By Martin K. N. Kollie
Partial view of slum life in Liberia
Since this year began, I have made it my business to conduct a practical assessment of the livelihood and wellbeing of our people in various communities across Liberia, especially Montserrado County. I have gone to slum communities like West Point, Clara Town, Soniwen, Chicken Soup Factory, Logan Town, Doe Community, Red Light, Plumcor, Neezoe, New Kru Town, Bassa Town and many other shantytowns. I have seen for myself the horrifying living condition of our people.
The reality from these petrifying scenes is that our people no longer live like normal human beings in a country of their birth. Some of them are mere squatters and informal inhabitants. Life has become hopeless and unbearable due to extreme poverty and hardship. Survival of the fittest has become a normal phenomenon, especially in slum and rural neighborhoods. Every time I reflect on what our people are going through in a nation endowed with diversity of natural resources, sorrow pricks my heart with tears springing forth from my eyes.
It is not an easy thing to narrate the story of our people, because they have an appalling and a gloomy story. Their story is a story of neglect and self-pity. Their story is a story of misery and non-achievement. Their story is a story of hopelessness and joblessness. Their story is a story of hard labor and destitution. Their story is a story of abuse and exploitation. Their story is a story of hunger and humiliation. Their story is a story of marginalization and subjugation. Their story is a story of illiteracy, ignorance and disease. As I sit this morning in my lonely room, I am finding it very difficult to pen down the true story of our people.
However, this is not a new or strange story. For more than 168 years, these are realities our people have been confronted with. They have been trekking with this baggage of misery for almost two (2) centuries now. The impact or weight of this bundle is too heavy to bear, but they have no choice or option now, but to endure this tough journey as a result of bad governance, unpatriotism, greed and systemic corruption. The scars of this baggage are irreversibly piercing the aspiration and destiny of millions across Liberia.
On this Unification Day (May 14), there is no sign of impetus from citizens to observe this national holiday in grand style. The hustle for bread has intensified. The struggle for rice matters, especially to slum-dwellers. In a country of equal citizenship, vast majority of Liberian citizens are economically powerless, choiceless and defenseless. As a result of this, rights have been swept under the carpet. Equal opportunities for all citizens are entirely imaginary and nonexistent as the ‘Spoils System’ prevails.
A teenage girl crushing rock in Liberia
As I walk on the principal streets of Monrovia every day, I see absolutely no hope in the faces of street children and coldwater sellers. I see a group of young Liberian youth in huge quantity gambling and experimenting with drugs. I see a growing population of car loaders, push-push riders and motorcyclists. The newest profession of our young brothers graduating from high school these days is motorbike riding. Our young sisters have to trade their self-worth and pride just to survive. Their dream to become potential leaders of our society is decaying day after day.
Our streets are becoming jam-packed with hopeless and helpless citizens as a result of the depressing economic realities prevailing across Liberia. Children, youth as well as adults have become very vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and abuse ranging from trafficking to rape. Some of our young sisters have become prostitutes overnight just to survive. Life in Liberia is no longer about human dignity or self-esteem. Some of our people have been wholly disrobed of their dignity. Liberia has become a nation with a miserable and frustrated population.
It is an open secret that Liberians are really desperate for economic change. There is no doubt that they are catching hard time. In 2014, a Liberian said to me “I would prefer living in a US prison for two to five years and later be given a valid status in America than to live in Liberia.” Another citizen applying for diversity visa in 2015 had this to say “I can parade in Monrovia naked if the US embassy can guarantee to offer me a visa.” This is the extent at which our people are vulnerable and hopeless. What a sad story to narrate!
Liberia would be virtually empty (almost a ghost land) in a day’s time if Liberians are given an immediate opportunity to resettle in Europe and America. I know this for a fact, because I am aware of what our people go through every day. I share in their affliction and frustration. I empathize with them during these troubling times. The mass suffering and subjugation of our people is despicable and what is even more tragic is that nothing seems to be changing. Instead of moving forward, they are moving backward.
When a country we cherish so much has nothing rewarding to offer us in return, but a gloomy and devastating future, then it justifies our stance that celebrating unification day with economic thieves and career-crooks is worthless. When a nation we hold dear to our hearts offers us no genuine solution(s) to poverty, illiteracy and disease as a result of bad governance, then it means that unification day is just another big fiasco. When a country we have pledged our unflinching loyalty to cannot give us safe drinking water, electricity, better housing, quality education, improved health care, sanitation, food security and social welfare, then its means that unification day has lost its real essence and taste.
