A year in Liberia, West Africa

Friday, September 22, 2006

“Let Justice Be Done To All Men” ... but only those who can afford to pay for it

It’s been a while ... Well 7 months actually… I say, my brother, wah hapin? ... sorry-oh! I lost track of time...

A lot has happened since my last entry…
I’ve got a new job working on a legal assistance project - much more exciting than training a new Army For Looting… (yes, that does mean I’ve decided to stay in Liberia for a while longer).
I also witnessed the first row of street lights being flicked on in Monrovia, I managed to get out of Monrovia into the “bush”, and … and ... and ...
I narrowly escaped a holiday at the infamous “South Beach” Monrovia Central Prison…

Incidentally, the last time I visited the prison was about a month go. There was some poor French engineer who’d been locked up for some business deal gone wrong… he had got himself a lawyer, but the guy didn't show up at court ... So the judge ordered the engineer to be locked up in jail to await trial ...

But at least his lawyer had the courtesy to phone the engineer before he got dragged off to South Beach... It turns out his lawyer was also acting for his crooked business partner, so in the name of professional ethics, he couldn't possibly represent both parties ... (Ah, les avocats, c'est vraiment une sale race!)
Luckily the engineer managed to pay his way out: I bumped into him at the Indian restaurant the other day, we had a good laugh at his rough handling by the justice system…
but anyway I digress…

Back to the story...

It all started about two weeks ago. I’d just moved in to my new apartment when I noticed that things were starting to disappear, a bottle of water at first, then food cans, cartons of juice, some CDs, some DVDs that I hadn’t even yet watched ...

It wasn't the red ants or the termites developing a taste for plastic or tin ... It could only mean one of two things – either somebody had tried to burgle my place (then why steal a tin can of crab meat and leave my Ipod?), or the office cleaner was taking cleaning to new extremes…

So I called her in – let’s call her Muna – and asked her about the disappearance. She swore that “God is my witness” and she didn’t know anything about it and that in fact there must be other people in the office who were trying to make her look life a thief… like, whatever! Muna was the only one with a set of my keys and the only one who’d been in my flat without me being there…

So after giving her one last chance to come clean, off we went together to meet that merry bunch of the Liberian National Police at Zone 3 Base… The case was assigned for investigation by the Women and Child Protection Unit. Errr, wait a minute!!! isn’t the role of the WCPU to protect victims of crime who are women and children, not perpetrators…

Without allowing me a minute to ponder this thought further, I was led away to give my statement… Two hours later, we – the accused, the victim and the police - were all off again in my car (the LNP at Zone 3 Base have no vehicle) to visit the scene of the crime.

We return to Zone 3 Base, where the Police come up with their brilliant solution to the theft: I should re-hire Muna and continue to make her work, so she can pay off the value of the missing items… Genius!!! Why didn’t I think of that??!

Rather than be faced with more magical disappearance tricks, I decided to cut my losses short and inform them that I no longer wish to press for Muna’s prosecution. The LNP Detective (looking sad, as he wasn’t going to get a cut) turned to me and said “Well, in that case, bossman, you have to withdraw your complaint”… So, I duly withdrew my complaint after Muna promised me that we’d go our separate ways and this would be the end of the matter…

But this is Liberia and nothing is quite so simple...

Exactly a week later, I received a letter ordering me to appear before the City Solicitor to answer to an unspecified “complaint that is criminal in nature” made against me by... who else, but Muna the psycho-cleaner from hell herself. The back-stabbing witch!!!

So, the next day, I presented myself at the appointed time at the Temple of Justice (Motto: “Let Justice Be Done To All Men”... ).

After the City Solicitor had allowed Muna to tell her side of the story, I was left none the wiser as to the charge of which I was accused… I innocently asked the Solicitor what charge was being made against me. He informed me that I had tarnished the cleaner's reputation in the community by having made a complaint to the police and so thereby had labelled her “a thief and a rogue”... Muna, a thief, never??!

