By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore
January 20, 2002
My first experience regarding the economic situation was at the airport when I arrived. Custom and immigration workers surrounded me; all of them wanted to help me complete the immigration card, the currency reporting form and other documents. Also, they wanted money. As a result, I was referred to as "chief or boss man."Some of them went as far to say," don't worry, I'll fix it (meaning I take care of your business), just give old boy something". Even my in-law who came to my rescue ended up taking money from me. People were not ashamed to ask for money.
Some of the people I met told me they had not eaten the "whole day" or since "yesterday" and proceeded to ask me for money. In a church, which I attended and spoke after my sister’s burial, a man sent me a note requesting money from me when he found out I was a visitor from abroad. Also, during my visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I encountered an old lady on the sidewalk, who approached me and said she had not eaten that day. I gave her $20 Liberian Dollars, which she used to buy biscuits and sat right on the sidewalk to eat.
These days there are more people in the streets of Monrovia begging for help. In order to be in the position to assist some of those that I encountered, I had to convert some of my US currency to Liberian currency. The exchange rate was $1 US to $68 Liberian Dollars. However, on the black market, one could get $70 Liberian Dollars for $1 US.
I used my Liberian currency to pay for goods and services as well as to assist individuals who needed my assistance. If I had not converted my US to Liberian currency, I would have gotten broke my first two days in Monrovia.
For example, I was told by an acquaintance that if I stood in a busy commercial street like Broad Street in Monrovia for about 45 minutes, I would see people walking up and down the street the whole day hoping to see someone they know to give them money. I did not conduct this experiment because I did not have the time, but it shows how deplorable conditions have become in our country.
Yet, in the midst of all this vast poverty, there are some Liberians, mostly higher government officials, who live very well; some have three to four cars, which includes SUVs, parked in their garages, and have electricity and safe drinking water.
Apparently as a lifestyle, many young Liberians have cell phones, which cost $150.00 US in addition to a "scratch card" sold for $15 US and $25 US Dollars, which they use to make calls. Most of these cell phone owners are unemployed or under-employed. And with high unemployment (about 85% UNDP) government workers (professionals) make about an equivalent of $20 US Dollars per month. When I was at home, the Government had not paid its workforce for months, and depending on whom you ask - it is said to be over a year. Furthermore, public school teachers were on strike for their back pay. Due to the financial hardship, many Government workers have to hustle.
More Liberians are now vending than in previous times. Those who in the past looked down on those who sold around town and on the side walk (Herenow Boys), presently are selling on the sidewalks or in the general market, doing what Liberians called - "making market." These commercial activities only meet the people’s "hand to mouth" needs. The main commercial activities are foreign owned and controlled.
On my way from Mamba Point, on October 3rd, I saw a young girl who appeared to be between the ages of six to seven years old to be lying on a mattress on the sidewalk of Broad Street. When I asked the passenger in the car with me what was she doing there, he stated that she could be a displaced person. As a result of the war, many Liberians migrated from the rural areas to Monrovia and most of them have no place to live.
About 4:30 PM that same day at the intersection of Johnson Street and Slipway, I saw a body of an old lady lying on the sidewalk. Again, I was told that the body might have been there that morning. "Apparently her family does not want to claim her body because they cannot afford the burial expense," according to the same passenger, adding, "they hope later at night the government would dispose of the body". As we drove away, I felt sad, and I said to myself that old lady is perhaps the mother, sister, aunt, cousin or loving wife of someone who is unaware of her fate. This tragedy made me to think of the hardship my late sister might have experienced too. She was forty-eight years old, a college graduate, who had advanced education/training abroad, but at the time of her death, she was unemployed, hardly had enough food in her house and was 12 months in arrears of her rent. Even the contributions she received from us occasionally could not help her.
The general condition of Monrovia is deplorable. There is no electricity! Only few people, those who can afford generators, have electricity in their homes. The lack of electricity also creates financial hardship on the general public. They cannot refrigerate their food; therefore they must buy food and cook daily. Moreover, the absence of electricity makes the streets unsafe at night.
One afternoon, I went to an Internet cafe on Gurley Street. When I got ready to leave about 7 PM, the streets were completely dark. I got frighten and got in the car and hurry back to where I was residing. But as I drove on, I thought to myself, with the streets being that dark, anything could have happened to me and no one would have known about it.
Interestingly, communities are still functioning, although they are over crowded due in part to rural-urban migration. Families are trying to stick together for daily survival. When I visited New Krutown for a gowning ceremony and family meeting after the burial, I observed that most of the Kru children I met could not speak Kru. They spoke English, even though they were born and live in New Krutown and their parents are Kru. This problem is not only with Kru children but also with children of other ethnic groups in urban communities in Liberia, especially Monrovia. As I see it, if this trend continues in the next forty years, indigenous languages will be lost to Western language - English in the urban areas of the country.
