Thursday, December 15, 2011

Relda Cinema, Gone

What remained of the theater seating was piled off to be sold as scrap metal.

I was surprised and saddened to be driving down Tubman Boulevard in Sinkor on Saturday, 10 December, and come upon a gaping heap of twisted metal and broken concrete where one of the city's most beloved landmarks, the Relda Cinema, had sat forlorn for so many years.

Once a hotspot for the city's young crowd, and only one of several movie houses in Monrovia, which made the city seem so ultramodern in the midcentury (The Rivoli Cinema still stands on Broad Street, for the time being), the Relda had stood neglected and underused in the post-conflict period. It seemed that occasionally the theater was used as a cinema or other event space-- to charge for the viewing of video projects or sporting events. Monrovia doesn't have cinemas any more, merely video clubs, and even the former film palaces have been re-appropriated for the somewhat less grand past time.

Several bits of history were lost here, even if there is nothing remarkable in the 21st century about the Relda's rusted old truss frame, which provided a column-free theatre space, it is noteworthy that such technology was carefully employed so many decades ago in Liberia. The city surely has few other remaining examples. Likewise gone are a stately tree that stood in the front lot, along with a gold-painted statue, apparently called the Lappa Lady, which was reportedly removed by the original owner before the heavy machines were brought in.

Most frustratingly, no one bothered to save the gorgeous, vintage R-E-L-D-A letters from the from the building, the zinc cubes were likely torn by the backhoe and crushed by the concrete coming down on top.

Relda in its glory days, 1979. Image via

Why was they Relda torn down now? Reportedly for a multistory office, retail, and apartment complex, which is the recent or near-future makeover of about half the blocks facing Tubman Boulevard in Central Sinkor. With surety of title still woefully inept for much of Monrovia's real estate, and with the city continuing to enjoy a huge boom with the influx of foreign investment and their high-salaried, ex-pat packaged executives, Monrovia continues to experience a massive building wave, especially of high-rise, full-service apartment towers, much to the expense of its heritage and historic buildings.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ma Ellen, Not on Twitter

In the aftermath of the Presidential Run-0ff, someone from Harvard suggested that we all follow President Sirleaf on Twitter. Which might be a good idea, if anyone ever sent out messages from the account. But no one ever has.

This is perhaps interesting, given how prominent a role Twitter now plays in American politics, and media in general, and that even though there was a Presidential Debate at Monrovia City Hall, in which members of the Diaspora were able to submit questions via YouTube, and that many Liberians are either on Twitter, or, in far greater numbers, on Facebook, President Sirleaf and the UP camp saw no need to employ microblogging at any point during her reelection. She also doesn't exactly have a lot of followers, but I imagine she would if she ever sent something out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The End

...of election season. The world's eyes look away from Liberia, and on to Penn State, apparently.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Top Rumors of Liberia's Elections, So Far

Monrovia is so unique in many ways, one of which has been particularly pronounced this fall: constant waves of rumor and intrigue. America may have its cable chattering classes and plugged-in pundits, but this town is all tongue-wagging and tale-trading, which can give legs to some incredulous whoppers.

Since the start of the campaign season, the Monrovia rumor mill has been churning out such frequent, fantastical tales and apocryphal episodes that this town makes a rural boarding school look like a scientific review board.

Quite aside from theories involving the Nobel-prize committee rigging Liberia's elections, or any story having to do with Prince Johnson, here is a review of some of the biggest eyebrow-raisers to sweep this city since mid-September, with some follow-up, where possible, of what real and factual events might have fueled the collective imagination.

1A. A member of President Sirleaf's personal security was killed (by UN forces, other bodyguards, burglars, a lover, a rival, or himself) while attempting to:

a. assassinate the President while she was campaigning in Bong or Nimba County

b. help ambush her convoy in Bong or Nimba County

c. planning either (a) or (b) as part of the President's guard detail or advance security crew.

d. leaping in front of the President and taking a bullet for her during (a) or (b)

1B. A member of President Sirleaf's personal security died from a gunshot while:

a. fighting with his girlfriend

b. fighting over a girl

c. cleaning or toying with his gun

d. taking a bath or shower

e. falling under random attack by burglars

f. committing suicide

DATE OF RUMOR: September 24-26 and onwards

STATUS: REMAINS UNCLEAR. The only confirmed portion of this is that George WIlliams, a member of the President's special security service, died of a gunshot wound in Ganta. The extraordinary, early version of this rumor, that the President herself was shot at but only survived due to a bullet-proof vest and/or the intervention of Mr. WIlliams or another member of her security and/or UNMIL guard(s), seems to be totally untrue. Just what happened remains the subject of speculation, as timing (and location deep inside Prince Johnson's home turf) of such an individual's death from a bullet raises plenty of suspicions and details of the investigation have been little-broadcast and drowned out by later election coverage.