I was quick to point out that libel and slander are civil offences even in Liberia. Taking a moment to find some other offence, the City Solicitor informed me that the complaint was that I had engaged in "criminal coercion"…

Mmm, that’s an offence I’ve never heard of before... The first hit on Google produces this long-winded definition:

“A person is guilty of criminal coercion when, with intent to compel another person to engage in or refrain from conduct, he unlawfully threatens to:
(a) Commit any crime; or (b) Accuse anyone of a crime; or (c) Expose any secret tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule or to impair another's credit or business repute; or (d) Take or withhold action as an official or cause an official to take or withhold action.”

Anyway after much “palava” lasting over an hour, I was able to talk my way out of the Temple of Justice and walk out a free man ... only just ... after the City Solicitor forcefully tried to solicit a bribe to ensure that he could "clear his desk" of the complaint... Needless to say, I told him to shove his desk up where the sun don't shine...

Liberia, sweet land of Liberty, where everything – and particularly Justice – is for sale…

Saturday, February 25, 2006


is a cold beer... pshhhiiiit, gulp, gulp, gulp...

While the country was eagerly awaiting for the National Elections Commission to make an official declaration that Ellen Sirleaf Johnson had become Africa's first woman president back in November, we took some time out to go sample Monrovia's finest ale at the Club Beer factory... (they brew Guinness here too)

Awel, santé!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Welcome to the Rubber Republic!

In November, we took a trip out to Firestone's rubber plantation, about an hour's drive east out of Monrovia.

The place is also known as the Rubber Republic: Firestone has been in Liberia since 1926, when it obtained a 99-year lease of one million acres of land at an annual rent of US$60,000 - that's less than $0.06 per acre ... no doubt the cheapest property deal ever.
That's how desperate for money Liberia was at that time (Later in 1930, the Christy Commission set up by the League of Nations implicated Liberia in allegations of trading in slaves by forcefully exporting Liberian workers to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po to work on cocoa plantations in return for money... ).

About 7,000 people are currently working for Firestone on its rubber plantation (roughly the same number as in 1935) and live with their families on the plantation (another 12,000 or so). Firestone are in the process of renovating schools and hospitals on the plantation that were destroyed or looted during the civil war.

Some workers showed us how they tap the trees. Latex is produced by "bleeding" the tree. Using a knife, the worker cuts of the bark of the tree around the tree at angle that will allow the latex to slowly flow out into little cups. Everyday they return to the tree, collect the cup full of latex and cut a small piece of bark off.

One of the supervisors there explained to me how the workers are paid. The workers - called "tappers" - are paid by weight. The tappers collect all the latex into buckets and bring them to one of the collection centres. There, it is weighed by one of the supervisors and then poured into big tank. The tappers earn around $0.60c per pound of liquid rubber (latex) and make about $3.00 on a good day... It takes about 150-200 little cups of latex to make a pound, so that means they tap about 1,000 trees a day... and they work 6 days a week (although the supervisor said most workers don't take Sundays off during the dry season). Latex left overnight dries up, but that can also be used.

The latex is then brought to Firestone's processing plant where it is processed and then exported to use as an ingredient like rubber, but also used in its pure form to make condoms for drunk adults to use on their mate of choice and surgical gloves for use by fascit immigration and customs officials ... and let's not forget fetishist S&M clothing too!

Latex which is delivered to Firestone in solid form (dried overnight) is also processed on the plant - it's dried, baked and cut into 35kg rubber blocks that will mainly be used for making tires. The processing of blocks is extremely smelly and there's a nasty cheesey smell that permeates the whole plantation.

Rubber trees are not indigenous to Africa as rubber originates from Brazil. Seeds were brought back to London in the 1870's before subsequently being implanted in Asia and Africa. Another example of how West African arrable land was used by the colonial powers to plant crops (like cocoa, also imported from South America) that ave no traditional dietary or commercial use to Africans.

Friday, February 17, 2006

You're in the Army now, woh-woh-woh...

Well, recruitment of the new Liberian Army is now well under way...

Remember that song by the musically-challenged Status Quo?

