Liberia: President Bush Meets Liberia's Transition Leader; Debt Issue Unresolved

11 February 2004

Washington, DC — President George W. Bush held a brief low-key meeting Tuesday in the Oval Office with Liberia's transition government chairman, Gyude Bryant, and assured him of firm U.S. support for the west African nation's reconstruction efforts.

"We are very grateful and we'll show you that we'll use your resources very well," Bryant pledged in remarks to reporters afterward.

At the National Press Club on Monday, Bryant vividly described a devastated Liberia, once considered a middle-income nation, and said he was taking that message to Bush. "Decades of war, violence and bad governance have destroyed the few functioning facilities and institutions that we have boasted of before. Today, our roads, health facilities, water supply systems, electricity grid, schools, public buildings and private homes all lie in ruin."

Liberia's two-year reconstruction budget, based on a World Bank estimate of needs, is US$487m, and Bryant said there had been some worry that it might be difficult to attract the needed funds. But last week in New York, governments participating in a United Nations International Reconstruction Conference on Liberia promised US$520m, with the U.S. pledging US$200m to the fund and another US$245m for peacekeeping operations. Congress approved these funds last October as part of an US$87 billion authorization for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Considering the much vaunted donor fatigue which often afflicts requests of this nature," Bryant said, "the New York response indeed demonstrates considerable international good will for our reconstruction program."

Bryant said that as important as reconstruction money is the signal sent by the U.S. contribution that U.S.-Liberian relations are also being reconstructed. "Given what some observers have often described as the rather ambiguous relationship between the United States and Liberia, and in light of the recent developments in U.S.-Liberian relations since the departure of Charles Taylor [we] are anticipating a much-needed mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and Liberia," Bryant said. A "new direction in an old relationship" is being forged, the interim leader said.

But Bryant did not provide details of what he expected beyond what the United States is already committed to providing. "What we asked for on Friday [in New York] was simply to help us become civil again," Bryant said, "so that Americans can come to Liberia and vacation and enjoy their profits; so that our children don't wish to go to America, so that you won't have this huge influx running to America."

Liberia's US$1.6 billion debt, 30 percent of which is owed to the United States, was apparently not discussed in the White House meeting. Debt relief is needed, Bryant said during his press club appearance, "so that our current revenue, along with the assistance that will be provided, can be used for the reconstruction on an ongoing process."

"Liberia's debt, incurred by Charles Taylor and [former president Samuel K.]Doe before him as they built their machinery of repression, is illegitimate and should not be thrust on the shoulders of Liberia's children," says Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus and a Liberian herself. Woods notes that the Bush administration is campaigning "tirelessly" to cancel "onerous" debt in Iraq and thinks that the administration's arguments there apply perfectly to Liberia. "Cancellation of Liberia's debt is the surest way to kickstart the economy without placing more of a burden on the international community."

Asked about the issue in New York on Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell responded: "There are a number of programs that deal with debt reduction, and obviously, we want to do everything we can to assist the Liberians as they get started. We're putting a lot of money into Liberia now. That's why we're here now. I'd have to talk to my colleagues in Washington with respect to what we might be able to do with debt reduction efforts for Liberia. And I'll be discussing this with [Treasury] Secretary [John] Snow and others."

The Bryant government is scheduled to organize elections during the last part of 2005, with the inauguration of a new government slated for January 2006.

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