Sunday, 27 November 2011

Post Conflict Liberia: Search for Alternatives, Default Political Change, and an International Local Success

Default Political Change

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has won a second term in office without even having had to bat an eye lid, fight stiff competition, and really having had to explain her ideology, politics and/or platform. On top of it, she has had a handsome endorsement from the international community in the form a Nobel Peace Prize.

A few months leading up to the elections, I encountered a great deal of skepticism about her possible victory. Many people pointed out that 15 political parties vying for power equals stiff competition. Many whispered that Ellen was not popular amongst the population, that the main opposition party (CDC, Congress for Democratic Change) had built up a huge following and she was certainly on her way out. The common analysis was that it was probable that no one party would succeed in getting a 51% majority vote in the first round of voting and a run off was imminent. And indeed, that is what happened. However, none of the other speculations played out. 

There was no stiff competition. There was no ideological debate. We did not have a neck to neck run off. Instead, the opposition committed one strategic blunder after one and lost a massive historical opportunity to build up some political credibility and repertoire. It has been one long list of political suicides which in sum, gave Ellen an effortless victory. 

A few questions arise. Did the opposition in fact have a massive following and could have defeated Ellen in the run offs? Or, did Ellen always have enough support to begin with? Or, did the opposition make all this noise of declaring the whole process a fraud because they knew they had lost the game?

I feel we have had a default political victory

Search for Alternatives - The Notion of Great Leadership and Liberal Democracy's Limitations

As accolades continue to pour over Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize this week up in Oslo somewhere there, you would think some saint has has descended from the heavens to lead Liberia to its promised land. Sirleaf has been joined into the ranks of Nobel Prize laureates and now considered a great African leader. She is one of the personalities to be immortalised within her own lifetime.

Is Sirleaf a great leader, though? She certainly does not have the saintliness that is attributed to Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu, the two giants of Africa.

Sirleaf is a politician and her status as a leader comes from her credentials as a politician and for steering post-conflict Liberia towards stability and economic revitalisation.

Her political goals are very clear - to bring Liberia back into the international community's fold. To re-open Liberia to the global market. To conform to certain notions of peace, democracy and development. It is for this for which she is being recognised.

What other alternatives did Liberians have? Well, I have already noted the short comings of the main opposition's leadership and lost opportunities. I have noted that the same actors of the civil war have found influential and respected positions in post-conflict Liberia. So, what alternatives did we have? Not many so it seems.

It is ironic that for all of CDC's machinations to try to match Sirleaf's credentials, they have failed miserably. George Weah went back to university to get a degree. He even joined forces with former UN diplomat and Harvard-educated Winston Tubman. But alas!

The machine that is democracy is not designed to produce great leaders or alternatives. Even the most mature democracies in the West have produced the likes of George Bush, Tony Blair, Berlusconi and Bill Clinton. Moreover, the electoral process as well as the every-day workings of democracy are complex and limited in the actual political and societal change they can produce. And, with the financial crisis the Western democracies are currently suffering, it has been made painfully clear that the  democracy has so far served capitalism's needs rather than the peoples.

So, Liberia's infant democracy has done well for itself by bringing to power the kind of leader that is Sirleaf.

An International Local Success

Having said it all, it feels like Sirleaf's victory is what I call an international local success. Admired, worshipped and supported by the international community, she is the global choice for Liberia. And what are we celebrating here? The fact she has brought peace to Liberia or is revitalising an extraction economy?

Joseph Dennis, Faithful Servant and Friend, Passed Away

I learned today that Joseph Dennis, my faithful servant and friend of 8 years, passed away today. I hate to use the word servant but the fact is he was my servant who has taken care of my house and office for as long as I have been in Liberia. It is not politically correct to use the word servant but the fact is that given the socio-economic divide between him and I, and the fact that he was not performing skilled work for me but average household/janitorial work, he was a servant. But I considered him more than just a servant and a long-time friend to whom I was grateful for his unwavering loyalty and friendship. The fact is, he has stood by my side through practically everything I have been through while I have been in this country.

