A year in Liberia, West Africa

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.