Scarred Liberia: One Traffic Light

Five years after end of Liberian war, reconstruction still a long way off

November 25, 2001


MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ By itself, it's nothing remarkable: a crooked black traffic light, perched atop a short concrete stump at a downtown crossroads.

But this worn-out fixture boasts one quality all its cousins in Liberia lack: It works.
"It's the only traffic light in the whole republic," says taxi driver Olando Mohai. "During the war they destroyed everything, including the lights."

Five years after the end of this West African nation's 1989-96 civil war, they haven't repaired much either.

The capital is still a wreck where soldiers hunker behind sandbags in blown-out, abandoned buildings, and services like electricity and water are luxuries.

The government has promised _ but failed _ to restore public utilities, blaming a rebellion in the north and U.N. sanctions imposed to punish the regime for gun- and diamond-running with brutal rebels across the border in Sierra Leone.

And as for reconstructing the devastated capital, officials argue 90 percent of the city's buildings are owned by private citizens. Rebuilding them, they say, is not the government's job.

Technicians from Liberia Electricity Corp. managed to channel power to the traffic light at the intersection of Broad and Randall streets by stringing two cables from a nearby building. The victim of mandatory power rationing, it functions "about five days a week," but rarely all day, one technician said.

Roughly 30 other lifeless traffic lights are still strung up around town. Some are punctured with bullet holes; others have broken bulbs and wires hanging out.

Technicians say they can't afford spare parts to fix them. Even if they could, the city doesn't have enough electricity to supply them all.

Liberia's main power sources were destroyed during the war, and the government says it is too poor to do much rebuilding.

Last year's budget was a meager $60 million, most of which went to combating a low-level insurgency waged since 1999 by dissidents in the north, Information Minister Reginald Goodridge says.

U.N. sanctions _ bans on diamond exports and on international travel by government officials _ were imposed in May.

Goodridge says they have hindered the government's ability to provide basic services for its citizens. Human rights workers disagree, contending warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor and others close to him are enriching themselves while the nation grows poorer.

Most countries cut off aid when Taylor launched a rebellion in 1989, plunging Liberia into chaos. The war's end produced a stagnant economy with a staggering unemployment rate _ 75 percent, says Goodridge.

Foreign investors, apart from a handful of Lebanese businessmen, are scarce _ and it shows.

One uncompleted 10-story building has a giant yellow crane hanging next to it that hasn't moved in a decade. Construction began 14 years ago, but stopped soon after the war began.

Like many other buildings around the seaside city, grass and weeds sprout from the upper floors. The lower floors are occupied by squatters.

It's hard to find any structure that hasn't been burned or peppered with gunfire.

After nightfall, checkpoints spring up at intersections where soldiers scrutinize the few cars left on the streets.

Most people move around on foot and stick close to home, carrying flashlights. The rich use generators; the poor rely on candles.

Lawyer Tiawan Gongloe uses a car battery to power his TV (for three hours) or a fluorescent light in his study (six hours).

"In the morning, I put the battery back in the car so I can charge it during the day," Gongloe says. "But my two boys have to help me push-start the car."

Times are hard, too, at Liberia's national museum, which once housed relics from the era when freed American slaves founded the country in 1847. Looted during the war, the museum's main hall is now home to a U.N. refugee agency exhibit.

Most Liberians are settling for less.

Asked to cite any positive developments since Taylor came to power, Joseph Harris of Focus, a children's rights group, says: "Well, we can run around here for some hours without being shot at. For me, that's positive."

Copyright 2001 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.