2. At the voting booth on election day, George Weah's vote was immediately invalidated by officials because Weah foolishly:

a. used too much ink to mark his thumb-print on the ballot, causing his ballot card to drip with ink, bleeding through the other side and causing potential invalidation of other votes in the sealed ballot box with so much gooey ink

b. dipped his finger in ink before he had voted, therefore technically being counted as having already voted even though he had yet to cast his ballot.

DATE: Story started around 12-14 October, the days after the election.

STATUS: UNTRUE. Although this tale sounds like a perfectly entertaining episode of the tired, never-ending myth, oh-that-Weah-is-just-a-dumb-jock, in fact pretty much the opposite happened in reality: Weah had taken took the opportunity of casting his valid vote to point out the shortcomings and potential pitfalls of the ink-dipping system in front of the media. The first clue that this story was off was that its not clear that poll station staff would have any authority to invalidate anyone's vote at the moment of casting the ballot.

3. Both a Unity Party District Office, and the CDC-Friendly Love FM Radio Station in Sinkor suffered fire damage within a 48 period, due to:

a. A crazed rebel mob sweeping from one end of town to the other in the middle of the night.

b. Factions of Political Parties looking to incite fear and chaos

c. The owners or the political parties themselves, trying to reposition themselves as victims of violence and chaos.

d. Looters/Apolitical Hooligans

DATE: Early Saturday, October 15th for UP office; The night of October 16/17 for Love FM Radio Station.

STATUS: CAUSE OF BOTH FIRES UNKNOWN, despite the arrest of suspects. Other than the fact that both structures suffered fire, it is unclear which of the above reasons is or are true. We can, thankfully, eliminate (a) of course, which was the apocalyptic version of choice in the early hours of Saturday when word first spread that a UP office was ablaze.

4. Ballots were stuffed and/or tampered with

DATE: 12 October onwards

STATUS: UNVERIFIED. Despite supporting photographic evidence, no independent body has confirmed these claims, which were put forth by the CDC. International monitors have largely praised the poll.

The photographs themselves have been questioned, as it seems incredible that an illegal operation to stuff or tamper with ballots under cover of night would welcome flash photography. Paradoxically, the report failed to gain widespread credibility seemingly because of its supporting photographic evidence, which was even shown on Al Jazeera for at least one news cycle.

5. The CDC Candidate, Winston Tubman, was rushed to the UN hospital with high-blood pressure, nearly having a coronary incident due to the sudden news that Prince Johnson was endorsing Sirleaf in the Second Round. Tubman was later flown to Ghana for treatment, even though this was masked as a campaign-related journey to consult with other West African politicians.

STATUS: MOSTLY TRUE, except for some important details. The early, theatrical rumor of Friday, that Tubman swooned with a near heart-attack because of the PYJ news, was easy to dismiss-- how would anyone know the cognitive trigger that causes another person's cardiac episode?

All the same, this is perhaps the most annoying and endless rumor episode, because (1) it was denied but was true at the time, and was otherwise handled poorly in terms of media and public relations by the Tubman/CDC camp (2) there is a big difference between, on the one hand, getting malaria or some other common ailment in Liberia and going to see a physician, who happens to work at a hospital, and on the other hand being rushed to the hospital with a serious condition which requires airlifting for treatment in another country.

With its outright denials of what was days later confirmed to be true, and otherwise lack of timely messaging on the situation, the story stayed way out in front of the CDC, to the point of open speculation in the press and social media that Tubman would withdraw from the run-off, and George Weah would move to the the top of the ticket in the second round.

5A. A major coalition of leading opposition parties, including the CDC is withdrawing from the elections.

5B. The CDC is withdrawing from/boycotting the run-off.

DATE: The coalition withdrawal was announced on 15 October, with threatened boycott by CDC being a constant refrain from then until the present.

