Liberia’s determined efforts to solidify its ties with Georgia were energized by the mid-May visit of its ambassador to the U.S. who encouraged the state to play a dominant role in establishing a cargo hub for the African continent.
George S. W. Patten Sr., a veteran Liberian diplomat who assumed his position in January, met with Gov. Brian Kemp and Pat Wilson, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, on May 15 to promote the relationship that already includes a sister port agreement with the Port of Savannah and a memorandum of understanding with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The Georgia-Liberia relationship also has established linkages tying Liberian universities with the University Consortium, which includes more than a dozen Southeastern universities.
And the West African country has benefited from ties with the Georgia nonprofits MedShare and MAP International, which support the country’s medical sector, and Emory Hospital, which played a critical role in containing the Ebola epidemic.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has had a presence in the country since 2007 when it began a project to contain malaria and played an active role in combating Ebola.
Liberia’s civil wars from 1989-97 and from 1999-2003 as well as the Ebola epidemic from 2014-15 have been well-documented. Less well known have been the efforts to rebuild its society and assume a leading economic role in West Africa and the rest of the continent.
In August 2017, senior officials from Hartsfield-Jackson and Roberts International Airport, located 35 miles from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, signed the memorandum, which called for technical teams from both facilities to work together to develop the Liberian airport’s cargo facility and its logistics capabilities.
The Roberts airport played a central role for the region during World War II when it was built by the U.S. as an Air Force base to check the spread of Axis influence. It also became a focal point for the many flights coming in with medical supplies and personnel to deal with Ebola in Liberia and neighboring countries.
For many years Liberia has served as a “flag of convenience” for ship owners looking for a lightly regulated port to call home. Despite its limited coast line, only 360 miles, more than 1,700 foreign-owned ships are registered there. Only Panama, another “flag of convenience” carrier nation, has more ships registered.
Its historic role provides a compelling background for augmenting the relationship with the Port of Savannah. The Georgia Ports Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Port Authority of Liberia in 2015 aimed at expanding trade between the Southeast and West Africa.
Cynthia Blandford, the Atlanta-based honorary consul general of Liberia who played an instrumental role in organizing Mr. Patten’s visit and promoting the MOUs with the airports and ports, underscored during a luncheon at the Commerce Club in Buckhead on May 16 that substantial trade already is taking place between Liberia and Georgia.
While the Southeast benefits from Liberian exports of rubber and rubber products as well as a variety of agricultural products, she cited opportunities to increase the variety of imports from Liberia and put a special emphasis on increasing seafood-related imports.
The ambassador in his comments at the luncheon elaborated on the theme that although the country has been devastated by the civil wars, now that it is under the new government of President George Weah it is well-positioned to rebuild and claim a role as a regional economic generator.
He cited the timing for Liberia’s reemergence as a productive society was particularly favorable due to the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) last year, which requires members of the Africa Union to remove tariffs from 90 percent of goods and seeks to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of businessmen and women and investments.
In view of this breakthrough development, he said that he encouraged the governor and the state’s economic development department to create an “African strategy” for the state including an office representing Georgia on the African continent, preferably in Liberia, which he said would be an ideal location for the state to use as a “springboard” to develop ties with other countries as well.
During his review of the government’s plans for economic restructuring and conflict resolution, he personalized its “four pillars” that are to provide the foundation for its initiatives.
For instance, to highlight the government’s commitment to gender equality and its support for creating opportunities for women in its labor force, he cited his mother’s work planting and collecting cassava to pay for his education.
“I didn’t have shoes, and she put shoes on my feet,” he said, adding that he laments her untimely death since he is unable to pay her back for her labor even though he now has the means to do so. His only recompense, he said, is to carry her photo in his wallet.
He pointed to the government’s proposal to provide students attending public universities with free education. To illustrate his personal commitment to education as the only one of five children in his family to attend university, he described his challenges attending school in his early years.
His walk from his hometown in Ponnie Town in Sinoe County to high school in Greenville necessitated him to cross a river by a barge over which he had no control and that he often had to wait on. Many years later, when he ran into the headmaster of the school, he asked him why he had been punished so often for being late when he couldn’t help it.
The headmaster’s reply, he said, was that he needed to do it, “to make you strong.” Despite his successful career, the ambassador didn’t seem totally convinced by this justification.
He did encourage the luncheon attendees who are interested in developing opportunities in Liberia to attend a business conference that will be held in New York City in September.
Other speakers at the luncheon included Mary Waters, deputy commissioner for international trade, Georgia Department of Economic Development, and Roy Hadley, managing member, AfriTrade Global LLC.
Among the attendees at the luncheon were members of Atlanta’s consular corps including Shane Stephens, Ireland’s consul general, who said that Ireland was optimistic about Liberia’s future and recently had opened an embassy there.
William De Baets, Belgium’s consul general, cited his country’s interest in Liberia and the flights of Brussels Airlines to the country. Lawrence Ashe, the honorary consul of Poland, asked the ambassador if Liberia feared terrorist incidents.
Mr. Patten responded that terrorism incidents had occurred elsewhere in West Africa but not in Liberia.