Tag Archives: Politics

Liberia’s Nobel Win

After an abrupt end to my summer blogging (thanks to a computer theft in Monrovia) and a long period of adjustment back in the US, I’m back to blogging about Liberia. The Nobel Prize committee announced the winners of the Peace Prize last week, and the recipients included two Liberian women: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and  Leymah Gbowee, a female community organizer. The following is a reposting of a piece I wrote about the award for the Globalist website:

 

Women and soldiers await President Sirleaf's arrival at Liberia's Independence Day celebrations in Voinjama, Lofa County

I was shocked when the New York Times announced the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Liberian women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President, and Leymah Gbowee, a female grassroots organizer. Liberia is one of those overlooked spaces on the map, a country of three million that consists only of Monrovia – the ramshackle, tin-roofed capital – and the dense, sparsely-populated bush. On one hand, its absence from world headlines is a blessing for Liberia, which for more than a decade only made news for the warlords, child soldiers, and brutal violence of its civil war. Those years of terror are gone now, and Liberians are working to maintain their tenuous peace and repair their economy, infrastructure, and civil society. Viewed from the outside, Liberia’s slow rebuilding process and remaining poverty don’t make for sexy headlines or front-page news.

At least, that’s what I thought before I arrived in the country to spend two months working with a local journalist. I’d read everything I could find about Liberia and had come to the conclusion that Liberia was like every other developing country I’d visited: poor and lacking in basic services, but not remarkably so.

Upon arriving in Monrovia, I quickly discovered my mistake. The country has no electrical grid, piped water, or traffic lights. Roads outside the capital are unpaved, making it next to impossible to transport crops to markets, patients to clinics, and students to schools. Eight years after the end of Liberia’s civil war, bullet holes still tattoo buildings in the capital, and squatters live beneath tarps in the shells of homes and offices destroyed in the fighting. When it comes to poverty, underdevelopment, and disrepair, Liberia is in a category of its own.

The UN and international aid community recognize this, and they flock to Liberia in droves, but when I tell friends where I spent my summer, I receive only half-hearted responses of “cool” or “where is that again?”. American politicians and media don’t show any more interest. It doesn’t help that Liberia’s neighborhood, while war-torn and impoverished, isn’t exactly considered a geopolitical hotspot like the Middle East or South Asia.

This is precisely why Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is so significant. One can’t grasp Liberia’s many challenges and desperate poverty without spending time there, but this prize has the power to turn the spotlight onto Liberia and grant a voice to those working to rebuild the country. My hope is that this new awareness won’t stop with Gbowee and Johnson-Sirleaf’s accomplishments, though. Johnson-Sirleaf may have made strides towards relieving Liberia’s international debt and promoting development, but she’s widely criticized by Liberians for failing to deliver on her promises of paved roads, working education and health systems, and a clampdown on corruption.

Instead, my hope is that the prize announcement will inspire journalists, politicians, travelers, and the generally curious to seek out and listen to the voices of Liberia’s market women, refugees, former child soldiers, and subsistence farmers – the people who not only live the consequences of Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee’s actions, but who will determine whether Liberia remains peaceful or slides back into war. Having had the opportunity to hear these people’s stories, I can attest that they deserve to be heard. And with elections scheduled for this month – only the second time since the end of the war – they are stories we can’t afford not to hear.

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Not your average day in Washington

It’s been 10 days since the official start of campaigning for the general elections to be held in the fall (the referendum in August will determine whether Liberians go to the polls in October or November), and candidates have hit the ground running. The senate chamber was emptier than usual on Thursday, with many senators out on the campaign trail rather than in session. Campaign posters – mostly of the homemade-looking, 8.5×11″ variety – have appeared on walls and the trunks of palm trees around town. The major Liberian dailies have begun running campaign ads and National Elections Commission public service announcements alongside news coverage of the candidates.

Signs urging Liberians to vote President Sirleaf out of office have popped up around Monrovia in the last three days.

In many ways, campaigns here look similar to those in the US. Candidates have offered a slew of campaign promises. President Sirleaf has pledged to continue to develop Liberia, claiming that voters would be unwise to vote her out just as reforms are gaining speed. The leading opposition candidate, Charles Brumskine, recently promised to equip each village with an ambulance and provide Liberians over 65 with a monthly stipend. And as in any campaign, neither side hesitates to criticize the other’s policies or point out missteps. Sirleaf’s critics portray her  as a darling of the international community who has failed to ameliorate some of the most basic problems at home. Brumskine’s detractors argue that he his plans are unrealistic and vague. The debate is on.