Can a group of poverty-stricken, marginalized and humiliated people celebrate Unification Day? Can a large group of choiceless, jobless and hopeless people unite with a small group of wealthy and powerful people? How can we celebrate Unification Day when our people have been subjected to modern slavery? How can we celebrate Unification Day when vast majority of our people still sleep in shacks and huts? This is the dilemma of celebrating Unification Day! Celebrating Unification Day with a handful of economic pillagers and bourgeoisies falsely parading as patriots is an affront to this generation. It makes no sense to celebrate Unification Day when few self-seeking rascals and so-called leaders have intentionally failed to ensure that the nation’s wealth is equitably distributed.
They (bourgeoisies/capitalists) embezzle our resources to sponsor their children at topnotch foreign institutions while education is a mess in our country. They seek medical treatment abroad with tax-dollars while our people die every day from curable sicknesses like malaria, cold and fever. They live in mansions with 24/7 electricity while our people live in slums with mosquitoes, rats and cockroaches. They drink imported mineral water and eat good food from supermarkets while our people drink from creeks/open-wells and sometimes go to bed hungry.
They ride flashy cars and entertain themselves at the best resorts and restaurants while our people struggle for public transport. They have the names of their family members on public payrolls when our brothers and sisters graduating from local Universities are in search of jobs. They sign bogus concession agreements to fill their deep-seated pockets with illicit wealth while students at the State-run University lack access to internet basic academic facilities. This is the dilemma of Unification Day!
The rights of their kids are protected while the rights of kids belonging to the downtrodden class are abused. They have access to justice and security while our people are slapped by unjust verdicts. They wire millions of our country’s money to foreign bank accounts and buy homes abroad while our people endure hard labor and abuse under the Lebanese, Indians and other foreign nationals. Even though they are claiming that Liberia is experiencing economic meltdown or recession, but they are still living like Kings and Queens at the expense of the ordinary people. When the people want to protest in demand for their rights, they unleashed police and military personnel with guns and tear-gas to intimidate them. This is the dilemma of celebrating Unification Day.
These are the very same causes or reasons for which Unification Day was first declared on May 14, 1960 by the administration of William V. S. Tubman. These causes or reasons are even more visible today. The declaration of May 14 (Unification Day) through an act of Legislature in 1960 was a unique step forward to defeating disunity and disintegration in Liberia, especially between the Americo-Liberian elite and the indigenous majority. However, after 56 years since the introduction of the Unification Policy, the fostering of national unity, reconciliation and brotherhood among all Liberians irrespective of culture or creed remains an unachievable dream for reasons stated above. Greed and unpatriotism have overshadowed the collective interest of our nation. Public service in Liberia nowadays is no longer about integrity, credibility or transparency. This is the dilemma of celebrating Unification Day.
When President Sirleaf announced through a proclamation on Friday, May 13, 2016 that all citizens throughout Liberia should remain home and observe Unification Day on Saturday, May 14, 2016, I was wondering whether the President is unaware that vast majority of our people do not remain home to observe holidays (or day of rest), because they have to go out and hustle for food and money. Even on this holiday, our people are out en mass in search of survival. They are selling in the marketplaces, loading cars and gambling. They are crushing rocks and riding motorbikes under the rain and hot sun. They are mining sand and hunting in thick forests. Some of them have to walk far distances to farm, fishing and fetch water while others are compelled to push wheelbarrows and wait for night hours to carryout business as usual (prostitution and robbery). These are the predicaments of today. How then can we celebrate Unification Day when public discontent is growing as a result of these predicaments?
The people of Liberia can only commemorate Unification Day in a blissful mood when rampant corruption is minimized and economic criminals are unsympathetically reprimanded for raiding State coffers. National Unification starts with patriotism, and not patronage. National Integration comes through public transparency, and not fiscal indiscipline. It begins with the proper management of the people’s resources and power. How do we expect unity to prevail across Liberia when over 83.8 percent of our people still live on less than US$1.25 per day while top officials of government continue to receive bribes to alter our laws and auction our natural resources? It is a paradox to celebrate Unification Day in the midst of mass unemployment, rampant corruption, inequality, nepotism and bad governance.
The gap between the rich and the poor in Liberia is too wide – there is no middle class. The people’s children who are currently working on goldmines in leeward counties and selling cold water in street corners deserve to be in school like the grandchildren of those in authority. Our young mothers, sisters and brothers deserve empowerment opportunities through quality education, gainful employment and profitable enterprises. The Liberian people have been through a lot and it is sad that no one is listening to their cry. There comes a time when they become constrained to reshape their own destiny and redefine history through genuine democratic actions (April 14, 1979 is a unique example to reference).
The people have lost hope and confidence in a government they gave power to about 12 years ago. Were they wrong to cast their ballots? I hope 2017 will make a lot of difference. We have a choice to make in 2017. Either we stay with poverty or embrace prosperity. We deserve better than what we have now. There can be no unity and cohesion in any sovereign state until public welfare becomes a matter of national imperative. A nation with a hopeless and jobless citizenry is far from achieving genuine unity. This is the dilemma of Unification Day in Liberia!