A year in Liberia, West Africa

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

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.


Post a Comment

<< Home