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Africa Update: Recruiting Women Soldiers in Liberia

ED GORDON, host:

Liberia's 20-year civil war is long over, but the country's new president is boosting the ranks of the country's army with women. The continent, overall, has seen an upsurge in its economy in recent years, thanks in no small measure to Chinese investment. These are just two of the stories we'll explore on Africa Update. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke earlier with our special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

FARAI CHIDEYA host:

Dozens of women began lining up at recruitment centers in Liberia to enlist in that country's army. Of course, now Liberia is led by a democratically-elected woman. So what's the significance behind this?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT reporting:

Well, I think that she has sent a message from the very beginning that, you know, she's proud of who she is and the achievement that she has accomplished there in Liberia, becoming the first African woman head of state. And I think that this is one of the first steps that she's taken to put her money where her mouth is, encouraging women to do some non-traditional things. And of course, she desperately needs an army that she can trust. When she was sworn in, I mean, she had to ask for a security from Nigeria and from the United States. So it's a very fragile situation, a very fragile country she's now presiding over. So she's accomplishing two things with this. I think, both to send a message to women that you can step up and you can enlist in helping to defend your country and make it secure, and that you can do non-traditional things, and that we are going to do things differently from now on.

CHIDEYA: So do you think this sends a message to would-be warlords, allies of Charles Taylor, perhaps?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, that's a very good question, Farai, because I'm told that Charles Taylor has amassed a fortune, selling - at least he's charged with selling blood diamonds and fomenting war in neighboring countries - and there are those who are very concerned that this whole situation, even though he's in custody, may not be over yet. So there's a lot to worry about until some final disposition is made in the case of Charles Taylor and his violation of human rights in the region.

CHIDEYA: Let's turn to the economy. The prestigious World Economic Forum was in Cape Town this year - just ended - and it found that Africa's economy is doing better than in the last 30 years. There's been an overall growth of five percent, and they pointed to Chinese investment as a major factor. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, we've talked about China and how it's coming into Africa, big time. It's taking a lot out of Africa. There's a demand for African natural resources, with the major one being oil, of course. And then, you know, China is bringing its own products into the continent, and that stirred a big debate. Because, while it's contributing a lot to the continent, it is also competing with local products. So, I suspect that you're going to have that debate go on and on.

But one of the people who spoke at the World Economic Forum is the chief executive of TransNet, one of the huge companies that has to do with all of the transportation in the country. And she was saying that, it's hard to imagine where the world economy would be if China were not growing so fast. And that it's wrong to pretend that, on the other hand, there's no fear associated with how big China has become. But she said that, part of that fear arose from ignorance, that China might begin to dominate the world's poorest continent, in the same way that European powers did during the colonial era. There are those who are saying that this could be a win/win situation, you just have to be very careful about how the Chinese imports into the continent, affect local producers.

CHIDEYA: Now, there are a lot of people who talk about the African brain drain - some of the brightest and best leaving African nations for the West. Europe is trying to persuade young Africans to stay in their homelands, and now it's getting help from some African nations. Experts from both continents convened in Dakar, Senegal, to draw up plans to fight illegal immigration. Why are Africans joining this fight, especially if remittances from those abroad, helps fuel some local African communities?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, for one thing, I think that those young people, who are leaving - and most of them are young - are involved in perilous sea voyages, often more than 600 miles, and they're being exploited by people traffickers. And Africa has been trying to encourage its people to stay and contribute to its growth and development. And yet, I'm concerned about one thing, and that is that, a lot of those who are leaving, in the way that I've just described, are not skilled. You know, they may be able to make some kind of a living and send more money back than they might have earned at home, but there is a new drive among African leaders - especially here in South Africa, they've talked a lot about it - boosting the skills of their own people.

Because, you know, we were just talking about how Africa - the economic growth is the fastest in 30 years, and that's terrific - but the problem is that the growth rate that you mentioned of 5.5 percent, won't be enough to reduce poverty. So you have a real, kind of, catch-22 here. You need a workforce that can help the country, and as these leaders are saying, they are now insisting - and they have been for some time - that Africa can take care of its own problems. They want trade and not aid. But some countries still need aid, and so the whole issue is how you help those countries that need the aid without making them dependent and killing incentive on part of the young people they want to retain. And then how you deal with this overall issue of poverty that is causing so many people to want to leave the continent.

The other thing about that - and we've talked about this, too - is that a lot of the people who are leaving are skilled people; you know, nurses, and doctors, and teachers, that the continent needs. But they're leaving because they can make money elsewhere. So let's hope that this growth will continue for the sake of the continent and that there will be a dent made in the poverty in the years to come.

CHIDEYA: Thanks so much, Charlayne.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is our special correspondent in Africa. She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently left her post as CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, which she had held since 1999, to pursue independent projects. Before joining CNN, she worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for NPR from 1997 to 1999.
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