Monday, June 18, 2012

A Heartfelt Au Revoir

Incredibly, a month in Liberia has come to an end. It is hard to believe that I have been here for four working weeks. The time has simply flown by. That is largely because the work here has been so interesting and the days have been extremely busy.

Much has been accomplished in a short time. As I mentioned previously, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry does not have a lawyer on staff. There used to be a general counsel (who was quite good by all reports) but he decided to pursue a career in the United States and was not replaced. Like most things here it was simply a question of budgetary constraints. Obviously, money is tight and every expenditure is carefully scrutinized. Thus, Liberia has had to rely on foreign assistance in so many respects – technical, training, professional, security and otherwise. They couldn’t exist without the generosity of the Western world and the NGOs.

As a result of this trip, we have been able to identify for the Liberian WTO Negotiating Team the various laws that will need to be revised (or enacted) in order to comply with WTO requirements. In addition, specific amendments have been suggested for their consideration. Since accession is not expected to occur until 2017 there is time to refine this work, but the important point is that they now have a general idea of what is required on the legal front to make accession a reality. In addition, the WTO consultants from Geneva have been here all week to prepare the Negotiating Team for their first ever meeting with the WTO on July 11. Hopefully, they will be ready for that initial test.

Concurrently with WTO accession, Liberia would like to conduct a full review of all of its commercial laws to ensure they are up to international standards. This includes their business corporation statutes, partnership laws, commercial code, international dispute resolution mechanisms, e-commerce laws, anti-money laundering laws, consumer protection laws and so on. It is a large task. This project was begun in 2009 but had to be suspended due to lack of funds. It now falls to ISLP (and me) to try to fill that gap. It is a terrific opportunity and challenge!! I will be working on that as this project continues.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working here is how grateful people are for the assistance. It is very gratifying to hear how thankful they are for any assistance the Western world can provide.

Today was the time for goodbyes – heartfelt hugs and shaking of hands all round. I will miss the Liberians as much (or more) than they will miss me. I am incredibly impressed by the personal commitment, dedication and enthusiasm I have witnessed on the part of the people I have had the pleasure of working with. They are not well paid but they work hard and for long hours to attempt to get this country back on its feet. They have my complete admiration.

The Minister asked me today if I could come back as the WTO process proceeds and I readily accepted. It will definitely be wonderful to return to Canada and my practice at Torys after a month long absence. Nonetheless, I certainly look forward to a return trip some time down the road to this lovely country to try to continue with what has begun. Hopefully, this project will assist, in the long run at least, in improving Liberia’s economic position and development prospects.

I look forward to seeing you all soon. Tonight I begin the long journey tonight back to Canada. Many thanks to those who have given me helpful (and positive!!) feedback on these blog postings.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions: Part 2

Do Liberian Women Carry Goods On Their Heads?

Of course they do!! This is Africa. It is quite a wonderful sight to see. Liberian women and young girls carry large bundles of goods, carefully balanced on their heads, as a matter of second nature. It is a highly efficient way to transport things, leaving, as it does, one’s hands free. Their loads include everything imaginable: baskets of bananas, coconuts and fruit of all kinds, peanuts, water and soft drinks, huge baskets of bread (baguettes), household goods, and so on. My personal favourites are the women who carry eggs. Not a dozen eggs. They carry large open egg cartons like we have at home, each of which contains 3 dozen eggs which  are then stacked four or five high!! Imagine, 12 or 15 dozen eggs at a time, and not a shell cracked!! Unbelievable.

Is Monrovia Clean?

As mentioned earlier, the civil war destroyed buildings, roads, sidewalks, bridges, churches, homes and so much more in the capital. While reconstruction and rebuilding has begun, at first sight Monrovia looks to be in a decrepit state. Many buildings remain empty and in a terrible state of repair – office, industrial and residential structures alike. But yes, Monrovia is remarkably clean. That is because Liberians are a very fastidious people. They don’t have much, but what they do have they scrupulously take care of. Shop owners sweep the sidewalks and parts of the street in front of their stores regularly. Every morning, debris is swept about 5 metres into the street where it is then picked up by a street sweeper with his pushcart. Garbage collection also seems to happen on a regular basis. So, yes, if you were to walk around downtown Monrovia, you would be impressed by its cleanliness. All it needs is a coat of new paint!! The buildings are uniformly drab and badly in need of freshening up. But that isn’t going to happen any time soon. This country has much higher priorities to deal with first

Who Are the Expats and Why Are They Here?

For the most part, the expats are members or representatives of foreign governments and NGOs and are here to perform specific tasks to help restore Liberia to its previous state and create a viable economy. Where do they come from and what do they do?

The biggest contributor to aid to Liberia is undoubtedly the United States. Through USAID and other like agencies, the American presence can be seen everywhere. They assist in training the armed forces and other security services, and they work with the Government to provide technical assistance and training in a wide variety of areas, including education, agriculture and health. Monies are provided to build schools and healthcare facilities and train more teachers and healthcare professionals, particularly in the outlying Counties. Liberia would be in even more desperate shape than it if it didn’t benefit from the generosity of the United States.

Other major contributors include Germany, Sweden, Norway and the EU. They generally provide skilled professionals or technicians to assist with specific projects, such as refurbishing the ports, providing sources of clean water, and improving the road system. Expats are generally here for limited periods of time, although I have met some on this trip who are here for periods of one to two years.

Sadly, there is no sign of Canada here. We do not maintain an Embassy in Liberia (the closest one is located in Côte d’Ivoire) and we don’t seem to be involved in any aid initiatives that I have ever seen. The Harper Government has chosen to downplay Canada’s efforts and contributions in Africa in favour of increased aid to Latin and South America. Whatever one thinks of that change of course, Canada, as a nation, is simply not a significant player here, or anyone else in Africa for that matter.

A large, but largely unnoticed, aid participant is, of course, China. The Chinese are all over Africa, building infrastructure, hospitals, schools, ports and so on. In Liberia, the Chinese are involved in a number of projects, the largest of which is an iron ore mine in Bong County. In exchange for being granted that mining concession the Chinese agreed to rebuild a major railway line that was destroyed during the war. As a general rule, African nations like dealing with the Chinese. That is because they are not judgmental. They don’t lecture the Africans about the bad governance, corruption, human rights abuses or other shortcomings. Rather, they approach an investment in an African state on business terms. So, in exchange for the rights to mine, harvest timber or explore for oil, the Chinese will offer to build the things Africans desperately need, no strings attached and no questions asked. This model of giving aid to the third world deserves a closer look by the Western nations. Clearly our model of throwing money at problems hasn’t and isn’t working. A new prescription is needed. See on that topic Dambisa Moyo's excellent book, "Dead Aid." as well as Hernando de Soto's "The Mystery of Capital."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Brief History of Liberia: Part 2

On the evening of April 12, 1980, Liberians went to sleep never dreaming that they would wake up the next morning with a new government in power. Unbeknownst to them, a semi-literate sergeant in the Liberian army and 16 of his cronies had different ideas. His name was Samuel K. Doe. He was a member of the Krahn tribe from the northeastern County of Grand Gedeh, near the Ivorian border. Just after midnight, they attacked the Executive Mansion, killed 26 members of the Presidential Guard, fought their way into the Mansion itself and brutally murdered (and dismembered) President Tolbert and his wife in their beds. A new age of brutality was  born, to be repeated time and time again during the civil war.

The next morning Liberians woke to the news that President Tolbert was dead and a new regime was in power. At first, there was relief at having the repressive Tolbert out of office. That relief did not last long, however, with the realization that the people now in power were both unknown and extremely inexperienced. Neither Doe nor any of his comrades had even a high school education, and yet, incredibly, they were now in charge of running a country. They called themselves the "People's Redemption Council" (PRC) and anointed themselves with ostentatious titles, with Doe as President. One of their first  acts was to charge certain members of Tolbert's cabinet and other leading political and government figures of the time with treason. In a hastily convened kangaroo court, all thirteen were convicted and sentenced to death. In an infamous  moment in Liberian history , the accused were taken to the beach in front of the Presidential Mansion, tied to stakes and  summarily executed, broadcast live on national television, by firing squad. Liberia would not be the same again for decades.

President Doe was, of course, not competent to run a government. He realized that he needed help from technocrats and others with the skill set to do so. Two of those were Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Charles Taylor. Johnson Sirleaf was working the Finance Ministry at the time. She was subsequently jailed by Doe on at least two occasions for being critical of the government, but was ultimately released. Shortly thereafter, she left for the United States where she pursued a career in international finance and investment banking. Taylor was living in the US at the time of Doe's coup. He returned shortly thereafter and was eventually made Deputy Minister of Commerce. In that position, he was caught pilfering US$1,000,000 and he fled back  to the United States to avoid prosecution. He was arrested there and while awaiting his extradition hearing back to Liberia, he escaped from prison and eventually made his way to Côte d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, Doe's regime proved incompetent, corrupt in the extreme and incredibly brutal. As a result, various factions began to form to overthrow him. One of these factions was led by Charles Taylor. From his base in Côte d’Ivoire he launched an attack, invading Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989. At the same time, another force led by a man named Prince Johnson also led an assault on the Doe Government, essentially from the north and western portions of the country. To make a long story short, both insurgents were successful and pretty much had Monrovia surrounded with Doe holed up in the Executive Mansion. His regime was on its last legs by 1990. Incredibly, Doe did not flee the country, but one Sunday inexplicably left the safety of the Executive Mansion and ventured into Prince Johnson’s territory (in the port area of Monrovia), possibly to try to negotiate with him. That mistake led to his brutal and sadistic murder, captured on video tape, by Prince Johnson (definitely for adult audiences only – I have seen it and don’t recommend it to anyone).

At that point in the proceedings ECOMOG (see previous post re who they are) invaded Liberia, ostensibly to try to restore order and keep the peace. This move effectively denied Taylor the Presidency as he was very close to a total military victory. After many further skirmishes between the warring factions and ECOMOG and several failed attempts to reach peace agreements, peace was finally restored in 1996. Elections were held the following year and Charles Taylor was elected President. Many theories abound as to why he was elected, given the brutality and cruelty shown by his troops during the fighting. The most likely explanation is that Liberians were afraid to vote against him for fear that if he lost he would simply start fighting again, bent on total victory and annihilation of his opponents. As Taylor ruled however, it became clear that nothing had changed from the Doe regime. Those in power regarded themselves as entitled to the riches that came with it. As a result, the Liberian treasury was looted and Taylor and his cronies amassed personal wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

Eventually, military opposition rose to combat Taylor's incompetent and corrupt rule. Starting in 1999, a rebel group called LURD, with the support of the Guinean government and others. invaded Liberia and started to fight its way south the challenge Taylor’s regime. Many lost lives and atrocities later, LURD prevailed. By 2003, they had Monrovia  surrounded and enjoyed wide popular support. Taylor was therefore forced to negotiate for peace. This led to the Peace Accord signed in Accra, under which Taylor agreed to relinquish the Presidency. A new transitional government was formed, to be in power for two years to restore order and to prepare for open and democratic elections. The Peace Accord held. Taylor relinquished power and fled to asylum in Nigeria. The 2005 elections resulted in the victory of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President.

As many of you will know, President Johnson Sirleaf, now a Nobel laureate, recently won re-election for another six year term. Meanwhile Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, sitting in the Hague, for the atrocities he funded and contributed to  in that country during their own, equally brutal civil war.

The bottom line, therefore, is that Liberia, after decades of turmoil, casualties and destruction, is now governed by a competent and duly elected government, headed by President Johnson Sirleaf, under whose regime Liberia has made tremendous strides toward reconstruction and revitalization. The era of one party rule by the Americo Liberians died with President Tolbert's assassination in 1980, and will never return.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Brief History of Liberia – Part 1

In order to better appreciate the position Liberia now finds itself in, it is useful have some understanding of its history and evolution. I cannot possibly do justice to this in one or even two blog postings, but I will try. Many detailed scholarly treatises have been written about Liberia's history. What follows therefore is merely a "Coles Notes" version, reduced to only the basics and written in two parts.

