You can tell you’re flying into Liberia because the world goes dark. An hour out of Banjul, lights on the ground disappear. Eighteen months into its first proper peace since 1989, after 14 years of spectacularly brutal civil war, Liberia still doesn’t have electricity or running water. It hasn’t had any since February 1990, when Charles Taylor – former warlord, later president, currently in exile in Nigeria, where he’s still causing trouble, according to the Coalition for International Justice, funding armed groups and political parties across West Africa – sent his militia to take out the electricity plant. During his presidency, which he won in 1997 with the sinister campaign slogan ‘You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I’ll vote for you,’ and the promise that if he wasn’t elected, he’d go back to war, he didn’t bother to fix the lights or the water. Either because he was spending the money on cocaine, guns and women, or because he was preoccupied with failing to repel the rebels who finally got him to stand down in the summer of 2003, after attacks on Monrovia so fierce that Liberians still call them World Wars One, Two and Three.
It’s no surprise that Liberia has fallen off the UN’s Human Development Index, because there’s nothing left to measure. Yet this used to be West Africa’s success story. The first African republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847, with a constitution written at Harvard, Liberia had the US dollar for currency, called itself ‘America’s Stepchild’ and played host to the Omega listening station for the US government, as well as the largest CIA station in sub-Saharan Africa. During the affluent 1970s, when Firestone rubber and timber exports made money, Liberians commuted from Monrovia to Washington DC. Now, it’s a failed state. It has few schools, hardly any hospitals, bad roads and no money. UN sanctions, imposed in 2001 to curb Liberia’s support for rebels in Sierra Leone, are still in place (‘to consolidate the peace’, the UN says). The only thing it does have, for now, is peace, because the only thing that works is the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Liberia’s biggest employer and its salvation, in the shape of 15,000 peacekeepers.
In January 2004, I came to Monrovia to research a book on Liberia’s refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The book was commissioned with a view to publication during Refugee Week in the UK, and I had two months to research and write it. The research was easy enough, because three-quarters of Liberians, from the Archbishop of Monrovia down, are or have been refugees or IDPs and everyone has a story. It wasn’t a problem that most of the country was out of bounds, either, because most of the people had moved into the formerly graceful buildings of Monrovia, the capital city built for 300,000 and now housing a million.
I have come back a year later to launch my book here, on a grant from Somerville College, Oxford, which kindly and puzzlingly funds long-gone graduates for such things as a book launch in a country with no bookstores and half the population illiterate. The launch is at Monrovia’s City Hall, one of the few buildings not much the worse for war. The rest of the city is still blackened and crowded, there are still hardly any dogs (they were eaten), and the Atlantic beaches are still spectacular, though no one who knows about Monrovia’s sewage system is fooled by those blue waters. Other things have changed, however. Last year I came on a tiny plane from Abidjan with a missionary, a Lebanese businessman – Lebanese run most of Liberia’s supermarkets, bars and hotels – and a dour Russian crew. This year, I arrive in an SN Brussels Airbus with a couple of hundred German holidaymakers with shorts, tans and loudly expressed confusion about where the hell Liberia is and who switched all the lights off.