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There used to be a popular computer game called SimCity. Thereby, the player was the governor of a city and took decisions on developments. By increasing the taxes or by saving too rigidly, consequences such as fires or other disasters would cause massive damage; the urban population would start protest in pixelated crowds. Many years later in real-life Monrovia, I observed governance practices which reminded me of the computer game. Policies were being put forward that even made the very government employees shake their heads.

Since the peace agreement of 2003, Monrovia has become a bustling and growing city. Its fancy banks and shopping centers offer possibilities for consumers with economic strength. A good job was done by the government, unquestionably, as trustworthiness and credibility was restored to a vast degree. Arriving from Robert’s International Airport and driving through town, I was amazed by the newly renovated buildings and streets with flowery trees. Once again, Monrovia had received a face lift since my last visit in 2012. On my way in the plane, I had read the President’s Annual Message to the National Legislature (2014), a 45 pages script featuring the improvements, economic growth and state of development in general. Viewed from above, it seems all too good to be true.

Discussing these impressions with my informants and friends, most of them – from all walks of life – say the same: It’s all propaganda. Unsurprised by this rather sarcastic view, the question remains: What is their evaluation based on? Within a few days in Monrovia it became evident; despite the fancy development update by the President earlier this year, life for the ordinary people still only improves slowly and at times even bears major setbacks. New to me was that some of those that had earlier supported the present government were now outspokenly critical.

One of the first news I heard in Liberia concerned the fuel shortage. This is in itself not a new or particularly Liberian issue. Apparently, a supplying ship had got stuck in Côte d’Ivoire and arrived only after a few days. There were no reserves in Liberia, and the effects for the people were quite drastic: one of the major fresh water suppliers in Monrovia, Aqualife, subsequently experienced a shortfall in production. As a consequence the price for a bag of water doubled. An informant worried that people were starting to drink well water which would increase the risk of bacterial infections, she added. As a consequence of the fuel shortage but also due to the growing demand of electricity, the Liberian Electric Company (LEC) had to ration the supply of electricity produced by the generator park in Monrovia. As a result, many neighborhoods in central Monrovia were without electricity. A number of additional constraints rendered transportation in Monrovia a challenge. There were no motorbike taxis anymore, as they had been banned due to a severe accident the year before (BBC, 06.11.2013). The competition for a seat in a taxi had increased, and as these run specific routes, there was only one way to get around in certain spaces in town: to walk. Though there existed alternatives to the motorbikes, the „yellow something“, Chinese tricycles that had appeared only recently on the roads of Monrovia. They did not have a common name yet. However, they were slow and too few, which now left people with no alternative than walk

I discussed my impressions with some economically better situated friends: no motorbikes, few alternatives for public transportation, but also the constant threat of ordinary people to be evicted from informal settlements such as Buzzy Quarter or West Point. How will the city continue to work? Are they aware that salaries of securities and lower government officials do not suffice for housing or transportation in peri-urban spaces? The debate revealed another side of the story, as they saw many advantages in recent developments: since the ban of motorbikes there is less noise, the traffic flows better and there are less scratches on their cars. Many suggest that the motorbike riders were criminals. This is a change in the discourse on post-war reintegration of ex-combatants: the motorbike project had previously been praised as being a successful way of integrating idle young men. Secondly these young men created a peopled infrastructure beneficial to the flow of people and goods in the city center. The ban is contested, however, there seem to be more powerful supporters of the ban.

One day I was lucky to find a motorbike rider who took me to a friends’ place in Sinkor, but the time I saved I subsequently spent in discussing with the driver. He was severely disgruntled and urged me “to tell the international community” what went on. To him, the international community would clear problems in Monrovia that the government cannot solve. What happened to the motorbike union? “They have been bought by the government”, he complained. His statement reminds of the past experiences many people share about the state being a malignant organism (Utas 2009).

A few days later, only a few taxi were circulating on the roads of Monrovia. People were standing in masses at the fringes of the city, waiting for a means to go to town. Many had started walking, and it looked like an immense demonstration on the way to town. “The government imposes an insurance on taxis”, said Moussa, the taxi driver I had chartered earlier to transport my luggage. Apparently, a 300 USD per taxi and year for registration and insurance was to be introduced, according to the Liberian Observer (2014) it was an amount of 500 USD. Moussa did not have this insurance, but he said he knew enough police officers and laughed. All along, informants engaged in transportation complained about the riskiness of this business: within two years, a taxi is damaged due to the bad roads and conditions at large. To “work and pay”, that is, driving a taxi for someone and reporting 1’000 Liberia Dollars (about 13 USD) per day does not leave much for the driver. Traffic jams consume fuel and time, and the police take bribes at each corner. Whoever has some funds will invest in education or start a new business to avoid risk and finally make more money.

These observations from a few weeks in Monrovia in early 2014 reveal that there remain a number of challenges in the post-war city. Though the government is praised on an international level, the critique from the citizens become increasingly harsh. Walking some miles in their shoes indeed reveals that after a decade of peace, with international funds of hundreds of millions per year, the government seems not to understand the needs of the ordinary people. The people were left walking the streets. From their perspective, I got reminded of the game SimCity we used to play: how much burden can be laid on these people? They are tired of war, yes, but a bulk of them know it’s not right that they stand on the road and battle for a seat in a car while one SUV after another pass by. To change perspective again, the city seems orderly, there are more parking spaces, and things are going back to normal. Maybe what also goes back to “normal” is a lack of understanding between those that impose policies based on an inadequate understanding the reality of the vast part of the population of ordinary Liberian people. It requires a monthly revenue of a few thousand USD to be able to pay a 300 (or 500) USD insurance on a taxi, and last but not least, a trustworthy insurance and justice system. This does not apply for the reality most of the taxi drivers are situated in.

