Hennie van Vuuren
Hennie van Vuuren

Bahama, Bahama mama

While Charles Taylor was pondering his future in court in The Hague, I was sitting in the back seat of a 4×4, speeding along one of Monrovia’s main boulevards while dodging the Liberian capital’s potholes, squashed between three of my gracious hosts from the National Drug Enforcement Authority, with Boney M booming.

As we passed by the tallest fully functional building in town, the headquarters of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (Unmil), Boney M crooned: “Bahama, Bahama mama, she has the biggest house in town, Bahama mama”.

One cannot escape the presence of the UN in Monrovia. The multinational blue helmets in big white Toyotas vie with the yellow sedan taxicabs for space on the road. They trail the convoy of Mam’ Sirleaf-Johnson with sirens blaring. Not only the president, but also many of the capital’s ministries have UN guards sitting behind sandbags keeping watch — visible only by the butts of their guns and helmets. I am unsure who the exact threat is; perhaps it’s something intangible that the transitory researcher-aid-tourist class into which I am boxed will always fail to understand. As a taxi driver related: “We need another six years for this thing to disappear from us.”

The resilient Liberian people trading on the streets belie the fact that the West African nation has only recently escaped a long and brutal war. Perhaps the two UN tanks parked outside the defence headquarters, a simple, three-storey building that looks more like a block of flats, know of more apparent threats. Most of the people I spoke to agreed they should stay.

Anyone who has had family for an extended visit knows that they seldom come without the blues. Shortly after my arrival, an Unmil vehicle was involved in a horrific pile-up killing five people. The popular Daily Talk, a roadside chalkboard that serves thousands of news-hungry readers, was measured in its response, accusing “Unmil vehicle 666” and the local taxis of being in a competition for road fatalities. However, there was no call for retribution.

It could be common cause that without a UN military presence, strongmen would return to destabilise the Sirleaf-Johnson government. This is the breathing space that Africa’s only woman leader desperately needs. Visit the country’s Auditor General, John Morlu, to understand how state institutions have been hollowed out. Morlu is a dynamic accountant who has spent 20 years abroad and after seven months in office is shaking things up. He appropriately has the air and attire of somebody at the helm of an internet start-up — not yet jaded by the world of three-piece suits. His time in the Ukraine has no doubt also readied him for the job.

Morlu sits in the corner office on the top floor of the old “executive mansion”. Climbing the four floors to his office, the dusty wooden steps creak. The comparatively flashy yellow curtains in his office contrast with the rest of the building, which is almost completely gutted. The windows have been removed. The window frames have been removed. The burnt-out walls on the third floor recently served as a blackboard for three-times tables and verses from the Book of Psalms.

Morlu and his colleagues are attempting the impossible — to audit the affairs of a state that has never had its books open to independent inspection since 1847, the birth date of the modern Liberian state. Perhaps we are witnessing the rebirth of the Liberian state. With a bit of help from the Europeans, Zambian, Ghanaians and hopefully South Africans, he is building an institution from scratch — sometimes supported and sometimes undermined by the executive, he is fighting off the hyenas, the corrupt class she has described as “enemy number one”. Read one of the daily broadsheets and you realise this resonates with ordinary people tired of the plunder.

What the state requires is transformation that matches the pockets of political will with capacity. While foreign donors have brought money and projects to Liberia, one cannot but help get the sense that these, like the Mennonite missionaries waiting for their plane at Roberts Airfield, could go as soon as they came. What Liberia no doubt needs is something that only post-war Europe ever got — something of Marshall Plan proportions. Unlike Rwanda, Liberia has been unable to draw on the same amount of money and skills brought by returning ex-patriots and “genocide guilt” — the money that builds infrastructure and stimulates domestic economic growth. It does, however, posses iron ore and fertile soil that sustains large natural forests and massive rubber plantations.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the resource-hungry American and Chinese governments building their new embassy compounds in suburb on the outskirts of Monrovia. Their proximity both to the airport and the “escape” route it offers is also evident. Talk on the street is that the Americans are waiting for the Chinese to complete construction so that they can build an even more representative structure. The Chinese have also undertaken popular infrastructure projects such as renovating the sports complex that is home to Liberian soccer. Equally important in the battle for hearts and minds is the Chinese reconstruction of Monrovia’s road network that started in the past month. Despite there being no electricity and piped water in the city, the poor road network is the number-one gripe among many.

There is also talk of Chinese plans to develop a rubber plantation that will rival the US-owned Firestone plantation, which employs 20 000 rubber-tappers in notoriously poor conditions outside Monrovia. What will be welcomed is the prospect of a Chinese rubber-processing plant, something the Americans failed to build over the past 81 years. This forced the cash-strapped country to export rubber and import tyres and condoms manufactured abroad.

The Chinese are not universally regarded as virtuous. A resident of Congo Town speaks of Chinese employers at the new embassy who chase away local workers with “We don’t want black people today.” These are apparently the days when the Chinese contractors work on wiring and technical tasks — skills those local workers who are confined to bricklaying and mixing cement wish to learn. The third empire, South Africa, is largely absent from daily life with its nearest high commission in Ghana. This is save the odd mercenary and the DStv satellite sports channel that beams Sundays’ Cosmos vs Swallows matches on to the walls of the Lebanese-owned hotels. Its permanency is guided by the generator supply.

While the UN presence should not be a permanent solution, I cannot help but wonder who will replace it as the sovereign. The Liberian president representing the popular will of her people? What happens if another African state is forced to practice good governance but lacks the capacity to effect democratic governance? Can Liberia play off empires and their interests and still win? Too many states on the continent look at Liberia and see a reflection of their own very uncertain future.