A Letter From Monrovia – Home, Sweet Home (Part III)
By James Thomas-Queh
I chose the dry season to visit Monrovia; and for a reason - I wanted to see also the much announced government projects that awaited this important climate change. But everywhere I only saw the invisible sign: “No Men At Work.” And I guessed because the weather was too hot and humid to work. Now it seems the administration would need a damn good weather forecaster were it ever to start, in honest, the reconstruction of the country.
Under the scorching sun, though, and drenched down in sweat and wiping like an amateur jogger, I arrived at this workshop for capacity building. And for nothing on earth could I have missed this occasion, especially so, that it was organized under the auspices of the influential Ministry of Internal Affairs for the local officials of Montserrado county (superintendents, governors, mayors, township commissioners, etc).
Gosh, these workshops worth every bit of the penny spent on them. First, there was enough to eat and drink (except that some music or a live band was lacking to maximize the typical African pleasure). Second, at this one (because I inadvertently opened the door on another one organised by another Ministry a few days earlier) the subjects discussed and various issues raised were very important, indeed. For example, I learned here that there were more than 130 cities created by successive governments for political expediency. And that, were the criteria for classifying a locality into a city were applied today, the country could even have less than 20 real cities. In pure economic terms, that would mean down-sizing/right-sizing – something the government was already contemplating. And third, I also overheard that apart from the international NGOs undermining the powers and authority of local officials, Liberia may now have an area far less than 43 000 sq. miles because of continuous costal erosion. And can you imagine, two such crucial national issues being restricted to this small Brewerville city hall and not on the airwaves for a full national awareness and debate to search for a national consensus and adequate solutions.
After this most professorial introductory opening,
it was the turn of the audience to have a say. And believe
me, it was nothing but a barrage of complaints and criticisms
against the arrogance and disregard of the international
NGOs towards the local authorities. It was repeated
over and again how these NGOs would go into the various
townships, and without any reference or consultation
with the local officials, would install hand-pumps or
initiate other projects and put in charge unknown individuals
to control and sometimes collect fees. A worst form
of neo-colonialism, you may call it, which operates
under the banner of “humanitarian.”
But I was not surprised at this deep anti- GEMAP/international NGOs sentiment that runs through the Liberian society. And actually, not necessarily because we do not appreciate the aid and services rendered, but like all people, we do not want to be taken for granted, idiots and stupid. After all we too cherished our dignity and nationhood. Thus naturally, the same instinct of patriotism/nationalism that gave us independence since 1847 was bound to reappear sooner or later. And that was the reminder served on the two GEMAP agents exposed for corruption and incompetence – two attributes reserved only for developing nations. Though since then the two individuals have been recycled, but at least, we have the audacity and courage to throw it right back in their faces. That is the good thing about democracy, you know; no one is above the law or exempted from public ridicule.
As the workshop was nearing its climax, a form was distributed for each participant to fill out. A local official sitting right next to me (who was certainly convinced that I was a real foreign journalist), called my attention to what he pointed to as an insult. I took a glance and saw a line marked “Nationality” and another “State of origin.” Then with much disgust and anger, the man said: “These d…. people think we are just stupid; this is the same s… they carry around from country to another - and I mean, they don’t even take the pain to modify the content of the forms to suit the characteristics of each nation.” Embarrassed, I had to use all my persuasive talent to calm the fellow. What followed next was the typical recital of our national tragedy. In a quick nutshell, the man related his entire life story, one similar to all of ours: highly educated, former senior government official, foreign professional experience, wife, children, etc., but now trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild his live. I was consoled; then told him not to give up. That Liberia was for Liberians, and only Liberians can rebuild it. Reassured, the man wanted to know where I was from, but just then the floor was called to order.
