On a trip to Liberia this month, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline says he saw signs of progress and stability, but also signs that the West African nation’s hard-fought peace was still fragile, even a decade after its brutal civil war.
“It’ll be a long time before it gets to be where it needs to be. They’re literally rebuilding a country almost from scratch,” he said in an interview at his Pawtucket office Friday. “But they’re at a really critical stage right now. Over the next two years, they’re going to have to significantly step up their capacity to take on these challenges. It’s sort of the moment of truth.”
The Rhode Island Democrat returned Thursday from a four-day trip organized and paid for by the United Nations Foundation, a private nonprofit organization established by CNN founder Ted Turner to support the U.N.’s work.
During the trip, Cicilline and fellow Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, met with officials from the U.N. and the U.S. Embassy, as well as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, local lawmakers and law-enforcement officials.
Cicilline said he visited U.N.-supported programs helping rape victims, and saw living conditions in a rural prison and observed a riot-control demonstration by the national police.
Liberia is slowly emerging from a 14-year-long civil war that ended in 2003. An estimated 250,000 died and hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee during the war years.
Among the places Liberian refugees ended up was Rhode Island, which, at one point, had one of the highest concentrations of Liberians anywhere in the United States.
Cicilline said one of the toughest parts of the trip for him was hearing from adolescent girls who were victims of sexual assault, which remains one of Liberia’s thorniest problems postwar.
That moment came on his first full day in the country, when the group visited West Point, a notorious slum area in Monrovia, the country’s capital. Cicilline says the girls, who ranged in age from 9 to 13, were taking part in outreach programs supported by the U.N. and Liberian government. “They had really heartbreaking stories,” he said. “Rape is a pervasive, horrific and a very, very serious problem.”
Cicilline, who remained mostly in the capital city, said he was struck by how so many Liberians still lacked sanitation, electricity and other basic services. “That civil war must have really decimated that country. To describe that as tremendous progress, 10 years later?” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe that’s so. I wasn’t there when the war happened.” Cicilline also said Liberia, which was founded in the 1820s as a colony for freed American slaves, remains a challenging environment for U.S. private investment.
“There are real questions about title of property,” he said, referencing a clause in the Liberian constitution that says land can only be owned by black Liberian citizens. “Also, there’s an absence of a skilled work force.”
During a dinner with members of the Liberian legislature, Cicilline said, he relayed concerns from Rhode Island Liberians that lawmaker pay was exorbitantly high in Liberia. “In a very poor country, it’s a real issue,” Cicilline said. “The legal compensation for a House or Senate member is between $20,000 and $30,000 U.S. dollars, whereas the salary for a police officer is $150 a month.”
Cicilline, who plans to meet with Rhode Island Liberians in the coming weeks, says he left Liberia convinced that international peacekeeping efforts were still necessary there.
“But for the presence of the international forces and the U.N. peacekeepers, it’s hard to imagine what the current conditions would be,” he said. “They’re really helping maintain peace and security.”