In the early 1800s, many Americans, including educated plantation owners (especially in the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland), certain politicians and Christian theologians became concerned about the morality of slavery. They eventually came together as the American Colonization Society (ACS). It was decided that the proper thing to do was to return the indentured slaves of enlightened plantation owners to their roots in Africa, so they could flourish in their own environment. Ultimately, the decision was made to return them to that portion of West Africa which would eventually become what we now know as Liberia. The first ship containing "returning slaves" sailed from New York in 1822. After a couple of attempts to land, they settled on Providence Island, which is now a part of Monrovia. Unfortunately, the ACS, while their intentions were honourable, did not foresee the difficulties with which their plan was fraught. First, nearly half of the returning slaves died during transit, or within a short time after arrival, from either malaria or yellow fever. Second, the ACS did not attempt to equip the slaves with the skills necessary to subsist in a faraway and, to them, unknown land. After all, the returning slaves grew up in an environment where things were provided to them; they were therefore not equipped to provide for themselves. While the ACS sent resident agents with the freed slaves to help them adapt to their new homeland, many died en route or shortly after arrival or were largely ineffectual. The first such agent purchased what is now the land that comprises Monrovia from the native chiefs, under duress, for a mere pittance.

On their arrival, the freed slaves had to deal with, among other things, the indigenous peoples. They did not share the same culture, language or background. This immediately created a huge gulf between them. The returned slaves knew only one way of life: that of master and servant. They had no experience with democracy, equality of rights or any of the other principles upon which America was founded. As a result, they treated the indigenous tribes in the same way that they had been treated: as an inferior or lower class, whose role was to work for the returning slaves to help them establish a new life in their adopted land. Thus began a de facto dual class system. The returned slaves – referred to as Americo-Liberians – came to have several indigenous peoples –referred to native Liberians – as their servants, and the latter were treated as such. While one might have thought that the returned slaves would have learned from the cruelty of their subservience in America and chosen a different path in their new homeland, in fairness to them, slavery was the only model of governance they knew.

In time, a community was established, but it was clear who was in charge: the Americo Liberians. Ultimately, in 1847 an independent Republic was formed, with a Constitution based on the American model (it still is). A flag was chosen, also modeled on the American Stars and Stripes, but with only one star in the upper left-hand corner. Liberia thus became known (and is still known) as the Lone Star State (take that Texas!!) The country’s motto embodies the chasm that came to exist between the freed slaves and the indigenous peoples – "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here." If one were to try to devise a less inclusive motto, it would be hard to better that one.

The new Republic of Liberia was recognized by many nations (England was among the first) but strangely America did not recognize its existence until 1862 under President Lincoln. This theme plays out repeatedly through Liberia's history. Liberians traditionally regard themselves as a special ally/favoured son of the United States, but the United States has never reciprocated in kind, especially when Liberia needed help the most. This a sore point and one where reality has diverged significantly from perception.

Americo Liberians ruled the Republic from its founding in 1847 until 1980. In fact, Liberia was essentially a one party state – under the rule of the True Whig Party – from the late 1800s until 1980. More about that later.

The first President was Joseph J. Roberts who ruled for many years and is generally regarded as the founding father of Liberia. As mentioned, Americo Liberians followed in his footsteps until 1980. The longest reigning President was William Tubman who governed from 1944 until his death in 1971. He was replaced by his Vice President, William Tolbert. Tolbert had been a technocrat and did not have necessary skills to lead a nation. As a result, he made several mistakes while in office, not the least of which was decision to put a tax on imported rice, the staple food of all Liberians. This led to the infamous Rice Riots of 1979. While Tolbert survived this crisis (just barely), the anger felt by indigenous Liberians toward the Americo Liberians was finally coming to a head. What resulted was a calamitous event, from a source no one would have suspected or saw coming, but it was to change Liberia’s future and its political reality forever.

To be continued…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions: Part 1

Is Liberia Safe?

That's a hard question to answer. The real answer might be yes, and no. If one were to ask, do I feel safe here, the answer would be unquestionably yes – but on certain conditions. I am in a hotel, virtually on the Atlantic, very near the US Embassy. I work in the downtown core which is about 2 kilometers northeast of here. The downtown core of Monrovia is not unlike Toronto’s downtown in size. However, as mentioned in prior posts, there are no tall buildings in Monrovia so it tends to spread out more than a North American city. I walk from here to work and generally around the downtown core, both during the week and on weekends. On the weekends, I am literally the only person on the streets of my skin colour. The expats don’t often leave the safety of their hotels or their secure, barbed wire-protected compounds, but I feel completely safe in doing so. The people are friendly and outgoing, and of course curious to see a middle aged white guy wandering around at leisure. So yes, Monrovia is safe in that sense.

