A middle-aged woman with a little market stall in the Jallah Town community in Monrovia wailed as the ‘General’ of the Sirleaf administration, supported by armed men, broke down her market stall.
She wept profusely and her greatest concern was ‘how will I sell tomorrow to feed my children’. But that question is of no issue to the ‘General’. From her cries, one could tell she is amongst about 70% of Liberians living on less than a dollar a day. Her survival is dependent on an informal and micro-business popularly known in Liberia as ‘from-hand-to-mouth’. Yet, she is hopeful every day that she will survive, with or without government.
“Let’s go everybody, we have more to do, we will force these people to be clean”, the ‘General’ called out to her men. This is all in the name of ‘beautifying the city’.
But in his last Pan African Post Card, the late Secretary General of the Pan African Movement, Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem challenged this beautification campaign which is replete across Africa. He wrote: “In the name of ridding cities of illegal constructions, returning to the original city plans and ‘beautifying’ our cities, City councils and governments at all levels are creating more poverty ruining lifelong savings accumulated through extreme sacrifice and hard work. Of what use is a ‘beautiful city’ peopled by citizens who have lost their livelihoods? Would they appreciate the beauty?”
Breaking market stalls in the usual violent and unprovoked manner does not in any way hold the solution to a clean and beautiful city. I, like all other Liberians, including the General and the Commander-in-Chief (CIC), share the same dream of seeing Monrovia a beautiful, flourishing and livable city. But I doubt if the ‘General’ and the CIC have any idea on making Monrovia a beautiful, flourishing and livable city; because it is ten years now and they are leaving Monrovia as they met it in 2006 without basic services. Thanks however to foreign merchants who are putting up some sky rises in the Sinkor area, even though those merchants have to procure their own electricity, water, and sewage systems in the heart of the city. Less than 2% of Liberians have access to these basic services. Liberians would appreciate more were the CIC to direct her energy to building a system of participatory governance through which basic services are delivered, than deploying a
‘General’ to beautify a city with hungry and dismally underserved inhabitants.
If the ‘General’ and the CIC could take a retrospect of what they have done in the last ten years about the city, they would quickly realize that they have done the same thing – an overzealous and uncontrolled exercise of power over weak and poor people – over and over and the results have not changed; and they are likely to do the same in the next two years, unless they listen to the rest of us who think differently, and, indeed, progressively. But Albert Einstein had a word that properly describes ‘the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.
It is important that they ask themselves this question: Why do we have to do the same thing every year, yet the problem persists? I really won’t venture into answering that question, but would rather go into what they have not done, and that is where the solution lies. They have not mobilized the people into collective actions, and they do not work with the communities in their work. Critical to making Monrovia clean, beautiful and prosperous is mobilizing the people into collective actions or self-governance structures. All previous governments and the current one have failed to work with local people in solving local problems. The only disappointment is that this current regime has not learned from the failures of the past regimes, or perhaps it is deliberately ignoring the lessons.
From all indications, the hegemonic and imperial state has only used raw power to get things done in our communities and in most cases its agents abused power particularly when it is in the wrong hands – like Chucky Taylor, or like the current ‘General’. They see the local people – mostly poor, weak and vulnerable people – as lazy and dirty. However, the poor social state of those people and the products of their interactions with their own communities are the outcomes of the incompetence of their leaders, for example, the former Mayor of Monrovia, the fierce ‘General’. For the ‘General’ and her likes, they must leave their offices and clean the environment. They don’t believe that the state or the government must work along with the communities through local structures to produce peaceful and desirable local outcomes. But their perception of local people is not only wrong and selfish; it is equally an attempt at creating false impressions and inflicting personalities beyond their natural scopes.
Our communities have survived far better than the state which has fallen in numerous instances. The recent triumph of the communities over the Ebola virus is an example of strong local organizations in Liberia. Communities were succeeding while state institutions like the National Oil Company were collapsing as a result of poor leadership and unforgivable thievery.
Therefore, beautifying Monrovia is not just about breaking stalls and shacks; it is more about organizing and giving local institutions more power for self-governance particularly in the areas of waste management and sanitation. But bigger than that is about organizing the state properly to deliver basic services, particularly in the areas of water and sanitation and other programs in poverty reduction. This should not be too much to achieve in ten years with well-intentioned leadership.
The number of international and domestic support and increased in foreign direct investment (FDI) had all provided enormous resources and a propitious environment for transforming the lives of the poor people. Unfortunately, as the sun sets on the CIC and the ‘General’, they are yet to point to anything meaningful they have done about transforming the lives of the people whose living conditions will continue to dictate the outlook of the city of Monrovia.
Now without proper sanitation services, and in the midst of serious poverty, they still think that they can make Monrovia look like an elite city. But as Taju would ask, “Of what use is a ‘beautiful city’ peopled by citizens who have lost their livelihoods” – like the poor woman in Jallah Town?
In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry.