Events Leading Up to the LCANC Humanitarian Aid Drive
Liberians residing in Northern California have witnessed the ongoing suffering of Liberians in Liberia, especially the women and children. Liberia and its people have been devastated by more than fourteen years of civil war. We realize that life is a gift. LCANC decided to assist in the healing, reconciliation and reconstruction of our beloved country through a humanitarian aid drive. The purpose of the LCANC aid drive was to make the American public aware of Liberia’s suffering and to raise donations. Numerous events, including two-candle light vigils were held at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Many of Northern California’s (San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Berkeley, Sacramento, Oakland, Antioch, Pittsbury, Tracy, and Hayward’s) major news media covered these events.
By the grace of God, and the help of several key individuals and organizations, LCANC collected thousands of items for Liberia. Mrs. Yvette Stuart, obtained more than $100,000 worth of medical supplies from San Francisco General Hospital. Mrs. Stuart is an employee of SF General and President of the Sierra Leone Relief Agency of California. Other significant donations came from Pastor James and the members of the New Liberation Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Mr. Edwin R. Harper, an African American resident of Berkeley, and the Association of Jewish Women in San Francisco also gave large donations. On January 28, 2004, LCANC shipped a 20-foot container via the port of Oakland. The shipment included more than $125,000.00 worth of medical supplies and $30.000.00 worth of clothing, and toys.
Brief Trip Overview
I am pleased to inform you that the Liberian Community Association of Northern California’s humanitarian aid mission to Liberia was a huge success. Medical supplies were given to the Redemption Hospital in New Kru Town, the John F. Kennedy Medical Center and ELWA Hospital on Paynesville/Roberts Field Highway. Clothing, toys and canned food were given to the Smellnotaste (SNT) displacement camp located on Roberts Field Highway, approximately three miles from Roberts International Airport. Due to the lack of transportation, we were unable to travel to the government hospitals in Buchanan and Tubmanburg.
During our historical mission, we encountered tremendous obstacles. Liberia is wrought with corruption at every level. The government is struggling to root out decades of socially entrenched corruption. This is harming the speedy development of a strong economy. The government needs to create an environment that will attract small businesses, foreign industries, and investments from Liberians residing in foreign countries. The government must create an environment, where people are not subject to extortion for bribes, in order to contribute to nation building and investment in the country.
Distributing the Humanitarian Aid in Liberia: LCANC President, Rufus S. Berry’s Travelogue
Arrival in Liberia
I arrived at the Roberts International Airport to facilitate and document the aid distribution process. I arrived late after a long delay in Accra, Ghana and two unplanned stops in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. On the ground in Monrovia, it’s insufferably hot and two of my four bags were lost by the airline. At the airport in Accra, Ghana, I was forced to pay airline employees an incentive to make sure all four of my bags were put on the plane. Apparently, my incentive was only enough to guarantee that half of my bags arrived. Interestingly enough, all four of my bags had been checked straight through from New York to Monrovia. Apparently, this means nothing to the administrators of my Ghana Airways flight.
I proceeded to the airline’s claim desk, to file a claim for the two missing bags. The employee at the claim desk informed me that her hand hurt and she could not write. Now, I’m perplexed, since just a moment ago, she was writing claims for other passengers. My traveling companion, Charles Blake overheard the woman’s reply and having had a similar experience, he recommended that I give her a financial incentive. I gave her $10.00 US and her hand was cured. She replied, “Now you’re speaking my language,” and processed the claim.
Once in the city of Monrovia, Lord B. Brownell, a professor of Physics at the University of Liberia, met me. Mr. Brownell was the contact person for LCANC in Monrovia. The next day, Mr. Brownell and I proceeded to Monrovia’s port located at Maersk Liberia LTD at Sigma Compound on UN Drive. We were going to obtain the release for the container carrying the humanitarian aid. Once at the port compound, we were informed that the ship was delayed in Dakar, Senegal and would not arrive until March 14. The shipment was originally scheduled to arrive ten days earlier on March 4th, 2004. Today was March 9th and the shipment’s arrival was now close to my scheduled departure date of March 19th. This was horrible news.
We left the port, and headed to the office of Liberia’s Ministry of Health, where we met the Minister of Health, Dr. Peter Coleman. LCANC had contacted him months earlier, and requested that he work with Mr. Brownell, as a consignee to receive and assist in the distribution of LCANC’s humanitarian aid shipment. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare had been charged with securing all the paperwork to ensure that the aid shipment was admitted into the country duty free, with all fees and tariffs waived or pre-paid by the Liberian government.
