Scars and Stripes
For President Sirleaf, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that the former warlords she is trying to distance herself from are still members of her cabinet. Jewel Howard Taylor is senator for Bong County although she is under a UN travel ban and assets freeze. Prince Johnson, who helped steer Liberia into civil war and ordered the torture of ousted President Doe, was elected as a senator. And Adolphus Dolo, a commander under Taylor who was responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers, was elected to the legislature.
Sirleaf also has to deal with the enormous weight of the debt burden accumulated by her predecessors, who used at least part of the funds to fuel Liberia's civil war and didn't worry about making payments. The bind Liberia finds itself in today is that it must clear its past-due bills to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank in order to receive any new funding from the multilateral institutions to reopen schools, start job-training programs or reintegrate people into communities. Two years into Sirleaf's presidency, Liberia only now has been able to secure an agreement to cancel the $1.5 billion in debt that is in arrears. Liberia is eligible for the three-year, IMF-supported initiative for heavily indebted poor countries, which will ultimately lead to the clearing of the country's $4.1 billion of principal debt.
"The debt campaigners celebrate the arrears clearance as a victory because the country is no longer held hostage," Emira Woods said. "But we recognize it's a long way to go to get full cancellation of Liberia's principal debt." To get there, Liberia will have to jump through even more hoops, as it is required to privatize, lower public spending and keep tabs on inflation.
Meanwhile, former fighters such as Jion continue to sleep on the streets, begging for money and food.
Although Reverend Witherspoon highlights Sirleaf's accomplishments--free education for all children and basic skills training for many--he laments that not enough has been done for former soldiers. "We have to avoid ex-combatants going back into the bush and getting involved in conflict that could derail the peace process of the nation," he said, a mission that is becoming more difficult as the wars in Guinea and the Ivory Coast rage on and former fighters view the wars as economic opportunities. In Liberia, where food and resources are scarce, a generation of youth faces this problem. And as long as there are unskilled and uneducated youth, there is the likelihood that there could be another civil war, with a new generation of child soldiers.
At the very least, Witherspoon said, the young men who play on the soccer team, like Jion, should be given a job--any job--to keep them off the streets. But that hasn't happened. When Jion is asked how long he's been sleeping outside the bank on Randall Street, he pauses, thinks for a minute and then says, "For a long time."
For now all Jion can do is wait and hope for help. His answer comes when he's told that he will be one of the soccer players who will join the Amputee All Stars in Turkey. As he limps down Randall Street with his soccer medal from the previous day's game around his neck, he tells anyone who will listen about his upcoming trip. Then after the initial excitement wears off, he asks them if they can spare any change.