15 December 2005

Only two years ago, one of the most enlightened African countries was in shambles. Liberia, originally a bridge between Africa and the Western world, was shattered by forces of ethnic and tribal conflict. For 14 years, even children were brought into killing fields. Not only did armed thugs ravage through the country, they also inflicted damage on neighbouring countries, like Sierra Leone. Diamonds were looted, smuggled and sold on the open international market to feed arms and ammunitions to bands of thugs who terrorized decent civilians with macabre threads of cutting their hands and limbs. An initial peace negotiated in 2003 by Nigerian President Obasanjo gave refuge to Taylor while providing the country with a helpful breathing spell. Under U.N. auspices, Liberia gradually regained its daily life. For a change, the Special Representative Alan Doss was an experienced manager and a talented leader of a business-like team. As resident co-ordinator in several countries, including Congo, the U.K. national habitually prepared his homework, grasping local intricacies while maintaining his touch with international decision-makers. Doss is an example of a devoted United Nations official committed to a rightful cause while adapting to changing realities. He persevered, discreetly, effectively. By end of November, Liberia had a generally free and fair election producing a new President -- with a double bonus to the U.N. Ellen Thomson-Sirleaf became the first woman to head an African country. She is also a former U.N. official as Associate Administrator for Africa of the U.N. Development Programme. Those who know the Harvard graduate in New York were impressed by her dynamic drive. She will certainly make a difference in Liberia. It may also help that the President of nearby Sierre Leone is another U.N.D.P. staffer, Haj Ahmed Kaba who worked in the Budget Division.

As in elections everywhere, there were questions about her winning tactics. Her trip to Nigeria between runoff and final votings -- officially to console President Obesanjo for the loss of his wife -- was suspected by adversaries to have been a meaningful clue. Exiled former President Charles Taylor lives there and some of his key former supporters switched to the "Iron Lady." She won disputed areas through possibly dubious alliances. Much has also been made of her last minute swing by a donated helicopter, indicating that she had received financial backing from somewhere. However, finance has not been a problem for her competitor, international soccer star George Weah. United Nations and other international observers who witnessed the elections declared her the clear and fair winner.

Incidentally, when still at U.N.D.P., Mr. Kaba had the habit of having his coffee at the Delegates Lounge at precisely 12:30pm every working day. He was regularly joined by his colleague Khaled Yassir. When President Kaba returned to the U.N. for the year 2000 Summit, he managed to find a few minutes out of the General debate for a quick coffee at the Lounge at exactly the same time.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf volunteered regularly for press briefings which were truly brief and to the point. She stood up for the cause of women while practicing what she preached. More practical than theatrical, she conveyed a dignified and enlightened image of an African woman.

As Liberia moves into a new phase with neighboring Sierre Leone at its helpful side, it provides an opportunity for the U.N. to maintain, or even increase its support in every feasible aspect. It is a worthwhile investment in human development that Liberia (and Sierre Leone) deserve. The U.N. could not ever have better partners than the leaders of these countries who know precisely what the needs and limitations are on both sides of the donor-recipient operation. To begin with, the outside world should know more and better about that U.N. success story; then the development mechanism will follow. Meanwhile, heartiest congratulations to the first woman President in Africa, our former colleague Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. And three cheers for Alan Doss.