Rejoinder to Utas on the emerging Liberian middle class, by Ilmari Käihkö

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. https://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..

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