My visit to New Kru Town was an uplifting experience. It was in a sense a homecoming. I was born in New Kru Town and left Liberia as a teenager to continue my high school education at a boarding school in America. Although I visited New Kru Town since I first left Liberia, this particular visit was special. I did not know that the occasion was a ceremony in my honor. There was a large crowd of people gathered and I was gowned in one of the finest African design fabrics. The speaker, a lady who knew me when I was a boy, spoke in the Kru language and said to me "we honor you today not because you came from America, but because you remembered us throughout the time you were in the United States. You occasionally sent contribution in our time of need. And when you visited us, you spoke to us and sang with us in our common language, just as you used to when you were with us as a child. For this, we thank you plenty!"
I was moved as she spoke and walked around the circle and was interrupted at time with songs. I have never been honored and appreciated in this way in my entire life. I was speechless for few seconds as I stood up to respond. To be honored and appreciated by your own was a great feeling. I was thankful.
As I realized, it is not the big thing that we must do to help our people, but the little thing we do is what that counts. For example, sending copybooks and pencils to a mother who writes that her child is starting school. To this mother, it makes a difference. That child does not have to be a family member. He or she could be a child of an old friend or a child of someone whom you do not know or you never met. We are honored not for what we achieved and what we do for ourselves, but for what we do for others.
Culturally, some time ago in Liberia, some of us in order to be accepted by others played down on our culture. We did not want to speak our language publicly and pretended that we did not know how to speak it. But we did not know that those who we wanted to imitate and to become have no culture of their own; and that they were not better than we were in any shape or form.
Although the Liberian people are facing difficulties, parents are trying their best to educate their children. In fact today, there are more schools in Liberia. Most of the schools are private institutions. These private schools, particularly universities, require students to pay tuition and fees in US dollars, even though workers (their parents or guardians) are paid with Liberian currency. Also, there are more churches these days in the country. Nearly on every street in Monrovia, there is a church. However, this situation is not exclusive to the Liberian experience. Generally, in time of hardship and difficulties, people tend to seek salvation; the church then becomes the avenue through which it is done. This is not to suggest that Liberians are not religious in good times.
Due to the unhealthy political climate in Liberia, I had decided not to initiate nor openly engage in any political discussion during my visit, but people openly talked to me about the political problems in the country. Most of the people I came in contact with expressed their dissatisfaction with the general conditions in the country. They felt that the Taylor administration had done nothing to improve conditions, and that since the election in 1997, there still was no electricity or safe drinking water and that things have gotten worse.
They frequently named Tipoteh, Johnson-Sirleaf and Brumskine as the key opposition leaders with the potential to become president, but they were quick to criticized politicians who "stay away from the country and want to become president in the next election." This criticism is growing. While I was at home, Archbishop Michael Francis and others lashed out on those who fall in this category. This view is to the benefit of those politicians on the ground, and one individual whose name, keep coming up in conversation, is Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh. The reason they gave is that he is consistent, not corrupt, outspoken on major issues but more importantly, he is credible.
Also, many people praised the late Samuel K. Doe, the president of Liberia from 1980 to 1990, for his contribution in developing Liberia and his "compassion for the common persons." They pointed to government buildings, which he constructed, including the new soccer stadium. It was also mentioned that Liberians were building and there were food and electricity during his administration. This comparison was made when comparing Taylor to Doe or conditions back then to now.
Most of the people that I talked with said come election time, they will not vote for Taylor. But when asked if Taylor gives free food to the Liberian people few months before the election, will he win? The overwhelming answer I got was yes. This possibility is what Taylor and his supporters seem to be banking on. It goes with the thinking that if Liberians voted for him when he "killed their mothers and fathers", they would still vote for him - even if he starves them for years and come election time "dash" them some food and ask for their forgiveness. That‘s how SLICK Charlie is! And this thought is troubling, particularly to Liberians in refugee camps and the United States, who are looking forward to the upcoming election for the removal of the Taylor regime.
Taylor has the resources and the organization compare to the opposition. Moreover, opposition leaders are not united nor are they making much effort to achieve this objective. Instead, "everyone wants to be president", commented an elderly Liberian gentleman. Taylor knows the consequence if he loses the upcoming election. Therefore, he is doing everything within his power to maintain power, even at the expense and suffering of the Liberian people. His number one priority is his personal security.
