Country Profile
Thursday, 22 November 2012 12:36

Country profile: Liberia

The Western-African country of Liberia has seen dramatic economic growth over the past five years. In 2006 the national budget was US$86-million. Five years later, in 2011, the budget was US$ 580-million. 25 Degrees in Africa looks at the country’s successes and challenges.

Location: Western Africa, bordering the North-Atlantic Ocean, between Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.
Total area: 111 369 square kilometres.
Land: 96 320 square kilometres.
Water: 15 049 square kilometres.
Coastline: 579 kilometres.
Climate: Tropical.
Terrain: Flat, rolling coastal plains rising to a plateau and low mountains in the north-east.
Natural resources: Iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold and hydropower.
Land use:
Arable land: 3,4 
Permanent crops: 1,98% Natural hazards: Dust-laden harmattan winds blow from the Sahara Desert (December to March).
Current environmental issues: Tropical rainforest deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, pollution of coastal waters from oil residue and raw sewage.

Production: 335-million kWh (2008 Est.).
Consumption: 311,6-million kWh (2008 Est.).

Export commodities: Rubber, timber, iron, diamonds, cocoa and coffee.
Export partners: South Africa 29,9%, US 15,7%, Spain 7,6%, Ivory Coast 4,9%, Germany 4,2%, Japan 4,1%, China 4% (2011).

In many ways Liberia is a country of firsts, and yet, like most other African countries, it has a legacy of political strife, ethnic conflict and dictatorship. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who started out as Liberia’s ambitious, optimistic new leader in 2006 and even went on to win a joint Nobel Peace Prize, has recently also come under scrutiny after Leymah Gbowee, her fellow Nobel laureate, stated that she had not done enough to tackle corruption. Karien Slabbert investigates.

The settlement of freed slaves from the United States began in 1822 and by 1847 the America-Liberians were able to establish the Republic of Liberia, which means “liberty”. William Tubman, president from 1944 to 1977, went to great lengths to promote foreign investment and to bridge the economic, social and political gaps between the original settlers’ descendants and locals. In 1980 a military coup led by Samuel Doe ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule. In December 1989 Charles Taylor launched a rebellion against Doe’s regime that led to a prolonged civil war.

In 1997, during a period of relative peace, Taylor was elected to power, but major fighting resumed in 2000. A peace agreement in 2003 ended the war and prompted Taylor’s resignation. After two years of rule by a transitional government, democratic elections in late 2005 brought Johnson-Sirleaf to power.

Economic status

As a low-income country, Liberia relies heavily on foreign assistance for revenue. Civil war and government mismanagement has damaged Liberia’s economy – especially the infrastructure in and around the country’s capital, Monrovia. During the civil war, many businesses fled the country, which led to a loss of both capital and expertise. However, after the democratically elected government came into power in 2006, several businesses have returned. The country has rich water, mineral and forest resources, as well as a climate that is ideal for agricultural practices. In recent years, the country has been reviving its raw timber and rubber export sectors. Currently Liberia has the highest ratio of direct foreign investment, compared to gross domestic product (GDP) in the world.

President Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected for her second term as head of state in 2011, has taken great strides to build support from international donors and encourage private investments. Embargos on timber and diamond exports have been lifted and the country shipped its first major timber exports to Europe in 2010. This has opened new revenue sources for the country’s government. However, according to The Economist, Johnson-Sirleaf’s impressive negotiation of debt relief in her first term did little to reassure many Liberians who have yet to see their lives improve very much.

The debt debate

In 2010 Liberia reached its Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative completion point, after which its US$5-billion international debt was scrapped. This new status has enabled Liberia to establish a sovereign credit rating and issue bonds. In 2011 the African Development Bank approved a US$48-million grant to support economic governance and competitiveness in the country.

Rebuilding infrastructure and raising income will, however, depend on generous technical assistance from donor countries and key sectors, such as infrastructure and power generation, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Economic growth

Liberia has seen dramatic economic growth over the past five years. In 2006 the national budget was US$86-million. Five years later, in 2011, the budget was US$ 580-million. The projected gross domestic product (GDP) is projected as 7% over the next ten years. At the same time, Liberia has also maintained a strong focus on sustainability. According to the country’s National Sustainable Development Report, published on 30 May 2012, “A host of legal and social reforms aimed at improving the management of natural resources, transparency and accountability, and inclusivity of economic development have been instituted”.


While the socio-economic conditions of Liberians have improved since the end of the civil war in 2003, the data is still alarming. A total of 68% of Liberians live in poverty, with over 43% living in extreme poverty. The National Food and Security Report found that, in 2010, 41% of Liberians were undernourished. During reconstruction efforts, government expenditure focused primarily on immediate rehabilitation to critical infrastructure, including roads and healthcare facilities. Liberia’s current development pathway seeks to ensure government resources have a more direct impact on Liberians.

Towards a greener economy

Post-conflict Liberia’s national development strategies have included short-, medium- and long-term visions for moving towards a sustainable future. Liberia is currently embarking on completing its long-term development strategy: Liberia Rising, Vision 2030. Its goal is to become a middle-income country by 2030. “This new strategy reflects Liberia’s dedication to inclusive economic growth and the decision to integrate environmental considerations into economic development efforts and to prioritise green economy initiatives,” states the report.