You're in the Army now
You're not behind a plow
You'll never get rich
You son of a gun
You're in the Army now
You're in the Army

And it ain't no picknick either:
Wake-up call at 5.45am (aaaaaaaaarrrgh!), team meeting at 7.00, double caffeine/nicotine injection for breakfast, in time for the 7.30 welcome of new candidates for the brand-new Armed Forces of Liberia (motto: Our Nation, Our People, Our AFL).The first day they fill out a ten-page application form asking them all sorts of wonderful questions about them and their past (the answers to the medical Q&A are always fun to read: Q: Do you have any medical condition? A: I have drippy penis … or A: I have a problem with my nut). Then it's off to take an aptitude test to make sure they can read and write.
The next day they come back for a physical training test (push-ups in, sit-ups, 2km run... ouch!) before doing a medical check-up to make sure they're not all doped up like the Brazilian team at the Winter Olympics.

Soon we'll be taking the show on the road into the bush... I can't wait!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Elections, Liberian style

A little taste of the jubilant mood that gripped Monrovia during the election campaign, in which the Liberians had to choose from among 22 presidential candidates...

... supporters from the National Patriotic Party (Taylor's former party) ground traffic to a halt outside their headquarters on Tubman Boulevard ...

... George Weah's supporters were also making themselves seen and heard on the streets...

... while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's team managed to plaster the town with her posters ...

On both election days (11 October and 8 November), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) made a big display of their hardware, just to make sure that would-be troublemakers think twice before trying anything rash. It's doubtful whether UNMIL's show was needed on the election day, as the vast majority of Liberians were really eager to cast their vote... with the one notable exception of Talyor, of course, who's still in exile in Nigeria.

Just to be safe, the National Elections Commission was heavily fortified and guarded by Nigerian UMMIL peacekeepers.

The presence of international election observers - a total of 369 observers turned from the African Union, the EU and various US political organisations - definitely helped to keep things calm, although one observer was too scared to go inside the polling station opposite where we live... the scardy cat!

In any case, both rounds of the election went by without any major incidents.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

First Impressions of a Liberian Kind - Part I

A month already… time flies even when you’re in the sun. I’m really glad I'm here – Africa almost feels like home.

Liberia is something else though, definitely West African (Monrovia reminds me of Lagos) but with an unmistakable American influence that transcends many things, be it music (sadly, not much African music is played on the radio, it’s mostly RnB), spoken expressions (many people reply Whasssssup? when you say hello) or the name of national institutions (all located in and around Capitol Hill).

The living conditions for most Liberians are extremely poor – the vast majority of people have no job, no running water and no electricity. The last time there was electricity in Monrovia was in the eighties and no-one under the age of 15 has ever seen street lighting. You can see the country has just emerged from fifteen years of civil war: bullet-torn buildings, former war veterans missing limbs begging on the streets and gangs of orphaned children roaming the streets. It’s all the more shocking when you know that the country has natural resources that generate immense wealth: diamonds, rubber, timber and iron ore amongst others.

The civil war – nicknamed “Octopus” – has intensified the illiteracy rate among the young (over 80% country-wide) and many people have only just been able to return to their studies. But former child soldiers have not been properly reintegrated and although some efforts are being made to put them through school, many are still living in squats, addicted to drugs or involved in prostitution.

To get an education here is extremely expensive – primary school costs US$100 per term – so the average wage is barely enough to survive and often a family can only afford to send one child to school. For those who are lucky enough to have had a school education, the only realistic possibility of a job here is working as drivers, maids or cooks for one of the international organisations, because working for the government means lower pay (if it’s paid at all) while working for local businesses means no job protection or basic social benefits like medical insurance or sick leave.

Yet, despite the harsh conditions of their existence, people here remain smiling, polite, respectful and good-humoured. You can’t help but admire Liberians for their perseverance, an unmistakable African trait of character.

Due to the disintegration of the state, the country is effectively being administered by the UN: 15,000 troops are keeping the peace here. The former army and rebel groups have been disarmed, and the former army is in the final stages of being demobilised (which we’ll be involved in too). In addition, over 3,000 civil UN personnel are dispatched around the country to ensure observance of human rights and investigate past abuses. Numerous national institutions have also been set up, but the problem is that they have no funds to fulfil their mandate.

