Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Mountain" Disappears in Sinoe, No Comment from Superintendent

A report from July, bylined O. Testiomeny Zeongar in the Heritage Newspaper, as reprinted in AllAfrica (emphasis added, as always):
Reports gathered from the South Eastern Liberian County of Sinoe say a rather strange occurrence has taken place in that part of the country.
According to the reports, a mountain approximately 30 feet high, has suddenly disappeared from the land space it had previously occupied for several years, and is no longer visible in the area. The mountain, named Tarjue, which was situated between Tarjuewon and Gbarzohn Districts, the reports divulged, recently vanished in thin air, leaving many persons in Sinoe County in a state of bewilderment. 
The reports further divulged that the Tarjue Mountain, which is believed to be rich in the mineral resource of bauxite, vanished when preparations for mining activities by the Valley Exploration Company heightened. Prior to its reported disappearance, the ownership of Tarjue Mountain was heavily contested by Sinoe citizens from Tarjuewon and Ggbarzohn Districts, the reports intimated. 
Meanwhile, authorities of the county, including Superintendent J. Milton Teajay are yet to comment on the reported mysterious disappearance of the mountain in question.
 (Is a pile of possible-minerals the height of a 2-story house really a mountain?)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Liberia's Arrow Points Backwards

Reposted from the October 2 article in The Economist online, citing a recent report by the World Bank, which compares the increase in GDP per capita with rates of urbanization in Asian Tigers (and China) with sub-Saharan African countries. Strikingly, the African economies do not correlate GDP growth with increasingly urbanized populations, as is markedly the case in the major ASEAN economies and China. Only Ethiopia and Ghana show any similarity, with tiny Guinea-Bissau joining Cameroon and Kenya only slightly tilted in the same direction. Massive Nigeria points straight upwards, stagnating even as its cities have boomed. Zimbabwe and Madagascar actually show a decrease in GDP per capita as those states have urbanized, while the most dramatic outlier is Liberia, which saw a rapid decrease in GDP even as the country's urbanization shot up. The Civil conflict is, of course, major cause of this.

Updated: This was also posted on The Atlantic which has a link to the World Bank's Tumblr.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberia's Tourist Potential Remains Untapped

From the mellifluous remarks by the Montserrado County District #12 Representative, the Honorable Richmond Anderson, to mark World Tourism Day, as chronicled by the Insight Newspaper. Emphasis has been added:

“The eco-system of Liberia is incomparable to the sub-region; we have the best,” he said as he laid out attractions such as waterfalls, lakes, lagoons, rivers and mountains among others which put Liberia at an appreciable vintage ahead of other countries.He added that research he had done proved that Liberia has over 300 clear and beautiful coastal lines ready for marine-aquatic tourism operation, about 200 lodging facility and 25 travel agencies.“The airline industry is currently booming with the active participation of Liberians. Cataloging all of these tourist potentials,” he said, “and being cognizant of the fact that tourism brings about rapid infrastructural and super-structural development to any nation, and serves as a catalyst to enhance economical, social, cultural and political development, one is tempted to wonder as to whether Liberia is experiencing fresh developmental transformation.”He said it can be averred that the country was yet to tap into the tourism potential when he made reference to the historical Providence Island which should have been a center of tourist attraction.“Beyond reasonable doubts, it should be by now a center of touristic attraction but to the contrary it remains an oasis of degradation and depletion.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dampened Liberia

Monrovia is extraordinarily rainy, and this year's rains have been extraordinary. I was told by a professional in rain-water collection that its rained almost twice as much as usual this year. It's the second half of September, and yet the rainy season doesn't seem to be slowing down. It's still raining. One week in August, it rained more or less continuously from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening, cycling from drizzles to downpours. Streets fill with water. The clouds are low and the light is dim-- as depressing as a Scandinavian winter.

I wrote about the rainy season last August, including the phenomenon of motorbike guys drying off in the wall-sized exhaust vents of huge generators, who are almost always designed to spew their filthy smog out into the street. The very same observation of the very same half-clothed huddle was mentioned in a recent Baobab column about Monrovia's rainy season, which is copied below.

A sudden stiff wind offers momentary respite from Monrovia’s punishing humidity, but it is only the harbinger of worse to come in Liberia’s capital. As huge rain-drops begin to spatter the ground, people scarper for cover. Motorcycle-taxi drivers abandon their bikes as the heavy sky empties its load.In the month of July alone, Monrovia sees almost double the rainfall that London does in a year. It is the wettest capital city in the world, fighting back the floods from May to November. During this period, those who drive to work in UN or Liberian government cars complain of patchy internet service and the increasingly pot-holed roads. But as ever, it is Liberia’s poor majority who really bear the brunt.Monrovia is a tropical, seaboard city with many communities built on Mangrove swamp. Mosquitoes multiply as the water level rises. On higher ground, wells overflow with the run-off from the city’s open sewers. Water-borne bacteria thrive; typhoid and dysentery spread. Worse still, the capital’s controversial mayor, Mary Broh, has chosen this rainy season to demolish many of the city’s squatter settlements. With this looming threat, new roofing seems a poor investment for Monrovians...Over the past fortnight, at the height of the rainy season, the main roads to many regional capitals have been impassable. With key arteries blocked, the prices of basic items spiral. In Voinjama, in northern Lofa County, a gallon of petrol can fetch almost $9. In Sinoe County in the south east, a single egg, at the end of its long journey from India, sells for more than 50 cents.Nine years after the end of the civil war, the lack of decent roads to places like Sinoe County seems a damning indictment of the government’s approach to rural development under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sinoe, after all, has attracted large international concessions agreements for Palm oil, gold and timber. Many locals, who were told the presence of these companies would improve their lives, now blame the swift degeneration of the roads on the weight of foreign firms’ lorries laden with the Liberia’s bounty.Back in Monrovia, smiles return as the rain finally stops. In the prosperous Mamba Point area, near-naked motorcycle-taxi drivers dry themselves by the heat of a big generator, still the main source of electricity for those with sufficient means. President Johnson Sirleaf has promised that work will finally begin this year to restore the country's huge Mount Coffee hydro-electric plant, which has been left derelict since 1990. Time will tell if Liberia's water curse can be turned into a blessing.

Not only does it give some description of the incredible wetness, but its astonishing effects, in every meaning of the word dampening Liberia: making most of the country's roadways impassible to vehicles, virtually shutting down the interior trade networks of the nation.

Added to this the extremely common yet no less bizarrely extreme aversion of many Monrovians to getting wet. People miss appointments, fail to show up for work, with the endless excuse, the rain. As if rain was actually acid to the skin, yet many Monrovians do not own any type of raincoat.

When the rain starts, the city slows. Not as you might expect in many cities, where inclement weather induces caution in motorists and causes traffic: quite the opposite, the chaotic roads of the city are devoid of pedestrians, waiting taxi passengers, and motorbikes. Traffic streams along the boulevard smoothly: more than one friend has told me he loves it when it rains because it is so easy to get from one part of the city to the other (especially now that traffic has gotten so bad). I often wonder, with an economy growing at over 8% per year, how much quicker it might be developing if it had better roads and more plentiful, less expensive utilities. I also wonder, in weeks like these, how much of Liberia's GDP is lopped off due to the rains, and the lack of preparation for it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Liberian National Airlines from Freetown, c.1965-70

  • Speaking of old footage of flights to Liberia, and routes between Monrovia and Freetown, here is a short clip from another era. In some ways this reel, from some time between 1960 and 1974, is perhaps even more astonishing than seeing the Concorde parked on the RIA tarmac. Here's a Liberia National Airlines DC-3, landing and taking off from what I imagine to be Spriggs-Payne Airfield, but this dusty airstrip surrounded by encroaching greenery looks nothing like the asphalt tarmac, hemmed in by zinc houses that sits in the center of Sinkor today. I absolutely love the large Helvetica lettering, Liberian, printed on the side, which interestingly is nearly identical in styling to how American Airlines has long labelled their aircraft (although it wasn't the case back in those decades, so it couldn't be a copy). 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

British Airways To Fly To Monrovia

With little advanced rumor or speculation, British Airways has announced that it will start flying to Robertsfield on November 5th. The flight from London will be an extension of its Freetown service, which BA is taking over as part of its absorption of British Midland International (BMI).

The sudden news is in sharp contrast to the years of speculation surrounding any possible intention of Emirates to fly to Liberia (the latest speculation is that Emirates is still serious about serving Liberia, possibly sometime in 2013). There was barely a week between the Liberian Airport Authorities announced the agreement that BA officially announced the commencement.

This is the third intercontinental airline to start new service to RIA since 2010, when Delta finally began its Atlanta-Accra-Monrovia flights (earlier this year, the routing was changed to New York JFK-Accra-Monrovia). In 2011, Air France extended its Paris-Conakry service to both Freetown and Monrovia; AF still flies twice-weekly to RIA. For many years previous to this, only Sabena, which collapsed and was replaced by SN Brussels, which was renamed Brussels Airlines, had the only flights outside Africa to and from Liberia.

However, none of these routings are dedicated to Liberia alone: all stop in another African capital on their way to or from RIA. This seems at least partially due to security concerns around refueling and crew way-stationing, along with considerations of whether little Liberia has the market to fill a 250-seat widebody jet nearly once per day. Emirates, if it does come, will likely include service to Freetown or Conakry as part of its flights to Liberia.

Its not exactly clear whether British Airways, or its predecessor British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), ever flew to Robertsfield. BOAC's rival British Caledonian, which it swallowed in the same manner as it now is merging with BMI, flew from London to Monrovia for years, sometimes via Banjul, Gambia, or Freetown. Its not clear at this point if BA will sell tickets for the ROB-Freetown portion of its routings; currently ASKY and Royal Air Maroc serve this route a few times a week, and additional flights will offer some welcome competition to the capital next-door.

A more unusual, unscheduled British visitor to RIA was the single landing of the Concorde at RIA in 1976, which was written about last year, as the supersonic jet was tested by its manufacturers. Above is a recently-posted vintage super-8 moment of the plane on the tarmac of Robertsfield, although unfortunately the footage shows neither the plane landing nor taking off. The jet stopped at Robertsfield on its way to South Africa, without carrying any passengers. Let's hope BA's newly-scheduled flights have more paying customers than that. As the world says goodbye to yet another airline in the global wave of consolidation, Liberia says welcome to another major carrier.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Postcards of Pre-Independence Luanda

Escola Industrial, c.1960

Yesterday's descriptions of the remarkable infrastructure of mid-century Angola reminded me of my collection of vintage postcards of various African cities. The most-often repeated description of Luanda, other than being crowned the world's most expensive city in the 2011 Mercer survey, is that it now teems with 4 million people, being one of the most pronounced examples of a small colonial capital, built for a few hundred thousands, now crowded with more inhabitants than the entire country had at independence.

 Luanda, 1950

 Aerial views of Luanda, 1955-60

Porto Largo Diogo Cao

Luanda has been experiencing a construction boom as the oil bonanza has dominated the city, but it has long been regarded as one of southern Africa's most beautiful cities, with its waterfront corniche. These postcards, from the 1940s, when the city had about 60,000 inhabitants, til about 1970, when it had grown to about half a million, show a smart, modern city, with huge technical works for emptying out the interior, as seen in yesterday's post.

While this tidy, mannered capital was then considered an integral part of the Portuguese state, and was divided unevenly between a tiny white elite and a native population, its a shame that so little of this place remains. This originally city, like so many 20th century plans of Africa's capitals, is being made over into an imitation Dubai, in Luanda's case, explicitly so. Perhaps that Gulf emirates are not the models to solve urban Africa's problems, and perhaps its useful to remember that these places are not starting out as clean slates.

 Waterfront Vistas, c.1965

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stop That Train, I Wanna Get Off

On Friday, Angola held elections. The results were announced this weekend: the ruling MPLA party received 74% of the vote, easily pummeling the opposition. Therefore the era of the 70-year old Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, in power since 1979, will continue for at least another 5-year term.

The campaign season got its start with the resumption of the Benguela Railway (CFB) to Luena, a station in eastern Moxico province, deep in the interior of Angola (which is twice the size of Texas). That Friday the first time in at least a twenty years that the train has reached this far. President Dos Santos was on-board the train to celebrate the "inaugural" journey, which made for great press.

That same day I was in Amsterdam's book market in the Spui, cracking spines of tattered art and history books, and rummaging through boxes of ephemera. Astonishingly, I found an old guide to the Benguela Railway, printed in English in about 1960, some 15 years before Angola's independence and the commencement of fighting that would halt the railway's operations. Feigning only mild interest in the item, I bought it €5.

Serendipity aside, this is a gorgeous, wonderful old article. Although I was seriously tempted to scan the entire 34-page pamphlet in all its vintage glory, I think the 14 pages below suffice for a blog post.

Like earlier late-colonial printed emphera that I've posted here, there is a strange mix of the delight of the dated item, brimming with mid-century optimism and the bizarre, uncomfortable anachronisms of its racist hegemonic presentations.

Both are on display here, along with the staggering scale of the infrastructure of the entire operation of port, rail, warehouse, and auxiliaries, which, although featuring ultra-modern sleeper cars running a passenger schedule to the border with the Congo, is clearly about movement in the other direction, exporting mineral cargo from to the port at Lobito and from there to other continents.

While the service has yet to reach the border with Congo again, President Dos Santos's Minister of Transport vowed on Friday to press ahead, resurrecting the entire service and connecting it with other Angolan rail operations and the networks across Southern Africa. This will be made possible, according to the Wikipedia article, with several hundred million dollars of assistance from the Chinese.

So, hopefully next year, the Benguela railway will then be returned to full service as a vital strap binding Angola together: transporting goods and people into the heart of the huge country, and extracting the vast interior's magnificent riches for shipment overseas-- 53 years after this marvelous infrastructure was documented in this gorgeous pamphlet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Moved 2 Moscow

The Economist's Baobab column from April this year chronicled and compared the comically centipedal convoys of many African heads of state. Its worth reading in full, and its point that such motorcades are both over-cautious and an unwise expenditure of aid-dependent governments. President Sirleaf's motorcade was picked out in particular: 

ON A recent Tuesday evening, President Ernest Bai Koroma's motorcade swung past St Mary's supermarket in the west of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. A motorcyclist came first. Mr Koroma followed in a Mercedes saloon. Most of the other six vehicles in the procession were gleaming black 70 Series Toyota Land Cruisers. The 70 Series wagon starts at $68,210. The World Bank puts Sierra Leone's GDP per capita at $325. 
Mr Koroma's extravagant motorcade is modest compared with other African leaders. When Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni travels up-country he takes between eight or nine cars, a couple of mine-resistant South African armoured personnel carriers and a large silver Mercedes truck with a mobile lavatory. Occasionally mobile-phone signal dies when he arrives, suggesting that one of his vehicles also contains some kind of jammer. 
For a trip to church some weeks ago, the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, travelled with three four-wheel-drives from the Special Security Service, two pickup trucks from the Liberian national police, and an off-roader carrying Nigerian troops from the United Nations peacekeeping mission. Long-time Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe travels with two motorcyclists up front who clear the road, arriving at high speed then stopping by their road, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. Three blacked-out Mercedes saloons follow, one with the number plate "Zim1". Finally two pick-up trucks appear, with ten or more armed guards in them. Which of these many cars Mr Mugabe himself travels in is unclear.