However, as in many large cities, walking around at night is a different story. I have done it on several occasions, but only in the company of others and in areas that are busy and hopping with activity. It is difficult to get a handle on crime statistics here. There really is no reliable source of information. But judging by the size and number of locks which store owners use to protect their shops, clearly theft is a problem. Surprisingly enough, Monrovia is probably the safest place to be in Liberia. That is because the majority of the National Police (LNP) and of the UN peacekeepers (UNMIL) are stationed here. That is a problem that the outlying areas continually complain about – they don’t have enough security. The Government is trying to address that situation by growing the size of the LNP and its armed forces (AFL), but recruitment and training take time.

UNMIL has been slowly decreasing its numbers here since about 2008. There was to be a complete pullout by the UN in 2012, but that won’t happen. The reality is that the LNP and the AFL are not of a sufficient size, and have not been sufficiently trained, to take charge of security in the country. Until that happens, UN peacekeepers will be a fact of life in Liberia.

There is also an elephant in the room that is rarely talked about openly. In 2003, when the Peace Accords were signed in Accra, Ghana that brought an end to the 14 year civil war, one of the requirements was that all combatants disarm and return to civilian life. The disarmament process was regarded as pretty much a success, although no one knows for sure how many and what kinds of weapons were not turned in. The return to civilian life was most definitely not a success. The civil war was fought by young men, for the most part, including a large number of child soldiers. They had no work before they joined the war and no education or training to fall back on after the war. When you have a country whose per capita GDP is around US$250 and an unemployment rate of around 70-80%, having a large number of young men with no training and no jobs, and whose only experience is killing and horribly mistreating their fellow human beings – that is a recipe for disaster. The Government is very worried about that – hence their strong focus on youth education. But this will take time. So, last year, for example, when violence erupted in Côte d’Ivoire following their elections, guess who showed up to fight? Liberian young men, who could work as mercenaries for $500 or so. They had the skills and nothing else to do, and the money was something they couldn’t possibly earn elsewhere. Is this a ticking time bomb? No one knows for sure, but everyone prays not.

P.S. For an outstanding account of life as a child soldier (albeit in Sierra Leone), read Ishmael Beah's book "A Long Way Gone." Disarmament is one thing; but returning to a "normal life" is something completely different.

Is There Electricity and Is It Reliable?

The answers are mostly no, and definitely no. The generation, transmission and distribution of electricity is run by a state enterprise called the Liberian Electricity Corporation (LEC). LEC operates two electrical grids -- the Monrovia grid and the rural grid. At the present time, there is only power in 10% of the Monrovia grid and 5% in the rural grid. And where there is electricity, it is entirely unreliable. It goes off all the time, sometimes for lengthy periods. So, to make that clear, 90% of the inhabitants of the capital city have no power, unreliable or otherwise.

How do people get by without electricity? Those who can afford it buy a generator. They usually operate them for only 3 or 4 hours a day, typically from around 7:00 p.m. (when it gets dark here, all year round) to 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. That enables them to cook on a stove, warm hot water for cleaning and washing, and have lights until bedtime. The rest of the time they have no power. As a result, perishables must be purchased daily. For those who can’t afford generators, cooking is done on a basic charcoal grill, and candles are used at night. The things that we North Americans take for granted the Liberians don’t have, and may not have for quite a while yet.

The Government’s goal is that by 2015, 30% of Monrovia and 15% of the rural community will have electricity. That may seem like a modest objective to us, but it would be a huge accomplishment for Liberia. A company called Buchanan Renewables is about to bring on line a renewable electricity supply of around 30 MW. Liberia also has hydro-electric capacity. Before the war, there was a large hydro-electric dam on the St. Paul river system, near the border with Sierra Leone. Like everything else, it was destroyed in the war. The Government is in talks with a Brazilian company to restore it, but that is still a while off yet.

