Oh, no! Liberia could strike oil

FILE; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Liberia is in a bad neighborhood to be finding oil. West of troubled Nigeria and with a history of resource-funded civil war, the country might do well to worry about local press reports that the small West African nation might soon strike it rich.  Just five years ago, Liberia ended a ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
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592835_080904_EJS5.jpg

FILE; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Liberia is in a bad neighborhood to be finding oil. West of troubled Nigeria and with a history of resource-funded civil war, the country might do well to worry about local press reports that the small West African nation might soon strike it rich. 

Just five years ago, Liberia ended a long-running civil war fueled by timber, diamond, and rubber exports. Those funds bought weapons and power in Liberia -- and neighbors Sierra Leone and Guinea -- throughout a decade of embroiled conflict. Charles Taylor, rebel leader turned president, is now on trial in The Hague for his crimes.

FILE; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Liberia is in a bad neighborhood to be finding oil. West of troubled Nigeria and with a history of resource-funded civil war, the country might do well to worry about local press reports that the small West African nation might soon strike it rich. 

Just five years ago, Liberia ended a long-running civil war fueled by timber, diamond, and rubber exports. Those funds bought weapons and power in Liberia — and neighbors Sierra Leone and Guinea — throughout a decade of embroiled conflict. Charles Taylor, rebel leader turned president, is now on trial in The Hague for his crimes.

Following Taylor’s ouster (and his ominous promise to return), some 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers flooded the country and democratic elections brought to power one of the region’s most respected leaders in 2005. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (pictured above) has worked tirelessly to bring the years of corruption to a close, her first act annulling all timber contracts. The United Nations took note, repealing long-held sanctions on diamond and timber exports.

Liberia, in short, got a fresh start, and it would be a shame to throw oil into the picture. Just look at Nigeria, where management of the oil sector has been famously poor. There, pollution and poverty have stoked a rebellion in which combatants use black-market oil to fund their violence. Corruption is massive. There is good reason to worry that some in Liberia (including the son-in-law of Charles Taylor, now speaker of the house) might see the Nigeria model as “change we can believe in.”

Alas, there probably are oil reserves off the Liberian coast. Northwestern neighbor Sierra Leone has them, and Ghana discovered the stuff in June of 2007. Handled with care, oil revenues could rejuvenate a bankrupt Liberia, funding infrastructure and services that are desperately needed. Yet most successful oil countries (think: Norway) have had transparent, democratic institutions long before the oil gets flowing. Liberia’s young democracy is on that road, but years off from arriving.

Start planning for the black gold rush now, Ellen!

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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