Twilight of Liberian Nationalism: Structural Violence Fuelling Illegal Migration

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Gruesome images of desperate African migrants struggling and drowning in the Mediterranean to reach Europe is not only appalling but epitomises the breakdown in the social contract between citizens of nation-state and their respective governments.

By Jimmy S. Shilue

Liberians are known for saying, “I was born here and will die here”; “The love of Liberty brought us here”; some are even saying “The love of Liberty met us here”. All these assertions speak to the membership of individuals to the modern democratic state or what is referred to as ‘citizenship’. Irrespective of social, ethnic and political backgrounds, all Liberians citizens possess and deserve a wide range of civic, political and economic rights as Liberian. But there are increasing number of Liberian citizens who do not enjoy these rights hence do not feel a sense of belonging to the Liberian State. This undermines the tenets of democratic governance, which suppose to be an inclusive government for the people, by the people and with the people. Painfully almost half of Liberia’s population want to move somewhere else. What is causing the apparent turn amongst people who were once proud of being citizens of their ‘Sweet land of Liberty’ but now believe life is better elsewhere than  here?

The world is now a global village as people and products found in one society are easily found in another society despite fortified and sometime weak geographical boundaries among states. While Globalization enhances population mobility and communication, the changing nature of migrants’ destinations, means of travel, real and perceived images of threats and means of overcoming obstacles, signposts a shift from the linear push-pull factors of migration to more critical probe of the roles and responsibilities of modern democratic state, particularly as we think of contemporary triggers of migration.

For long, West Africa has a long history of population mobility, both internal and external. Example, Côte d’Ivoire is one of the top ten countries of destination for migrants worldwide with migrants accounting for 6 million of the 24 million population. According to experts, a series of economic and political factors influence the opportunity structure in a country and, indirectly, the tempo and direction of migration internally and internationally.

Prior to the 1989 civil war, the economy of Liberia experienced serious decline making life difficult for ordinary people. The 14 years conflict further exacerbated the cost of living yet not many Liberians would dream of embarking on hazardous journey. There were various structures and societal coping mechanisms to absorb real and potential factors capable of engendering risky adventures. To a larger extent, migration was mostly about crossing national frontiers based on social and cultural ties. A common phenomenon amongst West African countries was the movement of seasonal and short-term migrant workers across national boundaries because members of certain ethnic and social groups live across boundaries and rivers. During the Liberian civil wars, armed groups belonging to various faction terrorized and uprooted the entire population forcing many civilians to seek refuge in camps around Monrovia and outside the country. In addition to those who were displaced within the country, between 500,000 and 700,000 Liberians crossed into other countries in the West African region as refugees, though they were not always registered as such. In the case of Cote d’ivore, an estimated 100,000 – 150,000 Liberian refugees migrated to that coutry. Interestingly, Cote d’voire was opposed to the settlement of refugees in camps but instead allowed them to settle freely among the local population, although restricted to a region in the western part of the country designated as the Zone d’Accueil des Réfugiés (ZAR).

Indeed, this has been the pattern of migration out of Liberia for mostly indigenous population while the settlers constituting about 3 percent of the population use(d) air planes to travel to America and Western world. Ethnographic ties among mostly indigenous populations such as common language, culture, dress code, inter marriages, were major sources for acceptance and integration, for migrants. On the other hand, for those who never had such strong regional connection, (albeit the late President Tolbert), they migrate (d) to where they feel and share common bounds. Thus, Americo Liberians or the repatriated free slaves felt more at home in America where they easily connect with African Americans. Moreover, because of the centre- peripheral structure of the Liberian state, the average Liberian often counted on and enjoyed support through traditional family assistance, networks and norms. However, these traditional facilities are increasingly disappearing due to structural violence in the distribution of wealth and opportunities between rich and poor, corruption, cronyism, nepotism and growing disparities among the elite and ordinary Liberians.