This wasn't the only time that Presidential Motorcades were mentioned in African-focused press during the same time frame. From the Brookings Institution Africa blog:

Likewise, President Banda has come to power with a lot of goodwill from home and abroad . But she must be careful not to follow the path of her predecessor. It is easy to squander such goodwill. President Banda must be very careful not to fall victim to the trappings of power. Last Friday (April 13, 2012), I was traveling around Lilogwe and I was stopped by police as the president’s motorcade passed through. The president’s limousine was surrounded by over 20 outriders, a large number armed cruisers and other vehicles as part of the president’s security detail. A very large convoy by any standards. While the president’s security is critical, there is no need to be extravagant. For a country that is heavily dependent on donors and one that is experiencing severe fuel shortages, such an image does not reflect a leadership that seeks to move away from the trapping of power that marked Mutharika’s regime. So, Your Excellency President Banda, as you rationalize the activities your government, start by getting rid of some of those vehicles in your motorcade.

These long motorcades may or may not be overblown or overbudget. That point is not, to me, the most detrimental effect of these long motorcades. This is not just a contingent of cars moving down the road, after all. This is a heavily armed caravan, with sirens whining and guns drawn, rushing at high speed down the highway at all hours, requiring (and sometimes forcing) other vehicles and citizens out off the road and out of the way, a repugnantly aggressive tactic that has lead to at least one death in the past year, when a Presidential Escort struck and killed a pedestrian in Paynesville in July. Traffic laws, as little as they are celebrated in Liberia, are not applied here. 

This is a daily, or multi-daily occurrence, often during rush hour, or other periods of heavy traffic, which have become increasingly constant in the last several years as roads have improved and more people have bought cars. The only relief is during the President's frequent visits to other countries. 

President Sirleaf is not alone in skipping the gridlock. The Vice President has an only slightly smaller, slightly less-armed motorcade to and from his residence in distant Paynesville. But any time the President gets in a car, space is made for her movement. As you may notice from some of these videos, the grand finale of this show, along with various Special Security guards, UNMIL troops, as the Economist mentioned, are a random assortment of SUVs with the bright red government plates, or just regular business and private plates, or NGO plates, which may or may not have been part of the convoy at the beginning, but just may be tagging along to skip the traffic. All it seems to take is a big helping of the old "look like you belong" behavior and pressing the hazard button of the dashboard for some flashing lights. In the montage below, notice the yellow (business)-plated grey SUV tailing the last police escort as it rushes through ELWA. The last video is from when Sirleaf and the aforementioned Malawian President Banda attended church together on the Sunday during her official state visit to Liberia, also in April: 

This seems to be the precipice of a slippery slope which Liberia's motorists are now happily sliding down. In the past year, a proliferation of impromptu motorcades seems to appear almost daily. National Police vehicles now routinely travel with their sirens sounding, rushing at high speed into on-coming traffic. Perhaps they have pressing business, but perhaps they are just making (ab)use of their privilege. Any government plate (such as the black Representative plate in the first video below) is a license to instantly enter motorcade mode: hit the flashers and cross the yellow line into the opposite lanes of traffic, or at least, as in the examples below, have other motorists show you undue deference even if you stay on the right side of the road: 

This practice has become an everyday occurrence, and there is no way of knowing whether there has been any official sanction for these Make-Your-Own-Motorcades, or whether this method is authorized, but its frequency seems inversely proportioned to the increase in gridlock traffic on Tubman Boulevard, and are a rather dispiriting display of public servants and regular citizens finding was to flaunt the law, the rules, and dilute social norms. 

Its starting to feel a bit like the ridiculous circus that is the gridlocked Moscow, which has become infamous for the proliferation of special flashing blue lights (which come with immunity from traffic laws) can be purchased by business men and other private citizens to whip past stalled lanes of mere mortals.  Maybe Monrovia needs its own Society of Blue Buckets. But it'd be nice if this society would move away from the chaos of Moscow rather than speeding head-on toward it, and it would be better if the elites in and out of government weren't imitating oligarchs.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Duazohn, Margibi Couty as the New Capital?

