AT A POLLING station in northern Liberia, a 60-year-old, megaphone-wielding elder, dressed in a grease-stained auto mechanic's uniform, shouted instructions. He was in charge of keeping people in orderly voting lines. "We have suffered terribly," he told us. "But this is our last chance. I am here today to save my country."
His weathered hands spoke to a life of hardship. But despite obvious exhaustion, he was eager to carry out what he saw as his civic responsibility. Hundreds of Liberians, young and old, lined up to cast their ballots, and poll workers tallied results into the night, aided only by tiny lanterns and their determination to have a credible election process. There was aggressive oversight by the U.N., but Liberian citizens were the main protagonists.
Less than two years ago during a walk through Monrovia, Liberia's capital, you couldn't miss stepping on spent bullet cartridges from the daily fighting among armed factions carving up the country. But last weekend, Liberians punctuated their efforts to change their country when they chose Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist who previously worked for the World Bank and the United Nations, as their leader. The election results have been challenged (even that process has been orderly and peaceful), but it seems probable that Johnson-Sirleaf will be Africa's first elected female president.
When a phoenix begins to rise, it is important to comprehend from what ashes it is emerging. The U.N. publishes a roster every year that ranks countries in terms of a "human development index." Liberia isn't even listed. Few people live past the age of 40, and unemployment hovers around 80%. There's no central electricity. Hospitals, roads and schools have crumbled.
Government has been a predator in Liberia, venal and corrupt, as one regime after another preyed on the country's vast natural resources and its long-suffering people. Warlord Charles Taylor won presidential elections in 1997 but was driven into exile in a civil war. His army, a network of militias and death squads, has been dismantled, and African and European peacekeepers have helped bring stability.
Yet much remains to be done. Johnson-Sirleaf has vowed to build new government institutions and to ensure oversight to end corruption.
Another task for the new government -- a matter of life and death for Liberia -- is the disarmament, demobilization and re-integration of tens of thousands of ex-combatants.
If the new president can't put unemployed youth to work, they will be ready recruits for any future warlord or merchant of death looking to profit from instability.
As David, a 14-year-old former militia member, said, "A hungry man is a desperate man." Sixteen-year-old James, who was forcibly recruited when he was just 12, said he dreams of going to school. Others like them want to go back to farming if given land and some capital. They were "used, fooled and forced" by their former warlords, but the longer they wait for promised assistance and new opportunities to put their lives back together, the more resentful -- and dangerous -- they will become.
The government must continue efforts to build a new Liberian army from scratch and to overhaul the police force. If the new soldiers and police are not professionally trained and paid regularly, they could revert to their traditions of preying on citizens and destabilizing the government.
The United States has been the largest financier for disarmament and security-sector reform so far, but it will have to do even more -- and get other donors to help the government build the economy and establish the rule of law. Liberia has taken the first step toward bettering itself; it needs international help to make a full recovery.
If the international community fails to come through, and the U.N. peacekeepers use the success of the elections as a justification to leave, Liberia could roll back into war by the end of the decade. Lest we forget, broken promises to ex-combatants in 1997 left a vacuum that Taylor's autocratic regime was only too glad to fill.
Why should Americans care about all of this? Modern-day Liberia was built in large part by freed slaves from the United States. Liberia was also one of Washington's closest African allies during the Cold War. Evidence that Al Qaeda has used Liberia's diamond industry to launder money, and concerns about terrorists operating in failed states, underscore the need to help Liberia prosper. Finally, Liberia is bordered by fragile countries; it now has the potential to become the linchpin for regional stability and economic recovery.
Last weekend's elections are not a panacea. But they represent the first step in a long road to Liberia's recovery and redemption. With a little more international aid and attention, sustainable democracy and development could flourish.