The civil war fragmented the fabric of the state, polarised communities and destroyed social trust internally and externally. Like in many African countries, in Liberia when the state fails to provide the minimal sources for living, underprivileged and marginalized people will eventually explore potential opportunities to improve their lives and their families. Deficits in government capacity to deliver public services combined with systemic corruption and lack of accountability undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of national government. Indeed, where the state is incapable or refuse to provide human security for its citizens, they undertake journey that poses very real dilemmas for state, as well as exposes those very people to insecurity. Gruesome images of desperate African migrants struggling and drowning in the Mediterranean to reach Europe is not only appalling but epitomises the breakdown in the social contract between citizens of nation-state and their respective governments. Citizens belong to sovereign state governed by leaders who are responsible to provide their basic needs. But the reality is often different evident by the images from Libya.  Why should young African crowd themselves in mishit boats in the Mediterranean Sea to travel to Europe? What programmes are put in place to mitigate risky journeys and address the root causes of migration in Liberia? What does this say about the governments and leaderships of the countries theses migrants are leaving for better life outside? What is responsible for the sudden change in Liberian Nationalism; ‘I was born here but I will not die here’. Today, according to report (NEPAD, 2016) nearly half of Liberia’s population want to move elsewhere. Is there still a sense of belonging to the Liberian state?

The scale of fatalities in the Mediterranean are disturbing wakeup calls exposing the cruelty of our government towards its citizens and by extension what some critics would call the conspiracy of international actors in the implementation of the infamous Malthus theory of drastically controlling human population growth to commensurate with available resources.  From all indication, the major causes of migration by many African, including Liberians, is bad governance and poverty. Despite billions of USD being invested in Liberia by the international community, the living conditions is still poor for majority of Liberians. More than 50 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty on less than $0.50 a day, life expectancy is just 57 years and sadly Liberia has one of the least skilled working population with illiteracy level more than 60 percent. Liberia is ranked 177 on the U.N. Human Development Index and ranked the 90 least corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index. While mundane improvements are noticed in certain areas, there is a general lack of basic necessities on a daily basis. Liberia’s resources are enjoyed by few elite and those who associate with the ruling establishment thereby leaving majority of Liberians to live in abject poverty. Pervasive corruption at all levels of the country’s administration perpetuates underdevelopment. Specific groups selected through patrimonial ties amass wealth and mismanage development aid that are given by bilateral partners intended to improve the standard of living of Liberian, to their personal use. These elite lifestyles are even more than those who give Liberia development aid. High salaries, appointment of the same group of people to lucrative positions, fabulous benefits, awarding multiple foreign scholarship to select group and individuals at the expense of others who desperately need only one opportunity. At time one individual is even given scholarship to pursue graduate studies after obtaining his/her first master. There is also problem of good health care for the ordinary people, marginalization of social group or individuals based on past encounters, lack of adequate support for national education agenda and issue of employment opportunities for youth.

Addressing the issue of youth migration at the 34th session of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee, at the AU Summit, Dr. Adesina of AfDP noted that Africa’s pervasive lack of economic opportunity for the youth fuels migration. I can not agree with him more. Ideally, employment defined as the state of engagement in productive activities for the purpose of obtaining some means of livelihood, equips an individual with the means of acquiring and sustaining the basic needs of life such as food, clothing and shelter.  However, in Liberia the situation is quite alarming. Parents and their children are unemployed and the traditional support network that once glued families together have vanished due to acute hardship. Income poverty is quite pervasive; the latest income and consumption expenditure report indicates that 64 percent of the Liberian population lives on less than U.S. $1.00 a day. Without any form of income, youth become vulnerable and easily give in to those who are ready to provide them opportunity for better living. Youth constitutes about 67-75% of the population of Liberia.  Therefore high youth unemployment and lack of better education and job opportunities will push the youthful population to seek these opportunities outside in order to improve their lives and that of their families. In 2015, the UNDP found that 61% of Liberians expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education and 71% of Liberians are dissatisfied with healthcare quality. These realities, coupled with corruption creates a sense of personal insecurity which is arguably the most serious threat to peace and stability today. These are compelling ingredients for migration as nothing will stop somebody who is being denied basic rights and livelihood in his/her own home from pursuing better opportunities elsewhere, even at the detriment of one’s life.

In terms of basic social service, Liberia also has problem with its educational system. Education is a basic human right for any population and vital social endowment of a country. Unfortunately, we have an educational system that is “a mess” hence unable to effectively ensure socio-economic transformation of the youth. As a result, most of our youth remain illiterate and uneducated thus making them lack critical thinking and even income-earning potential for social participation in society. Instead of spending time in libraries reading and acquiring knowledge, most of our youth spend quality time gambling and in video clubs- watching European football and even inflicting physical pain on each other as well as dreaming of going to where they consider ‘paradise’. In pre-war Liberia, people prioritised the National league teams, I.E, Barrow, St. Joseph Warriors, Young Fulani, etc. Support for these teams by their members, to a larger extent, minimized the desire to look outward. Liberians were nationalist and enjoyed local competition, which made the youthful generation encouraged to work harder in anticipation of playing for the Lone Start of Liberia. National league was quite competitive making Liberians to identify with any team that they have love for. However, today even the National team, Lone Star, has little or no support from the government. Moreover, external support intended for the development of sports is ostensibly managed by a politician and businessman.

FIFA, the world football governing body, usually awards member associations $250,000 every year, and the Financial Assistance Programme (FAP) gives out one-off payments of $400,000. The issue of accountability and transparency has and continue to be a challenge for FIFA and the Liberian Football Association. A close associate of the current leadership, Musa Bility, monopolises LFA and gives no reports or account of the millions of dollars that he receives annually to improve sport for the youth. Under the new financial arrangements for 2015-18, each FIFA country receives around $5.5m (for a combined total of $1.5 billion). This represents a significant increase over the previous amount, which was between $2.2- $2.5m over four years, and even more, depending on which projects are approved for funding. The money is delivered through initiatives such as the Financial Assistance Programme and Goal, which are designed to develop football amongst FIFA nations. Unfortunately, despite call for greater accountability and reform at the global level, in Liberia it is difficult to understand what is been done with all these monies. LFA website publishes no project or information on its technical master plan. Local players barely earn good salary and are fooled by traffickers to seek greener pasture abroad.

In 2015, a BBC investigation discovered that 23 young African players were trafficked to Lao under the pretence of going to attend sport academy. But these young players ended up playing for a Lao team called Champasak United. Meanwhile FIFA forbids trafficking and illegal transfer of players. One of those trafficked was a young Liberian, then 14 years Kesselly Kamara. He told authority during investigation that he was forced into signing a six-year deal before playing for the senior team. He was promised good salary and accommodation but Kamara said he and his colleagues were never paid and had to sleep on the floor of the club’s stadium. When FIFI confronted LFA President on the issue, Musa Bility said: “Whatever role we might have played, I believe it is regrettable.” What is troubling about this deal is it violates international guideline. FIFI prohibits movement of players to a foreign academy until they are 18. Why would somebody preside over an entity and claim to not understand or know what is happening? Would this end the smuggling of children? Certainly not as long as money intended to improve the game is not being used for the intended purposes. Who checks to ensure that LFA is abiding and upholding international rules, especially if FIFA is awarding all these monies to avoid such wicked practice by traffickers?

In Liberia, facilities to train upcoming athletes are not available but ironically there are expansion in LFA’s bosses businesses and wealth. Besides being accused of evading taxes, he was once dogged with ‘integrity’ issue by FIFA yet continues to preside over sports in Liberia. How do we expect our youth to improve in their football career? LFA and other youth focussed agencies need people with passionate vision who have love for this country rather than capital accumulation. It is high time that political czar be audited and reprimanded, if found guilty for any wrong doing. There is a need for professional and experienced people to manage LFA in order to bring about positive change as well as initiate projects and programs that will mitigate factors that induce youth to embark on risky journey for better living. Liberia already has major problem with unemployment, particularly amongst majority of Liberian youth. Without radical reform and accountability at LFA, it will be impossible to improve the living standing of the young players and illegal migration will be seen as the only way out.

Describing the dehumanizing treatment that he received in Libya, Laye Donzo, a Liberian migrant who fled Liberia during the civil war with his family to neighbouring Sierra Leone and subsequently lost his family to Ebola while in exile, spoke of the factors that push migrants into perilous journey. Like other migrants, Donzo said that he embarked on the journey to Libya with the help of human smuggles. Detained at different intervals by armed men at a checkpoint, he was imprisoned for several month in a house with hundreds of other Africans, eating a single meal every three days. What Donzo and other African migrants do not know is in lawless Libya, the lines between criminal gangs, militias and the security forces of rival governments are often blur. Just like in Liberia during the period of factional and warlord rule, every faction had exclusive control and jurisdiction of their so called territory. Although the warring factions were all part of the failed Liberian state, nobody- not even the recognized authority, had jurisdiction over every part of Liberia.  So, like the hell days of factional rule when people were ‘tabayed’ and summary executions were the order of the day, in Libya warring factions are selling and beating anybody they find in their territories. Who is helping potential migrants to understand these dynamics in Liberia? Why are we reacting with disbelief about the scale of human suffering and death in transit counties rather than taking action to interrupt illegal migration?

