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Liberia:  A Tale of Two Seasons

by Tim Shelton, (March 18 2006)    

"...After listening to President Johnson-Sirleaf’s eloquent address to the U.S. Congress, I could not help but think there is a change of seasons happening in Liberia. Perhaps her government will be able to end Liberia’s political and economic dry season and quench her citizens’ thirst for an enduring peace, honest government, economic opportunity, inclusion and establishment of the rule of law....”

Liberia has two seasons, wet and dry.  Despite an abundance of water in the potential tropical paradise, Liberians have remained thirsty for many years; thirsty for peace, thirsty for an honest inclusive government, and thirsty for economic opportunity.  Yet Liberians have retained an indomitable spirit despite being parched by the evils of a 14 year primitive and brutal civil war, which ended and gave way to a nascent peace process nearly three years ago.

Monrovia Students DemonstrateIn December 2004, while the meteorological dry season was beginning, I found myself standing outside the Freeport of Monrovia, smack dab in the middle of a protest by High School students who were demanding the right to return to class.  The Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS) had been shut down for three weeks as teachers and principals bickered with the politically appointed MCSS Superintendent.  The mood of the gathering crowd was tense.  In fact, in other parts of Monrovia, some other student protests became physically violent, inflicting injury to persons and causing property damage. 

Monrovia Students DemonstrateThe students in front of Freeport had stopped and cornered George Dweh, the Speaker of the Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA), who was on his way to work at the Capital building.  I couldn’t help being amused by the Speaker’s predicament; students had let the air out of his vehicle’s tires, most likely one of the many controversial expensive vehicles NTLA members purchased for themselves instead of paying civil servant salary arrears, or other pubic service projects.  The student leaders shouted: “If we can not go to school, you will walk to work!”  Mr. Dweh was spared that lesson in humility, as he was whisked into the safe confines of Freeport, which was guarded by Ghanaian UN Peacekeepers.

With unemployment running about 80%, the crowd was comprised of more than just protesting high school students; there were university students, market people, port workers, and perhaps opportunists hoping to capitalize on a civil disturbance.  A man in the increasingly agitated crowd spotted me and asked: “How can you protect the crooks who do not let the children go to school?”  I thought to myself, “For True”, a Liberian phrase indicating his observation indeed had merit.  Many officials in the transitional government were members of the former warring factions who, instead of using weapons, were now using their appointed government offices to gorge themselves on the public largesse.   In fact, Mr. Dweh was later removed as NTLA Speaker for allegedly embezzling $92,000 of the people’s money, though he contends he has done no wrong.

I replied to the man’s poignant question the best I could: “The UN is here to secure the peace.  Would you rather have these men waging war, raping, killing and murdering with impunity?  The price you are paying is temporary, and next year, you will be able to vote for a change, and put people of your choice into power.  Be patient.”  I immediately thought to myself: “Who was I to advise patience to this man?”  Who knew what personal tragedies he suffered at the hands of the various militias, or the security apparatus of former President Charles Taylor?   I empathized with his dilemma, but my gut churned at my prima facie reply. 

The UN was paying me $134 a day on top of my US military wages, and I was living well for Monrovia standards - residing in a Hotel with generator provided electricity, potable water, able to take warm showers, watch satellite TV, and eat good food.  I can not refute the fact that I was living comfortably. Yet every day I observed the indescribable and miserable living conditions of average Liberians; they averaged less than $1 a day in earned wages, drank unsanitary water, many were malnourished, many fought the scourge of malaria on a daily basis, and most lived without any form of electricity.  Despite such deplorable conditions, when I talked with everyday people on the street and asked “How are you?”, they normally would reply in a rich melodic West African accent, “Thank God”.  For all I knew, the man I was having a public discourse in the midst of a civil disturbance spent the majority of his wages to pay his children’s tuition, only to see his children denied attendance by bickering among the school system’s leadership.

Monrovia Students DemonstrateIn the middle of our discussion, a contingent of Nigerian soldiers arrived on the scene, emerging from their vehicles with an air of authority, weapons at the ready.  In traditional “big man” fashion, the senior officer, a Nigerian Colonel, slapped one of the students with such force, that the crowd released a collective moan and momentarily surged toward the Colonel and his men.  I was taken aback by the Colonel’s initial aggressive and unprovoked action, but he firmly declared who was in control.  The student he slapped was loudly making a case for his injured classmate who, while standing at his side, had blood oozing from his skull which dripped on his white school uniform shirt.  The student alleged he was clubbed by a UN Peacekeeper at the Via Town checkpoint that controlled the Gabriel Tucker Bridge connecting Central Monrovia to Bushrod Island, where Freeport is located.

Monrovia Students DemonstrateLuckily, a very capable and courageous UN Civil Affairs Officer was also on the scene and successfully facilitated discussions between the Nigerian Colonel and the student leaders.  After she convinced the Colonel the students at Freeport did not intend violence or looting, but merely wanted public schools to reopen, we drove the student leaders to the United Nation’s Mission Liberia (UNMIL) Radio Station, where they were allowed to air their grievances over the airwaves.  Shortly there after, the crowd in front of Freeport dispersed peacefully.

Fast forward to the present, I now find myself in front of another potentially hostile crowd.  However, this time, it’s a group of co-workers in a comfortable office building in San Antonio, Texas; we are negotiating for control of the office television.  I want to watch the Honorable Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the newly elected President of Liberia, address a joint session of the U.S. Congress; an immensely historic and important event, especially for the 3 million plus population of Liberia.  My colleagues, however, were determined to watch the latest televised car chase on FOX News.  Grudgingly, they acquiesced, and I tuned the TV to CSPAN.  I could not understand their disinterest, then again, how many Americans know where Liberia is located, or are even cognizant of the unique historic ties between America and Liberia?  Moreover, how many truly appreciate the moral obligation America has incurred as a result of our intertwined history?

After listening to President Johnson-Sirleaf’s eloquent address to the U.S. Congress, I could not help but think there is a change of seasons happening in Liberia.  Perhaps her government will be able to end Liberia’s political and economic dry season and quench her citizens’ thirst for an enduring peace, honest government, economic opportunity, inclusion and establishment of the rule of law.   Her words took me back to that hot tropical December day in Monrovia, and the question a stranger posed to me in the midst of a student protest.   I wondered if he did cast his vote during the October 2005 elections.  I wondered if he was happy with change of leadership.  However, most of all, I wondered if he still has an abundance of patience, for Liberia’s road to political reform and economic recovery is going to be a long journey. 

Liberia will need the full and continued support of the UN, United States, European Union, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to transition from the political and economic dry season to a more promising future.  But most importantly, as President Johnson-Sirleaf clearly recognized in her address to the U.S. Congress, the responsibility for building a better Liberia rests squarely on Liberian shoulders when she said: “The people of Liberia have already rolled up their sleeves, despite overwhelming obstacles, confident that their work will be rewarded, confident in the hope and promise of the future.”

About the author:

Tim Shelton, is a Former United Nations Peacekeeper and a Retired Major of the United States Air Force. He is the Operational Security Senior Program Analyst with Dynetics, Inc. and an International Relations Graduate Student, at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX


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