A Voyage Home From Exile (Part II)

By Brownie J. Samukai


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 18, 2004

UNMIL at the BTC - July 26
It was around midnight on a cool evening, and I was driving alone on the stretch from behind Zone Five Police Station in Paynesville towards town, through Elwa intersection, passing the once dreadful “White Flowers” (former residence of President Taylor) unto Tubman Boulevard. The return of Peace and some semblance of normalcy were palpable. It was almost unbelievable that I also saw several other vehicles driving around that area at such time of the night. Such a ride was not possible under the Taylor regime unless if you belonged to the “gang”. During that quiet late night, UNIMIL soldiers were dismantling and removing several check points in Monrovia except a redesigned one not far from Fish market, and another near Johnson Street Bridge.

Since my return, I visited locations that we only saw on television during the past six years: Logan Town, Clara Town, Jamaica Road, the stretch along the Gardnerville highway, Barnesville, Chicken soup factory, the bustling downtown of Monrovia, El Mason is broken down and under renovation, the five-star enclave of Mamba point resembled Monrovia in1991, with all the UN Agencies concentrated there. The Hatai (Tea) shop on Carey Street continues its relevance. There are two types nowadays I was told: There is the political shop and the football camp. There are “experts” there to discuss the latest changes in the English Premier League as well as all other leagues including Major League Soccer in the US, and there are “professors” presenting their case of the worst or best political theories or analysis.

All in all, one feels a desperate longing to return to some type of normalcy. Liberians are exhibiting vibrancy and enthusiasm in the midst of destruction. The markets are really full (this story has been told before), public transport is a regular hassle to get on. ELWA intersection is the microcosm of the chaotic situation in our country: Over crowdedness, hustlers, busters, marketers, ‘yanner’ boys, wheel barrow sellers, money changers, Men in Police uniform some directing traffic, others on the take, amazing shouts, endless car horns, crooks, reckless individuals all operating in a state of organized confusion. Who are they? These are Liberians (Many of whom I was told are former combatants) on the daily hassle to survive in this new era of peace where guns no longer provide the daily bread.

I had a chance to meet and hold discussion with a cross section of persons involved in the Liberian stake: Politicians, business people, officials and friends from the Taylor government, lawyers, journalist, common people, my friends of Alpha Old Timers, civil servants to whom government is indebted and who were looking forward to their pay for the 26th celebrations, police men and women, military personnel, INGO staff, UN Staff, and many more. From all of these people, two resounding themes emerged: That they were disappointed (in varying ways) with the ways things were going, but they were hopeful that peace was in sight and that the coming elections will return things to “normal”.

The reasons for disappointment were visible and numerous: No light, no water, and dirt all over this once clean city. The area around the Ministry of Labor near Buzzi Quarters (heading to the Mansion) sickingly stinks and one wonders how people survive in that neighborhood or how workers at the Ministry work with that stench all day. While the Ministry of Commerce distribute free bag of rice monthly to its employees, others go hungry. Many complained that officials were traveling intermittently to meaningless meetings and conferences and receiving unaccountable travel allowances without reporting back what had been achieved to advance the peace process in Liberia. I heard complains about the business as usual mentality with business people preoccupied with getting vouchers processed and paid, while the government announces that hard earned salaries would be paid. They were disappointed that the burning issue of available public transport was suspected of being auctioned to the highest market bidder.

A female lawyer said that she was disappointed that politicians seemed only to be thinking about the presidency while ignoring current burning issues. Another friend was surprised that so-called “progressives” of the past were still joggling to become relevant nowadays, and expected their former students to continue to trust them after they have failed so many times. Lots of young people complained that older political giants had disappointed them during the past two decades and should give way to younger people to shape the destiny of the country. Infact, one older politician even called every other political person of relevance his “ducklings” and he is the “duck”!

Freedom of the Press is bursting with every shade of newspaper. Regardless whether they are tabloids, or credible reporting, it felt good knowing that journalists did not have to worry about disappearing at night. Although a few of them have been harassed through the courts for reporting news created by others, no one has been forced to go into exile thus far and no journalist has been detained or tortured. I felt good having the choice to read what was available, and being able to tune to so many FM stations available.

Newspapers reported daily that corruption was all time high on the watch of the regime with old habits only reinforced. The response from the government so far has been to ask people to provide proof or evidence of corruption in government. Many of those I met complained that the regime was portraying outright indifference and lack of transparency and accountability.

