MONROVIA, Liberia – To see one of the most visible changes to Liberia’s capital city in the decade since the end of the nation’s nearly 15-year civil war, head to Mamba Point, the city’s traditional diplomatic quarter.
There, mere blocks from wide, sandy beaches, sits the U.S. Embassy’s recently built, $164-million headquarters.
Dedicated in January 2012 by then-Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, the 12-acre site had been one of the city’s largest refugee camps for much of the war years period.
As many as 10,000 sought shelter during the peak of fighting, which came 10 years ago this summer.
Known as “Greystone,” the Benson Street compound had once been the U.S. diplomatic residences. It’s located a short walk from what had then been the actual embassy grounds.
Liberians from across the country increasingly sought safe haven behind the compound’s barbed wire walls as rebel forces from the country’s rural interior marched on Monrovia.
They sought to oust President Charles Taylor, a warlord with New England ties who himself had risen to power through a bloody rebellion.
But even there, Liberians were not safe from the violence that would ultimately claim more than 150,000 lives.
Stray mortar shells and rocket and gun fire regularly found their way into the camp.
On Wednesday, I visited the new embassy building, which is part of a sprawling network of U.S. diplomatic buildings on Mamba Point that includes the former embassy complex, as well as the adjacent former British Embassy.
I spoke with Ambassador Deborah Malac, who has served in Liberia since May 2012, on speakerphone from a conference office in the embassy.
She’s slated to return to the country this weekend for events marking the 10th anniversary of the country’s peace accords.
Malac said the United States has helped train Liberia’s army. It also contributes some $200 million in aid to the country each year.
Most of that is via the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, and is focused on four areas: democracy and governance; economic growth; health services and education.
The goal, Malac stressed, is to eventually move the country away from dependence on foreign assistance and toward self-sufficiency.
Malac believes Liberia has a “positive story to tell” in its last decade, pointing to improvements in infrastructure, healthcare, education and other critical areas that are helping drive new private investment and a growing economy.
At the same time, she said, youth unemployment remains unacceptably high and should continue to be a priority for the nation going forward. “That’s where a lot of the tension lies,” Malac said.
In Liberia, youths are defined as anyone 35 or younger and comprise from 60 to 70 percent of the nation’s approximately 3.5. million residents. (While many statistics are cited for Liberia’s unemployment, the embassy cautions that Liberian labor data remains unreliable).
And while there have been significant violent incidents in the country since the 2003 peace accords, Malac says none have risen to the point of jeopardizing the nation’s hard-fought peace.
That includes a police shooting of protesters opposed to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during the 2011 presidential elections that left two dead.
“I think there is a real sense that this country does not want to return to the violence of the 1990s,” Malac said. “There’s a broader sense that violence is not the way to go.”
In coming posts, I’ll cover some of the ambassador’s other thoughts on government corruption, how specifically U.S. aid is being spent on the ground in Liberia and where private U.S. investment plays a role, particularly in developing national resources.
But for an interesting perspective on the early civil war years, here’s an earlier post on Providence resident and former head of the U.S. Embassy in Liberia William Twaddell’s time in Monrovia.