Many months after President Sirleaf's announcement of that Liberia's capital would be located to the remote hamlet of Zekepa, a town that even most Liberians had never heard of, suddenly the speculation shifted that Liberia's capital would instead move to the exurban fringe of the Monrovia region: to Duazohn (also spelled Duarzohn, Duazon, etc), a rapidly-populating zone straddling the country's main highway, east of Paynesville and Monrovia on the way to Roberts International Airport. As one of the few districts in the capital region in which lots of land can be readily purchased, Duazohn has been booming with residential construction.

The report below describes a very official-sounding meeting, in which a plan for a 4000-acre city was presented with plans and specifics to an audience including several relevant government ministries and agencies. The presentation was given by ECB Jones, a long-time  high-ranking bureaucrat in the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. Although not named as such, this is likely the "New Monrovia" plan which has been in development by ECB Jones and partners for years.
From a May 2012 Public Agenda article, speculating on this latest development: 
In the case of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she spoke about relocating the country’s city to Zekepah in Nimba, her five ‘Ws’ and one ‘H’ were truly correct – the who were lawmakers, partners and citizens; where=Zekepah; what=relocating city; when=not defined; why=necessary against climate change and how=not defined. But in any case, the pronouncement was made and hopes were high. Fifteen months later, Nimba lawmaker Tingban suspected the pronouncement was a mere mockery intended to win votes from Nimba. Then two months later,this paper has gathered credible information that instead of Zekepah, Duazon in Margibi seems to be Liberia’s new capital city. Was the lawmaker right that the  President was making mockery of her citizens?
It appears that the Liberian Government is undecided about the exact place or county to relocate the country’s political capital city, which has been a major issue of national debate from regime to regime.  Although the name of Bong County has been in the ears of many, probably due to its central location, latest development coming from government circle suggests otherwise. 
This paper has gathered credible information that plans are already far advanced for Liberia's capital city to be relocated around Duazon in Margibi County, instead Zekepah in Nimba as was pronounced by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Monday, January 24, 2011, when she addressed for the 6th and last time the 52nd National Legislature during her first term.

      But seventeen (17) months after that pronouncement at a special called meeting over the weekend in Duanzon, Mamba Kaba District, eminent citizens of Margibi, including Senior Senator Clarice Jah and Representative Ballah Zayzay among others presented and reviewed an initial blueprint of the planned capital city through a Powerpoint presentation by DU Investment Incorporated.
      According to initial information available, the Liberian government has earmarked 40,000 acres of land for its new capital city; though the weekend presentation elaborated on an initial 25,000 acres.
     During the presentation, the Managing Director of DU Investment, Inc., Mr. E.C.B Jones, showed citizens designs and layout of the proposed city, including roads, train tracks, ministries and agencies of government.
      While government does not intend to build all 40,000 acres with infrastructure, our information says it intends to build and relocate all government ministries and agencies there so as to attract investment and habitation; thereby erasing the hope of relocating the city to Zekepah.
      A train track, according to the presentation, will be built from the Robert's International Airport (RIA) to Juanzon and then to Monrovia. In the same blueprint, present-day Monrovia is referred to as Greater Monrovia when the city is relocated to Duanzon.
      The meeting was attended by representatives from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, National Housing Authority, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Land Commission.
      This discovery comes at a time when Nimba County District #9 lawmaker Richard Matoneky Tingban has sounded a caveat; fearing and hoping that earlier public pronouncement by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to relocate the country's capital to Zekepah in his county was not a mockery only intended to win votes from Nimba.
     Rep. Tingban, an Engineer by profession, said though he did not have reasons to think that the President's promise was a mockery, reminding her about public pronouncements helps nation building and truth telling. 
    The Nimba lawmaker said he and other Liberians would feel very disappointed if the President had only made the pronouncement to win votes from Nimba during the 2011 presidential election. 
     A 2008 LISGIS census report put the county as the second most populated area in Liberia. Now that discovery shows that plans are already far advanced to relocate the country's city to Margibi, much is unpredictable.
      The comment comes fifteen months after a pronouncement by President to the nation that her government had selected Zekepah, at the meeting between Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties, as Liberia's next capital city.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Zekepa Move a Political Ploy?

Talk of a new capital for Liberia had peaked for a second time when President Sirleaf announced her wish to move the seat of government to Zekepa, Nimba County, in her January 2011 state of the union address. Sooner after, however, the subject had once again disappeared, until earlier this year, when the issue swelled for a third time. From a report in the Public Agenda newspaper from March 2012 of a Nimba County legislator's remarks which publicly questioned the Zekepa plan. New here is mention not of the shameful condition of Monrovia, but of the desperate state of the region around Zekepa itself. Also notable is the speculation that Sirleaf's pronouncement was only to entice the relatively-heavily populated County to vote with the Unity Party in the November, 2011 elections:

In her annual message to the nation addressed before the sixth session of the 52nd national legislature, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Monday, January 24, 2011 received a heavy applause when she disclosed her government's plan to relocate Liberia's capital city from Monrovia to Zekepa in the central of the country. 
Fifteen months [sic?] after the pronouncement, the lawmaker of electoral district #9 in Nimba County, where the town is located, has begun to raise concern; hoping that the President's declaration was not a mockery to the people of Liberia, especially Nimba. 
Rep. Richard Matenokay Tingban, an Engineer by profession, says though he does not have reasons to think that the President's promise was a mockery, reminding the Liberian leader about public pronouncements helps nation building and truth telling. 
He, however, maintains that by now signs of a possible relocation of Liberia's capital could be visible. The Nimba lawmaker said he and other Liberians would feel very disappointed if the President had only made the pronouncement to win votes from Nimba during the 2011 presidential election. A 2008 LISGIS census report put the county as the second most populated area in Liberia.
Although Rep. Tingban says he has reminded the President on some occasions about the pronouncement, nothing seems to be signaling anything in the area.
Zekepa is currently not accessible by roads. “The President herself could not reach in this district and particularly Zekepa during the election when she came here. This was due to road inaccessibility. She knows this of course,” Rep. Tingban told a gathering of citizens in Voipa, Yarmensornor District over the weekend.
The education system in Zekepa remains very deplorable and remains confronted by questionable transfers and rotations of teachers allegedly by Ministry of Education officials. Healthcare delivery, too, is virtually impossible to an extent that some pregnant women are said to have passed away or delivered on the highway while struggling to get them to nearby town.  Information about pregnant women losing their lives or delivering on the highway before reaching a medical canter could not, however, be confirmed by journalists due to road inaccessibility.Rep. Tingban is calling on the President to make real her promise at least by showing signs of a possibility. But it appear that the Liberian leader herself understood that it would never have been an easy task even before she made the pronouncement. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Liberia's Capital from Slum to Forest"

This editorial from the In Profile Daily, which emerged in the week following President Sirleaf's late January 2011 state of the union address, includes much of the same questions about the priorities and practicalities of building a new capital, but also contains the same negative rhetoric about Monrovia's present condition and appearance, and also echoes the President's allusions to climate change and sea erosion [with my emphasis added]:

As President Sirleaf mounted the podium at the Capitol Building on January 24, 2011 to give her annual message to the nation as mandated by the constitution, she gave a laundry list of achievements her administration has accomplished thus far and listed several more she needed to accomplish, one of which was laying the groundwork for the construction of a new capitol city as the political seat of the nation. 
While Monrovia rapidly degenerates from city to a slum amidst failures, visionless leaderships from successive governments steeped in corruption, nepotism, cronyism, special interests, compounded with years of senseless warfare; and with the prospect of oil wealth, the effects of global climate change and ever creeping sea erosion, and after five years at the helm of the nation, the President has come to recognize that Monrovia was no longer suitable to be Liberia's nation's capitol. 
The President has just admitted that Monrovia is a slum and that we must move to the forest and build ourselves a new capitol city there. The new capitol, according to the President, would be at the meeting point of Nimba, Bong and Grand Bassa counties, the area where Zekepa is the key town. 
Although at the southernmost part of Nimba County, Zekepa is embraced by Bassa and Bong counties, geographically in the heartland of Liberia and central enough to make it an ideal location for the capitol of a country that is so politically charged at all times.
While Liberians do not disagree with the central location of Zekepa, they wonder why the pronouncement now.
These are some of the questions that linger on the lips of critical thinkers: “Why couldn't the President choose the name of a town or village in Bassa or Bong counties adjacent to Zekepa? Was this meant as an indirect campaign strategy in vote-rich Nimba County, where the President has Prince Johnson to contend with? Could it be that the President was sizing up voters in the three counties and pampering them with pipe dreams?” 
Others argue that the thought of a new capitol to be financed in part or whole with income from potential oil wealth will be a waste of resources that will bankroll politicians, their cronies and good-for-nothing international firms at the detriment of Liberians. 
They argue that Monrovia, as is, is far from a true city and therefore should be developed into a metropolitan city from B.F. Goodridge to Cotton Tree and to Kakata, with modern facilities such as electricity, water, trains, water, transportation system, air, land and public transport system that meets international standards, as well as adequate and affordable housing and schools. 
According to Thomas Coleman, a resident of Water Street, 'taking resources to build a new capitol in the middle of nowhere requires a lot of money; much more expensive than government officials breaking Monrovia down and rebuilding it.' 
Emmanuel Kerkula, a University student reading accounting asserted: “many of the properties in Monrovia that need to be demolished belong to people who are politically and socially connected, and demolishing them will not be politically expedient for any leader. Rather, taking it to a place dominated by farmland and people blind to political realities will be much safer for any politician.” 
Ma Finda, a market woman at Ma Juah Market agrees that there is a need for a new capitol where there might be newer markets and modern buildings. 
As the argument continues on the need or not for a new capitol, pundits assert that the fruition of such plan - be it Zekepa or any other town or village for that matter, is many years away. 
More interestingly over the decades, city planning of Monrovia by government through the Ministry of Public Works (MPW) and the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) have failed to produce the anticipated results, having employed the Monrovia Urban Development Project (MUDP) to have largely engaged itself into the construction of sanitary facilities in various communities, while the MPW was preoccupied with re-designing the capital that would have brought to bear the demolition of several homes in the creation of alleys and as well encouraged the construction of modern homes that most of its residents could not and cannot afford.
Of significant feature leading to attempts by governors, including the President of Liberia to relocate Monrovia has been the pervasive number of zinc shacks that continue to dull its outlook, evolving principally from urban migration that has been necessitated by the lack of gainful employment and other cores that are meant to encourage self-generating incomes to avert the continuing dependency on national government for survival.
Quizzically it certainly appears for the current leadership of President Sirleaf to propose a new capital, confusing the site still appears to many Liberians with Zekepa taken for Sekepa as publicly clarified in recent week, harnessing relevant resources proves the fundamental question in the wake of minute financial resources following the waiver of the nation's huge debts by the international community, giving way to external credits that may not necessarily have to be directed at construction of a new capital but improving the livelihood of the vast majority through job creation and ensuring food security.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Zekepa: Liberia's Abuja?