STATUS: ???? As to the first part, News of a coalition withdrawal was true, even up to having put the declaration in writing, except a few days later the CDC and other small parties continued to be in.

Despite constant, strenuous, and confusingly contrary claims, the status of the second part is unclear, with daily reports that the CDC is serious, including a recent announcement of an official withdrawal--although its Presidential candidate Winston Tubman is publicly complaining that he wasn't consulted. Standing in a poll is sort of a binary position of either being in or not, but in this case, there is no point speculating on the ultimate outcome, despite official pronouncements. Only November 8th will tell whether the CDC is in fact part of the run-off.

6. National Elections Commission Chairman James Fromayan is being fired or is resigning, because:

a. it is the demand of the opposition due to fraud (see for example #4 and #5A/B above)

b. he mistakenly sent a letter to the CDC mixing up their results and misstating that they had the most votes in the first round

c. it is the behest of President Sirleaf and the Unity Party, to take the fall and undermine complaints about the close connections between NEC and the UP.

d. A combination of b and c.

DATE: Howling over NEC impartiality transformed into calls for Fromayan's resignation after the sloppy letter was circulated on 27 October. First broadcast of word of Fromayan's resignation came on the afternoon of 28 October, apparently on True FM, but no official announcement came until the afternoon of Sunday, 30 October.

STATUS: TRUE. Confirmed about 48 hours after it was everyone's lips, including talk radio in Monrovia, and the Chairman claimed the backwards-letter was not reason enough to resign, and the NEC's public information chief was sacked. Remarkably, the reasons stated in Fromayan's quote are basically all the above. His removal undermines the CDC's cries of injustice, and makes President Sirleaf look decisive and democratic. It is uncommonly frank anywhere to admit to falling on a sword for the sake of a patron, but especially for this town.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Qaddafi Connection

Many journalists (such as Al Jazeera correspondent's blog) and bloggers (such as Fred van der Kraaij's Liberia Past & Present) have recently reviewed the decades-long patronage of successive Liberian leaders by the recently-deceased Qaddafi, so it seems redundant to repeat that history here, except to reiterate that several of Monrovia's most prominent landmarks have at various times been the property or pet project of the Libyan dictator and his government.

This portfolio specifically includes the Pan-African Plaza, a name it can be imagined that Qaddafi chose himself. As an office tower, it manages to be both squat and soaring, and commands a prominent sightline at the terminus of Tubman Boulevard, opposite Monrovia City Hall. PAP, as its frequently called, was apparently constructed for a Libyan Corporation in 1982-83 as an office complex.

The tower currently houses UNMIL's headquarters, a situation which I can't decide whether  it is ironic, or not, but it is both heavily fortified and somewhat nicely appointed inside, including one of Liberia's few elevator banks and some nice material details in the circulation corridors.

The other grand dame of Libya's investment activity is the involvement in the refurbishment of the Ducor Hotel. I've discussed this before, but at this point it is presumed that the 2008 plan to have a Libyan Investment corporation take over the property for reopening is at best stalled and likely dead. As one of the monumental ruins of the Liberian Civil War, prominently perched at the highest point in the city and perhaps the ultimate symbol of Monrovia's lost grandeur and international importance, the Ducor's return continues to be highly anticipated.

Qaddafi's relationships with various Presidents and their administrations, from Doe to Taylor to Sirleaf, switch on and off so frequently that it is difficult to confirm exact details and Libyan involvement with these landmarks. Its not clear whether Libya retained ownership of Pan African Plaza from its inception, or whether it was seized when relations were cut-off, only to become involved again in better times, and whether the United Nations had to negotiate with Libya for its lease. Since only Liberians can own land, there is also the question of who owns title to the ground beneath both Pan-African Plaza and the Ducor Hotel, whether a private individual, the Liberian government, or perhaps a church.

Its also not clear what support Qaddafi might have given to realize the once-luxurious Hotel Africa and Unity Conference Center complex, which both stand today unimproved from the day that the conference ended.

Lastly, there is one more piece of Libyan property in the city that remains vacant: the Embassy. Although one of the earliest and most eye-wateringly moving moments of the recent revolution was the brave defecting of Libya's UN Ambassador, who replaced Qaddafi's green flag with the tricolor of the NTC on Libya's midtown NYC mission, the People's Bureau of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (how redundant is that!) remains both Green Book-and-gold trimmed and seemingly vacant.

