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More challenges ahead

-UNMIL Boss reminds Liberians

As Liberia bounces back from the “national nightmare” of a devastating Ebola epidemic which claimed more than 4,000 lives, the country must also prepare for a series of future challenges – from the build-up of its security sector to the undertaking of critical General and Presidential Elections in 2017, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to Liberia or UNMIL chief Karin Landgren, has said.

According to UN News Service, Ms. Landgren has expressed optimism that Liberia had weathered the worst of the Ebola crisis as the number of confirmed cases has now dwindled to zero and the nationwide panic has stabilized.

In an interview with the UN News Service Wednesday, 6 May SRSG Landgren said, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) will pronounce Liberia Ebola freed if no new case is confirmed by Saturday, saying, “So this is so eagerly anticipated. It’s been 14 months of a national nightmare, at times. Especially last August, when the country felt like it was teetering on the brink and panic was rising; anger was rising. And no one had seen an epidemic like this before. It was very hard to know what to do.”

The UNMIL boss however cautioned that at this point, it does appear to be under control in Liberia but W.H.O. has also been careful to say that until it’s gone from the region as a whole, there are risks that it can come back. “So we await Sierra Leone’s and Guinea’s conquering of Ebola as well.”

She said the UN and other partners recognized quite early on that this was more than a public health crisis, adding that certainly, health services collapsed almost immediately, but there were immediate risks to public security as commodity prices grew and people became restive about that.

“There was a state of emergency; the army was called out. I’m convinced that the continued presence of UNMIL was reassuring for the population and the fact that we have offices all over the country actually contributed to convening the actors who needed to come together.”

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She paid tribute to the extraordinary works of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), beginning with the French medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, which contributed to reversing the situation along with partner governments, particularly the [United States], who threw resources at it, noting, “It was a real collective effort recognizing that no one had seen a problem on this scale before: Ebola in an urban centre where it spread like wildfire.”

On the question of helping the Liberian government to regain public trust Madam Landgren said the top responsibility for building confidence in the Government and Government institutions lies with the Government of Liberia, stressing that people need to see the Government present all over the country, which it’s not. 

“It’s a very centralized Government. And they need to have adequate service delivery – whether we are talking about justice, security or health care. It’s going to be a long road for Liberia to establish all these services and give the population confidence in them. UNMIL can certainly help and is working very hard on the security sector in particular but this is a national challenge which will be longer in duration than the life of the peacekeeping mission”, she noted.

Commenting on plan by UNMIL to drawdown over 1,200 military personnel from the Mission by September, the SRSG said this is part of a drawdown that was planned in 2012. 

She said when the Mission began in 2003, it had an authorized strength of 15,000 troops, and she took up as head of the Mission in 2012, the troops had reduced to 8,000. “So there had already been a significant drawdown. This phase, which will take us down to about 3,600 military [personnel], was planned and is absolutely timely and appropriate. What the Security Council will be discussing in September is what comes next, including the exit strategy for the Mission.”

She said with Ebola out of the way, Liberia has other challenges: In October, two of her neighbors,  Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea are going to elections, which are crucial to Liberia’s stability coupled with Presidential and General Elections here in 2017 when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will step down after two terms. 

“A lot is going to be at stake in 2017 and I have encouraged the Security Council to maintain a steady engagement and assess what is appropriate based on the facts on the ground. One Council member assured me that they would take this step-by-step.”

SRSG Karin Landgren added that her immediate priority from now to July when she departs the Mission is to give maximum support from to two excellent initiatives that the Government has thrown its weight behind, including the number one priority of strengthening Liberia’s own security sector to take over responsibilities from UNMIL. 

“The Security Council has told Liberia that they expect a complete transition of security responsibilities from the UN to the Government by 30 June 2016. And, although at this point UNMIL only performs half a dozen tasks on behalf of the Government, it will be challenging for the Government to take over full responsibility for those. And that has to be my first priority”, the UNMIL Chief concluded.

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