 

Literature:

BBC. 2013. Liberia bans motorcycle taxis in Monrovia. November 6.

Johnson Sirleaf, Ellen. 20014. Annual Message to the National Legislature. Monrovia: Republic of Liberia.

Kaufman Andrea. Forthcoming. Monrovia in the making. Urban imaginaries between ruins and construction sites.

Liberian Observer. 2014. Registration, insurance inspections create transportation nightmare. Thousands stranded with hundreds of taxi cabs grounded. March 3.

Utas, Mats. 2009. Malignant organisms: Continuities of state-run violence in rural Liberia. In: Crisis of the state: War and social upheaval. Kapferer, Bruce et al. New York: Berghahn Books. 265-291.

 

Andrea Kaufmann received a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Basel, Switzerland in July 2013.

CinemAfrica, the annual Stockholm film festival devoted to African film was held last week. I was in the jury selecting the best film. The Senegalese film Under the starry sky won the award, and the Egyptian documentary Crop got a honorary mentioning. Below is my review of Crop.

crop

Crop

Directors: Marouan Omara & Johanna Domke (Egypt 2013)

What fits into a film frame without being seen? In this Egyptian documentary a whole political landscape from Nasser to the Egyptian spring is framed without being shown. It is narrated without being visualized. Close-up images of Presidents and central political events are visualized only in our imagination by a slow, thorough, monotonous speaker voice; the voice of a long-serving photo journalist of Egypt’s largest newspaper. What is visualized is beige, rustic, often symmetric, esthetic pictures from the boss’ office, newsrooms, and hallways down to the printer halls of the newspaper. Somewhere down the road of the narrative words and images swaps place in importance: images becomes background music as narration turns into spoken images. It is astute and it works.crop2

This film is the antithesis of the Oscar nominated and celebrated documentary the Square. One of the main characters in the Square points out that the battle over Tahrir square “is in the images”; and the film is an overload of battle images and close-up events. Still, and paradoxically, Crop, without any footage from the Cairo streets, feels closer.

The narrator of Crop, the photo journalist gets a heart attack at the start of the political uprising at the Tahrir Square and he reports not just current events but also an Egyptian past in slow careful prose. He presents himself as a journalist that has throughout his career avoided being present at political unrests. As such his is the anti-thesis of journalism – the art of being absent. In the film he states:

“We the photo journalists of Al Ahram would not be sent to any political unrest only if they wanted to present a strike as bad for the country or the economy. We were never there for people fighting for better wages or better life conditions. It did not matter what kind of picture we took: they were either not published or used to prove something entirely different.”

He describes in intimate details how all pictures and stories of his Al Ahram, Egyptian state press, were over centuries distorted to fit the government in power. The narrator himself has taken photos of all the Egyptian presidents – described one by one. From the onset the government had a tight grip over the journalists, but in time journalists came to offer a self-censorship they hardly reflected over. This changed with the Arabic Spring and the events at the Tahrir Square.

Our narrator meets the popular uprising when in hospital recovering from his heart attack. Egyptian news media still denies what is happening, but the beds around him are packed with wounded people. He is filled with awe of the young man next to him who has been shot by the police but straight after waking up again starts to post his photos and film clips from his phone onto social media. The young man has even filmed the very sequence where he got shot. He admires the new bravery and clearly questions his own complicity.

The people where fighting the images who had betrayed them for so long with their own images,” he says, and implicitly talks about his own images – the fake imagery he has spent his entire life creating.

With shifts in power the state directed newspaper he worked ceased to comprehend what they were supposed to report and who they should be loyal to. He states that some started fighting the police, but it by and large became a newspaper without direction – first time without a political patron to serve.

This is a brave tale of media complicity and power on the highest level. The absence of news images in the film is not only visually sass, but is making even more sense when one thinks of the content they show. It was all fake – made to prop up a regime that like so many others chose power over its people.

What happens with the Al Ahram’s and other journalists’ possibilities of free reporting after the reintroduction of military governance in the country is not touched upon in the film, but the narrator ends the film by saying:

“whatever will happen in the future – this moment of self-expression will never be taken away from the people of Egypt”

Last Friday, the 28th of February, a wealthier primary school in the suburbs of Kampala had a special occasion during their Friday Assembly (in which students hold performances):  the P2 class reenacted the signing of the anti-homosexuality bill by President Museveni. One kid was dressed as President Museveni, wearing his distinctive hat, and a smart jacket – he was surrounded by his classmates who were acting as MP’s, and one dressed as a military. After signing the bill, ‘Museveni Junior’ told the other kids “Fellow Ugandans, this is our country. We should not accept cultures and values imposed on us. Am, therefore, signing this bill into law to stop all immorality.”

In doing so, it shows a dominant explanation of Museveni’s signing of the anti-homosexuality bill: provoked by Western insistence on the issue, Museveni had no choice but to sign the bill. In other words, there is a clear cause (Western activists’ unproductive insistence on the issue) and effect –  the bill becoming law. Other analyses emphasise how the “tussle over gay rights has drawn attention away from Mr Museveni’s increasingly autocratic rule” who wants to extend his reign.  These sets of analyses emphasize how the Ugandan regime was the main agent, wanting to divert attention from other issues. In this piece, I want to problematize these monocausal explanations. Instead, I want to highlight how due to a range of factors, Museveni was no longer in full control over the bill, leaving little options than signing it. More generally, different actors have been trying to influence the bill and had an impact on the debate – not always in the ways they intended to, such as Western donors. In this context, it is hard to put ‘blame’ on one particular set of actors, be it American evangelicals, Western donors or a master plan of the Museveni regime: all of them played a role in the bill becoming law.

Museveni’s balancing act.