It goes on to state that natural resource capital is essential for economic development in Liberia. As a result, the focus has been on revitalising the country’s traditional growth engines with an influx of foreign direct investment into key sectors. “Liberia’s mining, commercial agriculture, forestry and other industries are again operational, while new industries, like petroleum, are under development,” states the report.

Continuous support is therefore needed to overcome challenges that persist in the implementing of sustainable development principles and the goals enshrined in Agenda 21, due to limited human and institutional capacity, weak implementation and enforcement of legal and regulatory instruments, and a lack of modern technologies and infrastructures.

Liberia has recognised that sustainable development requires greening its economy: Utilising natural resources sustainably and efficiently, reducing vulnerability and adapting to climate change, transformation to a low-carbon economy, and maintaining and enhancing natural capital as a source of job creation and ecosystem services.

Energy initiatives

The energy sector presents an opportunity to create much-needed revenue and has the potential to transform the development of Liberia. In 2009 Liberia developed a National Energy Policy (NEP), setting the framework for affordable access to energy services. The NEP aims to establish Liberia as a green economy by 2050. This will entail promoting the use of renewable energy, and leveraging biomass and water resources as a source of carbon credits for energy development.

Currently most households rely on biomass energy. Only 10% of urban residents and 2% of rural residents have access to electricity through diesel-powered generators. A small minority has access to electricity through the state-owned Liberian Electricity Corporation (LEC), which is only operational in the capital city of Monrovia and operates on diesel fuel. Prior to the civil conflict, electricity was supplied to Monrovia by the Mt. Coffee hydropower plant. LEC operates on high-impact diesel fuel, which raises the cost of electricity to 0,55 per kilowatt. The current price is prohibitively high and unaffordable to most people.  

Sustainable energy production and distribution is essential for Liberia. The Liberian government has committed US$40-million dollars to the rehabilitation of the Mt. Coffee hydropower plant with the goal of increasing the plant’s capacity. The project, once completed, will provide more affordable electricity services to Monrovia and the surrounding cities.

Liberia is also investing in the newly created Rural and Renewable Energy Agency (RREA), which is within the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. With support from donor-partners, RREA is implementing small-scale hydropower projects for rural communities. Liberia recognises its high potential for renewable energy. RREA has been empowered by the government to explore Liberia’s potential in this area.

Oil exploration is currently taking place in the country. As there is a possible future for oil production in Liberia, the country is developing a petroleum policy and revising the New Petroleum Law of 2000 to ensure the greatest economic benefit for Liberians and ensuring that natural resources and the environment is protected.

Strengthening the medium- and long-term agenda

Liberia’s medium- and long-term development agenda emphasises sustained economic growth and social development. Its development strategy, along with the various reform efforts, has set the framework for sustainable development. During the Liberia Rio+20 National Consultative Workshop and other strategising processes, six issues have been identified as essential for accomplishing its development goals and objectives:
•    Coordination between government ministries and agencies.
•    Harmonisation of authorities.
•    Implementation of legal and social reforms.
•    Land rights, tenure and administration.
•    Human and institutional capacity-building.
•    Enforcement and compliance in extractive industries.

Internationally, Liberia is seen as an example of how good leadership can help a country to rise out of the ashes. With various development programmes on the agenda, the country has the potential to shake off its legacy and become an African leader.

A tale of two leaders

Tailor-made conflict

In May this year, the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for committing war crimes during the long-running war in the neighbouring country, Sierra Leone. Judges at a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague said his leadership role and exploitation of the conflict to extract so-called “blood diamonds” meant that he deserved one of the longest prison sentences handed down so far by the court.

Taylor (64) was found guilty of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity when he supported rebels between 1996 and 2002 in return for conflict gems. The offences included murder, rape, sexual slavery, recruiting child soldiers, enforced amputations and pillage.

This former warlord and rebel has joined the likes of Uganda’s Idi Amin, Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo (former Zaire), Robert Mugabe, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Omar Al-Bashir to become one of Africa’s “demonised dictators”. Although his tenure of terror has ended, Taylor’s legacy will be characterised by amputated limbs, violence and child soldiers. Will this be a lesson for future African leaders? Let us hope so.

Turning over a new leaf

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was Liberia and Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. Since taking office in 2006, she has worked hard to secure peace in Liberia, promote economic and social development and strengthen the role of women. In October 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yemen’s Arab Spring activist Tawakkul Karman and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, for her efforts to explore, expose and atone for Liberia’s history of civil conflict. Weeks after she was awarded the prize, Johnson-Sirleaf was elected for her second term in a controversial run-off election in November, where she won 90,8% of the votes.

In 2012 Forbes named Johnson-Sirleaf among the 100 most powerful women in the world, along with Angela Merekel, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Educated at Harvard University as an academic economist, Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1972 to assume a position in the Ministry of Finance. But after clashes with her superiors and a military coup in 1980, she began work as an economist at the World Bank in the US. From there Johnson-Sirleaf returned to Africa to work in the regional offices of Citibank, before taking over the regional office of the United Nations Development Programme, where she was involved in investigating the United Nations’ failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide.

Full acknowledgement and thanks are given to;;;; and Republic of Liberia: Sustainable Development Report for the information given to write this article.

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