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Archive for October, 2011

Under the cotton tree

Driving out of Monrovia, southwards, it is easily observed that most infrastructural improvements are largely limited to the capital. They are trying to refurbish the road to Buchanan, but there is still a long way to go. People complain about the slow pace. In Buchanan, which used to be the second city of Liberia, very little has changed since I was here five years ago. The main thoroughfare is still extremely potholed and must be carefully navigated by drivers and pedestrians alike, at night the place is spookily dark. In Buchanan just as in Monrovia there are numerous posters and banners with election messages; almost all of them for the Unity Party (UP) and with the face of President Johnson Sirleaf. However, when I talk to people in the streets here, a clear majority seems in favor of the opposition party CDC.

I spend about four hours under a cotton tree where predominantly young men are sitting chatting. It is only politics. I follow their discussions (and I try to steer them into what I am interested of, yet with limited success), the debates are loud and heated, fuelled by generous amounts of palm wine. Here it becomes pretty clear that a majority intends to vote for CDC because they are believed to be more “grass root”. Young people believe that UP is an elite project. In fact CDC is trying to ride on the fact that UP is spending so much money in the campaigning. CDC comes out as the political underdog for the social underdogs. It comes out pretty clear in the discussions of the errors of the National Election Commission (NEC), around which most of the debate centers. There is a widespread belief that the NEC is a UP lapdog (not just under this cotton tree). Thus when almost the entire opposition initially stated it would boycott the results of the first round due to alleged fraud – it should be noted that international election bodies have found little proof of that – many people found it very plausible as NEC is perceived being pro-UP. When NEC subsequently in a letter addressed to the CDC (later circulated in the media) erroneously announced CDC the winner of the first round only to hours later retake and give it victory to UP, this only further fuelled anger towards NEC. In fact the fight against NEC has been CDCs key campaign strategy after the first round with a threat to boycott the second round if the NEC head James Fromayan does not step down. Fromayan did step down on Sunday, but CDC has still not officially announced their participation in the second round. Yet it is a fact that CDC the fight against the establishment of NEC is part of their strategy of being perceived as the underdog and it is clearly boosting their popularity. For a party with much less resources it may well be the only way to compete with the wealthy UP and the resigning of the NEC head must be perceived as a victory for the party.

Stirring up discontent among ordinary citizens is probably the only chance for the CDC – and still it is a very small one. However to Liberia it is a risky path, as whipping up discontent may also lead to outbursts of violence and threats of the same – Monrovia has already seen some minor skirmishes. Under the cotton tree in Buchanan everybody agrees that they don’t want to see violence, but on the other hand they hate feeling cheated by a Liberian political elite still too far away from them and their frail realities.

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Monrovia, October 28

Today I moved out of my NGOish hotel situated too far away from real life and into a hotel in the midst of the downtown bustle, just around the corner from where I lived in 1997-98. During fieldwork back then this hotel was really rundown, but now it has had a good brush-up. This is the same hotel where Ryszard Kapuscinski stayed when he visited Liberia in the very beginning of the war. In a chapter of The Shadow of the Sun he in detail describes the swarms of prostitutes in the hotel restaurant and the enormous size of the cockroaches in his room. The chapter is certainly not one of his better texts. It is not an analysis of the situation on the ground at the very important time of his visit but most of the chapter is a rather shallow historical writing of the conflict. I have come to view the descriptions of this hotel as an outcome of the fear that he experienced in Monrovia during those few days he was here. Fear is no longer in the air and Liberians are now going on with their lives.  

Back in 97-98 it happened that I popped by the dark dingy restaurant at this hotel. I in particular remember my first visit. Standing at the counter I was approached by a rather shabby man in his early sixties. He asked me if I could buy him a beer. I agreed. Liberians would certainly call this white man: “po white man”. He told me he came from Greece, but had spent most of his life in Africa, mainly in Burundi. He asked me what I was doing here and I told him that I was a PhD student in social anthropology. He asked me what anthropologists were doing and I gave him a somewhat vague answer about trying to understand social structures. He then looked at me and said with great certainty “there are no social structures in Africa, take that from a man that has killed more Africans than you can ever imagine”. I was shocked, couldn’t respond in any way, but in dismay left the bar. Later on I saw him with some people working for the European Union, I guess they had bought him a beer too, but judged him differently, as he within soon had a company up and running doing road reconstruction for sweet EU money.