Finally, an interesting sidebar from a Canadian perspective. In 2009, Manitoba Hydro (of all people) signed a 5 year contract to manage LEC. Who knew?? Note to the Power and Energy Group: your clients should know there are great opportunities for development here. The Government would fall all over anyone who came forward with a power development proposal. Given the climate, solar power would seem like a natural. If we don’t do it, the Chinese most certainly will.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Liberian Weather Report

Since there are, to my knowledge, no Maytag appliances anywhere in Liberia, the loneliest guy in town has got to be the weatherman. Why? Because there is nothing he has to say that your average Liberian wants, or needs, to hear. That is because the weather here is, subject to one exception, basically the same day-in, day-out, 365 days a year.
Liberia lies just slightly north of the equator (from 4 to 9 degrees N. latitude). There is therefore virtually no change in the weather month-to-month or season-to-season. The highs generally range from 30 to 35°C and the lows are typically 25 to 27°C. In a word, it is hot! All year round. But the killer is the humidity. Liberia sits on the Atlantic Ocean and while I don’t know the exact figures, it feels like the humidity is 110% every day. In my office at the Ministry, I have a small wall-mounted air conditioner, just like we have at home. It is set at 16°C. The poor thing chugs away all day long, and the best it can do is lower the temperature to around 27 to 28°C. All I want when I get back to the hotel each night is a shower!
And then try walking around outside. Forget Weight Watchers folks!! This is a sure-fire, money back guaranteed way to lose weight. I typically go for 1 to 2 hour walks each day on the weekends and I arrive back at the hotel absolutely soaked. I pray for rain on the homeward leg because (a) it would cool me off, and (b) I couldn't possibly get any wetter! If you read any books about Africa, you will see that even the most grizzled journalists never get used to the heat, no matter how much time they have spent on this continent. For someone raised in temperate Canada, there is a definite adjustment period, before one can stand being out in the sun for even 5 minutes.
The one exception I mentioned about the weather is the rainy season. We are in it now. It runs from late May to early October. It rains virtually every day. Sometimes it rains 3 or 4 times a day. Other times it rains all day or all night long. It’s a different quality of rain, though. It is not like the typical rain shower we are used to in North America. It rains in monsoon-like proportions. So much so, that it is sometimes hard to carry on a conversation it is raining so hard! An umbrella is an absolute must. "Don't leave home without one" is the motto here for approximately four months a year.
Aside from the annoyance of the rain, one major downside is flooding. Only 10% of Liberia's roads are paved. That means that during the rainy season large parts of the country are inaccessible by road, because the road system simply washes out. Another problem is agriculture. The fields lie flat in the coastal plain between the Atlantic and mountains to the east along the Guinean and Ivorian borders. These fields get badly flooded during the rainy season, so badly that they can’t be farmed. This is a major problem because 90% of the farming here is of a subsistence nature. People therefore depend on it for the only food they can obtain (and afford). The government is taking steps to establish  vocational schools in the rural areas to train the farming community about the principles of agronomy, but it will take a lot of time and money to make that happen. The government is also interested in promoting mechanized farming, and farming on a large scale, but again that will take time. In the meantime, the rural population tries to make do as best they can, as they have here for centuries.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What Am I Doing Here?

That's a question I commonly ask myself, in a variety of different circumstances. In this case, however, the answer is relatively clear and can be summarized as follows.

I am working at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI). In particular, I am working for the Minister herself, Miata Beysolow. Last year, I worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Deputy Minister, Legal Affairs. That was a very enjoyable and fulfilling assignment. However, for reasons which are too complicated to get into here, it made no sense for me to make a return visit there. So, ISLP (International Senior Lawyers Project) began to cast around for other opportunities for me in Liberia. In January, we learned that the MOCI might be interested in some legal assistance. One thing led to another, until finally we had a conference call with the Minister and her two Deputy Ministers a month or so ago. During that call, and in several follow-up e-mails, my role was fleshed out.

Liberia recently applied to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). As you can imagine, that will be a lengthy and complex process that will take several years to complete. The MOCI does not have any lawyers on staff. They had a general counsel at one point but that post has been vacant for a few years. My role therefore is to assist in the WTO accession process by reviewing Liberia’s commercial and trade-related laws, and identifying those which need to be amended to conform to the WTO’s standards and requirements. I have also been asked  to identify areas where Liberia does not currently have laws, but should have to become a WTO member, and to assist in drafting them.
If this were Canada, or any other Western jurisdiction, that task would certainly be difficult, but it would be manageable given enough time to complete it. Not so in Liberia. First of all, there is no central repository of the consolidated laws of Liberia. As a result, it is difficult to know whether a particular statute still exists and whether a statute you are reviewing is the most current, up-to-date version. Somewhat frustrating indeed!

