Before I give you a dose of the harrowing experience that awaits you should you intend travelling to Liberia by road, just a quick comment about a statement attributed to an official at the National Electoral Commission. At a press conference yesterday, the executive director of the commission, in apparent reference to my piece on Monday, said I was among a group of journalists “consulted” on the ward boundary delimitation. He is the second ever person to teach me French and I respect him profoundly. But I have to disagree with him.
At a press conference early this year or so, I must admit that the commission gave a much detailed and thorough explanation about the how they went about drawing up the boundaries. But I am sorry we were not “consulted” which is the word he is said to have used yesterday. Rather we were “informed”. I am not necessarily saying that the media should have been consulted. It is just a point of clarification. That being that, let us come to today, or may be exactly two weeks ago when I ventured on the second ever travel by road across international borders. The first being from Dakar to Banjul.
From red tropical dust to bumps that are craters or cauldron holes. From police checkpoints that look like rebel roadblocks, to customs officials who behave like Robin Hood, save that the latter robbed the rich to feed the poor. Here, hmm you know it.
From unemployed youth roaming the streets and harassing vehicle owners to pay them for simply watching them park their cars, to robbers who can pluck out even your eyes if you don’t employ your fist.
These are bi-words for life in and on the way from Freetown to Monrovia. But some things are worse in one or the other. The former US president James Monroe after whom Monrovia gets its name must be groaning in his grave at the state of affairs in a country many see as a former colony of the world’s most powerful nation. The freedom from which Freetown derives its name is derided by the apparent servitude that goes on. All thanks to successive governments who have not learned from their predecessors’ blunder.
I braved it exactly two weeks ago today, to travel to Monrovia by road. I realised that while the ECOWAS Protocol is for protocol only, governance in especially Sierra Leone has over the years been anything but governance. I was shamed by the sham that shame was to our shameless leaders of the past. Even in the dry season, the road network on our side is in shambles, to say the least. The rains can only reign in on the rage the road represents.
Freetown – 06:30: The Abess bus departs, after I have been at the Rawdon Street park since 04:00. Here the apprentices think they are doing you a favour. They talk to you anyhow and charge you to pay even for your pocketbook as long as you can’t keep it in your pocket or on your lap. You dare argue with them, people you can feed will tell you they can feed your family. Worse, if you do not keep eyes on your luggage like Christiano Ronaldo does the goalpost when taking a free kick, you may lose it. Street boys are all over the place pretending to be an apprentice.
The journey begins after Masiaka. I am a bit naïve probably because I have not travelled on public transport upcountry for a long time. I am wedded by dust from head to toe. Apparently because I am in the back seat, the dust stops here. My blue jeans and t-shirt are colonised by the colour brown.
Once we get to Moyamba Junction, we have to get down for some leg-stretch and food. I manage to get a towel to dust myself of the brown. But it will not. But we arrive in Bo in good time.
Bo Lorry Park – 11: 30: The lorry park here is interesting. The union leaders look discipline. But they are grossly otherwise! Ten of us heading to Monrovia on the Abess bus, so we decide to hire a three-sitter Peugeot car just outside the park. Unsuspectingly, the driver has broken the rule by agreeing. Word reaches the union leaders about it and they come to the car, looking and sounding furious. They say we must all board the vehicle that is in the queue. Then a deal is struck. And the union leaders giggle and leave. They have been given the space of one passenger – Le 40,000 – by the rule-breaking driver.
Bad Road redefined: Did I say the journey started after Masiaka? How wrong! It starts now, as we leave Bo. I keep asking myself what happens to our road user charge which, according to a source in the Ministry of Trade, runs into billions of Leones a month and has been so for many years. The roads you see being built are donor money. Do we pay through our nose for the undeserved betterment of a few at the Sierra Leone Roads Authority?
As I whinged about the poor condition of the road, and it is really awful, the Peugeot driver tells me that what I see is the tip of the iceberg. “Come here in the rainy season and see something”. He says some parts of the road become impassable stressing it has been like this for as long as he can remember.
Police checkpoints: I start counting police checkpoints and at count five, I lose it. Too many to keep track of. At none of the points do the police officers check the boot of the car or ask us any questions. All they do is, receive the driver who alights at every stop. He returns after giving them Le 5,000. What are they doing? Expecting to see contraband or so without looking for it?
After four hours, we arrive at Zimmi on the border. We queue up to “see” the police one after the other. It turns out that one of them, I don’t know how, knows me. He starts nibbling around the edges of the police station, apparently alerting them that I am a journalist. They ask me to jump the queue, which I refuse to do. Eventually I get through and I am asked to proceed. My fellow passengers say they extorted money from them. Anything will do, from Liberty dollar to Leone.
Mano River Bridge: Then I get to the Mano River Bridge. A make-believe post with neatly-clad customs officials. I do not see a single traveller’s bag being checked. All I can see is passengers placing their fists into the palms of officers. One of them tells me, very forthrightly and in a matter-of-must way, to give him something to eat.
Honestly before my travel, I thought the extortion I heard so much about when the Bridge was not officially reopened, was over. How wrong! And it does not stop on the Sierra Leone side. Once I cross the bridge divided in three (representing Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia), I am greeted by peaceful-looking but idling UN peacekeepers who rest in their posts keeping watch over what I don’t know.
Liberia: On Liberian territory, the harassment is alive. Beautiful customs office buildings with officials seemingly well organised both in their official work and in extorting people. In no roundabout manner, the customs and police personnel ask me to give them money. They probably share notes with their Sierra Leonean counterparts or may be the other way round. I have to oblige before the border closes before me.
I proceed to a few metres and a well-organised drivers’ union office with nationwide routes displayed on the wall. Like everybody else, I buy my ticket and like on the Abess bus, I also pay for my suitcase which passed for a hand luggage at the JFK airport in New York last year.
Here, the road is well paved. Compared to the road on the other side of the Bridge, in Sierra Leone, this is a boulevard. Not a bump on the over 80-mile-long distance. I can’t help but ask myself how come.
But whereas in Sierra Leone nobody will ask me for a passport once I cross the border, in Liberia, they keep asking me everywhere we stop. Bizarrely, they are more concerned about other countries’ visas in my passport, than their authorisation stamp. They will take it from me, study it and delay the process until a Liberian friend I have been travelling with from Freetown loses his cool and tells them off at some point.
Tomorrow, read how, compared to Monrovia, Freetown is as lush and beautiful as Paris. Monrovia still lies in ruins and a Liberian journalist is probably right when he tells me that non Liberians look at President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf more as a celebrity, than as a head of state who “has disappointed her people”. See you then. By Umaru Fofana