Once we arrived at the Ministry of Health building, Mr. Brownell informed me that we did not have all the documentation needed to release the container. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare had failed to secure duty free privileges, from the Ministry of Finance, for the humanitarian supplies. I was terribly disappointed. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare had received LCANC’s detailed electronic mails, outlining the required paperwork. I had also had numerous telephone conversations with Dr. Coleman to confirm that the required documents would be obtained before my arrival in the country.
The Ministry of Health Fails to Secure Proper Paperwork for Humanitarian
The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare had been asked by LCANC to identify three hospitals or clinics that would greatly benefit from the medical supplies. The Ministry of Health was to get an approval letter from Liberia’s interim government and custom’s officials stating that the shipment had duty-free entry. If he Ministry of Health could not do this, it was to provide tariffs for the shipment’s entry. The Minister of Health was also asked to provide transportation in Monrovia for all aspects of aid distribution.
To help us obtain the appropriate documentation, Dr. Coleman assigned his special assistant to accompany me to Monrovia’s various government offices. Almost immediately after joining me, Dr. Coleman’s special assistant requested that LCANC allocate $800.00 USD for bribery and other National Port Authority (NPA) handling fees. I was shocked and couldn’t believe that a government worker was encouraging bribes. When I expressed my dissatisfaction with the required bribes, to Dr. Coleman, he simply replied, “My man this is Liberia. The people haven’t been paid in more than a year and the American way of doing business wouldn’t work here”. Now, I was flabbergasted, a senior government official was not only permitting corruption but also encouraging me to support it.
Mr. Brownell and I spent the next five days at the offices of the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Commerce and BIVAC, trying to secure the proper paperwork. Everywhere we turned we met numerous roadblocks. Mr. Brownell informed me that government functionaries in Liberia were so depraved, that nothing was done for free. Not even humanitarian aid donations would be allowed into the country without paying bribes to employees at government offices and workers at the port. I spent four days completing the duty free application, gathering documents and tracking down signatures from officials. In the end, Dr. Coleman helped us secure the duty-free documentation; however, he did not ensure waivers of other government fees.
Aid Delivered to Redemption, JFK and ELWA Hospitals and Smellnotaste
Late in the afternoon, on my tenth day in Liberia, we finally secured the release of the 20-foot container from the Free Port of Monrovia. We proceeded to Redemption Hospital In New Kru Town, where we delivered medical supplies. Next, we met with the official of the JFK Medical Center, where we delivered more medical supplies. Mr. Brownell and Mr. Henry Gray delivered medical supplies to the ELWA Medical Center. That evening we purchased 100 candles, for room light, since most of Liberia is still without electricity. We proceeded to a rented warehouse on Broad Street, there we organized the clothing, toys and other items into small plastic bags for distribution. We worked until 1:30 AM packing items into 2,300 small plastics bags. At about 8:30 AM the same morning, we chartered a truck and proceeded to the Smellnotaste displacement camp. (The name Smellnotaste was given by local villagers. During World War II, the villagers could smell the food cooked by the United States Army, but never got to taste it. As a result they named the location Smell-No-Taste.)
Smellnotaste is located on the Roberts Field Highway; approximately 3 miles form the Roberts International Airport. Along with me, were the driver, Mr. Brownell, Mr. Gray, five helpers and three hired law enforcement personnel. We assembled with the local leaders, and began distributing the humanitarian aid items. Initially, there were approximately 500 people in line. Within a short period, the crowd had grown to more than four thousand. We were becoming alarmed because we only had about 2,300 bags of items.
We distributed all the items and those who did not receive anything demanded that we produce more. Some men threatened that they would not allow us to leave the camp if we did not give them something. The huge crowd was becoming rowdy and belligerent. For fear of their lives, all the members of my party, except Mr. Brownell, Mr. Gray and the driver, ran for safety. We tried to talk to the crowd, but the more we talked the worst things became. Fearing for our lives, we also fled the camp. Hundreds of women and children ran for more than 2 miles behind the truck, hoping to receive some food or clothing.
I fully understand the responses of my fellow Liberians in the camp: they were simply hungry and thirsty for anything. It’s my hope that many Liberian will do the right thing, and return home to give generously to the Liberian people. Regardless of the obstacles that I encountered, the humanitarian aid mission was worth everything.
Corruption in Liberia
Corruption in Liberia is the root cause of poverty and government financial mismanagement. For example, the government requires all citizens to pay government taxes and other bills in United States currency. However, government pays its employees in local Liberian currency. The exchange rate is $54 LSD to $1.00 USD. The average monthly Liberian salary is approximately $400.00 LSD or $7.41US. Many people are extremely poor or underpaid. Consequently, they have resorted to extortion in order to feed their families. Even though the current interim government did not invent this practice, the government must be admonished for allowing such atrocious and immoral practices.