A crucial point is that President Museveni has never been an outspoken supporter of the bill, instead being rather dubious about it: he was fully aware of the disastrous international consequences. In his first public reaction after the introduction of the bill, he for example argued how it did “not represent the party of government position” and how “Uganda cannot risk its foreign policy by allowing the Bill to pass in its current form”. In consequent years, the bill was weakened, but still consistently shelved (in 2009, 2011 and 2013), until it reappeared on 20 December 2013, when it was passed by the parliament. After its passing, Museveni continued his ambiguous position on the bill: he claimed how the bill was passed without his consultation, and in a rushed manner, by a small number of MP’s led by speaker Kadaga forcing him to look further into the matter. In his interviews and statements, Museveni has consistently focused on two issues: On the recruitment of homosexuals (and related with this, the ‘recruited’, those who become homosexuals for ‘mercenary reasons’), and secondly, ‘exhibitionism’ of homosexual behavior. In doing so, he left a loophole, being that there was a possibility that certain people were ‘born homosexual (…) rare deviations in nature from the normal’. In doing so, he could both satisfy the domestic constituency – he was criticizing homosexuals – but also the international constituency by leaving this loophole. For example, even after announcing that he was going to sign the bill, in a response to Obama’s criticism, Museveni argued how he encouraged the US government to provide evidence that some people are born homosexual, which would then allow to review the legislation.

Important is that the bill has to be seen within the national political context: on the one hand, the bill coincided with the political ambitions of a range of actors, in which  for example speaker Kadaga is rumored to be interested in Museveni’sposition. The anti-homosexuality bill, around which she has been actively mobilizing, is an excellent platform for this. On the other hand, it has to be situated in a power struggle between government and parliament, in which the latter increasingly wants to assert its power. Both of these factors help to explain how the  bill was  passed in parliament without being announced on its  agenda , in order to avoid actions from the government  -  Prime Minister Mbabazi tried to block the bill last minute as it was being passed without the necessary quorum.

This internal political climate helped the bill to gain increasing prominence and importance within the public debate; which was in turn further fueled by external interventions: not only by American evangelicals, but also through Western pressure, which allowed Ugandan actors involved to build further political capital on this. As highlighted by many analyses, the gay rights agenda is perceived in Uganda as an imperialistic, neo-colonial Western agenda. Picking up a fight with donors over this ‘invasion’ is politically very productive which manages to unite many Ugandans.

Lastly, the bill was not only the product of national-level political calculations and international pressure, but also because of the popularity of the bill on a local level: constituencies want their MP’s to deliver on the bill. After being introduced, and certainly after the bill acquired its specific meaning of anti-Western instrument, it was very difficult for MP’s to follow Museveni’s position, or any other actor opposing the bill. Churches also played an important role. Not only evangelical churches, but also other (traditional) churches have consistently supported the anti-gay bill, but at local and national level.

This context made it increasingly difficult for Museveni in balancing both domestic and international interests: nuanced positions became almost impossible; certainly after the bill had passed parliament. Reflecting his personalized rule, Museveni traditionally has a firm grip on the parliament, and particularly over contested legislation such as the anti-homosexuality bill, which he managed to contain for years. After the bill had passed parliament, he was no longer fully in control. The tipping point seems to have been the NRM caucus in early February in Kyankwanzi, in which Museveni was publicly endorsed as the NRM flag bearer for the upcoming 2016 elections, and which has led to Museveni’s public announcement at the same event of his intention to sign the bill. Although he kept his options open after this – as shown above, he invited the US to bring more evidence – when this was picked up by the international media, showing the West to be in charge, Museveni had no more choice to sign the bill – not doing so would make him politically too vulnerable. The East African for example quotes insiders saying that public statements of Western leaders, including Obama “smacked of arrogance” leaving Museveni no choice but to sign it “to salvage national pride”.

Diversion from who and when?

Another important point is the diversion argument, in which it is argued that diversion from internal politics is the main reason of existence for the bill. This is certainly a factor, but probably not in the way it is presented. First, the term ‘diversion’ suggests a level of instrumentality and unity within the regime which was not there, as has been shown above. This becomes clearer when looking at the lifespan of the bill: it does not appear that the bill was introduced by MP Bahati as part of a larger plan to divert attention from broader political issues, rather than by personal political ambition and his links with evangelical churches. When looking at the way in which the bill was used, one could however make a point for diversion, as the bill re-appeared at critical moments (although one could argue that, given the regime’s governance record of the last years, such moments can be found at any point of its recent history). In other words, it is difficult to see diversion as the cause of the bill, but it is nevertheless an important outcome as it was used in this manner: the passing of the bill into law further confirmed this, as the popularity of the President and the regime strongly increased.  Second, a distinction needs to be made according to the audience it wants to divert attention from. Internationally, it certainly did not do the job: there has never been more attention for Uganda and its politics. Historically, the donor audience  naturally ignored draconian measures of the Museveni regime: given its geopolitical (and particularly regional military) importance, recent measures which are closing down the political space , through for example the public order management bill or the treatment of opposition politicians have mostly been ignored. Yet, the anti-homosexuality law managed to get the spotlight on the regime, and seems to succeed where other measures failed, in provoking world-wide condemnations and a number of aid cuts.

Another outcome is that the law gives the regime ammunition against potentially critical voices, and can be seen in the context of other recently introduced laws such as the public order management act or the anti-pornography bill. According to the Minister of ethics, the latter law allows the arrest depending on “the way in which one talks, dresses or walks which is deemed provocative or likely to cause sexual excitement.” (…) “Anything that provokes, stirs or creates unnecessary sensitivity..”. In other words, these laws allow draconian measures to be taken in various fields, but all of which may succeed in further narrowing down the political space, rather than the stated objectives of the laws in the social sphere. It is unclear to what extent the police effectively is going to arrest women in mini-skirts; and these laws therefore seem to reflect a broader tendency allowing the regime to build up a range of judicial measures which it can use à la tête du client to silence critical organisations. The fact that ‘pro-gay’ or ‘pro-pornography’ propaganda are vaguely defined, only adds to the discretionary power of the regime. The laws do not only offer formal ammunition to the regime, but also morally: as Andrew Mwenda argued, while before the law critical politicians could for example be accused of rape (as infamously happened with main opposition candidate Kiiza Besigye), they can now be accused of being homosexual. The fact that Mwenda – who is outspoken against the law – is now referred to as homo by Ugandan tabloids seems to prove his point.

