A Letter From Monrovia - Home, Sweet Home (Part I)

By James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 27, 2007


I never thought on an early return to Monrovia when I departed that near decimated city on May 6, 1996, aboard the famous “Bulk Challenge.” And you can not blame me - that was my second desperate departure into exile - the first being in August 1980. But then again the nostalgia of home was always present. So here I was, finally back on February 4, 2007, to familiarise myself, live, sense and feel a situation that I have so often tend to describe and portray from a distance. An experience I intend to share with you in this note.

I did not travel out of Monrovia, unfortunately. Thus my perception may be factual,
incorrect, over-exaggerated or controversial, but I prefer to remain an alarmist from now on. Because a society has a tendency to quickly fall back into its old ways; and in our case, there are still have too many rivers to cross for us not to be contented with self-praises, complacency and indulgence towards this government of ours. What is more, our problem may not necessarily be money, but in the manner of governance.

Hurdles at Roberts International Airport (RIA)
This is the gateway and the first image of our country and government to incoming investors, tourists and friends coming in to help or tour. True, the terminal was destroyed; and true, the government seems to also be doing its best to reorganise and reconstruct the system, but there is still an effort to be made in terms of order, control and discipline. And more so, because President Johnson-Sirleaf projects the image of an “Iron Lady”- to mean very disciplined and orderly.

I landed at RIA after 8:00 p.m., with numerous compatriots and foreigners. A firm indication of confidence in this government and the gradual return of our nation to normalcy. But then the reception was chaotic, disorderly and disappointing. Despite the fact that there are very visible counters marked “Aliens” and “Nationals”, and also officers sitting behind them – the small reception hall, nonetheless, was overcrowded with uniformed and civilian immigration officers, demanding passports left and right from tired and exhausted passengers. An incredible scene of disorder and confusion in which none of us had any clue whatsoever whether we would have ever retrieved our travelling documents. Well, after tolerating the disorder for a while, I went into a rage, but then released a clean note of 20 euros to tip (and not corrupt) an officer. And I was out of that hurdle so fast. But I felt more for those many foreigners, standing there, lost and in total disbelief.

But you better trust me. Once inside the town, I went scouting around to seek some old friends to relate my adventure, talk some old-time talk and small politics. The encounters were very enriching. First, I was accused of writing in favour of the President. Flattered, you must imagine. But then followed with the most obvious question: “So you’re here now for your reward of a job?” “I’ve not yet apply for one” – came my reply jokingly. Laughter, then a few words of encouragement for me to hurry up and “come to help” because there was already a major government reshuffle in the air. “Then don’t count on me” I interrupted- “If I have to abandon my small welfare check and family only to be fired a year later without any unemployment benefits to pay my rent in $US, mortgage in Europe and feed myself – I would rather open a cook shop or stay on to what I’ve got.” Another outburst of laughter; and we finally went on to recount some past experiences as former state officials, especially those official courtesies that spared government officials from not going through the daily hurdles and harassments that ordinary citizens are subjected. And we came up with the conclusion that it was well plausible that those in charge of immigration, security and management at the RIA may not be aware of the very unprofessional and un-ethical behaviour of their officers and personnel on the ground. But then again those entrusted with state responsibilities should not be so naive; we were never known to be model functionaries even under normal times. And since then Liberia and Liberian mentality have greatly changed over the years. It is no more enough to rely wholly and solely on trust and confident, but also to be realistic, follow up and keep one’s ears to the ground in order to guarantee efficiency and success.

Well, no sooner was I back in Europe, I begun reading very encouraging newspapers headlines: “RIA Manger Admits Security Harassment” – (www.liberianobserver.com - 26 March 2007) and “BIN Suspends 4 Officers, Affects Changes at RIA, Grand Gedeh Detachments – (www.frontpageafrica.com). Thus an indication that the government has some strong antennas; it is not deaf, it hears and tries to take corrective measures. But while spectacular dismissals or punctual actions may serve a warning – that is still not enough. Considering the difficulties under which the airport is operating – not only does it need the physical presence always of a very senior, experienced, conscientious and honest immigration chief to supervise flights arrivals and departures (and especially those arrivals after 6:00 p.m.), but also regular impromptus visits by the Commissioner of Immigration, in person, in order to reassure those troop of officers, talk to them, keep company with them and even though there may not be immediate remedies to the professional or personal problems put forward. This sort of humanly concern or “being down to the people” is necessary, precisely because the wounds of the civil war are still very much present; frustration and hard times are vivid everywhere, and hatred, envy and disappointment are extremely high. The government and its officials (and not only the President) could also serve as some very useful therapists. And this is something that may be lacking in this administration, unfortunately.

