- Flames engulfed part of the Liberian presidential palace on Wednesday afternoon, overshadowing events to celebrate the country’s 159th Independence Day.
Hundreds of onlookers who gathered to watch the flames and smoke rising from the palace were kept away by Ghanaian peacekeepers, part of a 15,000-strong UN force stationed in the country since the civil war ended in 2003.
The flames appeared to be coming from the section of the building where President Ellen Johnson-Sireaf has her offices. It was not immediately clear how the fire started. There were no reported casualties or injuries.
Earlier in the day, Sirleaf had marked the country’s Independence Day by flipping the switch on the first working streetlights Liberians have seen for a decade and a half. Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, founded by freed American slaves.
And on Tuesday night, Africa’s first female president ceremonially turned on the taps to the capital’s first running water since infrastructure fell into disrepair and was destroyed during the 14 years of fighting.
Despite these advances, the country does not have a functional fire-fighting force.
Water carrying trucks from a petroleum company and the UN peacekeeping force were at the seen working to extinguish the fire. By late afternoon, police told IRIN that the situation was under control.
In the 1970s Liberia was an African success story with one of the most robust and developed economies on the continent. But corruption and ethnic tension helped trigger the civil war that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives and left the country and its seafront capital Monrovia in tatters.
President John Kufuor of Ghana, a country subsumed by coups and counter coups in Liberia’s heyday, but now a role model for democracy in the region, attended the morning’s Independence Day celebrations.
Ghana’s Volta River Authority installed a gift of 1,200 electrical poles and loaned generators, which will provide power to five-dozen streetlights, as well as hospitals and public buildings in Monrovia. Funding came mostly from the EU and US.
“Small lights today, big lights tomorrow,” said Sirleaf at the ceremony. “This is just the beginning of our plans to light up the city and beyond.”
Power authorities estimate that US $200 million would be required to renovate the hydro-electric dam on the Saint Paul River which once supplied Monrovia and much of the rest of Liberia with electricity. It was damaged and looted for scrap in the early days of the civil war. Repairing the dam is likely to take three or four years depending on the availability of funds.
Most Liberians cannot wait for public power to be fully restored and instead use generators if they can afford them. Petrol-driven mini-generators - costing US $100 to $150 and known as ‘Tigers’ – are the most popular and just powerful enough to run a refrigerator or television set and a handful of light bulbs.
But the majority of Monrovia's poor and unemployed have to make do with paraffin lamps and candles.
The war has left most Liberians without access to clean drinking water, too. The majority of Liberia’s one million residents buy purified water by the jerry can or bucket, sold from handcarts in the street.
But since Tuesday, much of the city centre and its eastern outskirts have running water as part of a multi-million dollar internationally funded programme to rebuild the country.
By the end of the civil war only 200,000 people in the port suburb of Bushrod Island in the western part of Monrovia receive piped water in their homes. The main pipelines from the water treatment plant north of the city that supplied the rest of the capital were damaged during the war.
“Now, we are supplying water to 30 percent of Monrovia’s residents,” said Hun-Bu Tulay, managing director of the government-owned water corporation.
“This is just the first phase,” he added, “and we will continue this project until all residents have access to safe drinking pipe water which has met World Health Organisation standards.”
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