Liberia Unable to Absorb Thousands of Returnees If Liberians on "temporary protected status" are forced to go home, what would they go back to? Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first woman president, nearly two years ago but has faced huge challenges in trying to get Liberia on its feet.
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Liberia Unable to Absorb Thousands of Returnees

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Liberia Unable to Absorb Thousands of Returnees

Liberia Unable to Absorb Thousands of Returnees

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've just heard a hint of what the Liberians would find if they're forced to go back. One bright spot, Liberians elected Africa's first woman president nearly two years ago. But President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has faced huge challenges - 14 years of conflict that left her country a near wreck.

NPR's West Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now to give us a picture of Liberia today. Hello, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, we just heard Liberia's ambassador to the U.S. say that the country isn't capable of welcoming home the many who fled during the war years. Tell us more about what they'd find.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. I mean, we're talking about tens of thousands of Liberians who fled to the United States as we've heard, to all over West Africa when the war was raging. And there's no way that this country that is now in its post-war phase can absorb all these tens of thousands of people, not to talk about the remittances that many Liberians abroad are sending home.

Liberia is in a state of reconstruction after the war. It needs everything from running water to electricity supplies to school for everybody who would want to go to school to hospitals. And even Monrovia, the capital, doesn't have full running water and electricity. That's not to talk of the Hinterland, as the Liberians call it. So I think Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf would love all Liberians to come home, but she has to say steady on. We can't do it all at once. This is a country that cannot possibly deal with all those returnees just now.

MONTAGNE: It has been four years, though, since the end of that war. Are stability and lasting peace still an issue there?

QUIST-ARCTON: Very much so. There is peace, and for that, the Liberians are grateful after a brutal civil war that finally drove out the person who started it, Charles Taylor - who is now facing war crimes, actually, for the war across the boarder in Sierra Leone. But the U.N. is still there. Liberia still has a huge peacekeeping force. So this is not a country that is standing on its own two feet. There is international goodwill.

Liberia is, potentially, a wealthy country. It has diamonds - diamonds that were used to pursue the civil war, but it needs time to be able to stand on its own two feet. And that's the issue. The U.N. has now said it's going to start drawing down the peacekeepers from next year. Liberians are thinking of all these things: instability, stability, security, as well as jobs, unemployed youths, people who fought former combatants. All these things have to be dealt with, so they feel that you can't pressure us. You can't push us. Otherwise, we may go down that slippery slope again.

MONTAGNE: Now, there was a huge excitement when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in. How is she doing?

QUIST-ARCTON: Justifiably, Africa's first woman president. You know, she - most people, I would say, would give her a reasonable score card between eight and ten out of ten. But she cannot do it alone. This is a country that needs international help still, and will do for quite a while to come. So the Liberians we heard in Jennifer's report are in a way right saying that, yes, we'd like to go home. But many people want to keep one foot in the U.S., one foot in Liberia - one foot in West Africa, elsewhere, one foot in Liberia to see how things go, and go home gently and slowly - not to be rushed home.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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