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Shashi Tharoor in Liberia

Mayank Bubna is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 14, 2009

    Shashi Tharoor’s recent visit to Liberia and other countries in West Africa was an informal meet-and-greet – one week of charming diplomacy with no crucial or burning Indian interests on the agenda. Accompanied by more than a dozen business tycoons and Indian diplomats based in West Africa, he packed his days with bilateral meetings, events, and visits to Diaspora communities. The visit to Liberia in particular was important to reassert India’s commitment to that oft-forgotten part of the world. The last such display of solidarity was almost four decades ago – when then Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh visited Liberia in 1971. In his public remarks, Tharoor dwelt on the expected – India’s aid in agricultural development and police reform, in return for Liberian support for a permanent seat for India on the Security Council as well as access to mineral resources and mining rights for Indian companies.

    India however needs to keep several factors in mind in its bilateral engagement with Liberia. The country is just emerging from a civil war, and despite a favorably conducted election which brought President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, Liberian politics remain elitist and driven by tribal dichotomies. At the sub-national level, there is still very much a patron-client relationship between leaders and the people. Resource management, especially when it comes to mining, timber logging and other related industries are placed not only under the control of regional representatives in Monrovia but also under that of tribal leaders. The writ of the government often only extends to Monrovia’s boundaries, with much of the rest of the country still suffering from lawlessness and banditry.

    These problems were only exacerbated when recently Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission advised the removal of President Sirleaf from public office for her collusion with different warring factions in the armed conflicts between 1989 and 2003. Liberian elections are due in 2011, and how closely India wants to associate itself at this point with a government with an unpredictable future is debatable. Ethnic tensions and political and economic corruption are rampant in Liberia, and dealing with these institutional problems is a monumental challenge for any outsider.

    One of the items on the bilateral agenda is the training of 30 to 40 Liberian police officers in India. President Sirleaf cited the problem of police training under the UN as highly problematic because of diverse opinions on the instruction programme and lack of a coherent plan of action. She preferred India to take on the responsibility of training Liberia’s entire police force. While this might represent a goodwill gesture on the part of the Liberian government, and significantly augment India’s security role in the region (India already has an all-female peacekeeping police contingent from the CRPF in Liberia), India needs to have a better understanding of the security situation in the country before making any immediate decisions.

    Firstly, training 30 to 40 Liberian police officers in India will amount to only nominal improvement in security. Secondly, most armed security personnel in Liberia have their roots in the civil war, when they belonged to one or more armed factions. Post-war Liberia has essentially inherited disorganized security forces that have little support and trust among the general public. While several groups were disbanded or disarmed, problems of management, loyalty, and coherence continue to beset the policing apparatus. Furthermore, no less than fourteen separate internal security organizations exist, many of them with overlapping or superfluous mandates.

    Secondly, Liberia’s primary security problem is internally driven, with threats arising mainly from armed gangs in-country. In such a scenario, the policing force would not only have to be equipped for traditional law and order services but also occasionally participate in activities led by the military. Training such a police force will be a monumental task, especially in light of the rampant corruption amongst security forces.

    Finally, it is important to ensure that any security sector reform involves the civil society. Traditional approaches to security in Africa have usually been geared towards regime survival rather than building a comprehensive framework for defence. Civil society has very strong roots in Liberia and is the one source of hope, often looked upon with awe because it was precisely the efforts of such groups that led to former brutish regimes being overthrown and the emergence of democracy.

    By engaging Liberia, India is also stepping into the domain of what could be considered American interests. Tharoor’s trip followed close on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tour of Africa. Secretary Clinton reaffirmed American commitment to help Liberia rebuild its society. Given their shared histories, vis-à-vis the slave trade, Liberia and the United States have a special bond. This may or may not work out to India’s advantage. On the one hand, having a great power in the vicinity helps reduce security threats to any business interests. Furthermore, with growing bilateral ties between India and the US, India’s growing interest in Liberia might even be looked upon favourably by the United States. On the other hand, American presence could also undermine India’s own efforts to play a more dominant role in Liberian economy and politics.

    India-Liberia economic relations have been fairly cordial and strong, second only to the thriving Lebanese population in the country. Indian firms have recorded some successes. 60 NRI/PIO firms are operating in Liberia at the moment, with investments as diverse as in iron and steel, drugs, textiles, scrap, machines and chemicals. India has also pledged assistance to the Liberian agricultural sector. Total trade turnover for the last year was approximately US $263 million – not an insignificant number considering Liberia’s size and population. Tata Steel was recently allowed to bid for an iron ore mine valued at $1.5 billion. Arcelor-Mittal was also awarded mining rights in exchange for massive development projects amounting to $930 million. At the same time, however, most economic activity is restricted to Monrovia. Few roads or infrastructure exist outside the capital. Lack of infrastructure severely undermines the ability of small companies to conduct operations in the interior.

    Irrespective of the negatives, India needs to continue to remain committed to Liberia. Despite the failures in governance, development and corruption in the continent in general, Tharoor’s visit confirms that India needs Africa as much as Africa needs India.