In the heart of Monrovia’s worst slum, Gabriel Mobo sits on a wooden bench surrounded by playing grandchildren and surveys his neighborhood – a crush of tin and brick hovels surrounded by trash and putrid water.
At 55, he has lived a life of desperate poverty and survived Liberia’s 14 bloody years of conflict — a small miracle, but he wants more.
“I hope my children or my grandchildren will have lights and electricity,” he says, pausing for a moment to hug one of his grandchildren as countless flies buzz around his shelter, Reuters reports.
“I’m sure by the time this man gets your age, he will live a better life than what I have lived.”
Monrovia’s West Point slum, home to many of the West African state’s former child soldiers and the capital city’s worst crime, is a symbol for a nation thriving to move forward but facing obstacles unimaginable to most in the developed world.
Mobo spent his entire life in West Point and mostly made a living from fishing. His compound is right by the beach — an unappealing strip of sand adorned by some battered fishing boats and covered in human excrement.
A presidential election, in which newly named Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is seeking a second term against former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman and ex-rebel Prince Johnson, has raised hopes of a turning point.
An early vote count released Thursday put Johnson-Sirleaf on 44.5 percent so far, well ahead of Tubman’s 26.5 percent but short of the overall majority needed to spare her from a November run-off against her nearest challenger. It could take another week or longer for the full results to emerge.
One of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, Liberia still bears the unhealed wounds of a 1989-2003 civil war that killed nearly a quarter of a million people and destroyed virtually all of its infrastructure, leaving its four million people in a modern stone age.
“MA ELLEN TRIED HER BEST”
Eight years after the fighting, residents point to some modest gains — mainly that the peace has held and that the government of Johnson-Sirleaf is slowly bringing power, piped water, and paved roadways back to the crumbling and mould-blackened buildings of the seaside capital.
“Development is a gradual process,” said Jackson Jargbah, a 29-year-old student in Monrovia.
“Ma Ellen has tried her best, but more needs to be done, whoever wins this election,” he said, citing unchecked crime, rampant unemployment, and high food prices.
The election will be a test of Johnson-Sirleaf’s record since becoming Africa’s first freely elected female head of state in 2005, and a gauge of future expectations as mining and energy companies plan billions of dollars of investments.
If it can avoid the “resource curse” that has blighted many countries in Africa, revenues from Liberia’s vast iron ore deposits and offshore oil potential could help lift its people, who now survive on an average of less than $1 a day, out of grinding poverty.
But the task for the next president remains huge and could be complicated by a likely withdrawal of the nearly 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers who have helped maintain security across the country since the end of the war.
SINKING INTO THE SEA
Liberia was founded as Africa’s first republic in 1847 by freed American blacks who attempted to recreate the plantation South on African soil, building churches, wearing top hats and sometimes forcing indigenous tribes into labour on farms.
Tensions between the Americo-Liberians and the indigenous population have eased since the war, although Johnson-Sirleaf often mentions her indigenous roots to avoid being painted as part of the traditional Americo-Liberian political elite.
Near her party headquarters on the edge of one of Monrovia’s wealthiest areas, Sinkor, is a dramatic example of the problems facing Liberia’s leaders – an entire neighborhood falling into the sea due to coastal erosion.
“Coconut trees were around here. The flow started coming, coming, coming until finally tide come take some of the houses out around here,” Amos Gbomiah, 22, said in thick patois of the narrow band of sand between the roaring waves and his home, one of dozens torn apart to expose still-inhabited bedrooms.
“What I want from the election is anyone who take over, especially Ellen or whoever, if she take over she must find areas and certify us for us to be there,” he said.
Less than a block away, there is the contrast of rare wealth in a city of deprivation – quiet paved streets lined with high walls topped with barbed-wire and shattered glass, behind them private villas, embassies, NGO and company offices.
A western-style restaurant, Sam’s BBQ, nearby caters to those who can afford $8 for a plate of chicken.
Few Liberians have achieved anything close to middle-class status since the war – something reserved for the moment for the parallel economy propped up by aid groups and the United Nations peacekeeping mission.
But optimism is in healthy supply.
“The new Liberia is coming,” said Lebanese businessman Khalil Azar, a manager of a computer and office supply store in the midst of the capital.
Beever Communications Inc., selling high-end brand name products in a well-lit and air-conditioned space, is a rare sight in a city dominated by market traders hawking used, handmade, or stolen wares out of decrepit storefronts.
“Things are not bad at all, especially from six, seven years ago, everything is better and better. And we are expecting more,” Azar said of his plans for two new shops.
“People who were running away from the war, now people are coming back, from America from Liberia, anywhere from out of Liberia they are coming back now.”
But perhaps the greatest hope can be found inside the offices of the National Oil Company of Liberia – a state-run entity that, to date has no oil to speak of and which leases its two floors from the Episcopal Church in the centre of town.
“Within the next 12 months the prospect looks very good,” said NOC President Christopher Neyor said of drilling by U.S. firms Anadarko and Chevron and approaches by other oil majors like Exxon Mobil and Petrobras.
“Natural resources can lift people out of poverty if they are managed well.”
He said the NOC was preparing legislation on local hiring, transparency, royalties and state share so that Liberia can manage energy revenues and avoid the corruption and violence seen in other West African oil producers “long before we become a producer.”
But he added the key to continued investment – including in the country’s rich iron ore deposits which have already drawn miners ArcelorMittal and BHP Billiton — will be for Liberia to remain peaceful.
Voting in the Tuesday poll passed calmly, though observers have cautioned the results could be a flashpoint for street clashes — as happened following an election dispute in 2005. Voters seem keen to prove those fears wrong.
“If they give us exactly what they put in there, we will accept it,” said Victor Freeman, a security guard and supporter of opposition candidate Tubman, referring to the ballot boxes.
“We have seen enough fighting, what we want is peace and prosperity.”