Life under NPP, with or without sanctions...
By Abdoulaye W. Dukule
October 11, 2001
In a few days, the international community, through the office of the Secretary General of the United Nations, will take note of the report card of Mr. Charles G. Taylor, President of the Republic of Liberia. It will be decided if the regime in Monrovia will be on continuous sanctions or if the members of the government of Mr. Taylor would be allowed to go to Abidjan, Paris and New York and taste some gourmet food and sleep in a bed without an armed body guard. The international community will also be deciding the fate of millions of Liberians, whatever its decision may be. Lifting the sanctions or maintaining them would mean a great deal to the government, to those who have the means to travel and can't wait to get out of the disaster land they have turned the country into. But for the common people, it would mean almost very little. The price of rice would probably not change. The exchange rate would be maintained at its supra-inflationary rate of around 50 to 1 and there will still be no water to drink, no books in the school. The employees would still not receive their pay and there would still be no doctor at JFK. The bulk of the foreign exchange would still come through Western Union and the NGO community.
The economic hardship on the common people was exacerbated by the sanctions regime. But to what extend? Long before the sanctions, no government worker could afford to buy a bag of rice, a can of oil and a pound of salt out of his/her salary. This includes government ministers. No university professor, with a doctorate from the most respectable university can afford a bag of rice and a notebook in the same month on his or her salary.
The representatives at the legislature were given jeeps a few years ago. These cars were to allow them to go to their constituents as many times as possible. But the jeeps were not used for that purpose. Many of our elected officials used their cars to plow the roads between Monrovia and Danane, transporting people back and forth. The representatives were making ends meet by using their official vehicles as commercial transportation. Since they don't have to pay for gas, they made money. But now, most of these jeeps are breaking down. Well, governments will repair them.
Ministers were given international telephone lines to run government business. These lines were supposed to allow them to contact the international community. At night, after offices are closed, many ministers leave their special assistant by the phone. The assistant has a stream of customers who come in to place calls, mostly to the United States. These calls cost between $5 and $10. The Minister makes his money and the special assistant gets his cut. The government will pay the bill one day, someday.
Teachers don't get paid. To make ends meet, they are on several payrolls in the city of Monrovia. They go from one school to another. All they need to do is sign-in. They ask the students to bring LD$5 to take a test. Or they let them take the test, but they must pay the money before getting their results. If they don't pay, they don't get their test papers and could end up being dropped. Teachers at the University have another full time job in town and then another teaching job at night. Go figure out what kind of education the kids are getting. The most recent journal at the University Library dates back 1992, at the time Dr. Patrick Seyon was leading his one-man crusade to salvage UL.
The building manager or chief janitor of a ministry has found a way to make money. He does not have access to telephone or to paper in the office. Therefore, every other night, he takes off the light bulb and tells his boss that they need a new one. He is given LD$10 to go buy a new one. He goes into his closet and take the one he took off the prior night, put it back and put the blown one in its place, for next time. Because the electricity coming from a generator is not regulated, it seems normal that bulbs would blow up. Until someone figures out, the building manager or chief janitor will buy his cup of rice.
A Lebanese merchant has the monopoly to import rice. He brings in some 40 to 50,000 bags a month. He has a huge market to service. But out of that consignment, he must give 15,000 bags to former fighters. This "unofficial" army is well maintained. The 15,000 bags distributed to them is per special arrangement. No cash is paid for those bags. But to keep the monopoly, the Lebanese man must comply. He can put a dollar or two on each bag to cut his losses. Besides, he also imports cars and parts that are sold to the government. Vouchers for his services to the government are written and signed in his own home. Everybody is happy. The rice flows and the cars come in. Who cares if Flomo doesn't get paid?
Another Lebanese has a cousin back home in Lebanon whop owns a small printing press. The cousin usually prints wedding invitations and business cards. The Lebanese man, who also runs a generator business in Monrovia, knows the Minister to whom he sold two generators, not fully paid, as he did with so many high ranking officials. The Liberian government signs a contract for a million dollars with him. The contract allows him to print Liberian passports. Green red or black, and whatever design, as long as they say "passports" and carry the seal of the Republic. The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here. The Lebanese man and his cousin designed new Liberians passports while sipping coffee and the next day they printed them. He takes two weeks vacation paid for by the government. He brings the passports, leaving some behind. They are put in a safe at the Ministry. Liberians buy them. This is the land of Liberty and easy bucks. One wonders why Liberians go all over the world to take ! slave jobs if it's so easy to make a few bucks at home.
There is the other merchant from Pakistan, who imports "luxury" goods. It is mostly imitation blue jeans, pirated tapes and junk stuff, like plastic flowers. He orders five containers for Christmas. The four will go into his store. The fifth one goes to that Special Powerful Person who has a Chair next to the President. No custom dues are paid. You get four and I get one. The containers leave the port under heavy military escort. "National Security."
There is an old traffic cop at the Red Light market in Paynesville. He was old and could hardly drag himself out of bed every day. His blue uniform is gray or something like that. The color has faded. The heels of shoes were all eaten up. One day, his boss at the Police Headquarters gets him a promotion and a new assignment behind a desk. A fistfight broke up. The old man does not want the promotion. He threatens to shoot his boss. The only way he could make a living, pay for his grand children school and afford his late night Club Beer was to be at Red Light market, where he helps to load buses and taxis for LD$5 a piece. The boss wanted to send his cousin, because the old man has not been "forthcoming."
An investor went to Monrovia and wanted to see the President. This was before the sanctions. He spoke to the powers that be. He was informed that he had to pay US $100,000 to see His Excellency. The logic was simple: to see the President of the United States, one has to go through lobbyists who charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same service. Why not? What's the difference between seeing an American President and Mr. Charles G. Taylor? They are both presidents. They both have swimming pools and bodyguards. The big difference is that ours can give you a license to deal timber, diamonds and gold.
There is that 16 years old girl. She is a student. Her father works for the government. She has three brothers. Her older sister lives in America and every month sends $50. That buys the bag of rice. But for the salt and pepper, the make-up kit and the fake Taiwan made Nike, she has to find the money. After school, she goes into the restroom, changes into high heels, miniskirts, put on make-up and hits Broad Street. She goes from one office to another. Once she arrives, everything stops. The secretary alerts the boss. She walks in and out. She does five to six offices and gets home around seven. On her way, she buys a few things the family needs, like cigarettes, candles, beer, salt and biscuit. The family goes to sleep. Nobody dares to ask her where she got the money. After all, isn't everybody doing it? Explain it!
That is life in Monrovia. Of course, there are many people making honest living. Kids selling water. Grown-ups walking miles to make a buck whichever they can. The sanctions may be lifted. Or they may be kept on for another month or two, before Sierra Leone completes its peace process. Then we will be back to our Liberian ways. Sanctions or no sanctions, we will survive. And many of us will pretend that it's OK to live this way. We will pretend not to see. We will bury our head in the sand, like the ostriches do when confronted with a sad reality.
The UN may lift its the sanctions if it feels that peace in Sierra Leone is secured. The sanctions were not imposed to protect Liberians, but to get Liberia out of Sierra Leone. Whatever happens to the people of Monrovia, Bassa or Vahun, well, that's their business. They have a president, let them deal with him. After Sierra Leone, life will be back where it was yesterday. It might even get worse for the common people, because they will have to work harder to make-up for the losses caused by the sanctions. This is life in Liberia under the National Patriotic Party (NPP). That's how it goes. The death of 250,000 people to reach this far...