Presumably the new Libyan government will both abandon the ridiculous and redundant nomenclature of their foreign legations, and reopen these stations, but since the Sirleaf administration cut official ties with Qaddafi earlier this year, this block of 14th Street in Sinkor has been especially quiet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Weah: Really Not A Soccer Player Anymore

If you thought that the second most important candidate in the race in this election was the biggest opposition party's presidential candidate, you would be mistaken.

Although the Vice Standard-Bearer of the Congress for Democratic Change ticket, Ambassador George Weah is this year's other superstar candidate, besides President Sirleaf. Its frankly highly alarming to listen to young people think they are electing Weah to the presidency when they are voting CDC.

This is the stately Weah manse, although its a bit under-renovated and surely not currently home to the global soccer-star-turned-presidential-candidate-turned-DeVry-University-graduate*-turned-vice-presidential-candidate. The hand-painted order on the gate, prohibiting football practice, was added just a few weeks ago, to which a Liberian colleague quipped, "Right: no football playing in there. Only politics!"

*NB: The originally-published version of this post stated that Amb. Weah attended an online college. While DeVry University is a substantially online, for-profit institute, Amb. Weah seems to have in fact enrolled at DeVry's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, majoring in Business. The post has been edited after publishing to reflect this information.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Polling Precincts, 7AM on Election Day, Monrovia

A light rain has been falling since before sunrise. If it was heavier, I would say it might effect turnout at the polls, but for now its just a damp drizzle.

I went around town this morning and drove past several voting precincts. The first photo is of the historic Law Library on Ashmun Street. The second is of a more open facility on Mamba Point.

There are much longer lines elsewhere. On Capital Bye-Pass, there were two huge rows were orderly arranged in either direction down the block from the entrance to a high school. At the Calvary Baptist Church on Tubman Boulevard, Sinkor, those waiting to vote queued across the yard and out onto the sidewalk. I hope this doesn't prove to be an issue. Perhaps people wanted to get to the polls first thing in the morning. The rest of the city continues to be very quiet-- it has seemed especially calm from Sunday night up til now.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Still Breaking: Still a Nobel Prize Winner, Still Seeking Re-election

Journalists, pundits and bloggers have continued to bang away at their keyboards through the weekend, debating the timing and suitability of President Sirleaf's Nobel Peace Prize, and whether it will impact the election. Its a full spectrum of opinion from, it will hurt her, to it won't effect her, to its perfect timing.

Interestingly, all the press coverage gave the opposition candidates a huge spotlight. Suddenly, real estate for their remarks about the President opened up in the world's major newspapers and their websites, space that they otherwise might not have had. Unfortunately, this was almost entirely used to attack the President, rather than present an alternative platform. How could we not have a campaign season without the incumbent being compared to Hitler?

There is one way in which Ellen's prize gives her a (slight) advantage on the ground here: although the campaign season officially ended on Sunday evening, and the rules reportedly state that all campaign advertisements must be removed from the streets before the election, someone was motivated to print this massive banner of congratulations which was seen at Monrovia City Hall by late Sunday. Its not specifically a campaign poster, so it barely is in keeping with campaign rules, although Liberia's other new laureate, Leymah Gbowee, is not mentioned at all.

Bending the campaign rules doesn't bother me-- there are still some Brumskine signs on the Boulevard. What annoys me is that I wish that I could order and receive printing and other goods and services in town as fast as this banner was commissioned, designed, printed, delivered, and hung.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Two Messages from President Sirleaf

President Sirleaf herself has, in addition to her public appearances and press interviews in the final weekend of campaigning, issued two public statements in the last three days. The first came as the official response to her Nobel Peace Prize, and the second was her close-of-campaign, eve-of-election Presidential address to the citizens of Liberia.

I found both to be on-message in her eloquent manner and forthright admission of the challenges the country still faces. With a graceful, calm, and unifying voice, Sirleaf's messages may be the best demonstration her suitability as a national leader. The acknowledgement of the Nobel prize in particular centers on a recognition of the sufferings common to those she governs which is all too rare from leaders of many nations.