Identity politics as mobilization platform

Every society has a number of cleavages running through them, such as ethnicity or sexual identities. None of these are necessarily defining for the politics or society of which they are part. Yet, as has been proven extensively for ethnicity, identity politics is a very effective tool for political mobilization: it is difficult to find a more effective mobilization platform than the development of a ‘us vs them’ discourse, particularly if the ‘other’ is an exotic minority, about which little is known. Sexual identity has only recently become an important factor in Ugandan society and politics, as the issue has become politically mobilized by a range of actors. It is important to mention that the identity politics surrounding the anti-homosexuality bill has different layers, and is not limited to ‘anti-gay’ vs ‘pro-gay’: the more prominent the issue became, the more it became a debate about other issues: Africa vs the West, about the protection of African culture, and on an individual level it is perceived to be about the protection of its own family. All of these help to understand why it is deemed important on a local level, why Western public statements might be counterproductive, and why the issue is an important mobilization platform.

Finally, in this snowball effect in which the issue  became more and more important, it is difficult to see how it will play out, and how it will be  implemented. A good point of comparison is perhaps the recently introduced anti-pornography law, in which there are increased reports of harassment of people, in which mobs undress people for ‘indecent dressing’, forcing the police to issue a statement warning the public to stop undressing women wearing miniskirts.. It has to be noted that, different from the anti-pornography law where this ‘popular implementation’ started almost immediately; so far this does not seem the case for the anti-gay law. This does not mean that the national state will be able to fully control the issue: a major problem will be how individual actors will understand and enact the law.

In other words, once the gay issue was introduced as a political factor, it was hard to foresee where it would end up – as various actors positioned itself around it, and had an impact on the debate: external pressure and various forms of internal domestic pressure further fed into each other, both leading to a further prominence of the debate. In this rather unpredictable environment, which was, and continues to be dominated by short-term calculations and an increasingly intense political climate, it is difficult to attribute ‘blame’ to one particular actor: this became particularly clear in the period between the passing of the bill in parliament late December and the actual signature late February, in which Museveni had to balance all of these factors and felt more and more cornered, ultimately leading to the signature of the bill.

Kristof Titeca is a researcher from the Institute of Development Policy and Management (University of Antwerp) and the Conflict Research Group (Ghent University). He currently is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics (Department of International Development).

 

Sitting astride Freetown’s Mount Aureol, Fourah Bay College (FBC) is often regarded as the crucible of Sierra Leone’s post-independence history. ‘When Fourah Bay College sneezes”, one student reflects, ‘all of Sierra Leone catches a cold’.

In the mid-1980s, FBC sneezed. Radical students, alienated by Siaka Steven’s brutal one-party regime, decamped to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. The move set in motion a train of events which meandered, in fits and starts, towards the outbreak of the rebel war.  By the time the students returned to Freetown in the early 1990s, Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was laying waste to the country’s south-eastern flank and their idealistic dreams of revolution had evaporated. The combative student movement that had flourished throughout the 1970s and 1980s seemingly slipped off-stage.

Today FBC has been reduced to a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, although as sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest Western-style university it remains self-consciously the nation’s original ivory tower – ‘an Oxford in the bush’, as one academic puts it. Yet the 6000-odd ‘Fourabites’ – once the country’s foremost political vanguard and de facto opposition to the one-party state – are markedly less visible in public life than they once were.

Meanwhile, the university itself has slid into apparently irreversible decline. Material conditions have atrophied almost continuously since the civil war ended in 2002, and campus accommodation is now uninhabitable to the extent that even students from the farthest provinces are denied lodgings.

In such circumstances, one might expect to find the students in fighting spirit. Yet despite being equipped with a collective history that boasts the remarkable events of 1977 – when ‘No College No School’ demonstrations spread from FBC and forced the Stevens to hold elections and lower the voting age to 18 – students at FBC today rarely challenge the university administration, and almost never confront the government on national issues.

Indeed, the university currently possesses no student union. The last student elections were cancelled, the authorities citing campus violence. With faint echoes of the prohibition of the union for three years in the 1980s, the elections have been postponed indefinitely – effectively signalling a moratorium on student politics.

‘Since 2007 we have not really had an open opposition to this government from the university,’ says one former student. And with an enfeebled (or non-existent) student union, ‘nobody can talk for the students’. In effect, he explains, ‘the university can just do whatever it wants’.

Yet the situation is not simply the result of cynical brokering on the part of the university administration or the central government – both of which, some argue, may benefit from the current state of affairs. Unlike in previous eras, when student activists tended to unite against a common enemy, campus politics today is largely mobilised around internal struggles. Fratricidal violence is common, and for the best of the last decade (if not longer) an internecine conflict has torn the campus apart – the result of a bipolar factional battle between two camps: the so-called ‘Whites’ and ‘Blacks’.

The history of the camps varies depending on who you speak to, but most narratives locate the origins in the mid-1990s, when a group of students defected from the then all-powerful political club, the Auradicals, to form a rival entity, the Generals. In some accounts this group espoused a more ‘European’ world-view, in contrast to the comparably hard-line Africanism of their opponents, today’s Blacks.

