There is an ever-increasing moaning and mourning in Monrovia. Young men and women are palpably unhappy. And they are pulling no punches about it. Liberia’s capital is in a pitiful state. Its citizens are praying against a heady date. That date when hate will spill over. The slightest prick may lead to a serious trick. When the scars and scabs of the war, still seen even by the blind and felt by the deadened, may be peeled off leading to fresh haemorrhaging.
The city’s narrow streets and alleys are further narrowed by the teeming population with idling youthful men standing post and acting as useful hosts. Broad Street, the hub of the city, looks even broader. Not because it has been expanded by civil engineering. Rather, like Gulliver in Lilliput, many of the other streets seem to be shrinking as drivers navigate potholes, while street traders do their all-too-familiar thing.
The yellow-painted taxis are rickety at best, as carbon monoxide mixes with the scorching heat in a city with the highest humidity in sub-Saharan Africa. The sight of rain is a plight that forces you to deign. Otherwise, wet is all you get. And the taxi drivers, who look like divers, are mostly dishevelled as they struggling to keep the water at bay.
This is a far cry from the Liberia created in my mind’s eye. Growing up in Kono district, today’s shoulder-high show-offers from the US or Europe came from Liberia looking strict. A return from a trip to L.I.B, as it was called then, meant a stream of neighbours coming to visit even in a pen, with a pan in hand. With bated anticipation of some dollars, you were the darling of the community. All that has changed! All that impression has waned! Electricity is almost nonexistent even though there stand some poles with bulbs on them trying to provide street lights.
Here, the US dollar is legal tender. You use it to pay even a taxi driver, and he gives you change in Liberty dollar. But a credit card is as good here as meaningless.
To some, what Liberia brings today is hysteria. Save for those Sierra Leoneans I saw there who have chosen to make it a home. But in a world of contradictions, hundreds if not thousands of Liberians here, prefer it to a return home.
Some Liberians who have been to Freetown recently, love it here. One told me of how much he missed “beautiful” Freetown, calling it “Paris” and sometimes “New York”. “Very nice streets like Siaka Stevens Street, Pademba Road,” he counts, and ends at Congo Cross and Aberdeen. The Lumley beach still brings sand to his sole and palm. Paddys and Old Skul remain his paddies (friends), and he still sees them as among the best fun places he has been to.
A friend of mine took me round the town and then to Paynesville. An outskirt of the city that looks like a pretty lady without a miniskirt. Beauty unappreciated! Substandard houses built on a beautiful plane. The large Salone population wanted to take me out and they settled for Musu’s. Where, just a couple of hours before, another compatriot had taken me to. “It is one of Monrovia’s best” one of them told me. Not like Old Skul but somehow good enough and surely not taking away Liberians’ flair for fun and frolic. Their gumption to glean in glitz and glamour is still glowing. The UN’s ubiquitous effervescence is ever of the essence, or may be not.
Liberians I spoke to, except perhaps those diehards of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, cannot care less about the world body. They heap a deluge of praise on Nigeria which was “brave and altruistic” to send its troops when the farm barn was on fire. They see the civilian component of United Nations mission in the country as proof of what one called the world’s bane attempt “to profit over our situation”. Whatever that means! But they want them to leave or give Liberians more jobs.
Joblessness and the departure of the UN, even the thought of it, is a heart-throb. “These young men you see are without a job and almost all of them are former gun-wielders” one Liberian journalist I met in a restaurant said to me. And this brings jitters, he went on. And this is exactly the reason some support the continued stay of the peacekeepers. Former combatants are roaming the streets in Monrovia without a job to do. A UN official told me it is far worse upcountry. There are concerns that if things are not done for them it could spark off.
Following the end of the war in Sierra Leone in January 2002, it did not take this long for the dust to settle in Freetown. Five years since President Charles Taylor stepped down to bring back normalcy to Liberia, Monrovia still looks ominous and scarily scarred almost five years on. This could probably be because the city saw far many more battles than Freetown did. But critics, including an opposition Senator I met, attribute it to “damn right incompetence” on the part of the current government. He does not agree President Johnson-Sirleaf has done any good by attracting the world’s most powerful man, President George Bush to the country, or even the fact that the 40-mile road to the RI airport, which by Sierra Leonean standards is excellent, is being rehabilitated.
These were cited by a staunch supporter of the president as some of her achievements. When I asked her whether this “success” will translate into a Unity Party victory in the next elections which are several years away anyway, she sank into quietness. I challenged her on the president’s refusal to testify before the country’s Truth and reconciliation Commission, calling it a bad example, her defence was thus: She is keeping that for her autobiography. Johnson-Sirleaf has said she is a one-term president. And the general feeling is that when her term expires, hers will be a shoe too big for anyone in the party to fit into.
The man she defeated at the polls, football legend George Opong Weah, is making progress in school in the States, his aides told me. They say he will be ready and ripe and educated for the next elections. His English language proficiency is catching up with his political ambitions. When I put it to a journalist, another of his supporters that a President Weah can never match up a President Johnson-Sirleaf, he could not disagree more. He accused me and many other non-Liberians of regarding President Johnson-Sirleaf as a celebrity Africa’s first elected female head of state is mesmerising you.
But perhaps the most interesting impression on my mind is the apparent groundswell of popularity former president Taylor enjoys. It is hair-raising. The overall impression I was left with is that if Mr Taylor was acquitted and discharged, he would win a presidential race hands down. This, despite accusations by his critics of being the warlord who brought the country to its knees. But the resilience shown by some Liberians, even if crying hard times, is such that if the peace process is goaded, especially by looking after the welfare of the thousands of ex-combatants and other unemployed youth, a knee pad can heal that knee.
I believe unless corruption is fought more seriously in Sierra Leone, the grass in Liberia will be greener for many of our compatriots. And Liberia will once again become L.I.B. By Umaru Fofana