollars have rebounded in value against the U.S. dollar.
One U.S. dollar now fetches eight Liberian dollars. During the war, a U.S. dollar could buy three times that.
Local banks were scheduled to re-open within the last few weeks but National Bank Director David Vinton delayed the plan saying proper safeguards were not yet in place.
Acting minister of commerce James Holder said he was trying to revive Monrovia’s economy by deregulating the monopolistic import deals Doe and his clan made to enrich themselves.
Holder concedes it is difficult to interest investors in returning to a city without reliable water, electricity or telecommunications.
″Business is nervous about the lack of a clear resolution to our problem,″ Holder said. ″But Taylor cannot hold the country hostage forever, and eventually this stalemate will end.″