White vs. Blacks

A member of the Blacks at FBC. Photo by Josh Hughes

The division between the two has steadily hardened, increasingly pervading all areas of university life. A former leader of the Black camp, a figure known as ‘The Dictator’, speaks of ‘invisible lines’ that have spread across campus, segregating the entire student body. It has, he explains, ‘now gone beyond politics; it has gone social.’ People speak of lecturers threatening to fail students who don’t vote for one or other camp; others complain that access to employment after graduation is now strictly determined by camp loyalties.

The consequence, according to historian Ibrahim Abdullah, is that ‘what used to happen in the past, when students used to come together to fight for a common cause… those days are gone.’

In local discourse, the state of campus politics today is treated fairly unambiguously. Public perception of the ‘crisis’ up at FBC is refracted through a nostalgic lens. ‘This is a place for gentleman’, one student laments. ‘It used to be the Athens of West Africa, but it is being transformed into the laughing stock of the world’.

For many of the radical generation of students that opposed the one-party regime of the All People’s Congress (APC) in the 1970s and 1980s, the current crop, with its White-Black rivalry, are regarded with disdain. Gibril Foday Musa, who was expelled in the 1980s and fled to Libya along with a number of fellow radicals, echoes a commonly held view: that ‘students no longer command the respect that we commanded’. For him and many others of his generation, any suggestion of meaningful difference between the Blacks or the Whites is quickly dismissed. ‘No one talks about ideology or principles anymore,’ he complains.

Violent infighting is regarded as indicative of declining levels of political maturity among current students. Such a development, Musa argues, is fundamentally novel: ‘in our day we fought intellectually, then we’d come together to fight against the administration or the central government’. Or, as another former student puts it, ‘the violence, the anger, has been pitted against each other – it’s not against the system now. That is what the polarization is producing.’

In part this is a discourse that demonizes today’s students, finding them culpable for falling standards. Yet many also believe that national politicians from both the incumbent APC and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) are exploiting the division among students, manipulating the two camps for their own ends.

In the eyes of the public, the White camp is in the pocket of the APC, while the Black camp is seen as the handmaiden of the SLPP. Rumours abound of politicians visiting the campus during election time, bribing students and funding campaigns. Many believe the APC has taken to remote-controlling student elections, in order to ensure that a compliant student leadership remains in power. Some point out that the Blacks have failed to win an election since the APC displaced the SLPP at the ballot box in 2007. There are rumours that the most recent elections were cancelled because the Whites were facing defeat.

It appears that the APC may have learnt its lessons from the 1980s. Where once the students of FBC were the government’s most trenchant critics, successful interference over the years has resulted in a student polity that dances dutifully to the tune of national politics. Some cite the example of the student union president in 2005 who was impeached by his fellow students for refusing to demonstrate against the government of the day – only to be swiftly restored to office by the government and the university administration.

Above all, there is an agreement among commentators that what is happening up at FBC is increasingly just a reflection of what goes on downtown. ‘The national political divide has eaten deeply into the fabric of student life,’ says Umaru Fofana, one of the country’s leading journalists.

As with national politics, intense factional competition appears to be characterised by an absence of meaningful ideological difference distinguishing the two sides. Ethno-regionalism instead seems to predominate: the Whites are presumed to be majority Limba and Temne from the north and west, whereas the Blacks are believed to be composed primarily of Mende people from the south and east.

The reality though is slightly more complicated. For one thing, the rigidity of the ethno-regional configuration appears to be exaggerated. Members of both sides accuse their opponents of being ‘exclusive’ – while claiming inclusivity for themselves – but in fact neither camp is really a homogenous ethnic or regional bloc.

Similarly, political alignments are more fluid than most public commentators assume. It is not the case that to be Black or White merely indicates whether ‘you are for or against the government of the day’ – as the current Anti-Corruption Commissioner asserts. Today’s leading Whites claim to be unashamedly fractured with respect to party affiliation. The group is keen to point out that as recently as 2012 thirty-one students – including representatives from both camps – were rusticated for their part in staging a protest against the eviction of a group of students who had been camping out in college accommodation during the exam period. In the case of the Whites, this meant demonstrating against their supposed paymasters down in State House.

Nonetheless, the fierce conviction held by most commentators that the division on campus is at least partly determined by the topography of national politics cannot be dismissed lightly. Almost all students I spoke to – with the exception of some at the very top of their respective camp hierarchies – confirm that politicians have been spotted up at FBC at the time of union elections, and there is a broad consensus that the government has a firm foothold in student politics. Speaking under condition of anonymity, a former leader of the Black camp confirms receiving envelopes of cash sent up from downtown – although he denies accepting them.

On reflection, it seems likely that national politics plays a part in campus politics not through party political strategy determined from the centre, but via the diffuse efforts of certain individual politicians. FBC has always been a crucial political constituency in Sierra Leone so it should come as no surprise that certain politicians are willing to go to great lengths to manipulate its members.

Student politics at FBC is complex and nuanced; yet with its fibrous web of links to national political life, a certain degree of pessimism is perhaps unavoidable. Most recognise that the campus is a training ground for future politicians: the prospects for democratic consolidation at the nation-wide level in the years to come thus look a little bleak.

If national politicians are infiltrating campus politics, then the critical distinction between the state and civil society is also being compromised. And if student leaders are being exposed to bribery and patronage politics so early on, then prospects for rooting out corruption in public life are far from encouraging.

A culture of electoral violence is also damaging in another respect: as the difficult experience of this year’s only female presidential candidate once again demonstrated, the hyper-masculine atmosphere of the election process and the male-only political clubs severely disadvantages female political participation.

Caution should be exercised when comparing student unionism today with that which came before. It is easy to romanticise the older generation of Fourabites. Yet conditions are different now: the students no longer have a clearly identifiable enemy, and the multi-party system in many ways presents an altogether more complicated challenge then the previous one-party state.

Nonetheless, the current situation on campus is worrying. A vibrant and autonomous democratic culture should be allowed to flourish up on Mount Aureol. For whatever happens at FBC – and history has shown this all too vividly – has real implications for Sierra Leone at large.