As I understand it, to update a law in Liberia, one has to manually comb through the Official Gazettes that have been published since its enactment, identify when it was amended and then try to find copies of the relevant amendments. This task is complicated by the fact that during the civil war many of the archives, libraries and other repositories of the necessary materials were destroyed. So, for example, while the Business Corporation Act was enacted in 1975, trying to track down amendments made during the 1989 to 2005 period is, I gather, a somewhat difficult task.

So, transparency is a definite problem. So is the lack of a publicly available index of Liberian statutes. What we take for granted back home is a headache in this country. When I ask whether Liberia has a Foreign Trade Law, I am typically met with blank stares, or a shrug of the shoulders, even from those who would be the likely suspects to know. To get to the bottom of this problem, we have enlisted the help of the Law Reform Commission. Even they are struggling with this task. Nonetheless, we are making progress through our own devices and perseverance.

One of the requirements for WTO accession is that the applicant country must produce a so-called legislative action plan (LAP). This document identifies the specific laws of the applicant that need to be amended before it can be accepted as a member. That is what I am working on. To date, we have identified a significant number of commercial laws that need to be changed, largely because of the WTO’s national treatment principle. That means that foreign investors and business organizations and their Liberian counterparts must be treated equally in matters of international trade and commerce. The laws that violate this principle include the Business Corporation Act, the Business Registration Act, the Investment Act, portions of a statute called the General Business Law, and portions of its Commercial Code. Laws that need to be enacted from scratch include a Competition Law, a Foreign Trade Law and an international commercial arbitration act.

Needless to say the work is both challenging and interesting. I am fortunate to be working with a group of talented and dedicated people who are committed to making this project a reality. Timing is tight however, because Liberia’s first meeting with the WTO to negotiate its accession is scheduled for  Geneva in early July. There is much to be done between now and then. An LDC (less developed country) like Liberia is simply not equipped with the internal resources and capabilities to manage a project of this magnitude on its own. In this case, Liberia is fortunate to have the services of Deloitte Consulting LLP, which is funded for this project by USAID, and a Swiss-based NGO called IDEAS Inc., which specializes in WTO consulting. Without the services of those two organizations this project would not be possible.

While I hope to make substantial inroads on the legal front before I leave, there will much that will remain to be done. It is not anticipated that accession will be completed until 2017 at the earliest. I am therefore hopeful that I can make a return visit down the road to carry on with what has been begun. I will also try to assist as best I can after I return to Toronto. If successful, WTO accession could provide a huge boost to Liberia’s economy by providing incentives for foreign capital to invest in a large variety of development projects.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Life in Monrovia

Monrovia is the capital of Liberia. It is a huge sprawling city of approximately 1.7 or 1.8 million people (no one really knows for sure) situated on the Atlantic Ocean. The tallest buildings in Monrovia are about 6 storeys and they are office buildings. So, when Monrovia grows, it grows outwards, not upwards. Downtown Monrovia was bombed and looted during the 14-year civil war. That war lasted from 1989 to 2003. It started when Charles Taylor invaded Liberia in the northeast portion of the country on Christmas Eve 1989 from his base in Côte d’Ivoire.

Monrovia was badly bombed by the insurgents toward the end of the first stage of the civil war (1996) and toward the end of the second stage (2002). It was looted by the insurgents after they finally fought their way into Monrovia from the surrounding countryside (after years of trying). They stole everything of value they could lay their hands on – cars, air conditioners, appliances, plumbing parts, copper wire contained in electricity and phone lines, and so on. These goods were then sold on the black market for a small fortune. This was the bounty for the victors.

Sadly, also complicit in these activities was a group called ECOMOG. Let me explain. ECOMOG was formed by ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States. If you were to look at a map, this includes every state from Gambia in the north to Togo and Benin in the south, including Liberia. ECOMOG was originally formed to enter Liberia to maintain a cease fire between the warring factions and to try to reassert peace. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Led by the Nigerians (the big cheese in this group), ECOMOG became an active participant in the war, and they were among the worst of the looters. It is reported that an ECOMOG unit near Buchanan (Liberia’s second largest city, south of Monrovia and its only other port) looted enough goods that when sold on the black market, they fetched US$50 million. That is big time looting.

