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LIBERIA: United States threatens to cut aid if elections are delayed

MONROVIA, 3 December 2004 (IRIN) - The United States on Friday threatened to cut its aid for Liberia's post-war reconstruction if the country's transitional parliament delayed elections scheduled for October 2005 by insisting on a new census.

"There are many places in the world that need US assistance. The US is here to help, but if a few small-minded, selfish Liberians are allowed to play endless games designed to keep Liberia from keeping its end of the bargain in the peace process, there is a real possibility that our assistance will have to be re-directed," John Blaney, the US ambassador in Monrovia, told a press conference.

The United States is the single biggest aid donor to Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century.

A US embassy document made available to IRIN shows that Washington has pledged $523 million in aid to the West African country since it emerged from a 14-year civil war in August last year.

Blaney castigated Liberia's interim parliament for demanding a fresh census before the nation heads to the ballot box in 10 months time.

The last census in this heavily-forested West African nation was carried out in 1984. It put the population at three million, but nobody really knows how many people died in the civil war, or how many of the 350,000 refugees who fled abroad will come home to vote.

Blaney said the census amendment, introduced to the elections bill before it was approved by the chamber two weeks ago, could set back Liberia's planned presidential and parliamentary elections until 2008.

"It is time to stop calling for census that would take three years to implement, and instead, start the ball rolling to return Liberia to democratically-elected government on schedule," Blaney said. "Precious time needed to prepare for elections is slipping away."

The transitional legislative assembly comprises 76 nominated representatives of the three armed factions which fought in the civil war and civil society groups.

Blaney and Jacques Klein, the head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) have both hinted publicly in recent months that some of these groups were trying to delay elections so that they could prolong their stay in power .

Parliament began discussing the elections bill, which must be passed before serious preparations for elections can begin, in August. However, the chamber introduced several controversial amendments, including the demand for a census, before approving the bill at a final reading in late November.

It now awaits the assent of Gyude Bryant, the Chairman of Liberia's transitional government to become law.

However, the US ambassador has effectively ordered the legislature to recall the bill and modify it while warning Bryant that he should not give the legislation his stamp of approval in its present form.

Any future aid freeze by Washington would have a huge impact on Liberia's efforts at post-war reconstruction. These range from rebuilding the nation's roads, schools, health clinics and electricity and water supply networks to repatriating refugees and retraining former fighters for a new role in civilian life.

Blaney warned that the US government might also slap travel curbs and asset freezes on anyone trying to obstruct the electoral process.

"We are watching those who are seeking to undermine the elections timetable, or the peace process," the ambassador told reporters. "The US can propose to the UN additions of individuals to both the travel ban list and to the asset freeze list."

Blaney is not the first to complain about parliament's insistence on a fresh census before the nation votes in October 2005, as stipulated by last year's peace agreement.

Liberia's Electoral Commission has already registered a protest, saying such a move would mean postponing the elections.

And another call to forge ahead with the October polls came earlier this week from the head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which helped broker peace in Liberia.

"We are already running behind time," ECOWAS Executive Secretary Mohammed Ibn Chambas said. "We can catch up, but for us to catch up, we need to pass this law very urgently," he said, stressing that the elections timetable had already been fixed by the 2003 peace agreement. "We have to work within it."

Theme (s): Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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