Liberia: A Tenuous Balance

The parking lot of UN headquarters in Monrovia. (Photo: SFgate.com)

When you land at the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia, two things immediately catch your attention: the national flag and the sizeable fleet of United Nations helicopters, planes, and armored vehicles. The stars and stripes of the Liberian flag speak to the country’s unique origins as a United States colony for emancipated slaves. The heavy footprint of the United Nations across the country, on the other hand, speaks to the country’s current predicament, an uneasy transition from a nation torn by civil war to a fledgling democracy. For me, the contrast in symbolism evoked a simultaneous sense of foreboding and hope.

Once in Monrovia proper, the country’s imbalances – political, economic, and social – become evident. Liberia’s 14-year civil war has left the country decimated on all fronts. Streets are recognized by their official names, but for the sake of expediency, they are often referred to by their civil-war era symbol: “… take me to Broad Street, please … yes, the former frontline during the war.” “Let’s take the other bridge … the one that rebels took control over towards the end of the war.”

Conversations with acquaintances are peppered with chilling war-time anecdotes, delivered in the most matter-of-fact tone: “… this once, my friend, Jane, was forced to couple with her brother at gunpoint. Ever since, they have never looked into each other’s eyes or stayed in the same room for more than a few minutes.” In another instance: “… that guy, who just walked by, can never return to his village. He was forced to kill his parents in front of his siblings. They’ve never forgiven him, nor has the rest of the village.”

These stories abound and it often seems that each is more gruesome than the next. But, so is a significant part of Liberia’s social fabric. It is made up of people saddled with the burdens of guilt, remorse, hurt, and bitterness. How does one respond to the challenge of leading such a mass to become active and responsible citizens of a nation desperate to re-acquaint itself with democracy?

During the civil war, everything was destroyed – the roads, bridges, office buildings, telecom networks, water and sewage systems, the country’s only dam for hydroelectric power generation – everything; everything but the country’s single brewery. After all, water, or a proxy thereof, is essential to human life.

The consequences are huge. For example, the only source of power generation, the dam, is not operational, and there is no electrical grid nor sustainable power supply. This implies that Liberia is unable to make good on its manufacturing potential and sustain employment is not at a desirable level. Even worse, it also implies that the only companies that thrive are those that can afford individual power generators to service their operations. Such companies tend to be the big foreign multinationals, or other companies owned and operated by wealthy foreign nationals. This is a reality that is evident in all aspects of Liberia’s economy. Foreigners are economically dominant mainly because they have access to capital that they can deploy to overcome most of the country’s structural and logistical challenges.

Another salient point is the fact that Liberia does not grant citizenship to non-blacks, irrespective of how long they have lived in the country. This is a policy that is enshrined in the country’s constitution, and was animated by the origins of the country’s founding: freed American slaves desired to establish a country of their own – ‘Africa for Africans’. A consequence of this policy is that certain segments of the Liberian population that are economically dominant – such as the Lebanese community, many of whom were either born in Liberia or have lived there for generations – are not afforded the right to own land. Therefore, all profits from their economic ventures are instantly repatriated out of the country.

As a result, the country suffers a dearth of domestic long-term investments, which inhibits its economic development. The political consequence of this is the pervasive perception within the indigenous Liberian community of foreign exploitation. Essentially, Liberia’s civil war has bequeathed the country social and economic contexts that are not conducive to a progressive political dispensation. This concern was highlighted in one interaction that I had with a former child soldier of the civil war.

He and I had a lengthy conversation. It felt like it must feel to be the trainer of a circus lion or tiger: It’s all okay, but you wonder whether certain impulses remain latent. Even when he smiled, his eyes never lit up.

When I asked him whether he killed people, he looked at me with pitiful curiosity and then answered: “It was war.”

When I asked whether he committed atrocities such as rape and mutilations: “We are not going to discuss that.”

We were next to a football field, not far off from my hotel. The game of the day involved opposing teams from different Monrovia neighborhoods. The participants were all amputees – victims of war crime atrocities. The sight of them hopping after the ball on crutches, many without a limb or two, others without ears, lips, or noses, evoked sobering sensations.

The spectators were mostly participants of the civil war as well. The entire scene was intriguing in its ironies: former opposing militiamen, many in the presence of their victims, either supporting or opposing them as they played a game of football. I was not quite sure what to make of it all. But my conversation with the former militiaman was insightful on some of the challenges that Liberia faces in the immediate future. There are over 100,000 former child soldiers of the civil war in the entire country. An overwhelming majority of them live in Monrovia, the country’s main urban center.