It was the turn of the honourable Minister of Internal Affairs to pacify his audience almost at the verge of a riot. And can tell you, it was fascinating to watch this man officiate - a master “Zoe” of politics, indeed (perhaps less of a technocrat). It is no joke; the man used every bit of his academic brilliance and eloquence to calm and reassure his troop of local officials. He did not refute their frustration and anxiety, but assured them that the government was doing everything possible to coordinate the activities of these international NGOs with the local authorities. Then he concluded on an advice that was almost on my lips: That even though the international NGOs may install water pumps or initiate projects without the consent and collaboration of the local authorities – it was also important for the same local authorities and people to perceive such projects in terms of their usefulness to the communities; and thus should be appreciated, used and maintained accordingly. That was well said, indeed. Because things have been imposed upon us for so long without explanation, or our consent and participation, we have developed an attitude of circumspect or “don’t care” even if that thing is to serve or serving our interest. And I thought again that his message of the Minister was so important that it needed to get out of that small settler settlement and out on the airwaves, billboard and newspapers. But I heard nothing thereafter.
The last speaker was a very familiar face, I recalled, but name forgotten – a lady of an enormous stature long before the 1980s, and a role model for Liberian businesswomen. She was introduced as representing the President (I ignored her portfolio within the government, but concluded she must be an advisor on city planning, cleanliness and decoration). Because precisely, she spoke very lengthily on the city decoration, planting flowers, and so forth. Something that sounded more like a script from the old school of the early 1960s, when cash and jobs were flowing in abundance, a bag of rice at $9.00, a roll of bread at 5 cents, smoke-fish at 10 cents a piece, the Americans supplying us with free cornmeal, flour, dry milk, and your name it. Those days when good time and easy life was rolling all over our heads. Thus planting flowers and trees was a passionate class affair, leisure or an additional luxury. And even at that, I can still remember as a minor rebellious youth, when walking down that Broad street from school with an hungry stomach – we used to ask with much sarcasm and laughter why the “Big shots’ ” children would come from abroad with PhDs and MAs in agriculture and waste their time planting trees, grass and flowers on the streets instead of being up in the interior planting rice and cassava for the people to eat. Notwithstanding, these same trees grew to maturity and beauty, making Broad Street a cool and pleasant park avenue (in a national capital with no park at all).
The paradox, however, in this era of an unprecedented environmental awareness, plus the 100°F scorching heat of Monrovia, the government – in the name of ” beautification” - has cut down every single one of those age old, magnificent trees that adorned our most famous Broad street. From Crown Hill, one now has a spectacular view all the way to the Ducor hotel, and can see this intense heat wave reflecting from atop vehicles stocked in the enormous traffic congestion. There is no shade anywhere for shoppers and strollers to take refuge from the sun; so that walking now on Broad Street is hardly any different from taking a jump into hell. And it is the same government that sent its representative to lecture on city decoration to local authorities, those who hardly got any budget or the independence yet to run their own localities; hardly any decent salary or anything to feed and send the children to school; those who can hardly get their lives back on track.
Frankly, I was tempted to return to my rebellious youth days of the 1960s, and naughty enough to challenge that closing lecture for being so much out of tune, mal-focused. That it should have been a tutoring on self-help, self-sufficiency, independence - how to plant eddoes, potatoes, pepper, cassava, bitter bolls, egg-plants, tomatoes, or something to encourage the rural people to return to the land and leave that congested, overcrowded capital. But I quickly came to my real self – that old fashion home trained, disciplined and educated senior citizen – that this was certainly not the forum to question the wisdom of a national icon, role-model and elderly senior citizen like myself.
Luckily, it was the luncheon break. And in an atmosphere a bit more relax, but still very much this new and strange Liberian environment – highly reserved, depressed, suspicious ridden and uncertainty sort of – perhaps a residue also from the Taylor regime of fear and terror - I begun my adventurous journalistic investigation. “What was the price tag of this event” – I intruded. “Oh, roughly around $4000.00 US” – someone guessed willingly, but in a very low voice. Of course, not taking into account the transportation fares and headaches of the modest local officials who had to find their way in a place far behind God’s back. “ Was anything capacity building about this workshop” – I prodded further my anxious listener. “My brother, as you’ve witnessed for yourself, that is the million dollar question. But I can tell you, that $4000.00 US could have installed additional hand-pumps at West Point, Sonni-wen or around Monrovia instead of waiting for the UN water tankers or some other international NGOs.”