It’s been 2 years since the end of the fighting and Taylor’s exile to Nigeria. During this time little progress has been achieved in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and giving Liberians what they most need: electricity, water, basic medical care, free education... Many blame the UN for inaction, but the fault must also lie with the interim Liberian government here who many regard as being as corrupt as the Taylor, Doe and Tolbert regimes that came before. Plus ça change, moins ça change…

First Impressions of a Liberian Kind - Part II

Elections are due to take place next week and our US bosses are worried that there might be trouble (some of them were in Iraq before, so their paranoia over security is somewhat understandable). I had hoped to get time off to work as an election observer during the elections, but I’ve been told this could be interpreted wrongly by the gossiping Liberian media. Our bosses are also scared that if something does happen on election day, they may not be able to rescue anyone who’s out and about in the country (read => liability not covered by insurance). My opinion (for what it’s worth) is that, with so many international observers and UNMIL soldiers in town, no rebel forces are stupid enough to launch an attack (their only means of bargaining) before waiting to see who’s elected as the President. Any serious trouble is likely to happen in the months following the elections, should the rebels not be satisfied with the compromise that’s presented to them. But my arguments have fallen on deaf ears…

A lot of money and effort has gone in to organise the elections, although I honestly can’t see how it will change things for the ordinary Liberians, despite most of them being hopeful of change. I just feel we’re not being very honest with them. I am a little astounded by the naïve optimism expressed by some of the international staff helping to organise the elections: they seem to think that by holding “democratic elections”, things can really change for Liberians in the long run (for example, just read the blog of one of the election assistance staff). It’s as if they consider that democracy is a commodity that can be exported like Coke, Nike shoes or Starbucks coffee… a dangerously simplistic attitude to have.

To me, it seems that all this work (and money) that has gone into organising Liberia’s elections is mere window dressing, a triumph of form over substance. All we are doing is making sure that all the electoral formalities are complied with, so we can declare the elections to have been “free and fair”. No-one seems to have looked at who the candidates are and whether they will provide for the needs of the ordinary Liberians (like electricity and running water) after they’re elected to Capitol Hill. No-one has looked at how the Liberian “winner takes all” system (which replicates the US model of governance) can be modified to ensure that ordinary people can derive some benefit of the spoils of office. Nothing is being done to ensure that, once elected to office, the politicians will distribute the country’s wealth for the benefit of ordinary Liberians.

So it’s sad to see that, yet again, we have another African election being contested by veteran politicians well versed in the ways of corruption, by former warlords with blood on their hands and by other assorted charlatans intent on grabbing power and plundering the country’s rich resources. The only clean candidate, George Weah (a former football star), has his heart in the right place but the problem is that many of his advisers are former cronies of Charles Taylor... I just can’t see how the next President of Liberia, whoever it turns out to be, will be able (let alone even want to) change things for the better. It’ll just be another case of ye-ye politicians “go chop your dollar”... (to use the words of Nkem Owoh’s current hit single).

I’m hope I’m wrong.

On the work front, it’s been a challenge to say the least. I have to wake up at 6.30am everyday and after a month it still hurts... but I’m slowly getting used to it. I'm getting on relatively well with most of my colleagues and the ex-Marines have nicknamed me the Belgian Waffle… it could have been worse. We've been putting in ten to fourteen hours a day as we have a 1st November target date for the start of our operations, and as the election period is likely to make everything grind to a halt, we’re sailing full steam ahead trying to do as much as possible before next Tuesday’s election date. And, we're still waiting for approval to go into the interior of the country to start surveying the countryside. I can't wait.

These 6-day weeks are a killer though: I’m too dead to go out during the week, so Saturday ends up being a very drunken affair at one of the UN or NGO parties that are regularly held around town. I’m slowly getting to meet the various expat communities in town: there’s the Lebanese community (who own most shops and businesses), the UN gang (no comment), the NGO crowd (by far the nicest). BUT it’s been really difficult to meet Liberians, other than those who work with us. I'm getting along well with our security guards and I've been teaching a few them how to play the "ayo" game. I’m hoping to meet a few people involved in the arts as one of my colleagues has been living here for quite some time and she’s helping out on a few community culture projects.

So far, so good… I have no regrets about coming here.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Monrovia's magnificent beaches

See some of the pleasures you're all missing out on...