"This is the Harvest:" Ordinary Liberians Cope With Another Cycle of Corruption in Gyude Bryant’s Liberia

By William E. Allen, Ph.D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 10, 2004

Liberians have a way of describing evil that appears to make it sound less immoral. I was reminded of this social phenomenon last Sunday during a transatlantic telephone conversation with the wife of a friend who lives in Monrovia. In her response to my inquiry about life in Interim Chairman Gyude Bryant’s Liberia, she quipped: "This is the Harvest." After a brief hesitation, she explained that Chairman Bryant’s government was squandering public resources. For example, my friend’s spouse pointed out, Mr. Bryant’s personal convoy has "swollen" apparently surpassing the large number of luxurious vehicles that Liberians were accustomed to seeing during the reign of deposed president Charles Taylor. She observed that this was taking place at a time when the monthly salary of most civil servants was less than fifty US dollars, when most public schools remained closed due to disrepair and when the broken public sewer system was spewing raw feces onto the main streets of Monrovia. Then she explained the "Harvest:" The extensive misappropriation of public finance. The Bryant administration (the "rebel government" she called it), rather than distinguish itself from Liberia’s political culture of corruption, is following that notorious tradition by shamelessly converting public funds to private use. Taylor only sowed the seeds, the lady reminded me, this is the "Harvest" for Chairman Bryant and his new cohort of parasites.

At the end of the conversation with my colleague’s wife, I began musing about this Liberian tendency of using figures of speech and colorful expressions to characterize social ills or discontents. Several immediately came to mind. When ritualistic killing became commonplace in Tubman’s Liberia (i.e., 1944-71), Liberians described the victims as "too late" and the popular song "you too late, you lost your chance" came to memorialize this evil practice. The victims, whose hearts or other body parts were ripped out to make "medicine for jobs," had unwisely stayed out "too late" at night and the "heartmen" had subsequently killed them; hence they were "too late." Then there was the case of the American GI’s who were stationed at what is now Robertsfield during World War Two. The GI’s would prepare and eat their American food without sharing it with the local people living just nearby. In the eyes of the people, this American behavior was an outrage; African customs demand that food is shared with neighbors and friends. What was even more irritating in the eyes of the people, was the fact that they had to endure the daily smell of American foods like bacon and sausage that wafted right through their homes. When all hope that the Americans would share their food failed, the townspeople aptly dubbed the GI’s and their camp "Smell-No-Taste." That name continues to be used for the largest town near Robertsfield.

Finally, from the latter part of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, corruption permeated the fabric of Liberian society so thoroughly and was practiced so openly with impunity that many ordinary Liberians began to refer to this depravity as "Gorbachop." This was an obvious distortion of the surname of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. To Liberians, "Gorbachop" came to represent an accepted practice of mutually beneficial corruption, which translated into Liberian pidgin as "you chop I chop" (or you eat I eat). It is unclear why the reformist Soviet leader would be associated with some of the very corrupt practices he denounced in the mid-1980s when he launched his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Of course educated Liberians and a large number of ECOWAS peacekeeping forces in Liberia during the 1990s (particularly the globally-savvy Nigerians) were probably aware that Gorbachev’s reforms had faltered and corruption actually thrived openly. Thus, as each of the different interim Liberian administrations (more than two from 1991 and 1997) promised to fight corruption but became mired in this debilitating social evil, the public apparently saw a similarity with the failed Gorbachev era; public officials and businessmen conspicuously colluded, enriching each other in the process. This was in effect Gorbachop: "you chop I chop."

Mr. Bryant’s "Harvest" is especially troubling for the devastating impact it will have on Liberia’s reconstruction. Selected on the heels of the ouster of the depraved Charles Taylor, Mr. Bryant inspired hope, especially in Western capitals, where indeed it mattered. He was lauded as a "neutral" businessman seemingly for not taking sides in the civil war that resulted in the death of thousands upon thousands. It is arguable, however, whether "neutrality" during Liberia’s destructive civil war is a positive leadership attribute. Nonetheless, expectations were high that with the full backing of the international community as manifested by the deployment of one of the largest peacekeeping missions by the UN, Mr. Bryant might curb waste and graft in government. After all, corruption was the singular evil that the international community had identified as the root cause of the failed Liberian state under Charles Taylor. In fact, many international donors made a disciplined fiscal policy and financial propriety a precondition for aid to the interim government. Therefore, one might have expected that Mr. Bryant would follow the advice that the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, gave to rulers more than a millennium ago: Lead by good example and govern through the rules of decency and the people will ultimately follow you by amending their old bad habits. But Mr. Bryant and the "rebel government" chose instead the well-traveled road of their predecessors: corruption.

Almost immediately, reports of conflict of interest, fiscal indiscipline and improper usage of the government per diem system began to emerge. Over the past few months, the trafficking of diplomatic passports and the surreptitious sale of Liberia’s London embassy building have also surfaced. Mr. Bryant did not invent the spiraling corruption, this many-headed hydra. Nevertheless, he has deliberately failed to dismantle the evil Taylor sowed. As a result, Bryant and his cronies are simply reaping the "Harvest." Recently, the very international community that enthusiastically embraced Liberia after the ouster of Taylor, confirmed "widespread corruption in the new government" when it rejected Mr. Bryant’s call for the repeal of sanctions on the export of timber and gold. And European donors, wary that Liberia’s diplomatic passports might fall in the hands of terrorists, may now begin to reassess their priorities in Liberia. What a squandered opportunity!

In the meantime, while the very small circle of patricians in the interim government ride in luxury vehicles worth a reported total price tag of $2m, build palatial homes and travel abroad, ordinary Liberians continue to do without basic necessities like education, proper sanitation and primary health care. Over generations, the Liberian population has learned that one way to confront evil is to describe the malaise in colorful figures of speech and anecdotes. So for now, the many-headed hydra of corruption eating once more at the fabric of their society is simply the "harvest," that is, Gyude Bryant’s "Harvest."

The author teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta, Georgia.