All across town, people felt that this CPA cluster was clearly demonstrating a “don’t care” attitude. I spoke with a Senior Official in Government who complained that this cluster seem not to have any regards as to whether the streets of Monrovia were clog with ‘human refuse’ or that the Ministry of Internal Affairs seemed like a worthless government entity without due recognition. This Ministry, relocated to the old Foreign Ministry opposite Mamba Point Hotel, was in a shameful condition.

On one evening, as I drove passed the front of the Executive Mansion, where the Chairman now lives, I recalled the conversation with a friend who complained that the Chairman has abandoned his residence on UN Drive (Coconut Plantation), renovated with tax payers money (I guess someone might still be inside, because of the armor vehicle, UN Military personnel, and an extensive security detail around the area). A Senior Official in Government from one of the former warring factions under the CPA told me that the DDRR process could have had an added boost if the Cluster leadership had ‘bitter balls’ to travel up country, instead of frustrating the First Lady from traveling to Kakata to deliver humanitarian goods to displaced persons. What a shame.

Two days before my departure, I made few press appearances. By now, I had sufficient sense and feeling of the conditions around town, and the professional and friendly opinions of many persons whom I came across. It became crystal clear that the perception of several was that the Government has being indifferent to the plight of the people. The evidence became clearer when the following scenario occurred: Two of the principal rice importers were in nearly all the daily papers mid week complaining about the global increase in the costs of rice and a couple of days later, the Ministry of Commerce increased the price of a bag of rice by nearly 9%. It was not clear on what empirical basis did the price of rice increased by such percentage. For the CPA, unfortunately, it did not seem to matter. I spoke on the issue of lack of transparency in the actions and activities of the CPA cluster. Like the business friend on the plane during my journey from Abidjan to Monrovia, I highlighted the issue of lack of initiatives and resources investment in restoring basic services to the people

All did not seem to be lost. There were serious efforts by the UN Police Commissioner and Liberian Police authorities to begin the retraining of a new Liberian Police entity. The retraining had begun and a new recruit class comprising some former Police personnel (who had reapplied and successfully vetted) was already at the Police Academy under going intensive training. The neighborhood of the Police Academy is once again getting used to the early morning PT runs of cadets. UN Police Instructors have added cadence in the movement of all cadets: Whether they are going for PT, to shower, have breakfast or even walk to class, they are to walk in pairs, getting used to team work and espirit de corp.

Reconciliation is a process, but impunity for those who bear the greatest responsibility for death and destruction should not be part of that process. While on Radio Veritas, I took a call from the Minister of Post and Telecommunications Hon. Nagbe concerning singling out a person for all the wrongdoing. I agreed with Hon. Nagbe, but indicated that an individual may be singled out if he or she bears the greatest responsibility for the nation’s nightmare. Both Nagbe and many listeners knew whom we were talking about. He did not call name, but I was tempted to speak of the brutality of the Taylor’s regime. Instead I only mentioned the death of Dokie on Taylor’s watch, and the opportunity for transparency and the rule of law that the former regime chose not to follow. I am sure Mr. Nagbe is beneficiary of the forgetful attitude of the Liberian people.

I still could not comprehend why the government is sitting in Monrovia without sending superintendents in the rest of the country. Such a situation makes the rest of the country to feel not being a part of the dynamics of the political process under the CPA. I felt that once the UN had been deployed throughout the country, and the DDRR process was credibly underway, it was the prerogative of the government to extend its political authority as well, by appointing county officials thus bringing some form of legitimacy to the political authority in the counties. At present, the person who held the biggest gun prior to August 2003, is the defacto political head of the county, and is not accountable to anyone, including the Chairman. What a shame after almost a year under the CPA.

After all, Monrovia is recovering from its devastating nightmare. It will definitely take some time to put things right. But putting things right should have begun since August 2003, and must begin now.

As I departed two weeks later to report back to duty, someone said to me: The only tangible achievement of the Taylor regime was the construction of the Overpass between the University of Liberia and the Capitol Building, which ironically is to allow for the uninterrupted movement of endless sirens and convoys. Indeed, the endless sirens heading in and out of the Capital Building is reminiscent of the flamboyance of politicians who have no iota of shame as they pass by the University, the beacon of light for our nation’s future, and ignore any support to that institution.

(The third and last in this series will focus on political discussions I held while in Monrovia, as we head into Elections 2005).

Related Article:
A Voyage Home From Exile (Part I)

(The author once served in Liberia during the Interim political administrations between 1991-1997 as Special Assistant and later Deputy Minister of Defense for Operations, Director of Police, and Deputy Minister of State for Administration. He currently lives and works in Tanzania).