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Liberia, a remarkable African success story, still needs help

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Today, where drug-addled child soldiers once roamed, US-trained troops respond competently when called to action, most recently sending a peacekeeping platoon to Mali.

Future child scholars, not child soldiers, attend free and mandatory primary school. Illiteracy, which once soared above 80 percent, is decreasing thanks to US-sponsored programs.

The economy is rebounding after shrinking by 90 percent, and government coffers have increased more than 1,000 percent since 2003, when the national budget equaled that of the public school district in Carthage, Mo.

Countrywide immunizations and health-care services – with major US support – have halved mortality for children under age 5.

Long-absent electricity illuminates homes and businesses; President Obama's Power Africa initiative promises even more. Smooth roads have replaced cratered streets. New buildings stand in place of bullet-riddled wrecks.

Such a turnaround is historically rare and unambiguously impressive.

Nevertheless, common street wisdom is that corrupt elite in Monrovia use personal connections and government positions to exploit the indigenous people throughout the country. The elite – often and incorrectly perceived to be solely descendants of the freed American slaves that founded Liberia – benefit from peace, while the masses remain impoverished and disempowered. This perception encapsulates the three interrelated challenges that must be overcome.

First, the deepest roots of Liberia's conflict – the freed slaves' original dominance over the indigenous majority by barring them from owning property, voting, or otherwise participating in government – lives on in Liberia's collective memory and outmoded laws, even if not in practice. To many, an exceptionally rankling reminder of this exclusion is Liberia's motto: The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.

Second, distrust and misunderstanding continue to characterize the relationship between Monrovia and the rest of the country after warlords and political entrepreneurs exploited the countryside, where two-thirds of Liberians live. The infamous use of blood diamonds by former Liberian President Charles Taylor – convicted last year in The Hague of war crimes and crimes against humanity – epitomizes the predatory state-society relationship.

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