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Restoring electricity a major challenge for Liberia's next leader

MONROVIA, Liberia—The assistant foreign minister's inbox looked like he hadn't been in for weeks. In a corner of his cluttered desk sat a stack of letters as thick as a phonebook, covered with a layer of dust.

A clerk picked a letter from the pile and shook it. "Look when this arrived," he said. It was dated May 31—almost five months without a reply from the Foreign Ministry.

That unanswered letter was one of dozens, but the backlog wasn't because of neglect alone. It was a result of this West African country's maddening lack of electricity.

With the power grid destroyed during civil war in the 1990s and the government—$3 billion in debt—too broke to buy diesel fuel for generators, the Foreign Ministry's computers, printers and fax machines sit idle, many covered in plastic sheeting to keep off dust.

The ministry has only a few manual typewriters, so mail piles up. Mid-level staffers still come in every day to earn their $20 monthly salaries, but they say they can do little.

"These are very terrible working conditions," said computer analyst Fredrick Jallah. "But there is nothing we can do."

It wasn't always so. During the 1980s, a thermal plant and a hydroelectric plant, financed in part by a U.S. grant, provided power to all of Monrovia. Some of Liberia's smaller cities also had power through local utility providers, although the vast countryside did not.

That changed beginning in 1989, when then rebel leader Charles Taylor launched a bloody attack on the capital. For the next several years, young militiamen rampaged through the country, looting everything in sight. The power plants weren't spared.

"They took cables, control equipment, generators, transformers—anything metal," said Joseph Mayah, managing director of the Liberian Electricity Corp.

More than a decade later, tiny Liberia is still without electricity and struggling to recover from 14 years of civil war, which left the country among the world's poorest.

In the seaside capital of Monrovia, 500,000 residents have grown used to the steady hum of generators that power the city's better hotels and restaurants, as well as the homes and businesses of people who can afford generators and the increasingly costly fuel.

But when the sky goes dark, most of Monrovia does, too.

The city center, bustling during the day, turns eerily quiet at night. People cluster outside dimly lit bars to watch soccer matches on television sets powered by generators or sit around kerosene lamps to chat. Headlights from passing cars briefly bathe streets in white, then disappear.

"Our city is like an old village," said James Varmah, manager of a downtown arcade.

On Oct. 11, when voting was extended past sundown in the country's first election since war ended in 2003, hundreds of Liberians marked their ballots by the light of flickering candles.

Children regularly do schoolwork by candlelight. They rarely venture outside after dark. Since 2003, thousands of United Nations peacekeepers have provided security, but a recent rash of armed robberies has residents on edge once again.

Kedo Williams, who lives in an apartment block near the city center, said she and her neighbors don't allow their preteen children out after 6 p.m. "It's too dangerous," she said.

Williams has a generator, but uses it judiciously. Fuel costs her the equivalent of $3 a day—a considerable amount in a country where half the people live on less than $1 a day. To escape the afternoon heat, she sits in her front yard, in the shade of trees, where she can catch a breeze from the nearby Atlantic.

Government buildings have to conserve, too, and many ministries run generators only a few hours a day. The larger ministries' fuel needs cost the government about $33 per hour, and those that use up their fuel allotments aren't guaranteed new supplies.

Only the Finance Ministry appears to have steady power—perhaps, aid workers say, because it holds the purse strings. Others, such as the Foreign Ministry, have been without fuel for months.

Without power for the elevators, the foreign minister and others must use the stairs to reach their offices on the top floor of the ministry's seven-story headquarters.

"Sometimes the ministers go up there and don't leave all day," said Robert Loromia, assistant minister for public affairs. "They make people come to them."

Loromia said his office used to buzz with the noise of radio broadcasts, faxes and telexes arriving from all over the world. With most of the machines gone, his office functions on cell phones that he and his aides charge on Monrovia's streets, for the equivalent of 50 cents, at one of dozens of shops with thousand-watt generators for just that purpose.

Electricity figures to be a key issue in the Nov. 8 presidential runoff, which pits former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf against soccer legend George Weah. Weah has said restoring power to Monrovia is one of his top priorities; Johnson-Sirleaf has promised to do it within six months.

But Francis Wellens, manager of the European Commission's technical assistance programs in Liberia, estimates that it would take at least 18 months to get regular power to some parts of the city.

The European Commission is supervising a plan to split control of Monrovia's electricity sector among a handful of private companies, starting with an $8.5 million project to rebuild the power grid. Once the grid is up, providing even small amounts of power regularly would require a start-up investment of about $26 million, Wellens said.

The plan seems like small potatoes compared with the huge task of fixing Iraq's power grid, whose cost already is estimated to be in the billions. Still, the Monrovia plan faces major obstacles, not the least of which is drawing investors to an economy rife with corruption and where the last few years have produced a cadre of residents adept at siphoning electricity from neighbors.

Even once the power grid is up, electricity is likely to remain beyond the reach of much of the working population, who earn an average of $2 a day.

"Electricity is a luxury for many people here," Wellens said, "and it will remain a luxury for some time."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LIBERIA

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