Two extended excerpts. I've decided to share them in reverse order, as, somewhat paradoxically, it is her Sunday evening Presidential Address, marking the end of campaigning, that is both more self-congratulatory, self-referential, and also more partisan. Yet its gentle appeal for calm, and clear endorsement of the rule of law, is rather gracious:

As the President of Liberia, as the President of all partisans, it is befitting, on such an historic night, that I bring you a message of great hope and abiding faith. Our country is at a defining moment in its historical journey. For more than three decades, we have never had back-to-back elections. We had free, fair and transparent democratic elections in 2005, and we are about to repeat it. If we do this well, and I'm convinced that we will, we MUST be proud of ourselves.

I thank all Liberians that have contributed to a campaign that has been violence free, and we call upon all of you, as we pray, that the election phase will be equally violence free.

As a country, we have seen and experienced too much: our people have suffered; our people have died; and our people have had to run away in order to survive. In the three decades of struggle for peace and democracy, I have been personally victimized, jailed more than once, forced into exile several times, and subjected to many years of verbal abuse. But we all thank God that under my leadership, the last eight years of peace and tranquility have been better than the previous fourteen years of violence and civil strife. We don't want to go back there!

...we will be grateful and appreciative for your votes so that we can together consolidate the gains we have made over the last six years and usher for you and your children the kind of enormous economic prosperity, tremendous opportunities and social justice you deserve. If, however, you decide to elect someone else, we commit ourselves to respect your decision; we commit ourselves to accept the results announced by the National Elections Commission.

...We sincerely believe that respect for your decision and acceptance of the results announced by the National Elections Commission are absolutely necessary for the promotion and enhancement of our young democracy; the peace, stability and social justice we have enjoyed over the last six years can only be continued if we all commit ourselves to respect your decision and accept the results of these elections. I therefore call on my fellow compatriots who are competing in these elections to similarly publicly commit themselves to respect your decision and to accept the results announced by the National Elections Commission.

My Dear Liberians,

All awards belong to the people whose shoulders one sits upon.

This is a defining moment in Liberia's history. In a few days, you will choose the future and direction of this country. I In doing so, I ask you to look around, see that progress has been made, see that a foundation for a new Liberia has been built. But I also ask you, to look into the future with me and see where Liberia is going, to see its potential, to see the possibilities for your families, your children and your children's children.

As I have travelled across the country, county by country, village by village, I am pleased to see how much progress we've made in the last 5 years rebuilding what had been destroyed over the previous 20. But I know we must do more. I know that the paved roads has only made it to the edge of town, and that the way to your village remains dirt and rutted. I know that Schools have re-opened, but that reliable power and quality teaching remains a challenge. I know that the town clinic is now open, but there are not yet enough doctors to care for the people. And I know that maybe your neighbor has a job, but you are still looking. I understand many Liberians are struggling to feed their families.

It is my commitment to you, my promise, that the road will soon reach your village, that our teachers will become better trained, that more lights will be turned on across the country, that the investment we have made will result in hundreds and thousands of jobs for our young people, that our children will not go to bed hungry. Brick, by brick, stick by stick, stone, by stone, this is the foundation.

Dear Liberians, now is the time for national reconciliation. Let us forever put the pain and burden of divisions and conflict behind us and work together to share in the opportunities and promise of a New Liberia.

Ripped from the International Headlines: Nobel Peace Prize Winner Seeks Reelection

The last 72 hours started on Friday morning with the bombshell announcement of President Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee's Nobel awards, and is now wrapping up under a late rainy season Sunday evening thunder-downpour as crowds clear out of the streets and stadiums from the last official day of campaigning.

Twitter blew-up early Friday morning after the Nobel announcement, with a wide range of messages, many excited congratulations, but some reacted with a bit more caution:

@penelopeinparis, Penelope Chester, went on to file a post in UN Dispatch: Could the Nobel Peace Prize Hurt Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Changes at Re-Election Next Week? which incorporated a more nuanced reflection of the counter-intuitive liability of the win:

The reactions concerning Sirleaf’s award have been mixed, however. While many believe that this is a great day for Liberia, some are concerned that the timing of the prize actually plays against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s re-election bid, a mere four days away. Indeed, among Liberians, there is a persistent notion that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not truly dedicated to the welfare of her country.

There are a number of reasons for this: the Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission put her on a list of individuals who should be barred from public office because of their role in the civil war. In Sirleaf’s case, it had to do with her early support for Charles Taylor at the beginning of the war...