Emmanuel, the former fighter that I spoke with, makes $4/day working as a busboy at a hotel – and he’s one of the lucky ones. Many of these former child soldiers are now grown men. Most are either unemployed or underemployed, and almost all of them are aggrieved by what they perceive as the economic dominance of foreigners in Liberia’s economy. Emmanuel seems to have a particular resentment for the Lebanese community in Liberia, which is very prominent in the country’s economy. He ran me through a gamut of economically discriminatory practices that he believes the indigenous Liberian community has endured over the decades.

“The government is trying hard. We can tell. But we can also tell that some are doing much better than others. When this country was laid bare to the ground – when the civil war was at its highest points – we took care of this country. We fed the local populations. We policed the streets and tried to maintain a certain amount of order. We did not always succeed, but we tried. No one else was here for us. All these folks, the Lebanese and the others, had fled. Now, they are doing very well; much better than the rest of us. This peace can only last when we all benefit from this economy. We hope that everyone is aware of that.”

To me, his words were a warning. Such a warning is worth heeding: the crime rate is slowly rising. If the economic situation does not improve for this mass of the population, then things may take an undesirable turn. The business community is nowhere close to a consensus on the matter of youth unemployment and the informal sector. Meanwhile, the United Nations Mission in Liberia – the ‘nannies’ or ‘baby-sitters’ as some of the locals dismissively call it – is pulling out most of its forces, which have been crucial in providing a decent nationwide security context. The Liberian army and police, only recently re-constituted, are nowhere close to the requisite capacity to maintain civil order.

A first look at Liberia’s comprehensive situation evokes much concern.

2 Responses to Liberia: A Tenuous Balance

  1. Dear Yana,

    Your post doesn’t mention how long you have spent in Liberia in general or to research, but it contains many inaccuracies and broad statements which suggests that you have only a cursory familiarity with the country. While you bring up many important topics which are indeed key factors in Liberia’s continued social progress and economic development, in several instances you pass along common misconceptions or falsehoods without comment.

    A few quick examples: while it is not at all difficult to discuss individual experiences of the war with Liberians, and as you get to know locals, to hear shocking, haunting anecdotes, to suggest that Broad Street or the bridge are commonly referred to by their importance in civil war battles paints an inaccurate picture of everyday life here.

    Secondly, I think its important to correct your statement that Liberia has no electricity grid. This is untrue, and the progress of power generation and connectivity to the network has grown in the last several years to cover most of central Monrovia. While this is not yet a national network and many businesses do rely on generators, its not true to say there is no grid or a way to receive power from a utility company.

    Furthermore, your mention of foreign-owned businesses and the Lebanese community perpetuates false stereotypes and the divisive resentment around this. Its helpful that you pointed out that economic participation by non-Africans is a two-way issue with ultimately constitutional implications, but its disappointing to read you recycle the old myth that “all profits from their economic ventures are instantly repatriated out of the country.”

    What evidence do you have of this? The rapid expansion of foreign-owned businesses, from hotels to building supply chains, as well as the enormous property boom this city is experiencing, surely indicate that foreign entrepreneurs are *investing* in Liberia right now, and as long as we are using anecdotes as evidence, I can assure you that many of them are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in these ventures. Certainly, they may chose to ultimately repatriate those profits, and their lack of residential protections surely encourages this. But it would be helpful to note in perspective that any business-owner of *any* nationality, Liberian included, may choose to export their profits at any time. Your post does not mention wealthy Liberians, many of whom reside primarily in the United States, where they can and do send their excess capital. This is where many of them were lucky enough to be able to flee during the conflict, while your acquaintance Emmanuel and the vast majority of the population did not have that choice. He is mistaken that the Lebanese all fled– many of them stayed throughout the war, keeping their shops and hotels open, and protecting their investment.
    Its a great shame, and perhaps even a danger, that Emmanuel, and so many thousands like him, are so mistaken about the economic realities of Liberia, for his resentment is real, shared by a great many, and it is indeed festering. While it is in a sense helpful that you exhibited those feelings in this post, I wish that you had been more careful to properly contextualize his statements and your other observations with a more balanced, rigorous and accurate evidence of the contemporary situation here in Liberia.

  2. Yana Hongla

    Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for your feedback. My blog is not meant to be a thorough treatise of the Liberian post civil war context. Also,i did not spend an extensive amount of time in the country. I did meet and discuss with people, long enough to formulate an opinion. This write-up is reflective of my experience, based on the interactions that i had during my sojourn.

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion and i look forward to more feedback from you.