For outsiders like me, so far there has been only one glaring difference between campaigns here and at home: the accusation that Prince Johnson enlisted a witch doctor to assassinate one of his potential opponents. Yet for Liberians and academics who have studied politics and culture here, such claims aren’t without precedent. Secret societies, headed by zoes who allegedly possess supernatural powers, are a prominent part of the traditional Liberian society, especially in rural areas, and superstition played a major role in the civil war. (Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy offers great insight into the role of secret societies and traditional beliefs in Liberian culture.) The accusation made headlines, but for the end sought rather than the means allegedly used.

Campaign signs wallpaper lamp posts and tree trunks

What truly makes this election unique for onlookers and voters alike is that it is only the second election since the end of the civil war. That is also what makes it potentially volatile.  Although Liberia has a blossoming civil society and seemingly strong democracy, experts point to the Ivory Coast as an example of how easily elections can go awry. In the streets here, despite public service announcements calling for peaceful elections, there is still a palpable tension. Many of the Lebanese and Indian merchants here say they are keeping their inventories low until the election has passed, and several have purchased plane tickets to leave the country during elections.

Few dispute that Sirleaf will win a second term, but uncertainty looms larger than poll numbers and campaigns (and witch doctors). There is an ominous sense that as much as Liberians hold their breath and cross their fingers, nobody can predict how the country itself will fare.

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The Daily Talk: Monkeys and baboons and politicians, oh my!

There is a common Liberian phrase that says, “Monkey works, Baboon draws.” The implication is that the larger and more powerful elites get rich on the backs of hardworking poor, who enjoy no returns for themselves. To mark the official start of campaigning for the fall general elections last Tuesday, President Sirleaf made a speech to highlight her achievements and mock her opponents, calling them baboons who continue to exploit working Liberians.

Despite ubiquitous signs around Monrovia urging candidates to focus on issues rather than personalities during their campaigns, the newspapers each day are filled with stories of insults flying back and forth between candidates. Last week, the New Democrat ran a story in which Senator Abel Massaley accused former rebel leader and current senator Prince Johnson of using witchcraft to assassinate him ahead of the election. And we thought Washington politics were brutal…

The following is the Daily Talk’s take on the start of the election:

 

Ellen: “Let monkey wait small, baboon still working”

Monkey (1) vs. Baboon (0)

Pres. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Tuesday, July 5, 2011, threw talks at her party headquarters in Congotown during her “da my area” speech when she made the statement above. “wise political zoes [leaders of Liberia’s traditional secret societies]” strongly believe that troublemaker Sirleaf is referring to troublemaker [Charles] Taylor who once said, “No monkey work…”

 

Other Headlines:

  • IMF completes sixth review of Lib.’s economic performance under Extended Credit Facility (ECF).
  • Man, 34, businessman Charles Holder, hang himself to death out of frustration on Bushrod Island, Monrovia.
  • CDC [Congress for Democratic Change] Tubman: “We will defeat UP [the ruling Unity Party] flat in first round.”
  • Gov’t set to enforce public smoking law, passed in Sept. last year.
  • “Veteran bill” approved at Capitol Building, ex-rebel generals left in the cold.
  • Citizens of Todee District, Montserrado County sent out SOS call for one ambulance.
  • Senegal Pres. Abdoulaye Wad betrayed AU? Held talks with rebels in Benghazi to unseat Pres. Gadafi.
  • NEC [National Elections Commission] finally blows whistle for 2011 campaigns.
  • Gov’t seized 600,000 bags of rice being smuggled into Guinea, says Commerce Minister.
  • 36 Ivorian rebels arrested in R/Gee [River Gee County] for arms to face court action.

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Play, not puddles

In Tuesday’s senate session, Senator Gloria Scott waxed poetic about her childhood in the 1970s. With grand gestures, she spun a tale of a rustic, carefree lifestyle. “When I was a child,” she began, “I would play in the dry season [roughly November through March]. The weather was nice, so we were always outside together, playing. Always playing. We also could help our parents with the harvest, and go to the market with them to sell it.”