I looked at my watch, said thanks and luck to the fellow, then slid quietly out of that hall. An extremely old and dilapidated taxi was waiting for me out side. It was a charter, just barely $25.00 US for the day; and the more dilapidated and none traffic worthy, the cheaper. And guess what? I was going to get ready for another exciting meeting at a nightspot – the first since I got in town. It was an invitation to meet another group of old friends together (not yet seen); but all were dully informed of my disability to dance and break waist; age, arthritis and rheumatism had caught up with me. I was going there to listen to some old time goodies, nurse some Club beer and try to pick their mouths on the state of our national affairs.
The taxi finally started and we drove off. I took my small note-pad from my jacket pocket, and in order not to repeat myself, I jotted down some agenda items: The incessant official convoys; Who should act in the absence of the President, the VP or a prerogative of the President only?; Our national patrimonies laying ruins and dirt and no one seems concern, among others. Well, it was my intuition that after this night these fellows may not be in anymore haste to see me.
Monrovia’s Incessant Official Convoys: Whose
is entitled to an Official escort?
The ambiance was cool, nice seaside breeze, an open-air nightspot, and a live band, somewhere around the chic Payne’s Avenue. And true to my near maniac respect for time, I was the first to arrive before the other buddies. The entrance fee was $10.00 US only (imagine, roughly $600.00 LB). That price was certainly not at the reach of any ordinary Liberian. Well, the occasion was special, I was told, and the guest of honour was the legendary, one and only one – Miata Fahnbulleh. And just for that girl, I was ready to even pawn my return ticket.
I reserved a large table to accommodate the rest of the panel. By 9:00 o’clock p.m. everyone was already in place, Club beer was flowing very modestly, and the dance floor was heating up as Miata echoed one of her old popular pieces. Slowly and slowly, all my chronic burden of stress was being flown away. Oh yes, and this was almost the real Monrovia of old; nothing to do with that of the daytime chaos. The old “Broads” were still around – lively, active and spontaneous as ever – completely different from their depressed, sad old men. Could it be an effect of the female Presidency, their ascendancy over us? I kept wondering.
Around the table, I observed the fellows were already moving their heads and tapping their feet in consonance with the beat. Yes, the evening was about to be transformed into a regular dancing and buzzing night (well, imagine too the occasion was mostly that Crowd 60 and above). Don’t ever allow old folks to get into the kicking mood. So I distracted the atmosphere with a very solemn and melodic reflection: “Between a society which seemingly has put all its problems into God’s hands (because I saw lots of evangelical churches everywhere) or rather in some God related entrepreneurs, and a depressed and congested city – this is the first time I felt being at home, sweet home.”
It seemed as though I had fired a missile to the core of that old time militant sentiments of all those fellows sitting around that table. Do not forget now, these were all former stewards of MOJA and PAL –remember those political movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s – who fought our autocratic, dictatorial and tyranny regimes for democratic change and social progress. But today whose voices have been lost and weightless, and just when Liberia is into this critical democratic age and needs to hear them most. Well, undoubtedly time has caught up with us.
The table was quiet for a while. Then suddenly the sense of my reflection dawned on the guys. And that old spirit to fight for equality, justice and progress was seemingly awakened. Then the they got on me. How we in the Diaspora, as soon as we land in town, then we have the answers to everything; we see every bad thing, and we criticise everything, etc. etc. So now what was my impression of the situation since I had been in Monrovia?
I blasted off on the countless official convoys and sirens speeding through a congested city, when the poor and struggling population can hardly get their children to school and themselves to work. “Then welcome to Liberia” – exclaimed one. “You’n see nothing yet; just stay a little more time” – launched another forcefully. “Have you seen all the different official convoys?” – questioned the buddy on my right. “I do not know how many they are” I begun “ but often my taxi and poor motorists have been forced onto the side and in ditches to clear the way for these convoys.” “But that all; let people hear, man, Jimmy” – another launched sarcastically. Then another friend who kept silent and pensive all along, when on to enumerate and describe the different convoys. Of course, each convoy has its own mark of honour known to the citizens. First, the President’s with a fleet of tinted glasses SUVs and an UNMIL force escort; the VP’s crew headed by a Mercedes; then come all the others –Speaker, President pro-tempo, Chief Justice, etc. etc.