Tom Gardner is a postgraduate student at Oxford University. He is currently making a documentary on the subject of student politics at Fourah Bay College, past and present. For more details visit cargocollective.com/nepafilms or follow him on twitter at @nepafilms.

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Out of the shadows a massive procession of handicapped young street dwellers appears. We are in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, and they move slowly like zombies of the night whilst parts of metal on crutches and wheelchairs glow in the darkness and metallic sounds echo in the otherwise empty street. It’s the opening scene of Shado’man, a film shot in darkness.

This documentary is well-produced in an artistic way with the “zombie parade” as its pictorial centerpiece. Visually the film is very inspiring. But as the visual is taken to the fore the content suffers. Little effort is given to contextualize the space and lives of the main characters. I have for several years lived in Freetown and only because I know their hangout can I locate them. Furthermore only because I have done research among other street dwellers in Freetown can I contextualize their lives. To an outsider their lives must appear utterly incomprehensible and although the audience will be moved and feel pity for them their stories will remain in darkness.

Solidarity and conflict amongst the group figure in the film, just as relationships and even love, but it is very much on the surface. Survival themes do not really feature although it is the overarching one in their lives. Filming in the dark gives the image that this group lives in isolation from other people. Although handicapped begging youth are not at the center of society, Sierra Leoneans are far from shunning them. In the film contacts with non-handicapped people are limited to a telephone call done by a blind boy to a relative, a discussion with a prostitute who is afraid of the blind boy and abstract discussions amongst themselves about tentative relations with non-handicapped people. Little more is picked up. A street fight started by a drunken jealous boy in a wheelchair is only adding to the theme of tragedy. And there are recurring shots with blinds leading blinds over abyss-like potholes in the Freetonian streets. In a long tedious scene we follow a boy on crutches up steep stairs to his room. Indeed it is arduous work for him, but the scene signals that he and the other handicapped youth are all alone in their struggle. The darkness and the absence of others strengthen this image.

Daytime filming combined with a broader social context and understanding would have contributed to a rather different gaze because most Sierra Leoneans, rich or poor, and despite their limited means, do engage and help people who exist under hard conditions – including handicapped people, even though they may be ex-combatants. In the absence of the cameraman the boy on crutches would have been aided up the stairs and the blind boys would not have walked alone over the potholed streets. These are the constructs of cameraman and director.

This text was written for Africa is a country and appeared there on January 29, 2014.

In an earlier blog post, Mats Utas discussed the emerging Liberian middle class.[i] I found this text both refreshing and intriguing, and was asked to offer a written response to it. I hope it succeeds in developing some of the original concepts in equally refreshing and intriguing ways.

In his essay, Utas held the sport utility vehicle (SUV) as the perfect symbol of the emerging Liberian middleclass. I completely agree with this comparison (although I would say that this middle class has already emerged). Firstly, the SUV is larger than the yellow commercial taxis that those who don’t own cars need to primarily rely on. The SUV thus not only gives status, but is safer in the dangerous traffic of Liberia. Simultaneously it is important to note that SUVs are still typically cheaper than the jeeps favored by most expatriates and the elites who can afford them – thus the middle. Secondly, as they are typically equipped with larger wheels and four-wheel drive, they are much more reliable when faced with the bad infrastructure of most roads in and especially outside Monrovia. One should remember that some of the emerging “posh” areas are not easily accessible by yellow taxis: there is neither regular service there, nor would the road conditions make reaching some areas easy. Lacking infrastructure thus reinforces the separation between the have’s and the haven-not’s. The case is also the same with the larger clubs in Monrovia, where the scene of the beach party Utas described is repeated in a somewhat milder, but much more typical form. Especially now, after the imposition of the ban on motorbike traffic on main streets of the capital, it is difficult to move around after dark, or at least to do so safely. Not surprisingly, many of the interiors of Monrovian clubs are smaller than their parking lots. The car is therefore also a way for the rich to distance themselves from the poor, which further increases segregation. The way to do this is to wind up the tinted windows and to pretend that the poor do not exist. In this sense the middle class is not unlike many of the elites or the expatriates.

Horizontal inequalities and the realities of corruption
The theoretical concept that I found myself thinking about the middle class and “tiny bits of tension” is ‘horizontal inequalities’. While it has for a long time accepted that inequalities can lead to conflict, Stewart has argued that the relevant perceived inequality for conflict is the horizontal (between groups) instead of the vertical (between individuals):[ii] Mobilization in conflict typically occurs among groups against other groups.[iii] Stewart suggests that for the sake of peace, it is better to be equally poor. Living in the (at least historically) equal North this theory seems logical and appealing. There is though one big difference between the Nordic countries and Liberia, namely the role of the state. Even if there might be envy, jealously and perhaps even pure anger towards the middle class, the fact is that many are still dependent on these members of the (extended) family, neighbors and (relative) Big Men (see volume edited by Utas). These expectations also lead to another view of corruption, which is often lacking in discussions concerning it: there is obviously a certain acceptance that some people, like policemen, need to be corrupt to make their ends meet. Is it possible that this acceptance – up to a certain limit – also arises from the understanding that these policemen do not only cater for themselves, but also for those around them? In other words, there are many more people who depend on corruption than the ones actually committing the act. While corruption thus partly ends up in the pockets of those who steal the money, I am convinced that much is also shared around. And when one talks about corruption in Liberia, one should also note the culture of corruption in the country: I can’t really remember any case of major corruption in the post-conflict where anyone has been sentenced.  This is a good example of how corruption is often expected, rather than condemned.

