The other Lonestar state

Edward B. Rackley

Lib_flagAfter a couple of rain-soaked days and nights in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and on record as one of the world’s wettest cities, it was time to venture out for a quick run.

There is no green space in Monrovia, only piles of human waste and decades of accumulated debris from buildings rocked by fourteen years of civil conflict. The decline is accelerated by the pounding rainy seasons and years of neglect. Utterly evaporated is the Monrovia described in Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps: “a life so gay, with dancing and the cafés on the beach.” From my lodgings in a dilapidated convent near the beach, I thought I might head in that direction. I’ve always associated coastlines with escape and was needing one now.

According to local legend, the Liberian coast was an international surfing destination in the seventies and eighties. Huge swells were visible from my dank quarters on the convent’s second floor. Today the beach is a no-go area for ordinary Liberians, as the city’s criminal elements congregate there to wait for nightfall. It also happens to be chemically toxic. Monrovia’s open sewers dump their contents directly into the coastal surf and local rivers, and passing oil freighters have been discharging their bilge inside unguarded national waters for years.

The result is a noxious coastline; the city itself is close to being the foulest urban environment I’ve ever seen or smelled. The town of Kismaayo in southern Somalia wins that title hands down: an urban coastline where goat and camel herds bleat into oblivion awaiting slaughter in the chop shops on the beach. Blood and offal drain into the wet sand where vultures congregate, shuffling around in a thick cloud of flies. Sharks navigate the shallow water where the blood stream from the abattoirs meets the sea. Hundreds of Somalis wander this rancid stretch, reaching the water only to defecate in the open surf. A real inter-species beach party.

Dogs and bones

From the convent gate I run to the end of the street. It is populated by would-be mechanics and Flintstone-era cars propped up on piles of rocks. Boys roll 50 gallon oil drums around the cracked tarmac, and bony dogs stand stationary, panting in the muggy heat. A twenty-foot cinder block wall separates the end of the street from the beach, topped by coils of barbed wire. Where a steel gate had once granted access, only rusty hinges are now visible. I poke my head through and take in the northern coastline. Waves rush up to the wall; the beach has eroded away almost entirely. Teenagers, students perhaps, huddle in groups close to the wall against the strong winds. Running on the beach here is not an option.

As I linger, I recall a story about the one open grassy area in Monrovia, behind the abandoned presidential mansion. The mansion ignited in flames during the inauguration festivities in early 2006 and was never repaired. A colleague told me he used to run his dog there until a thief was electrocuted last week stealing live electrical cables from the mansion grounds. Security forces then cordoned off the area. The same thing happened at Monrovia airport when I was flying in: our flight was re-routed in order to make a daytime landing. The electrical cables serving to illuminate its landing strip had been dug up and stolen.

I turn around and head past the mechanics and into the thick of Monrovia traffic. Between the moving cars, trucks and throngs of pedestrians were dozens of shifty, ravenous canines. Not exactly menacing, they look like diseased, gaunter versions of our own dog at home, an African mut who came from nearby Togo. Among the occasional pecking/scratching chicken and the bands of street kids, I notice one dog suddenly perk up and launch into a sprint. As my gaze returns to the path before me I see a small boy holding a section of boiled cow’s spine, picked off the curb near a street side vendor.

Seeing the dog coming at him, the boy positions himself behind a burned-out vehicle carcass. He stands on tiptoe to peer over the door handle through to the other side of the vehicle, reading the dog’s next move. The dog stops and raises his head; from my vantage their eyes appear to lock. Immediately the dog lunges around the corner of the vehicle in pursuit. As I pass alongside their encounter, the boy is tightening his grip on the spinal section, the dog now a blur. I keep running, not breaking my pace. How many times has this boy fought off dogs in order to eat? How many times has this dog stolen food from a child?

Freedom and nothingness

I was last in this corner of West Africa about five years ago, when Charles Taylor was running Liberia under an iron grip of fear, loathing and frequent sprays of lead. Fighting in Sierra Leone had spilled over into southeastern Guinea where I was based, about 120km north of Monrovia—it’s a very compact neighborhood. Liberian refugees had already been camped in the area for years, surviving on handouts from aid agencies.

In an ungoverned and thickly forested corner of Guinea called the ‘Parrot’s beak’, Liberian and Salonean refugees numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The venal Guinean president-for-life, Lasana Conté, full of xenophobic ire, was on the radio daily, inciting his countrymen to ‘protect the homeland’ and to ‘deal with the foreign invasion by any means necessary’. Guinea was indeed descending into chaos, but not because of the refugee influx.

Roadblocks were everywhere, manned by armed adolescents appointed by Guinean soldiers. Refugee camps were attacked in the night; Guinean towns were sacked, eviscerated and scorched to the ground in apparent reprisal by the refugees. Eyewitnesses attested in confidence that the Guinean army was responsible for the attacks on the towns. Disgruntled and unpaid, often of the same ethnicity as the refugees, Guinean soldiers were profiting from the chaos. Unsalaried Salonean rebels used the same method, ‘Operation Pay Yourself’.

UNHCR and the handful of NGOs operating in the area prepared for Guinea’s imminent collapse and the explosion of yet another massive refugee crisis. The mire of West Africa was sucking another country down. Taylor was believed to be behind all of it.

At the height of this hot-headed xenophobia, Guinean civilians and military decided our presence was hostile because we were assisting Liberian and Salonean refugees. Under international law, refugees are entitled to relief assistance and protection, having fled civil and ethnic conflict in their own land. Local Guineans were jealous and resentful of the assistance offered the refugees. As clashes between refugees and Guinean civilians began to reach our operational base in Kissidougou, we piled in jeeps and fled northeast to Kan Kan.

Our presence was clearly no deterrent against these state-ordered pogroms and the destruction of refugee encampments. We did at least meticulously document these acts as violations of the Geneva Conventions and international human rights, for which Conté was ultimately responsible. Yet here we were, leaving the refugees to their fate. Would this be another Rwanda? No one wanted to stay to find out.

I remember standing on the street in Kan Kan along the Milo River, a tributary of the Niger, and not far from the Mali border. Kan Kan is home to the famous Malinké people, the tribe of Guinea’s most famous son, Sekou Touré, anti-colonialist militant and the country’s first president. Like Conté who overthrew him in 1984, Sekou Touré the visionary would become a paranoid, tyrannical and incontinent ruler, his socialist experiment an abject failure.

Bridge_2Kan Kan is a university town with a strong Sahelian feel, where used textbooks are sold by hawkers beneath tall palms and the few remaining colonial structures in this part of Guinea. As I walked among the dusty titles lying on the ground, I noticed a volume of Sekou Touré’s revolutionary poems, Poèmes militantes, published in Moscow in the early 1970s. The tone of the collection was a cross between Mao’s Red Book with its clunky paeans to the proletariat, and the intoxicated ramblings of the Sartrean psychoanalyst and anti-colonialist Franz Fanon. Added to the mix was a strident anti-Gaullism, full of bloodlust and probably shocking to French readers of the day. I laughed at the thought as I turned to haggle with the seller for a better price.

Monrovia abuzz

Today Conté is still in power, more venal and paranoid than ever. The country teeters on the brink. Guineans protest sporadically for reform, but without momentum or cohesive strategy. In Liberia things are much more positive, if tentative and still quite desperate. Taylor is long gone, and awaits his fate in The Hague. The current president is a former World Bank economist, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state. She won close elections in late 2005 against world soccer star George Weah. This gives you some idea of what many Liberians think is important in a leader.

As Sirleaf steps into her new role, the tasks facing Liberia are massive—resettlement of vast numbers of displaced persons and refugees, solidification of a still-fragile peace, training and equipping armed security forces and police, a complete rebuilding of the country’s government, economy and infrastructure. Control of the diamond, timber and rubber trafficking is another task, essential to filling the national treasury. Monrovia, named after US President James Monroe, is engorged with over half the country’s population (3.2 million). 85% of Liberians are jobless; only 15% are literate.

Yet Monrovia is buzzing along. I hop in taxis and wander around comfortably, enjoying the American gangster rap blaring from storefront loudspeakers. There are no military roadblocks, and unarmed police in their NYPD blue uniforms conduct traffic and chase down road violations on foot, waving truncheons and yelling to all and sundry. The only automatic weapons or heavy artillery I’ve seen in public were at the airport. UN tanks and APCs are no longer doing patrols. Liberian refugees are slow to regain their homelands and the interior remains completely cut off from the outside world. Many fear the resulting security void when the 14,000 UN peacekeepers leave.

Liberia_coat_of_armsThe Liberian coat of arms depicts a coastal scene at sunset, where white doves fly above a three-masted schooner. On land a plough and shovel rest against a swaying palm tree. Above the image runs a phrase that, along with the ship, suggests that the idea of Liberia originated elsewhere: “The love of freedom brought us here.” Look no further than the Liberian flag, with its lone white star on a blue field and red and white stripes, to learn where the country and its founders originated.

Never colonized, Liberia was not ruled from Washington DC the way other African countries were ruled by colonial powers. Starting in the early 1820s, hundreds of freed US slaves were sent to coastal West Africa by anti-slavery societies. In 1847 they founded the continent’s oldest republic. For most of the country’s history, Liberian-Americans, descendants of the freed slaves, have ruled the country and controlled its wealth by excluding the nation’s indigenous people.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about the need to reverse brain drain and exile if post-conflict countries like Liberia or DR Congo are to reconstitute themselves, ending decades of dependency on foreign aid. At the time, this was a counter-factual scenario, as I knew of no post-conflict country where the educated elite living abroad had actually returned to lead reconstruction and assume roles in government. Liberia today is such a place. Liberian-Americans like Johnson-Sirleaf are returning in large numbers, taking official positions and opening businesses.

How are they being received? Given Liberia’s historical tensions between the indigenous African demographic and those with historical ties to America, relations are strained. In 1980 Samuel Doe led a malicious and bloody coup against the American-Liberian leadership of William Tolbert (in whose government Sirleaf served), protesting a long history of marginalization and discrimination. A new era of just governance and ethnic non-partisanship is promised. Doe lasted a mere ten years before a long, ritualistic murder ended his rule. His trial by kangaroo court, gruesome torture sessions and ultimate execution were filmed on VHS; the tape circulated widely in West Africa throughout the 1990s.

‘Out out damned spot’

Every Liberian overthrow and assassination since that of Doe v. Tolbert in 1980 has come about through violence. Every victor has promised to restore rule of law and to correct the abuses of the former regime, often framed along ethnic lines involving American-Liberians and indigenous groups. Where political transitions frequently involve bloodshed—and there are many Liberias in Africa—I tend to frame the process in terms of laundry detergent. Don’t laugh too hard, I have good reasons.

Of the African warlords I have met in different contexts all them were driven and deluded by a savior complex. Some were politically savvy and well-educated (Jean-Pierre Bemba in DRC), others knuckle-dragging Neanderthals (Omar Jess in Somalia; Minnie Minawi in Darfur). Yet all of them spoke the language of laundry detergent: they would ‘cleanse and heal’ the nation of previous injustices and wrongheaded policies.

Laundry detergent has good explanatory power for a second reason: it’s as common and ephemeral as the dictators and warlords themselves. No need to glorify these people with a ‘savior complex’. Despite their using a shared language of restored social justice etc., none of Liberia’s coup leaders since 1980 has been able to ‘out the spot’ left by vanquished regimes. President Sirleaf seems apprised of the tidal forces behind political upheaval in Liberia’s recent history. She appointed her son as Minister of Defense. He’ll have to deal with someone’s laundry detergent dreams one day down the road.