On the airplane down here I read a Norwegian book about two Norwegian mercenaries (or adventurers as some would have it) that were caught in Eastern DRC after allegedly murdering their driver. They have been sentenced to death, but are still imprisoned in Kisangani. Norwegian media and public have been obsessed with the case, and created a virtual mill of speculations of the events around this – speculating whether they are guilty or not and also airing an obvious critique of the legal system in DRC. I bought Morten Strøksnes book Ett mord i Kongo (A murder in the Congo) with the hope of learning something more about it. The author spent a lot of time in Kisangani and surroundings, had long discussions with the two Norwegians in prison, ran into a lot of problems with authorities himself, exposes quite some prejudice of his own, but sadly enough does not give any good answers to what really happened. The picture shown in international media of one of them cleaning off the driver’s blood from the front seat of their jeep posing with a big smile is still very shocking to me. Unfortunately after reading the book I know little more than before, but can only conclude that no matter Norwegian or Greek there are just too many depraved white people in Africa.

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I arrived late last night. It is strange to me to see Monrovia lit up with street lights and with such an improved infrastructure. There is even public transportation now for example with busses from ELWA-junction to Buchanan with marked bus stops – although they wait until buses are filled up before they leave ELWA. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has gotten herself a nice election banner stating that she is the receiver of the Nobel peace prize and what would be more natural than placing it in front of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) HQ. Otherwise life is continuing as usual: when the water truck fills up the water tank at the hotel, there are women and kids from the neighborhood with buckets and pans filling them with water from the leaking hosepipe. Even though infrastructure is improving life is still hard for ordinary people and clean water is in demand.

Everybody is talking about the second round of the election. Yesterday the National Election Commission mistakenly turned the figures from the second round around, presenting Winston Tubman and the CDC party as the winner of the first round with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and UP as second. Although the error was soon corrected it created ample room for speculation and further theories of conspiracy among Liberians. I overheard a group of young women discussing the relationship between Charles Taylor and president Johnson Sirleaf pointing out the injustice letting the latter being the president, whilst “her husband” Taylor – that’s how they portrayed their former relationship, although not in the literal sense – imprisoned and tried at the ICC in the Hague. It is quite interesting how people see this previous relationship.

Currently I have localized two areas where there may be some tension ahead of the second election round and that is Nimba County where self proclaimed Kingmaker Prince Johnson has pleaded loyalty to Johnson Sirleaf and also Buchanan where Charles Brumskine, leader of the Liberty Party, has told his supporters to vote in whatever direction they wish. I want to see how this process unfolds and especially how ex-MiLCs are utilized and how they navigate this potentially prosperous geography. I hope to visit both places in the days to come.

Finally: It is nice to be back, yet hard to believe that 15 years have passed since my first visit to Liberia. Then there was war, now there is peace.

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Off to Liberia

What is the role of former military commanders in Liberian politics? With this question in my mind I am today leaving for Liberia on a ten-day field study. The second round of the presidential election is of course a great opportunity to study the role of ex-military networks in the democratic process.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seems to be heading for a certain victory in the election’s second round after former warlord Prince Johnson openly stated his support for the sitting president. Under any circumstances most of his supporters would place their vote on Johnson Sirleaf. Prince Johnson enjoys strong support in the Nimba county whose population during the civil war was engaged in a conflict with a population group from southern Liberia. Johnson Sirleaf’s opponent Winston Tubman, with support mainly in the south, is viewed as a dangerous force by many people in the north.

At the moment the smaller parties are engaged in negotiations with the two main parties. What can they get in exchange for rallying their supporters behind one of the candidates? Positions in the government and administration are up for grabs, in some cases money transactions are also part of the deal.

In another arena a different game is taking place. Ex- military commander, often mid-level, from the country’s former rebel armies have been “bought” as “mobilisers” of votes and as a type of informal security force in case violence breaks out. The ex-commanders have been loyal to different parties and now function as part of the apparatus to ensure that votes can be transferred from one party to one of the main parties for the second round. However, the main parties also often have loyal mobilisers with a background in rebel armies, now further strengthening their ties with them through negotiations.

It is interesting to see how mobilisers with a military background become particularly important during democratic elections (see article by Maya Christensen and myself “Mercenaries of Democracy” in African Affairs, about a similar phenomenon in Sierra Leone ). It is also important to notice how mid-level commanders (called MiLCs in our research project) consolidate their position in general in post-conflict societies like Liberia. While the common soldier is remarginalised after the war, some of the former officers can make use of their background in rebel armies. By using their old networks of military soldiers they become influential players who offer their expertise in the use or threat of violence. These actors are playing important part in the ongoing democratic process in Liberia.

My research during this trip will focus on the political role of the mid-level military commanders. The project as a whole will also focus on the economic and social aspects of the MiLCs. More on this later!

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