Liberia 'down, not out'

April 15, 2005

Al-Hassan Conteh, president of the University of Liberia, plans to kickstart a cash injection into his university with a fundraising conference at the University of Pennsylvania next week.

Dr Conteh hopes to raise a $25 million (£13 million) endowment within two years to rebuild the university after 14 years of civil war. The strife turned the institution into one of the continent's most deprived. It was shut from 1989-92 and had to be cleared of bodies that littered the campus before it reopened.

In 2003, Liberia's president Charles Taylor departed for Nigeria. Since then, 15,000 United Nations soldiers have kept the peace.

The situation was calm enough for Dr Conteh, a Liberian demographer at Pennsylvania, to return to take over the presidency of the university in August 2004. Dr Conteh said: "We've had our share of hell, but now we're back."

But the problems are daunting. In January, the UN found bullets in bushes on campus. Liberia has had no electricity or running water since 1992. At the university, space is limited, and the 500 faculty members have missed years of research and journals. The L$1,500 (£17) per semester tuition fees are still out of reach for most people, and are not enough for the university to stay open - it recently closed for two months to save costs.

The first thing Dr Conteh did was take stock of the faculty - present, absent, alive or dead - then the rest. "We lack everything," he said.

"Chairs, library books, lab equipment, chemicals."

The university library exemplifies the extent of the task ahead. Half the collection was looted, the rest is old or out of date. In the periodicals room, the most recent publication is from 1997.

But competition for cash in war-torn Liberia is tough, Dr Conteh said.

"Higher education is being marginalised in terms of resources, because the disarmament programme is the priority. But, in the end, the UN will go and we shall be left on our own as a nation state."

Dr Conteh said an educated Liberian population would prevent further war.

There is certainly the will to learn. Despite illiteracy rates of 50 per cent, students are desperate to get back to education. "I'm tired of holding bullets," a government fighter said in a recent documentary. "I want to hold a pen and paper."

Many of the 12,000 students are former fighters. "You do notice a difference in them," Dr Conteh said. "But everyone is highly traumatised on this campus."

Past and present troubles do not stop the university looking forward. Dr Conteh said: "We are down, but we are not out."

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