The country is in transition and every Liberian must take part in rebuilding the country. I was disappointed by the sluggish rate at which Liberia is being rebuilt. Most parts of the country, including the capital city, still don’t have running water or electricity. The major cities do not have decent roads or walking paths. When it rains, paths and roads are submerged in muddy water. As a result, traveling in Liberia is difficult and primitive.
Furthermore, Liberia’s government paid $32,400LSD ($6,000.00 US) and other benefits to each of the 76 members of the first branch of government called the National Transitional Legislature Assembly (NTLA). These sums were paid as “re-settlement” benefits. Meanwhile, payroll accounts are in arrears for civil servants.
Redemption Hospital in New Krutown, one of the benefactors of LCANC Humanitarian Aid Project, is the only hospital that remained open throughout the civil war. Redemption Hospital still doesn’t have an X-ray machine. Liberia is in desperate need of medicine and hospital accommodations. Liberians are subject to many unnecessary health risks, including the terrible smog problem. Automobile pollution and home diesel generators seem to be unregulated. It seems as though no one in Liberia has changed the oil in their cars for years. The lack of sanitation and the incessant breeding of mosquitoes are also health hazards. Problems like this will have long-term, negative effects on the population if the government does not take immediate action to solve these social problems.
Over all, I was extremely disappointed to see how our country is being run. Fraud and the lack of systematic accountability are at an all time high. High-level government officials calculate that they have two years to use their government positions to get rich. Some will do anything possible to promote their personal gain, above the betterment of the nation. A senior member of the Bryant government, who has acknowledged the need for reform, has confirmed this fact.
The prevalence of corruption is so widespread that LCANC was forced to pay numerous illegal fees (bribes) in order to distribute humanitarian aid in Liberia. Workers extorted bribes by charging typing fees, and typing ribbon fees, in order to type and process standard documents.
The Future of Liberia
I am extremely glad to know that the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, (NTGL), Gyude Bryant, has lent support to the United Nations decision to confiscate the assets of former President Charles Taylor. Taylor’s assets will be used to rebuild the war torn country. Chairman Bryant called on Taylor, currently on exile in Nigeria, to do the honorable thing and appear before the Special War Court Tribunal. I also ask my fellow Anglican and “bright businessman” Mr. Bryant and all the members of his administration to do the honorable thing by declaring their net worth. This will assure the Liberian people that the administration is using the national treasury for Liberia’s needs, rather than to line their own pockets. At the end of their terms, their net worth should not be vastly different than their current net worth. This will help eliminate the notion that all Liberian government is corrupt and worthless.
The government should support the Liberian Diaspora in the U.S., Europe and wealthy countries who want to invest in Liberia’s businesses. Many Liberians would like to create businesses in the country but the widespread corruption is daunting. As a people, we have not lost hope, but as a nation we have a long way to go. Good business practices are based on trust. Trust is based on performance and Liberia has performed poorly in the moral arena. We hope and pray that Chairman Bryant will do the right thing and act in the interest of all Liberians.
Chairman Bryant and all government officials should know that we have a new global network to prosecute government officials who steal from public coffers and use their position to extort. While the political administration of the country is securely in the hands of Liberians, the nation’s finances are supervised and controlled by non-Liberian entities. The vision of a better, peaceful Liberia is fragile. Lack of love for country, shortsightedness and prevailing poverty threaten to undermine even the smallest progress.
I would like to extend my gratitude to all those who helped make this project a success. Thanks to Mother Mary Brownell for her continued support of the LCANC. She organized ten people in Liberia, to sort and pack clothing, toys, and canned food into small plastic bags for distribution. I also thank her for hosting me, LCANC’s president, at her home. My thanks also go out to Lord B. Brownell, our LCANC representative in Liberia. Lord Brownell stuck with me through long, sleepless nights and innumerable roadblocks, to compete this project. Thank you, Henry Gray, my buddy and fellow Tanajah (CWA class of 1984) for providing transportation in Monrovia, for the aid efforts. I would also like to thank the Minister of Commerce, Mr. Sam Wuluh, who saw my frustration and did everything possible to make sure all required documentation was acquired without bribes.
As Liberians, I am extremely proud of the fact that we successful facilitated our moral obligation and God given calling to help our suffering brothers and sisters. We were proactive in clothing and feeding thousands of sick, homeless and hungry children and families in our beloved homeland
I would like to close with an except from the Inaugural Address of Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa and God Father to Africa.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace.
We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new nation.
Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the outcast of the world. Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa!”