By this time the wonderful voice of Liberia’s legendary singer was like withering into the distance night. Somehow, we were now conscious that little things considered insignificant and ignored, have the potential to damage the image of a government. So I took the moment to narrate my regular encounters with one of these official convoys. I had this bad luck to always be on the route of the VP coming all the way from beyond ELWA. On one occasion I counted almost seven or so vehicles and a small motorbike in the convoy (this day the President was out of the country as usual). The most unpleasant part - the lead security vehicle clears the entire two-lanes ELWA/Schefflin/RIA high way and the four-lanes Tubman Boulevard, religiously every morning and evening to cruise the VP to and from work.
Now, just picture yourself in one of those overcharged taxis, no shock absorbers, sitting on the bare iron spring of a rotten seat, and holding on tight to the door to keep it closed – and that taxi is obliged to abruptly sway to the side and into a ditch (because most of the roads are terribly bad), only to make way for the VP’s cruising convoy. And believe me you, if you should ever hear what is said in that taxi at that precise moment, then you would certainly never want to be the Vice President of Liberia; and for that matter, even the President.
And for a VP known to have been the simplest of men on earth, the acts of his zealous security could be forgiven were he even rushing every morning to go and officiate functions commensurable to his constitutional role or perceived to be doing so. But the man shares office with the National Investment Commission, and is shown almost daily in the press meeting with investors more than even the commission’s chairman. At the same time, the National Legislature is in total disarray where, according to Art. 51 of the Constitution – “The Vice President shall be the President of the Senate and preside over its deliberations without the right to vote, except in the case of a tie vote.” All the persistence confusion at the National Legislature, I never heard the view of the Vice President.
But be as it may, let us imagine a moment where the French President or his Prime Minister (or even President Bush and his Vice President) would deliberately and delightfully inconvenient traffic and a busy population with their official convoys hundred times per day and through the major boulevards and avenues in their national capitals. And can tell you, none of them would stay in office another day. So as enlightened and experienced as we are, why should we still continue to abuse power on the innocence and naivety of our citizenry; and when, in effect, we should be the models of light in the right direction.
As the fellows listened, hypnotised, I reminded them that during our youth and up to 1980, we saw only a single official convoy – the President’s. But from the 1980 military coup, and up to the civil war and the reign of warlords – official convoys have been vulgarised –“morale”- as it was referred, to give a sense of legitimacy, importance and power to killers and tyrants. Thus I thought that a government as sound and democratic as this one, “morale” was definitely something of the past and long gone; if nothing else, at least, for the wisdom of economics: gasoline, fleet of vehicles and maintenance, personnel – and especially when the national police force needs all that to be functional and efficient. Instead, we still await the Nigerians, Americans and other partners to supply us uniforms, handcuffs and batons. What a shame and disgrace!
“Ain you all the professional security people, go and tell them!” one of those guys flushed at me suddenly. “Precisely” – I warned, “we the security people are a very clever corps. When we have leaders who are novice about our work, we are tempted to have a field day. When we are at the service of leaders who are easily frightened to the bones or security obsessed, we can make their heads big with bogus security threats, thus inducing them to our strategy of ‘morale.’ But with leaders who have confidence in their people, themselves and their mission –our work can be the most pleasant, discrete and efficient.”
Obviously, the situation of our country has changed
since we were youth. And I can see where some of these
officials need security protection where, at least,
two or three officers are assigned them. As for the
most important VIPs, instead of huge daily convoys and
sirens, I would provide them maximum and efficient security
at where they sleep, eat, work or visit.
But certainly not a daily convoy and siren around Monrovia.
In whatever case, it is my view that the people need to know who is entitled to an official convoy and siren; and who determines that need or the security parameters that may necessitate such a protective measure of that nature.
To be continued
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