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.

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