The SUV as a symbol of extraversion
There is though yet another way the SUV represents the middle class, and that has to do with another theoretical concept. This is Bayart’s extraversion, or “mobilizing resources derived from their [the leading actors in sub-Saharan societies’] (possibly) unequal relationship with external environment”.[iv] Two things though stand out: firstly, the idea of politicians going “home” to the US after getting money in Liberia (in my opinion a better metaphor is that of a farm, where one only goes to harvest  – Liberia of course being the farm). As exploitation of dependents is a part of extraversion, this “farming” cannot be considered to be its opposite but rather the continuation of extraversion. It would though also be good to remember that most of the import companies are owned by foreigners, who typically send their dollars elsewhere. They too could be argued to be farming (although many of course have been born in Liberia). This is also true for the imported alcohol, favored by expatriates and the middle class alike, consumed at clubs and beach parties, as well as the supermarkets, where the most sold Liberian product seems to be the overpriced plantain chips. Pretty much everything sold in other stores as well is imported, as Liberia doesn’t produce much of interest for those with money. Rice, the staple food, is of course the best example of how the foreign is deemed to be better than the domestic: how many of us have actually even seen the domestically produced swamp rice in Liberia, let alone eaten it? It would be a mistake to take this preference as one that is mainly about taste, rather than one with important symbolic value.

Secondly, it is certainly not only Liberians that are engaging in this extraversion. All the people that I know in the Liberian middle class are somehow associated with foreigners or Liberians living abroad, both of whom certainly extract their money in one way or another from Liberia. Here it would actually be possible to spell out yet another justification for using the SUV as the symbol for the Liberian middle class: it seems to be very common for them to want used cars to be shipped for them to sell in Liberia. The car itself is far from being the only object of value here, as they can be filled with anything from used computers to stacks of old newspapers – anything that can be turned into money in Liberia. The fact that it is not only Liberians who are involved in extraversion makes me wonder whether we’re sometimes too keen to focus on the African extraversion to admit that we’re also very much active in not only in this very same process, but that even we employ the same strategy. The used SUVs in the containers destined to the Freeport of Monrovia underline the global links, and perhaps extraversion as the norm in the game.

The centrality of foreign contacts also applies for those that do not enjoy similar sinecure as the ones receiving cars and/or goods to sell, such as academics, NGO and UN employees and many others who get their bread directly or indirectly from foreign sources. Many businessmen, like the ones doing public projects in Liberia, at least indirectly benefit on the foreign money that funds infrastructural projects. The current kickback for public projects is ten percent, paid to government officials.[v] Needless to say, this comes up to very substantial amounts, and forms the prime example of the kind of bribes described by Utas that go up the system instead of coming down. In fact, what often come down are substandard projects, or simply nothing.

The democratic – or the targeted – Liberian middle class?
I like Utas’ final paragraph about the idea of the democratization and the role of the middle class in this process. Can we use existing theories to predict that other societies will progress the same way as ours? I for one always expected that in a society with such inequalities and rifts the middle class will gradually become closer to the expatriates.[vi] This is partially why I’ve always thought that the contemporary discourse on “natives” versus the Americo-Liberians, which is very much alive and well, is nothing but a fallacy.[vii] For instance, the politicians from the interior are certainly closer to other politicians than the natives in their own counties, whose support they only need during elections. And as the middle class gains more wealth, it increasingly populates the same places where the expatriates have traditionally flocked to. If this means that the middle class will increasingly distance itself from the masses and towards the elites this might cause problems. It could be argued that it is rather the composition of the elites than their behavior that has changed during the years, as many non-Americo-Liberians gaining more power and wealth. But the fact remains that the middle class benefits from its unequal status. Can we expect them to bring positive change, when many of them would end up losing, at least in the short term?

Breaking a bottle on the head of somebody, be it middle class man, or whoever, as described by Utas, is not a surprising act in Liberia. For an insufferable drunken man who cannot behave this must be always considered a possibility. While it is extraversion that makes the man middle class, horizontal inequalities can turn this and other groups against each other. And this is where the possibility of bigger problems emerges. Sure enough, Liberia is not going back to war because of the middle class. But one thing that made me think was when I remembered a tweet I posted at the beginning of my last field trip to Liberia, in which I noted that violent solutions to the pressing economic and political problems were increasingly mentioned by some Liberians, many of whom belonged to old political elites (but a few of whom were quite average). These links between the economic and political significance were often combined, and resulted in lists of groups that would be shot in a new revolution. As one man asked me, do I know any other revolution than the Liberian one, where a whole class was not eradicated? In other words, some still see the revolution unfinished, and next time would be even more violent than the last one.

The Americo-Liberians of course topped these lists. Then you have migrant trader populations (such as Fula and Mandingos from Guinea present in the interior or Christian or Muslim Lebanese in the Monrovia) who were often seen as foreigners who control the economy. The third group includes the perceived collaborators of the Americo-Liberians, and potentially includes anyone who does not belong to the first two groups – but easily overlaps with middle class whose wealth, education and the SUV differentiate them from the rest.  While I have to underline that the middle class will be the biggest loser in case of conflict, this potential and common overlapping of ethnic designations (and possibly even perceived political association) with middle class status makes me feel at unease. While Utas’ mainly reflected on the envy against the middle class, envy rarely puts you high up in any lists of execution lists. But when a number of different points of resentment can be held against a single group, the implausible can at least become remotely possible. This said, in the foreseeable, there are much more immediate questions to be tackled when it comes to the Liberian middle class. The questions of democracy, economy, good governance and identity would be good topics to begin with.

Ilmari Käihkö is a PhD candidate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, with funding from the Nordic Africa Institute and the Swedish National Defence College.


[i] Utas, Mats. (2014). Liberia, the emerging middleclass and tiny bits of tension. http://matsutas.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/liberia-the-emerging-middleclass-and-tiny-bits-of-tension/

[ii] Stewart, Frances. (2000). “Crisis Prevention: Tackling Horizontal Inequalities”. In Oxford Development Studies,28: 3, pp. 252-253.

