Liberia’s first female head of state, president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, is determined to turn her war-torn nation of 3.3 million people into Africa’s success story. Dubbed “the Iron Lady” by her supporters, Ms Johnson-Sirleaf’s goals are similar to those of former South African president Nelson Mandela. She works to bring about reconciliation in a long-divided country and rebuild Liberia’s shattered economy.

Imprisoned, charged with treason, and exiled twice to escape her legal problems with the governments of the day, Ms Johnson-Sirleaf has a long road ahead of her. But since her November 2005 election, she is seeing results.

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For starters, within four months of her presidency Liberia balanced its budget and increased government revenue by 48%.

“We have completed the review of 95 contracts and concession agreements, and initiated renegotiations for those which have potential for mutual benefits,” she said before a crowd at the National Press Club in Washington, DC in February.

Foreign investment

A new forestry reform act has been passed which paves the way for lifting UN sanctions on Liberia’s timber sector. Liberia also reached an iron ore concession agreement with Arcelor Mittal Steel that provides better benefits to Liberians, investment of more than $1bn over a seven-year period and some 20,000 jobs. Similar negotiations with Liberia’s long-standing partner Firestone, owned by Bridgestone, began in February.

Firestone has had a controversial relationship with Liberia regarding that nation’s rubber industry, its main export.

To strengthen Liberia’s system of governance and rule of law, efforts are under way to decentralise decision-making and allocate appropriate civil service reform. The nation is also rebuilding its infrastructure and delivering basic services such as roads, bridges, schools and health facilities.

“One of the proudest moments of this past year was when we were able to turn lights and water on in our capital city for the first time in 15 years,” Ms Johnson-Sirleaf recalled. Not all of Monrovia has electricity, however.

As a vote of confidence, the West African nation recently received significant financial commitments from the US, the United Nations, and the EU and additional grants from Ireland, the UK and Sweden. Monies are forthcoming from private groups such as the Centre for Global Development, the Liberian Education Trust, and Black Entertainment Television, which is investing in Liberian entrepreneurs.

The US Trade and Development Authority is providing a feasibility study for a hydroelectric facility. Liberia has also signed an open skies agreement with the US. “More important for us is the significant progress on debt relief,” Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf remarked.

Recently, Liberia’s three largest bilateral creditors – the US, Germany and the UK – announced they will forgive 100% of Liberia’s bilateral debt. Liberia’s current debt hovers at a whopping $3.7bn.

“In the case of the US alone, this could amount to more than $150m,” she said. “The same holds with the African Development Bank, where the US has already pledged to work with other shareholders to ensure its debt is fully cancelled.”

Debt removal makes it possible for Liberia to access long-term development financing from the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA).

Seeking support

Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf is seeking additional direct budgetary support and technical assistance to get her nation back on its feet. “We recognise that we have a capacity problem, given that all of our talents and skills left the country during all the years of conflict,” she said.

Consequently, Liberia has adopted what it calls a Governance and Economic Management Assistance Programme (Gemap), a partnership between the government of Liberia and the International Contact Group on Liberia, which includes the United Nations, the EU, the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the US and the World Bank. Civil Society and the International Monetary Fund are also active observers in Gemap programmes.

“Gemap gives the government primary responsibility for its development,” Johnson-Sirleaf said.