In the 1990s, things changed for Liberian children, preventing them from enjoying summers like Scott’s. There was, of course, was the civil war, which robbed children of their playtime and replaced it with guns. Yet it was another, more subtle change that Scott believes harmed Liberian youngsters and continues to negatively affect them today. That reform was the change in Liberia’s school calendar, which switched the school year from February through November to September through June. The Liberian parliament is currently debating an education bill that will, among other things, maintain the current school calendar. The bill is expected to pass, though not if Scott has her way.

“Now they have vacation during the rains,” complained Scott. “They can’t play outside! It’s so important for our children to play, but they cannot.” After experiencing nearly four weeks of Liberia’s rainy season, I can’t say I disagree. It rains almost every day, ranging from a passing drizzle to an all-day downpour. At best, the paved streets flood; at worst, dirt roads become impassable mud puddles that trap cars for hours on end. And although Liberia lies north of the Equator, technically making it summer here, Liberians consider the rainy season their winter. Temperatures may be moderate by my New Englanld standards (high seventies to mid-eighties most days), but Liberians find it chilly, and winter coats are for sale in many roadside stalls. The dry season may be hot and humid, but nearly all Liberians agree that it beats the rain.

As Scott continued to list the drawbacks of scheduling summer vacation during the rainy season, though, her reasoning changed. What began as a push for children’s welfare became a glimpse into Liberia’s national psyche. “Our neighbors modeled their school years off of their colonial masters. Their masters in the West made their school years so their children could play in the summer. But Liberia is not Europe or America, and their summer is not our summer,” she proclaimed. “We should not have just copied them. It’s important for us to know why our laws are the way they are.”

Liberians freely admit that they are reliant on Western aid and NGOs, moving to Europe or the US remains the ultimate sign of prestige, and Liberians love to remind me that their country was established by Americans. Still, Liberians are fiercely proud of their country, and beneath the veneer of foreign influence here, Liberians are not ready to trade their culture for that of the West. Especially not when that means playing in the torrential, cold rains.

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The Daily Talk: Power of the press

For forty-five minutes this afternoon, Alfred argued with a graphic designer over the layout for The Daily Talk’s new brochure. I was content to sit in the hangar-like room, watching as women prowled the aisles selling mayonnaise and condensed milk sandwiches and plantain chips from buckets on their heads. But all of a sudden, mid-debate, Alfred received a call from the Ministry of Finance, and after a few quick words to the designer, we took off for the Ministry.

It was a call Alfred had been awaiting for weeks. Above The Daily Talk’s newsboard is a sign urging citizens to “Show your love for Mama Liberia, pay taxes as and when due!” Alfred erected the sign as an advertisement for the Ministry of Finance two years ago, for a fee of US $100 per month. The problem is, Alfred never received payment, and the Ministry owes him $2400.

He needs the Ministry’s money to buy new equipment, and after a month of unreturned phone calls, Alfred was done waiting. So, he turned to the media. Today’s big, bold Daily Talk headline reads, “System corrupt? Finance Ministry refusing to pay Daily Talk for publicity of programs. Details coming…” Upper-level officials in the Ministry called Nathaniel Konjay, the Director of Budget and Finance, questioning why the Ministry had been humiliated before the people. Konjay quickly called Alfred in for a meeting.

Once at the Ministry, the debate turned to formalities. Konjay didn’t dispute that the Ministry owes The Daily Talk, but apparently the two parties never arrived at a final contract with both signatures, which the Ministry needs to make an official payment. Konjay left the issue of the Ministry’s prior unresponsiveness unaddressed. Still, he was eager to resolve the matter. While writing a note reminding himself to secure a signed contract, Konjay explained, “The problem has already happened. Embarrassment has already happened for the Ministry. Big embarrassment. I’ll work on this, and worst case scenario, you will have the money by next Tuesday.”

Government ministries here are notorious for failing to follow through with their promises, so whether Alfred will actually receive the money by Tuesday, or at all, is anybody’s guess. What is clear, though, is that the Ministry didn’t respond until Alfred took the issue to the media – even if it that medium was only a chalkboard.

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“Women, oh, women!”

Nobody here is in the dark about the upcoming elections for president and congress, but plenty of people – registered voters included – are unaware of the constitutional referendum that comes first. On August 23, voters will go to the polls to vote yes or no on four proposed changes to Liberia’s constitution: reducing the residency requirement for presidential candidates from ten years to five, increasing the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, changing the date of the general election from October to November, and choosing winners in congressional elections by simple majority.