While I was in Liberia, the new U.S. Ambassador, John Blaney, presented his credentials to Taylor. During the ceremony, Ambassador Blaney called on the Taylor administration to adhere to democratic principles and to also free from detention journalist Hassan Bility (who at the time was in jail) and Sheikh Sarkor. Taylor needs U.S. support for many reasons, and at the same time, he wants to maintain his relationship with Kaddafi, his long time supporter. The reality is, if he wants to gain America’s support, he has to make painful changes on many fronts. However, some people feel that Taylor is being put in a tight situation (boxed in the corner).
They make reference to the war his government is fighting with Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in rural Liberia, and the growing demand for his indictment by the international tribunal for crimes he committed against humanity.
However, I observed that Liberians are now speaking out without fear. Radio Veritas, a Catholic station, frequently broadcasts views and opinions by Liberians on issues. On the day I was leaving Liberia, a professor spoke on the air (radio) against the national motto (The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here) and the previous preamble to the Liberian Constitution. I did not see or hear the arrest of anyone for speaking out while I was in Liberia. This free expression is a good sign and a positive beginning for a new Liberia.
Charles Taylor's invasion of Liberia and his inept leadership have created serious social and economic problems for Liberia. While the economic conditions discussed above can be addressed with sound policies, political will and commitment, the social problems are more acute and will take some time to cure. Certainly the invasion and the subsequent civil war killed thousands of people, mostly innocent Liberians and had displaced Liberians and made them refugees in other countries. The refugees have lost not only their civil rights as Liberian citizens but also their self-esteem and dignity.
This psychological impact will not go away easily. Moreover, Liberian children have lost precious years of education. Some have been out of school for years. They have to be re-educated in schools. Some Liberian children who left Liberia to the United States after the civil war have had behavioral problems, as others have observed.
Although the ECOM soldiers and those from other countries have paid a deadly price to help save Liberia from total destruction during the civil war, their coming to Liberia had created some problems. For example, many of the soldiers born Liberian children out of wedlock from casual relation with Liberian women. This relation of course, was based primarily on the desire for pleasure on the one hand and on the other for money. The fathers returned home and left the children behind after the war. Most of the children do not know their fathers and will ask questions when they (children) grow up. This situation also occurred in Vietnam when US army left their Vietnamese American children in Vietnam after the war. The children had identity problem. Although the Liberian children will always be Liberians, they would need professional help. Women involve in this type of relationship make themselves vulnerable to sexual transmitted diseases, such as AIDS.
The displacement of Liberians in Liberia has increased rural-urban migration, which has resulted in the shortage of housing and in the increase of urban congestion in Monrovia. This factor, along with the flight of businesses from Liberia, has helped increase unemployment, particularly in Monrovia.
However, other Liberians have benefited and continue to benefit from the civil war and its aftermath. These Liberians are landlords, most of who reside in other countries. They leased their houses to UN, AID and other NGO personnel and receive rent payment in high US dollars. Certainly there is nothing wrong with this practice, considering the fact that Liberia is a capitalistic country. But the problem is that other landlords who rent to "middle and low income" Liberians are requesting rent payment in US dollars. Those renters who can not afford this currency level are often late in their rent payment or can not pay their rent.
As stated earlier, Taylor will not relinquish power easily for obvious reasons. If the election is held in 2003 and he is elected, he will have the legal and constitutional justification to stay in power. That means that Liberians will have to undergo another period of hardship and neglect. If he is indicted and found guilty in absentia by the international tribunal, he will become a fugitive and can be arrested anywhere.
What some Liberian politicians do not want to happen is LURD defeating Taylor and seizing power or the military deposing Taylor by coup d'etat. This would change the political dynamics. Taylor will no longer be the factor or reason for a regime change. Also it would deprive politicians, with presidential ambition, from becoming president after Taylor. Some politicians, cognizant of this possibility, are quietly making contact with LURD for leadership opportunity if such scenario occurs. This scenario is similar in some ways to the 1980 PRC coup d'etat, which took Tolbert and his government from power. One difference was that there were no opposition parties. The True Whig Party controlled all political activities in the country. But the civilian intellectuals and progressives were called upon by the military to help administer the government after the coup.
If Taylor and his administration were forced out of power by the international tribunal, it would create a leadership vacuum. Unless Liberian politicians come together and as one body select an interim leader, they will be fighting each other, undermining each other and as a result, the Liberian people will suffer again. Some of the politicians are to be blamed also for the Liberian problems, for their rule in financing and helping Taylor in other ways for the invasion.
Finally, I am glad to have visited Liberia for two reasons. First, to see family members and old friends and second, to see first hand the prevailing conditions in the country and how these conditions affect our people.