[iii] This point is even made more eloquently by Malešević, who argues that because war is an organized activity, the Hobbesian “war of all against all is an empirical impossibility”. Malešević , Siniša. (2010). The sociology of war and violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[iv] Bayart, Jean-François, (1993). The state in Africa: the politics of the belly. London: Longman, pp. 21-22

[v] I’ve heard this percentage from several independent sources who are involved in the “business” on one side or the other.

[vi] Bayart seems to refer to this sort of identification as cultural extraversion. Bayart, pp. 196-200.

[vii] This division would also be an interesting topic for future research. I suspect that economic status is as important denominator as it ever was, although the dividing lines are getting increasingly fluid..

He looks very frustrated behind the steering wheel of his SUV. He is making his way over the sandy road; crisscrossing between the people walking from the beach. There are many close escapes as his car skids in great speed and nearly out of control. Indeed when he reaches the junction he has angered enough people. Traffic is now blocking his way forward and as he tries to make his way around yet another car he must slow down. He is very intoxicated. Maybe he has been fighting his girlfriend? He is forced out of his car. An argument starts and within soon he starts to fight. A bottle cracks on his head and the situation looks ugly. The air is tense. It is in the late afternoon and a national holiday. The whole area is packed with people. Down the road riot police has just entered an area where the beach hotel holds a show. Young people are feverously trying to jump the fence and there is a scrimmage on the inside. The commander of the riot police tells me he will clear the area so we can enter in safety. There is still tension hanging in the Liberian air, but it is a different kind than during the years of civil strife. Liberia has moved on.

It is not really the violence of Liberia that I want to focus on here, but rather the hordes of people who take their cars from Monrovia to the beaches outside the city to enjoy a national holiday. The official fee to enter the secluded beach area of the hotel is five US dollars. How many can afford this? One may add that this is the VIP section and that the other secluded part may well be cheaper and that other beaches charge no fee. But still. If we add the cost for transportation, food and drinks and the fancy clothes many are donning then we can conclude that a small family of four may easily spend half the monthly salary of a police officer in a single day’s outing to the beach. And Monrovians have turned up in thousands on the strings of beaches lining the ocean shore from the city towards the airport. With my seventeen years of experience from Liberia I have never seen anything like this. This is the proof of money in Liberia and the emergence of a middleclass. Clearly beach parties is part of a conspicuous consumption rather than the everyday, yet still where does the money come from? As I said, a day on the beach may cost half a monthly salary for a police officer, so if we consider working for the police as a middleclass occupation then the beach splurge I witnessed does not include ordinary civil servants, unless they also partake in the informal economy not to say part of the Liberian bribe industry. Furthermore although Monrovian business-life has been given a boost in recent years there are still questions of how much it really renders. Local production is also still rather low. The government has cut up the country, given huge concessions to international companies, but Liberian income on production is inappropriately limited. Certainly foreign aid is still something of the blood line of the Liberian economy and although many Liberians complain about ministers and senior civil servants carrying double citizenships – some of them say that they are going “home” when they leave Liberia for the US during the Christmas break – and thereby implying that a lot of moneys are going out of the country, it is quite obvious that some of this money is staying in Liberia. The question is how and with whom?

How much of the beach splurge is funded by international aid money? I am not an economist and I do not think ordinary research methods of economy could measure this, but I would love to see relating statistics. And furthermore I would like to know how much of the economy of the beach crowds in their SUVs is formal income? I suspect not much. I am not putting a moral grid on this, but just want to state that much of Liberian grand consumption beyond everyday expenditure comes from the informal sphere – and partly corruption. No doubt corruption is part of the Liberian system and should not just be viewed as evil: it is also the oil that upholds many social relations. But on the other hand it is a social divide: bribes tend to move up in the state system, not down. Except for businessmen bribing their way to contracts, tax evasions and other advantages (eventually making more money), bribes are taxing the poor and most significantly increasing salaries for those in the upper echelons of the state. For instance within the police, although the corruption most visible is bribes taken by officers on the street, the real profits is by senior staff as they levy fees on street side bribes. Bribe money is typically “seeping up” the system, not down.

Direct theft of state and aid money is another important income of the SUV middleclass. Substantial amounts of money are directly misappropriated. This means that the aid effect on post-war Liberia is far from what it could be if used as designated (another problem is the incompetence of the international aid community to do good aid). When I did fieldwork in Liberia during the Taylor years I asked many of what the benefits of foreign aid were and most simple said that UN and the INGOs employs us – aid is our salaries, nothing more nothing less. I believe that if we look at the relative limited progress of Liberia this is very much still the case. Some infrastructural progress may be seen in Monrovia, but in the interior painfully little has happened. We should then recall that Liberia will never again get as much foreign aid money as they have received from wars end up till today. An infrastructural hike dependent on foreign aid should have been visible by now. At the same time we must acknowledge that the amount of aid money to Liberia is far from sufficient in lifting Liberia out of poverty by itself even if efficiently spent.

Returning to the SUV middleclass spending their holiday on the beach my worry is that they are in no way representative for the kind of middleclass that researchers and policymakers rather schematically deem as necessary for democratic progressing states. Quite the contrary, ordinary Liberians indeed look with envy towards this emerging SUV middleclass, but are also quick pointing fingers at their corrupt means of gathering resources. Could they work as role models? I doubt, and is that what we want? Is it amongst this group we will find growing democratic values? It is far from obvious, for reasons stated above. In the meantime anger continuous to boil among poor Liberians standing on the roads just watching the SUVs driving by, their roads are not fixed, if they can afford to send their kids to school – the quality of education is lousy, and their sense of social and economic security is as limited as it was prior to the civil war. This does not mean that Liberia is going back to war, but many Liberians are ready to crack a bottle on the head of the SUV middleclass at any given moment.

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