On Twitter, expats based in Monrovia see the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize as bad news for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Some argue that this will play in the hands of the opposition...

To a remarkable degree, the torrent of global press that followed over the weekend repeat much the same story. While, many foreign journalists covering the elections seem to be familiar with the reality that Sirleaf's international celebrity plays very differently here in Liberia, but others seem to have startled by this aspect, treating it as a late-breaking development:

Reuters: Liberian Vote a Stress Test for Fragile Gains

But her critics have said the prize is evidence only of her international fame -- not her domestic record, which includes controversy over her temporary support to a rebellion by notorious warlord Charles Taylor against ex-president Samuel Doe and impatience with the slow pace of reconstruction.

New York Times: Prize or Not, Liberian Faces Tough Race to Keep in Office filed by Adam Nossiter:

But analysts say more tangible benefits are harder to pin down. Corruption “remains pervasive at all levels” amid “widespread claims of malfeasance in government circles,” a recent report on Liberia by the International Crisis Group noted.

A leading anticorruption official was not reappointed, and Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has ignored a report by a commission set up to investigate crimes committed during the war. It recommended that she be banned from office for 30 years because of her early involvement with the warlord Charles Taylor, which she later said she regretted. There have been no prosecutions, rankling many voters.

The Associated Press: Nobel-Prize Winning Sirleaf to face stiff Competition at Tuesday's polls, as published in the Washington Post:

Pervasive corruption, criminality and the slow progress of national reconciliation have undercut her support on the home front, critics say...

Sirleaf also sidestepped last year’s recommendations from a South-African-styled Truth and Reconciliation Commission that said she should be banned from public office for 30 years for her early financial support of former rebel leader Charles Taylor. Taylor is currently awaiting judgment from the International Criminal Court in the Hague on charges of war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.

AFP: Nobel Power Marks Feverish End of Liberia poll campaign [sic?] by Fran Blandy:

Despite ushering in much-needed foreign investment and getting billions of dollars in debt-relief, Sirleaf is criticised for failing to implement the recommendations of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report naming her on a list of people who should be banned from public office for 30 years for backing warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor.

The Independent: Feted on the International Stage, but Accused of Hollow Promises At Home. Filed by Daniel Howden:

Beyond the debilitating graft that many Liberians blame for holding back the country's recovery from 14 years of conflict, some of the most serious concerns centre on Ms Johnson Sirleaf's alleged role in those wars. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to deal with the legacy of those ruinous wars and was initially lauded for its work by Ms Johnson Sirleaf's government...Ms Johnson Sirleaf faced questions at the time about her relationship with the warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor...Ms Johnson Sirleaf admitted to a single meeting with Mr Taylor and to making a small financial contribution to his then-rebel movement, which she later came to regard as a mistake.

She had in fact met Mr Taylor on more than one occasion and is alleged to have had a much deeper role in support of his armed group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia...

When the report was published, some people were recommended for prosecution; others who had shown adequate contrition were publicly forgiven and a third category of people was to be barred from public office for 30 years. Ms Johnson Sirleaf's name was in the last category. Her administration hastily invoked her constitutional immunity and the TRC found its recommendations largely ignored by a newly hostile government.

While all this background is certainly important context, it is misleading to cite the TRC report and Taylor history as any sort of significant liability that Sirleaf has had to overcome to win. Sirleaf's explanation of her support for Taylor seems adequate enough: she thought Taylor was the right option at the time, and like many was desperate to get rid of Doe.

To say that she should be disqualified from office because she supported Taylor completely disregards how widespread support for Taylor always has been, and still is. For all the perhaps-unfortunate, inconclusive manner in which the report was unceremoniously shelved, that is simply not a topic that is very common to hear anyone in Monrovia bring up as a factor in which party or candidate they support.

Equally incorrect is the concept that the Nobel Prize would reverberate quickly through the electorate, shifting voter opinion. While it is a potential point of argument which is totally unhelpful in such a fragile environment as the election period will be, it is not being internalized by the populace. No need to repeat what I said with brevity on twitter:

The major obstacles that Sirleaf faces, as many of this weekend's articles make a point to mention, if not properly emphasize, is that such an overwhelming majority of Liberians exist in jobless misery, with the daily prospect of just finding enough resources for a single meal posing a significant challenge, aside from accessing other basics such as healthcare, sanitation, or a minimally decent education.