Ah, here is the positive note. I later saw a significant contrast at the departure wing of the RIA terminal where the President passes so often on her foreign trips. The security perimeter was cleared of all unauthorized persons and controlled very rigorously; the immigration officers were all in full uniform and performing their duties with utmost discipline, diligent and professionalism. The departure lung was a fully furnished and air-conditioned hall, a bar restaurant and two duty-free shops. Surprisingly, it was here I bought myself some great national souvenirs: a copy of the constitution of Liberia, a poster-calendar of our presidents, and a white enamel bowl with the flag and map of Liberia engraved majestically at the bottom. And mind you, not because I was departing for another decade, but simply because the past, present and future of Liberia are all very dear to my heart.

And with that hint of a next return, please bare with me as I continue the real tour around our national capital.

Monrovia, As I Saw It
Arriving in Monrovia in the early 1990s, after a first decade of absence – it was difficult to hold back the tears. Most of those who had survived that initial phase of the civil war were no different from the victims of a concentration camp. Any semblance of life was only found on the Bushrod Island; central Monrovia was completely deserted, not even a living dog or cat could be found in the street. And believe me, it was the most shocking and desolate image to see of our capital city. But bit by bit, the people recovered their dignity and the city was once again bustling with a population surged. And this was the trend that suddenly broke in 1996, thus forcing me on that Burk Challenge and departed the Free Port of Monrovia with over 1000 other compatriots, singing “All hail, Liberia hail.” It was a moving moment of a profound patriotism and conviction that our nation would rise again once again from those flames of destruction being left behind us. And indeed, it did with an utmost democratic fervour.

I was in this identical patriotic spirit and enthusiasm (despite that small unpleasant reception at the RIA)when I begun the real tour of our once cosy-going, friendly and convivial city of Monrovia. But here too there were some surprises. First, it was impossible to find my bearings. And I guess this was due to a certain degree of disorder and the enormous generation gap with a profound changed mentality. And believe me, this social and mental transformation is nerve wrecking, especially for someone now a senior citizen who has that real old-fashion home training and discipline – compounded with decades of stay in an organised and disciplined society. And I mean it; there is hardly any manner, no more respect for age, and even less for authority and social order. Of course, sadly enough, this is the generation of our children and grandchildren that we have put through almost three decade of inferno. What is more, they are still the victims of the city’s extreme over-crowdedness and congestion in everything – traffic, street peddlers, vendors, hustlers, jobless, and you name it. Understandably, the majority of the population are energetic young men and women, wanting nothing more and nothing less but to be engaged and mobilized into positive action. Second, despite all the hard time, the entire populace look generally healthy and well nourished. And lastly and most important, I saw lots and lots of school children; it was really wonderful to see so some many of our kids in their colourful uniforms, up before 6 o’clock a.m. and ready for their long day to classes and back on a hungry stomach. It is reassuring for the future of our country; bravo to their courage and resilience and the efforts of their conscientious and struggling parents.

Now back to the disorder mentioned. First, imagine yourself in such a congested city where there is no proper traffic control (of course, there is no electricity thus no traffic lights except two that function at the entrance of the Free Port), vendors roaming all over the place like in an ante’s dent, everyone seemed to be the law in his or her own hand without an iota of regard for the other. And of course, under those circumstances there is an absolute ignorance and disregard for the public safety -most commercial vehicles are non traffic worthy; a truck is repaired for hours in the middle of major boulevard where it broke down; a load of sand left almost in the middle of the very busy Robertsfield/Shefflin high way and no one is concern about its enormous traffic hazard; there are no markings for pedestrian crossing on any of the major boulevards; there is absolutely no respect or regard for traffic rules - no speed limits, no limits on number of passengers or loads on a commercial vehicle, and the list goes on indefinitely. It is at the point that the pedestrians, drivers and public have lost all sense of rationality and respect for human life- perhaps a consequence of the civil war. For the pedestrians, not being accustomed to street crossings and signs, would cross streets irresponsibly at the detriment of their own lives and on the assumption that the driver and car have eyes to see. On the other hand, the drivers lacking civility and training (and we have driving schools, but of course, there are no street signs) would argue that the pedestrians are stupid to cross a street knowing a car is coming. On the public, I witnessed a very pathetic scene where an excessively speeding driver narrowly missed killing a young woman, and to my greatest surprise, the driver, onlookers and passers-by all rained insults on the woman for being so stupid and country. Poor thing, she stood there in panic, defenceless and completely traumatized. This incident also shows a society that has also lost its sense of moral judgment as to what is right and what is wrong; there is no more compassion for one another. Even that traditional village life of solidarity and the notion of one people seemed to have disappeared.

