Giving Liberia, at Last, a Decent Airport: Can Ellen and Bako Do It?

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It is legacy time in Liberia today. As the 12-year reign of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf draws to a close, she and all those in her government are struggling to leave a legacy—something tangible that the Liberian people and the world may say confidently—and gratefully—that Africa’s first elected woman President achieved.

Everyone knows that one of the sore eyes on our national landscape is the Roberts International Airport. According to the Historical Dictionary of Liberia, RIA was constructed during World War II through a Defense Areas Agreement between the United States and Liberia. It was initially used heavily by the US Air Force to assist in the transfer of combat troops, aircrafts and armaments from the American continent to war theaters in North Africa, notably Algeria and Morocco. Robertsfield hosted a strategic component of American combat troops, part of the Allied Forces—the USA, Britain, Russia, France and other nations, that were battling the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy and Japan—during World War II.

Japan, on the other hand, launched an unprovoked attack on the pride of America’s naval forces, Pearl Harbor, and this forced a reluctant Washington into World War II.

Remember that by 1940 the Germans had taken complete control of the North Atlantic, daring anyone to attempt plying those waters. The Nazis had flooded the ocean with their torpedo boats that sank any enemy vessel in sight.

The Allies were forced to find an alternative route to dispatch their combat troops, war machinery and armaments to the African Theatre. The geographic experts soon discovered a direct and easy connection from Brazil to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, more particularly Robertsfield. That was the strategic importance of Robertsfield during that war.

To show his gratitude to Liberia, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Robertsfield in 1943, the first American President to set foot on Liberian soil. He was welcomed by President Edwin J. Barclay.

The airbase was closed in 1947, and a private American firm was formed and began an airfreight service between the USA and Liberia. Later the Liberia Company, founder of the International Trust Company, forerunner of IB Bank, Cocopa Rubber Plantation and initiator with the Liberian government of the
Liberia Maritime enterprise’s Flags of Convenience, was formed. The Company began operating an airfreight service between the USA and Robertsfield. Later, the Liberia Company, a subsidiary of Stettinius Associates, soon got the Liberian government to grant management rights to Pan American Airways to provide biweekly flights between the USA and Liberia. Pan Am, which it was later called, made Robertsfield, later named Roberts International Airport (RIA), the main hub for transatlantic flights from the United States to Africa. All Pan Am flights stopped first at Robertsfield, before taking American passengers on to Lagos, Nigeria, Nairobi, Kenya and Johannesburg, South Africa.

This gave Liberia, America’s closest African partner, the opportunity to develop a first class international airport. Soon, several major European airlines, including KLM, SwissAir, Scandinavian Airlines and Lufthansa, the German carrier and even the supersonic carrier started landing at RIA.

Remember Moshe Meyer, the Israeli tourism developer that built the Ducor? We have mentioned him in many Editorials. It was the Robertsfield hub that encouraged him to decide to launch West African tourism from Liberia. But he was vigorously discouraged by the corrupt Liberian officials, who wanted bribes up front before he could make the next move after the Ducor. That is how he ended up in the Ivory Coast and, finding President Houphuoet-Boigny and his officials very serious and patriotic, he stayed and developed their tourism.

Liberia lost not only the opportunity to develop its tourist industry which, a half century later we still have not done; but also the opportunity to build a first class airport and all the other opportunities it could have brought.

Today, the Ellen government has negotiated with European banks and the World Bank for US$60 million to improve the RIA runway. The government has also negotiated with the Chinese for a US$50 million to build a modern RIA terminal.

RIA Managing Director Wil Bako Freeman last week told the Daily Observer that the Chinese are also designing the new terminal, to be approved by “the Liberian government.”

Here is a great and wonderful opportunity for President Sirleaf and Bako Freeman to make a lasting mark on Liberia’s landscape.

Will they do it, putting everything else aside and acting selflessly, honestly, patriotically to give Liberia, at last, a decent international airport that will be the pride of Liberians and the envy of West Africa?

We hope, pray and trust that this will happen, while we watch to see whether it truly will.

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