LIBERIA: Sirleaf to focus on Liberia’s jobless youth


By Orla Ryan and John Reed in Monrovia

Liberia’s foreign ministry, perched high on a hill above the roiling Atlantic, where its president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sits, is guarded by a group of smiling, blue-uniformed female peacekeeping troops from India. The security detail is apt for the steely 73-year-old who serves as Africa’s first elected female president and will next month accept this year's Nobel Peace Prize for her role in rebuilding Liberia and championing women’s rights. But the continuing presence of about 8,000 UN troops also underscores the fragility of the tiny West African country, founded by freed American slaves, and for many years a byword for one of Africa’s most brutal and enduring wars. Monrovia, Liberia’s ramshackle, low-rise seaside capital, today thrums with the sound of diesel generators and rush-hour traffic rather than gunfire. However, steep challenges lie ahead, Mrs Sirleaf acknowledges in an interview after an election in which her opposition successfully mobilised discontent with the dearth of opportunity for young people, and pushed voting into a second round. “My agenda has in a way changed because of the events of the past month,” she says, when asked about unfinished business from her first term. -High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights.

Her government, she says, must now focus on the task of creating jobs. “We must now as a first agenda item address the problems of the young unemployed and uneducated youths,” she says. Mrs Sirleaf took power after a democratic election in 2005, after 14 years of fighting that killed hundreds of thousands, devastated the country’s infrastructure, and took countless children out of schools. A Harvard-educated economist and former banker revered by foreign donors, she was re-elected to a second six-year term this month in a poll the UN described as free, fair and transparent. However, Winston Tubman, her main rival, who shared a ticket with former footballer George Weah, claimed the first round was fraudulent and boycotted the second round. Their Congress for Democratic Change party tapped into disenchantment among Liberia’s legions of unskilled and unemployed youth, many of whom are former combatants. The poll crystallised concerns about the lack of jobs in a country with a violent history. Mrs Sirleaf, whom many Liberians refer to as “Ma Ellen”, ran largely on her government’s economic record. During her first term, the country negotiated the writedown of most of its $4.7bn debt and attracted $16bn of foreign investment from companies such as ArcelorMittal to a country most foreigners associate with horrifying violence. “Ma Ellen promised – Ma Ellen is delivering!” reads one of the billboards in Monrovia touting the president’s Unity party. “When the plane e’en land yet, don’t change the pilots!” another urges voters in the creolised English most Liberians speak. The International Monetary Fund today describes the country’s near- to medium-term outlook as “promising”, and forecasts 7 to 10 per cent real gross domestic product growth in 2011-12. In her foreign ministry office, Mrs Sirleaf handles questions deftly and with authority in an American-tinged accent that speaks to her many years spent outside Liberia, including in jobs at the World Bank and Citibank. But she concedes that the massive joblessness among a “lost generation” of unskilled and unschooled young people, many of whom have piled into Monrovia from the bush, represent the single greatest threat to stability in Liberia and its region, which also includes war-scarred Sierra Leone and restive Cote d’Ivoire. She is proud of the record of her first six-year term in office, but frank about the remaining challenges of tackling corruption and creating employment in an economy focused on a few natural-resource concessions, including iron ore, rubber, timber, and palm oil. “We addressed what we call the hard items in those first six years,” Mrs Sirleaf says. “We found out that in fact the soft items – meeting the needs of those people, of those young people who have been bypassed by education and had no skills to do a job – that was really the soft underbelly of our reform programme.” Winning the Nobel “makes me more focused”, she says, and she plans to use some of the prize money to expand boarding facilities for young girls on the street in Monrovia. But with Mr Tubman continuing to contest the election result Mrs Sirleaf still has political hurdles to surmount. Members of his Congress for Democratic Change party held a funeral rally on Monday for those they say were killed in a clash with police on the eve of this month’s run-off, which Mr Tubman called on his supporters to boycott. The death toll is disputed: news reporters say one person was killed, but Mr Tubman claims that as many as eight died. Mrs Sirleaf calls the violence before this month’s run-off “regrettable”. But she rejects concerns raised by some analysts and foreign donors that her mandate has been weakened, adding that the turn-out was high for a second round and that opposition rabble-rousing deterred many voters. “It doesn’t in any way affect my mandate,” she says. “First of all, constitutionally and legally, there is no question that the election is over and that I won.” Still, her government will have its work cut out. “There is a lot of disgruntlement, there is a lot of anti-government feeling,” says Mulbah Morlu, an official at the opposition CDC headquarters in Monrovia, where about three dozen young people are gathered for a meeting under a tree. He adds: “Liberia has no middle class – you are either rich or you are poor.” Mrs Sirleaf says that the anxiety among Liberia’s youth is not a reflection of a desire to return to war. However, she says, she has heard the message loud and clear. “It’s a rebellion [designed] to say ‘Give me attention, you need to respond to my needs, you are forgetting me’,” she says.