The daily reality of this struggle is exacerbated by the twin evils of endemic corruption and a wide inequality that still rests of the foundations of a dangerously divided nationhood. People's lives are remarkably similar to what they were in 2005, and for that matter in 2003, 1997, 1990 or 1980. The last six years haven't significantly changed that, and although it can be strongly argued that the disease of corruption is difficult to eradicate, many citizens of this country, in their daily dealings with the police, the courts, schools, and government, see no significant improvement during her time in office. This is why President Sirleaf's re-election, as sensible as it seems from afar, is so uncertain here on the ground.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ballot Delivery

A fleet of trucks, parked on 10th Street in Sinkor, outside the National Elections Commission headquarters, waiting to be loaded with ballot papers to be distributed throughout the country. I walked back down 10th Street an hour later, and the trucks were already gone, having departed for the counties. Here's wishing for a peaceful, orderly, and fair election on Tuesday.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Campaign Season

Its not only rainy season but also the campaign season here in Liberia. International journalists have been arriving in Liberia all week; the local press and the public talk about almost nothing else. The city is festooned with signs, posters, handbills and billboards for the various parties vying for the presidency, although the Unity Party, of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Vice President Joseph Boakai, predominate.

As has been observed elsewhere, President Sirleaf's signature campaign slogan, "Monkey Still Working Let Baboon Wait Small," is met with raised eyebrows, if only in the sense that it is hard to imagine an American politician choosing to refer to themselves as a monkey, much less their opponents as baboons.

If the phrasing is easily accepted by Liberians, the general message has also struck many as unsatisfactory, that being: she promised to run for one term, but she wants to stay in power. That there is still so much that needs attention is evident--such as one "Monkey" banner's placement on the center of Broad Street, hanging from the wall that surrounds the still-abandoned former National Housing Bank tower, its tiled fa├žade still pockmarked with bullet holes and rocket blasts.

This message is often read with a mixture of smirking bewilderment and snorting disgruntlement by even those who support her, as are some of her party's other campaign slogans, currently ubiquitous around the city.

Several signs on Tubman Boulevard use a different metaphor to push the "She's still working" argument, without the name-callings: don't change the pilot when the plane hasn't even landed yet. Although this might not be best suited to a country where probably more than 95% of the population will never be privileged enough to ride on an airplane. Also, an air travel metaphor so quickly recalls the widespread criticisms that President Sirleaf spends far too much time flying around the world, being an international celebrity, and far too little time at her desk, keeping watch over her administration and untangling the country's many daunting problems.

And if the metaphors in these first two campaign slogans can be viewed derisively, only more so can the other central message for her campaign: Da Their Area. Taken from a relentlessly repetitive, omnipresent Hipco superhit from earlier this year, dumyarea ('that's my area') went from song title to popular parlance in a matter of weeks.

Originally, the song's refrain and lyrics described the workaday struggle of petty street traders, who guard their own prime real estate on the streets and sidewalks of this crowded capital, trying to make a few hundred Liberian Dollars, enough to eat for the day.

These are the same sellers whose informal market stalls have been destroyed under the bulldozers of Acting Mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh, appointed by President Sirleaf, and crusaded to clear the streets and alleys of undocumented constructions that it has earned her the nickname "Mary Break-It." That President Sirleaf's lieutenant has been moving against the street-vendors, whose daily divvying up of the public street to survive is the subject of the popular tune that her own Unity Party has adopted as its theme song, is an irony apparent to many a Liberian who doesn't possess a dictionary definition of irony.

The semantics of this song and its signature tagline also present unpleasant double meanings politically. In the lyrics, "da ma area" was extrapolated to become not only, "that's where I am," or "that's where I am from," or "that's my neck of the woods," but also "that's my favorite" or "that's my area of expertise," or "that's what I am known for." This meaning the Liberian public adopted instantly.

The Unity Party just as quickly co-opted this new phrase with enthusiasm, employing it on a great many campaign placards, lining the streets of the city and posted along the walls of many government buildings.

There are such a great many of these, at least more than 20 variations that I have seen, and I won't post them all. Suffice to say, the incumbency has a lot of areas. Many of these are totally uncontroversial, and would be only what might be expected from any campaign slogan: Accountability is mundane enough. International Respect, Women's Rights-- there's little argument that Sirleaf has been a master at those.