To change this war ravaged mentality, I thought by now we were vigorously applying some additional measures such as that communist style of indoctrination or educational brainwashing methods through public billboard messages, newspaper ads, educative radio programs, posters, etc. Unfortunately, I did not see much of that. In fact, the newspapers are little too expensive for an ordinary Liberian to afford, and most do not even circulate beyond Monrovia. In short, while the government may seem to develop a rapport with the same media in order to echo more favourably its achievements, it seems run out of steam to develop a more coherent and efficient strategy to mobilize the populace into positive actions and transform a war effected mentality into civility or public-spiritedness. True, I did not find out what was transpiring qualitatively into the many emerging classrooms, but repeated upheavals in our higher institutions of learning is not a good sign.

On the other most important issue of security and public safety - here too, I had expected to see a large pool of uniformed, trained and equipped police force with a physical presence in every corner of the capital. But that was not the case. The very few I saw and in action, were too young and inexperienced, and while the few older and experienced ones I also came across revealed, sadly, that they were casualties of the down-sizing and right-sizing. But in the face of this acute deficiency of the police force, I noticed a refurbished BTC – sealed, barb-wired with spectacular guard posts over looking every corner – highly protected, indeed, just to train the new army of a failed state. And I learned too that even a part of the barracks is completely off limits to Liberians. All my life I have known this historical site to have its gates opened to the Liberia public. Then further up to Robertsfield, I also saw camp Shefflin (now Edward Beyan Kesselly Military Base) being modernized at the pace of millions of dollars. And to all these events, seemingly, our competent, energetic and dynamic Minister of Defence has no full control over. Thus to satisfy my curiosity I ran to pay a courtesy call on the Ministry Defence, hoping to find some old friends, but to my greatest astonishment the Ministry was more like a fortress, blockaded and heavily guarded from all the corners of the main streets leading to it. And imagine you, this was the only point in the capital that brought me back those painful memories of the civil war. So those old survival instincts quickly crawled back upon me and I exiled myself from the area, never to return during the rest of my stay. But then I said to myself: What a very peculiar way to train this new “people’s army” in absolute secrecy and isolation?

Bad luck, then, because I missed an opportunity to repeat my advice for the attention of the government. That our most recent history shows how the army cannot protect power (and even itself being at the helm of power); and that it is also incapable of protecting the very nation without the support of the people. In short, it is the people, and only the people – with a secured future: job, children at school, home, protected against armed rubbers, roaming armed gangs, thieves and other unnecessary misfortunes (after a day’s struggle to earn the bare minimum for survival) and an entrenched democratic culture and values - they would then become the surest guarantors of the security of their nation, system of government and power. One does not have to be a security genius today to know this primary recipe for a stable national security. And then all other things shall fall in place – investors, donors, partners and the rest.

Therefore we should not sit and wait for others to dictate our security priorities because it is simply in accomplishment of their own national security agenda and interest. And not only that we have been down this road before, but also we were left holding the sick baby, a civil war, humiliation and all the derogatory adjectives: failed-state, rampant corruption, bad governance, and the rest. Thus if it would mean constituting a special national security tax (say for example, an additional 5% on every airline ticket purchased locally, including travels of the president and government officials) and also reducing our own exuberant life style, then we must do so in order to have the means and independence to train and tailor our security forces in accordance with our overall security needs and national interest. Additionally, it would be wise to re-consider some of the older, trained and experienced officers already down-sized to help guard the young ones in the exercise of their duties as we continue the restructuring process of the entire security apparatus.

Well, after this first full week of de-traumatisation therapy, I was strongly advice by my friend and host to cool my temper and put aside my European mentality or that old-fashion obsession with discipline and order. That Liberia has never been an orderly society in the first place; it was an illusion. That development and progress missed in more than 160 years of existence can never be obtained in just one year. And that before the Ellen-Johnson government took power in 2006, things were much “worst”. Thus much has been achieved over a very short period of time to put our nation back on its legs and wings. That I needed to be more positive (as in my nature) and observe the progress and development achieved thus far with some objectivity. That was fair enough, but I also reminded him that, perhaps, it is this age and stress which has rendered me very impatient. Then I promise to do my utmost best.

The Liberian Entrepreneur Zeal & Booming Construction industry

Bravo! The Liberian economy has been put on a fast track and moving at an incredible lightning speed. Most encouragingly, in this thrust there is a very strong awakening spirit of Liberian entrepreneurship. More than ever before we seem conscious of the necessity to take control of our economic destiny. True, the task is still very long and tedious - requiring rigorous organisation, discipline, trust, confidence and perseverance in ourselves. We should never again allow this trend to be broken by self-interest or greed for power and international manipulation.

The most visible evidence is the construction boom – a sign of an healthy economy and a phenomena all too normal for a country emerging from a civil war, totally destroyed, but possesses abundance natural and human resources. That said, there is something disquieting within this process. First, foreigners have monopolized the very basic of the construction industry – an industry so very crucial to our national reconstruction (in particular, rock crushing facilities, building materials, real estate, cement, etc.). It would be in our vital national interest to take direct charge of some these basics (especially rock crushing facilities and cement) or put in place a rigorous control and regulations to curtail a single individual monopolizing the entire industry. Otherwise, we will never be able to finance a proper and orderly our national reconstruction. The cost would be too exorbitant, but also only foreign entrepreneurs could be the principal beneficiaries.

