Monrovia, Liberia: The United Nations is everywhere. As we touched down at the Roberts International Airport here a half dozen UN helicopters rested on the tarmac next to two small UN Humanitarian Air Service Planes. We were picked up in UN-marked shuttle buses, and hundreds of peacekeepers and UN police from the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) lined the road from the airport to the city.
En route we passed the headquarters of the Ghanaian, Indian, and Nigerian battalions. We also saw a number of signs designating UNMIL “Quick Impact Projects.” As the name would suggest, these are UNMIL-sponsored construction jobs meant to garner good will and show some positive results for the peacekeeping mission, which numbers around 15,000.
The majority of UNMIL’s uniformed personnel are police. At a small market in town, I had the chance to meet the operational commander of the famous Indian Female Formed Police Unit. (Pictured here meeting President Clinton.) We’ve reported on this experimental unit on Dispatch before, and seeing them operate in person, I can say that they stand shoulder-to-shoulder — and AK-47 to AK-47 — with their male counterparts.
Liberia certainly has a long way to go. The civil war that raged here in the 1990s and early 2000s killed hundreds of thousands and completely destroyed the country’s physical infrastructure. The road that connects the airport to the capital is lined with light poles devoid of lights; electricity, if available, is almost exclusively provided by generator.
Liberia is also in desperate need of intellectual firepower, particularly for middle managers of public sector jobs. The health sector was particularly hard hit. An American expat nurse affiliated with the Clinton Foundation served as one of our guides and told us that only about 45 doctors remain in the country (this counts foreign doctors).
Still, visiting Liberia today, you could not help but get a sense of optimism. The country’s leadership is strong. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — Africa’s only female head of state — is popular in her country, and very popular across Africa. The security situation is also stabilizing thanks to UNMIL. Incidentally, I asked our guide her impressions of the public’s attitude toward UNMIL. In responding she referenced a recent radio call-in show in which the host asked people to say what would happen if UNMIL left. Apparently, people were apoplectic at even the prospect of UNMIL’s departure.
We are off to Senegal now. Here’s another picture of a Liberian peacekeeper, standing guard outside President Sirleaf’s office.