Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Monkey Wins the Nobel Peace Prize on its Own Funeral Day

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia),  Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) and Tawakkul Karman(Yemen). This blog entry is a reaction to the timing of the prize to Sirleaf who is up for re-election for a second term. The Committee explained that the elections are a national consideration and their award goes beyond the fact Sirleaf is running for a second term. That sounds all good and noble by recognising that they are awarding the Prize during such critical elections,  but it sounds a bit insincere. The bottom line is that the Prize should not have been awarded in real time. This international stamp of approval will only feed into the perception that the powers that be are calling the shots in Liberia. 

Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize 2011: Bad Timing?

Friday morning, we all woke up to the stupendous news that not one but two Liberian women had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with an activist from Yemen, Tawakkul Karman). The winners are the current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is running for a second term and Leymah Gbowee, a social activist known for leading women in peaceful protests. 

It was a surprise to say the least!, My initial reaction to it was - as usual - suspicous: "Hold on, let's not get too excited here."

Given that elections are hardly a couple of days away, it seems like inappropriate timing. Excited messages have been posted on Facebook and the Liberia Expats Google Group. Among my former colleagues and friends from the UN and NGOs who used to work for Liberia or still work here, it's "congratulations" all around. People are quite chuffed with themselves for having been associated with such a regime and society that is being showered with such praise and respect on an international level. It also reaffirms the ideological framework under which they serve. Hardly anyone from the UN/NGO crowd bothered to question the timing of this Prize. 

Amongst the critical reactions were that that this was being "perceived as interference in the political process." This was observed by a friend (expat) who is working out in Grand Gedeh County.  Another friend, an academic who has published a Phd on Liberia, told me that while he thinks this is great for "global recognition" for Liberia's progress, he didn't think this was "fair for democracy" as it would definitely interfere in the process. Another friend (also works for an NGO) who was over for dinner last night, suggested that the Prize should have either been given earlier to mark the a few years of peace brought about in Liberia or a couple years later.

Further still, given the speculation about these upcoming elections and that this election is going to marked by stiff competition, some think that this Prize is meant to appease Sirleaf and 'encourage' her to leave peacefully in case her party does not win. That the international community is 110% behind Sirleaf goes without saying but that is not how I read the news. I think this just a big fat endorsement.

Although the international press is still seemingly vague, random and selective about details in Liberia's story and how its reported, there is now more of an understanding that Sirleaf's image abroad does not necessarily match her domestic appeal. The New York Times' article Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Three Activist Women  states: "The Nobel committee’s decision underscored the gap between local perceptions of her — it is not hard to find critics of the president in Liberia — and the view from abroad."

Monkey's Funeral and the Big Cheese

Having discussed the ill timing of the awarding of the Prize and the international community's over excitement in expressing their support for an active politician and sitting head of state, what was the local reaction to the Prize?

Well, the news was not even printed in the local papers and whoever did learn of the news must have through radio. My staff was not aware of it until I told them and since they are all UP (United Party - Sirleaf's party) supporters, instant Facebook messages went up celebrating the Prize.

It was also the day when the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), the main opposition party, launched a final campaign rally. So I took a walk out on Randall Street to get a sense of what was going on. My staff had told me the day before it was going to be quite rowdy and the CDC-ians were going to make trouble.

It was more like a party atmosphere slash street politics while the businesses were either closed or the owners stood at their entrances observing the show. As I walked towards my friend Bendu's tea shop, I heard animated discussions on both sides of the street by men and women wearing CDC T-shirts. I could hear bits and pieces like "We are not for UP or CDC, we are for Liberia." So I finally got to Bendu's and again, she did not know of the news but a lady, a secretary for a Lebanese businessman, who was getting her hair braided, knew of the news.

A Lebanese fellow who was hovering around started speaking to me and tried to impress me with his conspiracy theories and personal take on the elections. I shall paraphrase it: Africa is a piece of cheese divided among Western powers and Liberia belongs to the Americans. Referring to locals, he said they have no clue what is going on and because neither he or I could vote, who cares? Finally, he said Obama was in support of Winston Tubman (the standard bearer for CDC).

The fellow's crass and patronising remarks prompted a barrage of indignant protests from the women around us. The ladies shot down the gentleman's shaky theory and undiplomatic comments on Liberians' understanding of politics. My friend, the secretary, was so impassioned at the thought that Liberians would let CDC come into power and bring in turbulent times and risk the peace. The guy disappeared but the excited discussion went on for many more minutes.

It made me realise that sure, Sirleaf enjoys immense international support, and is a "darling of the international community" as described by the Washington Post ("Liberia's Nobel Prize-winning President To Face Stiff Competition at Tuesday's Polls"), but she also has a strong domestic following. My staff, mainly composed of youngsters below the age of 30, love and admire her as the mother of the nation. Market women, vegetable and fruit sellers and the average person on the street I have interacted with profess to be UP supporters. Even the few 'returnees' (Liberians returning from abroad after exile) I have befriended are staunch UP supporters. Salaried, office-going people also support UP. I also see avid support and discussion on my Facebook stream. I think that while some of the average people on the street supports her truly as Mama Liberia, the more so-called educated and wealthier layer applies a certain practicality to their support. In other words, many believe there is really no other viable alternative to Sirleaf.

CDC is viewed as populist party with little or no ideological platform which enjoys mass following comprised mainly of a bunch of 'hooligans' for lack of a better word. This perception is very strong among UP or other party supporters. A procession was coming down on Randall Street and I managed to take a few pictures of the crowd. Most of the partisans were young men and women, dancing and singing, drinking and generally having a good time. Apparently, most of them do not have have voter registration. They were singing some songs about a corrupt monkey and its funeral. 

The monkey refers to Sirleaf, actually; moreover, it's self-afflicted! Part of the UP's campaigning involved the slogan "Monkey Still Working Let Baboon Wait Small." It's a playful satire to convince the public to give the current administration a chance to continue its work. Baboons, referring to CDC, are noisy and troublesome. Another billboard says not to change the pilot before the plane has not even landed! Another set of billboards are even more dumbed down: for instance, Education Da Their Area, Agriculture Da Their Area, Hospitals Da Their Area.

So Friday's CDC rally was dubbed the Monkey's Funeral but unfortunately for them, the Monkey was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!

Tail End 

The upcoming elections in Liberia are going to be historic not only for the country itself but add or subtract from Africa's recent election nightmares. And of course, let's not forget that if Liberia manages to peacefully hold these elections, the international community will be able to pat itself on the back for its neo - liberal peace building efforts in the country since 2003.

I have been quite optimistic about these elections: that Madame Ellen will be swept into a second term, the transition will be smooth, Liberians are 'tired of fighting, ' too much is at stake in terms of foreign direct investment and let's face it, Madame Ellen has the full support, nay adoration, of the international community and it's been fully proven by Friday's announcement of the recipients of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

What will the results be? Your guess is as good as mine. There is some anxiety given the aggressive posturing by the opposition, threatening trouble in case things do not go their way. There is also the likelihood of a run off given there are 15 candidates running for the Presidency. And, there is also a lot of support for the main opposition party, CDC. All in all, these elections will be a tense affair and a lot is at stake.

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