Although the passage of an Act to establish a new capital city for Liberia came and went in late 2009 with plenty of blustering announcements and chatter there followed absolutely no details and even less action for more than a year. Then, during President Sirleaf's annual state of the union address in January 2011, once again the outline of the fabled city appeared on the horizon. From a press report of later that January [emphasis mine]:

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has unveiled plans for the relocation of Liberia’s capital Monrovia to Zekepa where Grand Bassa, Bong and Nimba Counties converge.Delivering her sixth state of the nation address Monday, President Sirleaf said there was need to relocate the capital city due to the effects of climate change and expectation that rising sea levels could threaten coastal cities.She said plans were being concluded for a new capital city at Zekepa, but warned that it would take time to realize this dream.“The vision I have outlined is a collective vision but we should be under no illusions about how difficult this will be to achieve. There is a long road ahead of us, and that road will not be smooth. We will need great courage and determination to get to our destination,” the liberia leader said.Liberia’s 20th President, William R. Tolbert, Jr. who was assassinated during the  1980 military coup d’etat, planned to relocate the Liberian capital to Gbarnga, Bong County in central Liberia.Meanwhile, President Johnson Sirleaf has disclosed that Liberia is on the verge of becoming a petroleum exporting country in the coming decade.She however said that before the country exports a drop of oil, her government will put in place policies that will dictate how oil wealth will be used for development, stability and poverty reduction.She said if properly managed,  resources from oil could be invested to transform Liberia. Currently, oil exploration is taking place off the coast of Liberia.Monday’s state of the nation address to the national legislature was the president’s  last in her first term as president of Liberia.

Firstly, Zekepa, a place that hardly exists any more than Brasilia did in 1950s Brazil, Abuja did in 1970s Nigeria, or Yamoussoukro did before President Houphou√ęt-Boingy's reign. The Google Earth images above pinpoint Zekepa (not to be confused with the mining site Yekepa) which does indeed rest in a small nook of south-central Nimba County near the border with Bong and Grand Bassa Counties, and as can be seen not particularly far, as the pepperbird flies, from northeasternmost Margibi County nor for that matter Monrovia itself. Yet despite its verdant locale, it is by the few accounts that exist a tiny hamlet, and no matter how geographically proximate it may be, there are no roads to the place, nor really any suitable modern transportation options of any sort nearby.

In placing this proposal in a global context of the the movement of capital cities, this bears resemblance to several, including Brasilia but also Dodoma in Tanzania but most especially Abuja, Nigeria's capital which was explicitly moved away colonial coastal city dominated by one group to more neutral territory near the geographic center of the country and at a intercultural crossroads.

Secondly, its rather remarkable that President Sirleaf's pronouncement listed climate change and sea erosion as the primary drivers behind moving away from the coast. Its on the one hand interesting to see any head of state refer to climate change openly, much less one from a less developed country with a less educated electorate. More curious than that is the idea that the country's current capital, and by far its largest city, with a metropolitan area home to about one in three Liberians, is in danger of being swallowed into the ocean, and therefore the government will vacate the sinking city, leaving the populace behind.

The final aspect of the report to note is the mention of the oil. This is hardly a nonsequitur. From the beginning of the Sirleaf-era talk on capital relocation, the undertaking has been consistently linked to the new revenue stream of oil, often explicitly proposing that a very worthwhile use of the additional funds would be to build a new capital city. This begins to bring to mind Abuja again, which despite the legitimate arguments for its construction in the name of national unity and a break with the past, was without question an orgy of corruption during its establishment, and since that time has served as a comparatively luxurious retreat, hidden away from the teeming cities and the majority of the country's population, where the country's rulers control its revenues and wield power to their own benefit, out of easy reach or sight of much of the population. Its easy to imagine that this has appeal among Liberia's public servants also.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A New Capital for Liberia

In posting on Yamoussoukro, I realized that I've never posted about Liberia's dreams of a planned capital. Although plans are still rather vague, there have been some interesting proposals over the last few years. Rather than one long post, I'll detail the sporadic developments in several shorter posts.