Another iteration I saw in town, "Debt Waiver," repeats the theme of several large banners celebrating a debt-free Liberia, will resonate less with voters. Sometimes I wonder whether a majority of Liberians are even aware that the former administrations had gone several billion dollars into debt, or know that this problem has been solved.

"Salary Increment" is perhaps a more controversial one, but I suppose Sirleaf would not be the first politician to suggest to increase the salaries of government workers if re-elected. This topic is not without controversy, as anecdotes abound of low-level civil servants having difficulty getting their US$70 or $90 or $100 per month wage, while some of the top-level public servants pull in huge official salaries and benefits packages. One of President Sirleaf's boldest moves while in office was to downsize the government rolls, a bold action in a country with such high unemployment.

Its also a bit amusing that the placard championing education is printed "That's their area" instead of "da their area" --the phrasing switches to bookish serees English from the local kollunkwa English. Lightheartedness aside, public education is so terribly, tragically inadequate in this country that it is perplexing to see the administration boasting of it as an "area" of expertise-- even though President Sirleaf quite vocal about her continued dissatisfaction with the state of public education in the country.

Just next to one such campaign sign on UN Drive is a larger more permanent mural, a "Tax Sensitization Message" the Ministry of Finance, linking the appropriate payment of taxes to the treasury as allowing for free education in Liberia. This revenue transfer would work in theory, but in really this is still a country where money for grades, if not sex for grades, is a commonplace practice through the college level, and so to say that education is free is either ignorant or wishful, but either way inaccurate, and makes the UP's claim that Education is a point of pride rather difficult for some Liberians to accept.

Next in the series of "area" signs are some subjects with even more negative connotations. "Oil Exploration" is one. Multibillion dollar multinational investments in iron ore, oil, and other extractive deals and resource concessions have been signed by the Sirleaf administration. The benefits of these deals, it is frequently speculated and presumed, have been kept within a politically-connected elite.

And this is where the metaphor for "Da Their Area" can be most unkind. In Liberia, as in much of West Africa, the government's portfolios continue to be viewed not as public assets but as private fiefdoms. This tradition is ebbing slowly, and has decreased under the Sirleaf Administration from the Doe and Taylor years, when the state's coffers and country's assets were viewed as personal possessions of the President.

But to say, that's my area, when speaking of education, or the building of roads, or the courting of international investment, and to recall its original connotation as described in the song, is to suggest that the Ministry of Education, or Public Works, or Lands, Mines, and Energy, are turfs that have been carved up by those appointed to oversee them. These precisely echo accusations about they way Liberian governments have always been run.

Despite its breakaway popularity, Dumyarea is not a song celebrating the shared benefit of the commons. It ultimately is about dividing up public space for personal gain, about claiming territory from which to make a living. That is a tradition of African governing that survives, and while Sirleaf speaks out against it, the reality of the last six years is that such an attitude and approach has been far too prevalent in her administration.

One of the placards reads, Fighting Corruption-- Da Their Area. On the topic of corruption, there seems to be the most pointed dissatisfaction, among even some of her supporters. Corruption is an acid which still courses through the veins of this country and its government. Even if she is on record as proscribing anti-biotics, the medicine has been more evident as a slow, diluted drip than a quick shot cure-all.

There is another campaign banner which has been unfurled about town in recent weeks: "Six years on, look how far we've come." Presumably, that is meant to make voters realize how much progress has been made. Reflecting on where Liberia is from where it was half a decade ago reveals successes that are indeed so remarkable that it is astonishing to compare Monrovia to its condition of even a few years ago.

But in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of most Liberians, unemployed, undereducated, malnourished, and frustrated at the inequalities in their society, a review of these past few years also stings with certain disappointments, even outrages.

President Sirleaf has been quite frank about these frustrations. She has been forthright about the unacceptable state of the country's institutions: its schools, its hospitals, its courts, its jails, even its ministerial offices. It is from this refreshing admission, then, that the logic returns to the campaign slogan: give me more time, and I can keep us on the path we are on. I agree with this, and believe that she deserves to continue to govern.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, if there is one statement that voters of all parties could agree on, it might be that which is so obvious: there is still so much to do, and such a long way to go.
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