By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Liberians called for "more trade, less aid" on Wednesday as they prepared to welcome U.S. President George W. Bush, who winds up his African tour with a visit to Washington’s staunchest ally on the continent.
Scores of workers in overalls repainted buildings, cleaned streets and hung posters of Bush and his wife Laura in the war-damaged capital Monrovia ahead of the visit on Thursday by the U.S. leader, the first by an American president in 30 years.
Bush arrives on the final leg of a five-nation African tour, during which he has promoted his multi-billion-dollar anti-malaria and anti-AIDS projects in Africa and backed efforts to solve crises in Kenya and Darfur.
Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia has long regarded the United States as its "big brother". During the Cold War, it served as the CIA’s main listening post in Africa.
But many Liberians complain that Washington ignored the West African country during a 1989-2003 civil war, which killed 200,000 people. Some said Bush’s arrival was prompted by concern at China’s growing commercial presence on the continent.
"I see Bush’s visit as belated. When Liberia needed America most, they were not there to help us," said political commentator Alexander Kollie. "We do not need aid. We need trade, trade where both countries will benefit."
Many in the country of 3 million people still resent Bush’s decision not to send in U.S. marines as rebels laid siege to Monrovia in 2003.
Bush insisted at that time that U.S. troops would deploy only after warlord Charles Taylor stepped down, which he finally did after months of more fighting.
LIBERIA WOULD HOST MILITARY
While other countries have spurned U.S. overtures for a greater military presence in Africa, Liberia has said it would willingly host a new continental U.S. military command, known as Africom.
Speaking in Ghana on Wednesday, Bush tried to assuage fears of a military build-up, saying that his government did not plan to build any new military bases but could still put "some kind of office" representing Africom on the continent.
Bush also hailed Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who took office in 2006 as Africa’s first elected female leader, as an example of the continent’s progress on democracy.
Johnson-Sirleaf recently praised Bush’s support on health, education and debt relief. "His visit strengthens the already existing ties between Liberia and America," she said.
Once a major exporter of iron ore and timber, Liberia has struggled to recover from the civil war. It is still home to 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers and many poor people in the capital still lack electricity and running water.
"Thank God for President Bush’s visit," said Estella Richardson, a university student. "If this man was not coming here, we would not have some areas clean at all."
Many Liberians expressed hope the visit would bring investment by U.S. companies, like Walmart and car maker Ford.
But some complained that shanties had been torn down for Bush’s visit. On the main streets, potholes left over from the war were being filled by a Chinese building firm.
Relations between China and Liberia have flourished since Monrovia severed ties with Taiwan in 2003. Bush’s trip follows a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao just over a year ago. (Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Dominic Evans)