The horrible scenes in Libya are reminiscent of the 19th century, when white slave masters beat and auctioned black slaves to plantation owners. Today Arab auctioneers are doing likewise-advertising group of West African migrants as “big strong boys for farm work.”  Middle Eastern Arab gunmen referred to the migrants in Arabic as “merchandise”. These racist criminal gangs controlled various parts of the country and do not care for rule of law and human dignity. Explaining his ordeal, Donzo told local authorities “They beat you like animals.” As long as you’re in prison they would beat you. I don’t know how many times they beat me. They beat everyone.” Displaying scars running along his back, legs and arms from being bound and hit with rubber tubes. He said one day they blindfolded him, took him to the coast and forced him into a boat. He has no idea why.

The United States Government through the Department of State says Liberia remains a major source and destination for the trafficking of men, women, and children who are being subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. In 2015, a major human trafficking case involving 15 Liberian girls to Lebanon drew the attention of the U. S. Embassy in Monrovia. The girls were reportedly trafficked by a Lebanese businessman who had promised to find them jobs and send them to school.  But the girls were turned into sex slave. Couple of years since their return, these girls are yet to experience better living. They accused the government of dragging its feet on the case.

Examining the link between European football and illegal migration, (P4DP) an NGO, conducted interviews at various video clubs in Monrovia with youth from different communities in order to understand potential factors that could possibly cause young people to migrate to Europe or other continent. Initial analysis of the data reveal that whilst many youth are involved with manual and casual labour jobs to sustain their families, considerable number of youth feel that they are not better than their colleagues who are undertaking dangerous journey to cross the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Europe. “In Europe, you do not need to be too educated to play professional football, the game which is making lots of people rich”. Another youth said “we are suffering here too much, no jobs, no education and even no training for the youth but only the big shorts are enjoying this country”. The narratives of these youth do not only unveil the predicament lots of young people are experiencing but speak to the challenge they face.  Recently, a Nigerian daily reported that several Liberians were arrested on foreign trip in Nigeria trying to illegally travel to the United States. One of the migrants told authority when he was apprehended that he smuggled himself on-board to break away from ‘the grip of poverty ’.

Certainly, the story of Donzo, Kesselly and other migrants cut across the ordeal of thousands of migrants who are leaving their respective countries seeking human security because their countries leadership fail to provide basic necessities for life. IOM said as of December 16, 2016 over 7,000 people already have lost their lives along all these routes and these are only the known fatalities. Further, the migration organization said that more deaths go unrecorded by any official government or humanitarian aid agency. The year 2017 recorded 5136 missing migrants.

As migration is indeed a part of human existence, there will always be movement of people for different reasons. However, current experiences by migrants leaving their countries to seek greener pasture calls for a paradigm shift in the ways country resources are distributed. Bad Governance and the clientistic nature of the Liberian state are some of the major reasons why young people are embarking on deadly journey even at the peril of their lives. Recognising that no country can deal with the vagaries of international migration in isolation, the international community needs to urgently stop patronising and enriching hand full of elite under the pretence of helping to reduce poverty. Concrete efforts should be made to tackle the root causes of poverty and international partners should demonstrate real commitment to addressing the problems by working with state and non- state. If countries that are receiving bilateral aid, which are intended to address the root causes of poverty neglect their side of the bargain, it is important for internal partners to explore other ways to directly address the plight of target groups because if people don’t have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die but seek it anywhere.

Liberia is comparatively a small country endowed with natural resources but the major problem the country faced and continues to experience is bad leadership and lack of love and nationalism. What is now required in the face of the migration crisis are innovative, more effective and coherent approaches to address the issue of irregular migration that recognize the nexus between structural violence and a sense of belongings. The most salient social grievances and active conflict drivers identified in the March 2010 ICAF were unequal and unfair access to resources, services, opportunities and institutions, unmet expectations, and land control and ownership. Even though Liberians love their ‘Sweet land of Liberty’, today most Liberian are increasingly desperate and will not afford to die here only because of nationalism. Thus, it is incumbent on Liberian leaders to use the country’ resources wisely in terms of creating economic opportunities that lift people out of poverty and keep the youth, home rather than pushing them to look for greener pasture through deadly means.

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