When the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean off the West Coast of Africa, Liberia is plunged into darkness. Even the capital city, Monrovia, boasts only a few points of light where companies and individuals with the means have purchased their own generators, or car batteries are hooked up to lights that use DC power. The rest of the people use candles, if they can afford them.
Life for most Liberians is hell. Getting a battery and keeping it charged is only one of the labors of survival here. The electricity system has long been inoperative, but there is no running water either, and phones are few and far between, when they work.
Most buildings have been severely damaged by war and related looting, and having glass in your windows is a luxury not many homes enjoy.
The food staple is rice, but a 100lb bag, which can feed an averagesized family for a month, costs around $20, more than the whole monthly salary of many civil servants.
And then unemployment is 85 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), or "over 70 percent," according to senior government officials in Monrovia.
How do people survive?
The population is dressed in secondhand clothes, imported in bales and sold everywhere. In fact selling clothes itself is one of the businesses that keep some families alive. A bale costs $100 and, if the clothes are reasonably presentable, can bring in $120 when sold on the street.
In fact, even those employed can rarely survive on a salary alone. Most have to find a way to supplement their pitifully small official incomes with some sort of commerce.
The land is fertile, fed by heavy rains in a season that lasts for more than half the year, and many farmers, some uprooted from their own property by civil war, eke out an existence through subsistence farming on small plots of land.
But the extended family is probably the most important lifepreserver in Liberia. "If we fire an employee, we fire 50 people who depend on him," says National Port Authority managing director, Alphonso Gaye. The NPA is one of the country's few going concerns, most having been shuttered by the years of civil strife.
There are over a dozen NGOs operating in the country, including the United Nation's World Food Program, which supplies staples to the 130,000 displaced people in the camps on the outskirts of Monrovia.
But nearly all Liberia's three million people live in desperation, or close to it.
A freighter from the Ivory Coast lies capsized at the Monrovia Free Port pier where it docked more than a year ago. A visit to the site in October this year was a gutwrenching experience.
A couple hundred boys were clambering over the flooded vessel and in the water it is submerged in, looking for anything at all they could salvage, to keep or sell. On the quay, small groups argued over the loot.
The subject of one group's dispute? A pair of plastic flip flops that had been recovered from the wreck.
Over 30 men and boys have lost their lives here, and one container pulled from the ship was found with 16 skeletons inside, boys who had lost their lives desperately fighting over plastic shoes or the like.
To get the bigger picture into perspective, consider the government budget. For this fiscal year (July 2002 to June 2003), it is only $70 million, a little over 10 percent of the prewar figure. And the minister of finance, Charles Bright, says already deeper spending cuts have had to be made due to lower than projected government revenue.
Keeping the treasury solvent is a herculean task. Civil servant salaries are nine months in arrears, but Minister Bright says he is trying to slowly close the gap by paying at least one salary a month (January checks went out in October), and more when possible.
The total cost of the 45,000 on the government payroll is $18 million a year.
The main government revenue sources are customs duties, the maritime registry (around $20 million a year) and forestry exports, in that order.
But the government has few options. It receives no international aid at all, and no international lending either. The domestic banking sector is weak, and only able to provide very limited shortterm credit to the government.
In October the International Monetary Fund was on the verge of expelling Liberia for its arrears on some $3.5 billion in international debt to governments, the IMF, World Bank and private lenders, but the intervention of Central Bank Governor Elie Saleeby with the largest members persuaded them to postpone a decision until spring next year.
For several years Liberia has paid $50,000 a month to the IMF as a goodwill gesture, the government being unable to do more than that as long as it languishes under sanctions and is unable to attract donor aid or foreign investment.
What's more, because of the sanctions imposed by the UN on Liberia in April 2001, senior government officials are not generally allowed to travel abroad to argue the country's case. For the October IMF meeting to vote on Liberia's membership, Minister Bright was not granted permission to attend by the UN committee in charge of issuing waivers.
There are a few bright spots, though.
Central Banker Saleeby has managed to get the Central Bank computerized and checks at any of the four commercial banks can be cleared in a day. He has also seen to it that banks maintain appropriate prudential standards, with reserve requirements of 18 percent for US dollars and 50 percent for Liberian dollars (there are about 50 Liberian to one US dollar). And a year ago a mobile phone service began operations, providing a basic service in the capital area, although the cost of phones and prepaid cards (with set number of minutes of use) are very high for most Liberians.
If you have money, there are plenty of goods to buy. Supermarkets are surprisingly well stocked and with import duties no more than 10 percent for most products, the basic costs of goods is not too high.
However, nearly all commerce in Liberia is in the hands of Lebanese traders, some of whom have been in the country for several generations. The traders often inflate prices, and little of the income is turned into domestic investment. Instead, it goes overseas.
"The Lebanese have us in a stranglehold," one senior official said. But even the Lebanese community has been affected by war. Before the civil war started in 1990, there were 10,000 in Liberia, the largest Lebanese community in West Africa. Today there are some 2,000. But getting Liberians to replace Lebanese and generally take over the development of the country will not be easy. Some 70 percent are illiterate.