Candidates for office have been campaigning hard, but it is up to the National Elections Commission (NEC) to publicize the referendum, and by most accounts, they have done a poor job so far. So, to spread awareness, a local journalist from the Liberia Media Initiative has created a unique platform to bring the referendum to the people. At the bustling Rally Time market in downtown Monrovia today, John Kollie carved out a space among the stalls, setting up chairs, speakers, and microphones. With the help of a megaphone-toting, arm-waving assistant, he drew a crowd, holding their attention with thumping music, dancing, and free referendum posters and brochures. By the time the 6 panelists arrived – a mix of politicians, NEC officials, and professors – the crowd was ready for a debate.

Audience members look over free informational posters

The program is called Ducor Debates, using the Bassa-language name for Monrovia that was used before the settlers arrived from the US. Each week, Kollie chooses a crowded location and arranges for a group of panelists to debate the referendum and other political topics. Each panelist is allotted three minutes for their remarks, a time limit to which Kollie adheres strictly. “Otherwise,” he explained, “they’ll just use this as their mouthpiece. You’ve got to keep them on the issues. They’ll try to use the debate to attack each other.”

Today’s panelists chose different angles, from the NEC representative’s rundown of the referendum’s logistics (“You won’t be voting for people this time. There won’t be pictures on your paper. Its yes or no on August 23!”) to a former Chief Justice’s argument in favor of all the reforms (“You get more experience and more knowledge when you get older. Why do you want to make a judge step down when he’s just getting the most wisdom?”). At the conclusion of the formal speeches, audience members jumped at the chance to ask questions. Ideally, the audience members take their brochures, informational posters, and knowledge back to their communities, disseminating the information informally.

This week’s debate was aimed primarily at women, who have been influential in Liberian politics in the past, but still lag behind their male counterparts in terms of literacy and political awareness. Neither the government nor the NEC has found effective methods to reach out to women and other members of Liberia’s poor to spread the word about the referendum. To fill the void, a number of grassroots efforts, like Kollie’s Ducor Debates, have sprung up around the country. Ducor Debates, though, is regarded as one of the most effective, and its clear why. The debates are broadcast on 42 radio stations around the country, and the crowds love it.

Through cheers and boo’s, each politician stood up this morning and rallied the audience with a call and response chant. “Women, oh, women?” they shouted. “WOMEN!” came the instant reply, with more enthusiasm each time.

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The Daily Talk: Investigative reporting?

The main story on the Daily Talk board for the next few days is more of a teaser. In the coming weeks, Sirleaf plans to report on a series of public figures in Liberia, uncovering their transgressions, as well as discussing their appropriate “areas.” The concept of an area, essentially the same as a field of expertise, comes from a popular Liberian song that encourages people to stay within the areas in which they had been trained. In Liberia, that notion has taken on meaning in politics, with critics calling on would-be leaders to stick to what they know.

Watch out

Starting this week, know their “areas” and alleged evils in societies as Daily Talk digs out the truth for unity!

Pres. Sirleaf

U.S. Pres.

Bush, Ellen [Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia]

VP Boakai [the Vice President of Liberia]

CDC Tubman [Winston Tubman, presidential candidate from the Congress for Democratic Change]

Chief Justice [Francis Korkpor]

Political Vampire: “Ah, ah!” [An unknown figure in politics who exerts influence from behind the scenes]

CDC: Their areas? Weah, Drogba [George Weah and Didier Drogba, both soccer players now involved in Liberian politics]

Varney Sherman: “Weah? No, I for you Pres. Sirleaf.” [Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, famous for switching allegiances from one candidate to another]

PYJ [Prince Johnson, a rebel leader during the civil war who is  currently a senator and presidential candidate]

UNMIL Boss [Ellen Loj, head of the UN Mission in Liberia]

Criminal: “Help me officer, they will kill me!”

UN Backed Ouattara and his rebels

Headlines: 

  • Delta Airlines reduced VP Boakai at RIA [Robertsfield International Airport] on his way to the US through a security search.
  • Man in his 20’s, Junior Malbah, flogged to death in 15 Gate community in Careysburg Dist., Mont. Co., [Montserrado County] after murdering two children.
  • Lofa County education officer says poor education in Lofa is due to more funding being give tradition.
  • Deputy Minister for Revenue at Finance: “Cavalla Rubber Co. produces 78 Mil. USD yrly.”

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