My second worry concerns the manner in which these private houses and building foundations are creeping up everywhere like mushrooms - in any order, form and style with absolutely no regard whatsoever to the city layout or regulations. For example, the marvellous hill-top view behind the unfinished Ministry of Defence is being gradually transformed into another shanty town. And the area around the Shefflin/Robertsfield highway has also taken on the same allure. If the situation is not curtailed and the trend is left to continue – I am afraid beautiful and natural scenery Monrovia could become one of the biggest shanty town-capitals on the continent. Couldn’t the Ministry of Public Works do something about it before it gets too late?

On this, let me share with you this little experience while in town. A friend, with less than $3000.00 budgeted to pay workers, rent a truck, buy and haul red dirt – built almost a mile of a secondary road within just a few days. This was to facilitate access to his construction site around that deep sandy area leading from the main Robertsfield/Shefflin highway. But before even the road was finished my friend had already began receiving praises from the entire neighbourhood for affording them now the opportunity to be driven to their doorsteps, especially during the raining season. A private gesture from a compatriot well appreciated.

From this example, I said to myself: If an ordinary private citizen – with little as $3000.00 - could build a mile of dirt road through the sand - good heavens, then the Ministry of Public Works (while it awaits those millions from the World Bank and others) could do wonders with a single bulldozer, one dump-truck, some gallons of gasoline and less than $200 000.00 put at its disposal. It could definitely open up the roads and layout that entire area around that same Robersfield/Shefflin highway or that magnificent hill-top spot behind the unfinished Ministry of Defence as a starter for future orderly layout. And believe me, those same praises and thanks would have been to the credit of the government at a very low cost from all these popular community areas. And let me add – with the amount of energy out there wasting and only waiting to be tapped – we do not always need millions of dollars to achieve impact development projects, and at the same time providing jobs. We can achieve a lot more being realistic – doing things first and foremost at our level and means.

Among the handicaps of this government, however, is being trapped by its own leitmotiv: “Eradicate Corruption” – an age old part of our entrenched traditional heritage of “patronage.” And what is more, in a country emerging from years of civil war and in an abject poverty and destitution. We all know that by nature Liberians are not only free spenders, but also expect an immediate token or reward from their bosses or leaders to insure the execution of a favour or even a duty. You may call anything, but that’s the fact of our live. At present – and even more than ever before - a cook or watchman working with you, apart from the regularly salary, you must be giving him some pocket money almost daily for transportation or to take something home to his family. Now, apart from political handouts, I bet President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf does not forget every morning to leave something for those men and women watching over her security and protection.

Thus is the question: if we can feel the need to accomplish this traditional obligation at our personal level, how do we expect the government to function effectively doing the contrary?

Now wait a minute. Before you can accuse me of condoning corruption, let me take you back to that road project of my friend. He had budgeted this $3000.00 to build his one mile road, but, disbursing it daily that traditional way during the duration of the project by buying food for the workers, paying their transportation, buying this tool and the missing this or that, and while at the same time the labourers daily wages were incorporated into the same. My suspicion is that our Ministries and government agencies today do not have this sort of financial freedom and independence due precisely to this near obsess anti-corruption/patronage drive. With already very small salaries workers must wait for the end of an entire month to take something home to their families. But at the same time, though, they also see the life-style of their bosses – high salaries, free gasoline, vehicles and drivers, seaside air-conditioned villas and apartments, and you name it. Thus there is no incentive to motivate the lower ranking functionaries or for that matter the entire citizenry to action. It is very a serious handicap for the government. Most ministries visited I saw no enthusiasm, no working spirit nor any motivation. There was a very profound lassitude and nonchalance in these offices – a very strange sort of environment, indeed. It certainly must not be too easy trying to be a conscientious and effective Minister in this government. And we can also see why the President has to always intervene in person to get things done.

Probably, some ways to help the situation could be by contracting more of those small Liberian entrepreneurs (who are not exorbitant and greedy, but patriotic, conscientious and efficient ) and they would be left the headache to do the traditional spending, while the Ministry of Public Works preoccupies itself with the bigger projects. Second, give the Ministries some room to spend their contingency funds and account for it as any responsible head. And third, government needs to start thinking about paying civil servants every two weeks as most companies do.

And lastly, I would prefer, first and foremost, this government to be efficient and honest with itself and the people than to pretend fighting corruption on the terms of an hypocritical international community. We would simply be ridiculed before our people – precisely, the end result desired by the same international community.

To be continued.

© 2007 by The Perspective
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