Talk of having the government vacate Monrovia stretch back at least to the Tolbert years, when President Tolbert openly desired to move the capital city from Monrovia to Bensonville, his hometown in north-central Montserrado county, which he had rechristened Bentol. He was not successful in moving the national capital, but he did decree that Montserrado County relocate its administrative center to Bentol, where it is today. He was also mostly able, up until his assassination, to construct a sort of Americo Versailles in Bentol.

President Doe may have talked about moving the Liberian capital, but I have seen no evidence of any plans for this. While Charles Taylor operated the capital of his "Greater Liberia" out of Gbarnga, Bong County for years, Monrovia and its Executive Mansion were always the prize for him (as they have been for every Liberian Presidential hopeful before and since).

But during the recent reconstruction era of the Sirleaf Administration, at least as early as 2009, mention of moving Liberia's capital from Monrovia was made again. The first notice of it that I saw was in the local papers, when the Liberian legislature passed a resolution to move Liberia's capital, much before there had been any public discussion of it (or demand from constituents). From an editorial published in the In Profile Daily on 2 September 2009, titled, A New Capital, Not the Time [bolding is mine]:

The Plenary of the House of Representatives recently passed a bill seeking to create a new political capital in Central Liberia. The Act, according to the Joint Committee’s report, was scrutinized and thoroughly studied before bringing it to plenary for passage. Montserrado County Representative Moses Tandanpolie who crafted the bill cited infrastructural Destruction during the 14 years of civil conflict, in conjunction with population explosion and the influx of people as some underlining reasons for building a new capital. 

Honorable Tandanpolie said the influx of people into Monrovia has rendered Monrovia vulnerable to vice and social ills and that the cost of repairing Monrovia will be more costly than initiating a plan to establish a new, well-planned and laid out city. The Montserrado Representative asserted that such city must be centrally located and meets international standards. Representative Tandapolie envisions a Municipal styled government that would consist of a Mayor and a City Council. To all of this, we say bravo to the Honorable for his farsightedness, although this is not a revolutionary thinking, it’s been said before by both Tolbert and Doe. 

What is interesting about this one at this time is the approach and the amount of work and money that needs to go into its planning process alone. 

Liberia is just surfacing from a self imposed civil conflict that left deep scars on everyone and everything. In light of this, there are greater and more pertinent questions that need to be asked; in what should we invest, a new capital city, several school buildings, better salaries for public school teachers, a network of farm to market roads, agriculture projects or better transportation system? While the Honorable Body was thinking in the right direction to have passed the bill as submitted by the plenary, we think they are putting the cart before the horse on this one; We are of the mindset that it should have been the other way around; 

A Technical Committee comprising of Engineers, Aeronautical Planners and Engineers, City Planners, Financial Experts, Environmentalists, Specialists, Legislators, Civic Organizations, International Partners/Donors and others should have preceded the passage of the bill. Such Technical Committee if it were would have done detail feasibility studies of several mitigating factors that go into building a modern city. Now that a bill has been introduced, studied and passed, what would happen if the committee determines that central Liberia as proposed is not ideal or too expensive a location? 

We therefore call on the Senate to do the right thing by putting the horse before the cart and not follow the example of the Lower House when it put the cart before the horse. We think most, if not all Liberians agree that there’s a need for a newer, cleaner, well planned and laid out city that would make us all proud. But doing it the haphazard or LIB way is not the way forward. For once, let’s focus, and do it right this time, maybe for a population of ten million people.

There wasn't much more detail at the time, such as a location, but there did seem to be a number slapped to the project from the only contemporaneous report: US$10 billion, which at the time was easily ten times the country's GDP (and roughly still is).

So it was an astounding, absurd proposal, far outweighing the nation's resources for an entire decade and put forth without public or technical consultation.

Most interestingly, I think are two points: one that Monrovia's post-conflict condition left the government no choice but to flee its putrid streets, deplorable halls of administration, and unsightly, overcrowded slums. This is of course a remarkably self-serving priority. How this phrasing echoes much of the arguments for abandoning America's industrial cities for their suburbs in the mid-20th century is both academically intriguing and pragmatically exasperating.

Its important to underscore that Monrovia's condition in 2009, as detestable a state as it unquestionably was, was much more comfortable than everywhere else in Liberia, and the dire conditions of the city and its people should be a major focus of the public servants' efforts. Instead, the new capital is plainly described as a scheme to abandon the mess of Monrovia for some sort of brand-new Abuja, which would surely include air-conditioned villas and apartments for all the honorables, which despite a lack of plans, drawings, and technical specifications was without a doubt the sugar-plums that were dancing in the legislators' minds when they rushed to passed this meaningless act.

The furtive progress that this quixotic campaign has made since that sudden blip suggests  that, while not the only reason for such an undertaking, the entire plan evinces the deep division between the governing class, who remain in control of the country's few resources, and the governed, who enjoy neither access nor consideration.
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