So, with this background you would think that Monrovia would be a tad downtrodden, with a barely thriving economy and not much happening. That would be incorrect. In fact, it would be the opposite of what life is like here. Monrovia is a lively, bustling, noisy and energizing city. Walk down the sidewalk of any main street and you will see hundreds of people walking, talking and shopping. The streets are lined with little shops and, together with sidewalk vendors, they sell everything imaginable – vegetables and fruits of all kinds, meat, fish (raw or cooked), shoes, knock-off Nike and Adidas gear of all kinds, copy-cat Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein clothes (Ralph and Calvin presumably have no idea how popular they are here), soaps and shampoos, household goods (think cheap Rubbermaid products), breakfast cereals (go figure!!), kids toys, etc., etc. The shops are small (about 15 feet of frontage is the average), but they are bustling and clean. For those vendors who don’t have shops, they set up on the sidewalk or transport their goods around in huge wheelbarrows.

How do all these people make any money, you might ask, in a country where the unemployment level is estimated to be around 75% and more than 60% of the population live below any definition of the poverty line? The answer is they don’t, but they seem to be able to make enough each day to be able to buy the necessary staples to keep their families alive. The Liberians are a resilient and optimistic people (more about them in a future blog). Somehow they cobble enough together to live from day to day.

Equally surprising to a visitor are the traffic and noise levels. For a poverty-stricken country, it is quite amazing to see its streets packed with cars, taxis and motorbikes of all shapes, sizes and kinds. However, apart from the expats and the NGOs (who drive Mercedes and Toyotas), we’re talking vehicles here of considerable vintage. But they work. The car repair shops, to be sure, do a land-office business, but they keep these old heaps running somehow, using, presumably, large quantities of binder twine and duct tape. For those who can’t afford a car (that is, most people) there are taxis. To be clear, these aren’t taxis of the kind we are used to. They are small yellow vehicles that are known as "share taxis." That is, they drive along from point A to point B and pick up and drop off people as they go. You pay only for that portion of the trip you are in the taxi when you disembark, and then it carries on its route. One consequence is that these vehicles can often get packed to the gunnels with passengers (think of the 1960s craze of trying to see how many people could fit into a Volkswagen Beetle). In any event, somehow it works.

The result is that the streets are very busy and very noisy. Honking is a national pastime. Everyone honks constantly. Partly this is defensive – there are no stop signs or stop lights in Monrovia. So a honk is a signal that you are coming through!! You can imagine the chaos that creates. Vehicles, motorbikes and pedestrians are all vying for a small amount of space. As a pedestrian, I look every which way about 14 times before I venture to cross any street. Things come at you constantly and from the most unexpected directions.

In short, Monrovia is, despite all odds, a vibrant, lively, noisy and raucous city, full of sights, sounds and colour, and bustling with activity. My favourite pastime here, usually on the weekends, is to go for long walks and soak up the bustle, aromas and liveliness of this amazing place.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pro Bono in Liberia

I have been a volunteer senior legal advisor with the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) since 2010. This organization was founded in New York in 2001 and now has branches in London (UK) and Paris. Its mission is to provide legal assistance through "senior" (i.e., retired or about to retire) lawyers to lesser developed countries around the world in need of such help.

Last year, I travelled to Liberia in February and March to assist the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I worked with the Deputy Minister, Legal Affairs to help her with various legal issues facing the Ministry. This year I will be working with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry on a project to achieve Liberia's accession to the WTO. My role is to assist the Ministry in identifying which of the country's commercial and trade laws need to be revised, or drafted from scratch, in order to meet WTO standards, and then to assist in making the necessary changes to such laws.

My objective in travelling to and working in Liberia is to try to help with the economic recovery that is so essential to the future of that country and to the well-being of its people. Liberia is one of Africa's most impoverished nations, with an unemployment rate of approximately 75%. In 2003, it emerged from a 14-year civil war that left its people economically and psychologically scarred, and with the country having little or no infrastructure. Since then, Liberia has transformed into a democracy. Its elected president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been in power since 2006 and she will remain in power for another 5 years, having been re-elected in November, 2011 for another term.

My objective in writing this blog is to provide updates on the work I will be doing in Liberia and also to give a sense of what life is like in that country.

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