For Liberia, 2011 has loomed on the calendar since the country held its first post-war election in 2005. The winner of the vote five years ago, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, came to office pledging to be a one-term president. She has since announced that she will seek re-election in November 2011.
Although she enjoys widespread international support, particularly from the US, Johnson Sirleaf faces mixed domestic popularity. Many Liberians express frustration at the pace of progress. In early November, she sacked all but one of her cabinet in an effort to wipe the political slate clean before the polls.
Former football star George Weah, Johnson Sirleaf’s main opponent in the 2005 election, intends to stand again, and the candidate list is becoming a crowded field. Other prominent figures planning to challenge the incumbent include former rebel leader Prince Johnson and two politicians who also took part in the 2005 election, Charles Brumskine and Togba-Nah Tipoteh. The final report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, addressing the consequences of Liberia’s 14-year civil war and released in 2009, had been expected to dominate the political debate up to the 2011 vote, but none of its recommendations have been implemented.
This is a shortcoming that could be exploited by Johnson Sirleaf’s rivals. Liberians will also be watching the progress of the war crimes trial in The Hague of former President Charles Taylor. Taking no chances, the UN Security Council voted in September 2010 to maintain the presence of 9,400 UN soldiers and police until after the elections.
The UN commitment takes the country closer to the planned completion in 2012 of the US-backed training of Liberia’s army, when domestic forces should be better able to maintain security. Institutions are growing stronger. The National Elections Commission, the Land Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission all have more authority, but they still lack capacity.
The government has made a concerted effort to attract members of the diaspora to help fill the gap in skills and drive the government’s reforms. The export-based economy suffered during the financial crisis, when prices fell for Liberia’s main exports, especially rubber, iron ore, timber and palm oil. However, economic activity has since strengthened thanks to a stable exchange rate and subdued inflation, which the IMF estimated at 7.2% in 2010, down from 17.5% in 2008.
The IMF forecasts that growth in real GDP, which was 4.6% in 2009, will be 6.3% in 2010 and 9.5% in 2011. Export growth has been driven by rising rubber production and prices. Foreign investment is rising, led by several iron-ore and palm-oil deals, with about $10bn committed to Liberia for 2010-2011. Oil is the latest natural resource to emerge as a potential source of revenue, following a discovery off Sierra Leone near the border with Liberia in 2009.
In September 2010, Chevron signed a three-year agreement to explore for oil and gas. The fiscal situation has been strengthened by debt-relief commitments. Relief amounting to $4.6bn was facilitated by the IMF and World Bank in June 2010 after Liberia met the requirements for the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative.
The 19-nation Paris Club group of creditors cancelled a further $1.2bn in September 2010. The government says the money saved will go to social services and infrastructure. But government capacity remains limited. It will be hard for Monrovia to find adequate funding for essential programmes, although there is at least the promise of increasing government revenues, which are expected to reach $353m in 2011, up from $301m in 2010.