I just came back from Joe's house in West Point. I have visited West Point when I was working with the UNDP a few times to check out some projects and knew it was a slum and have seen and smelled its narrow alleys, crowdedness, poverty and filth. But I had never visited Joe's home so it was a very overwhelming experience.

It was quite dark and Joe's friend guided us through the dark with a torch light. We entered a doorway and saw many people gathered and his wife crying very loudly, beating her hands on the floor. I asked to see her separately and we went into their one-room house which was lit with a bright bulb. Patience (NATC staff) and I sat down and the wife sat on the floor. His three little girls (his older son was not around), neighbours, wife's brothers were there. I just sat in shock looking at the poor little room. The walls were covered with newspapers and posters and some frames. A huge bed was the main attraction with suitcases and a couple of TVs and clothes here and there. I recognised things from my various homes, picture frames, old perfume bottles, DVDs, old suit cases...My discarded life decorated his one-room house.

So we just sat there and we talked about what happened. It was such a surreal experience. I was in shock and speaking practically and in a robotic voice. I tried to convey to them how much he meant to be me and what a kind and honest man their husband, brother, neighbour and friend was.

It seems like it was definitely a stroke or a heart attack because he just collapsed Saturday morning. He was fine and was even dressed to go to work. His neighbour told me that Joe had in fact woken him that morning. The next thing then knew he had collapsed and was almost in a coma. From then onwards, Jonathan (NATC staff member) rushed to their house and took him to Mercy Clinic first and then JFK. Patience visited Joe twice on Saturday. He was moving his limbs, apparently struggling against the doctors when they were examining him. When they went to visit him today, they were told he had died and to come back tomorrow to identify the body. 

I do not know what kind of care he got at JFK and, whether he could have been saved if it were a hospital in a country with better facilities. 

And that's it. Joseph Dennis is no more. I am consumed with grief. I cannot even explain you how sad I am. He's been my faithful and loyal servant and friend for 8 years. He knows all my habits, my mannerisms and my moods. I have confided many a problem to him. He was never sick, never late, never anything. I could always rely on him, on any day. He was always smiling. He was there with me through the ordeal of Wesley's death and by my side all along. He even went to the court to testify against the Chinese criminals. I know it is selfish but I cannot even imagine a daily routine without Joe. I am so sorry I never did anything substantial for him. I felt so bad sitting in his one-room house in that slum.

May Joe's soul rest in peace. I wish I had done more for him all the time I knew him but what is the use of regrets now? I wish tomorrow does not come so I do not have to face the reality that he is gone and that he will not be amongst us, around us, bring me my coffee and being the glue that he was between all of us. I feel sad he will never see our new office that we are so excited about. I feel sad he will not enjoy the successes our growing company is going to achieve. And I feel sad thinking about his children who are now without a father and his wife who is now without a husband.

Life is unfair and random and even more so for those who live in poverty.

My dear Joe, I hope you rest forever in peace and please know that I will remember and cherish your memories and friendship.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Letters and Nostalgia

I have been a voracious letter ever since I have been a kid. 

Some of my fond and earliest memories of letter writing as a kid were writing letters in Urdu to our grandfather. Aboo taught us to fold the letter in half. On one side would be our letter to Dada Jee and the other side would be blank. So we would post our letters to Dada Jee through the Embassy Pouch. And, Dada Jee would send us back our corrected letter on the other side. 

The sweetest thing about writing those letters in Urdu were starting with "Pyare Dada Jee." 

I am afraid my Urdu writing never progressed further than 3rd or 4th grade and we never really wrote many more letters in Urdu which is too bad. 

So, most of my letter writing has been in English. I used to write dedicated letters to all my girl cousins and, God knows what I used to put in them because there were so many cousins I'd write to. I guess I would just talk about school, classes, homework and other nerdy things. 

I also had friends that I had made in each city and country I have lived in and so they also needed to be written to. I have managed to stay in touch with many of my childhood friends and we have been good friends through all these years. There are a couple of friends that shared my love of writing so much that we primarily contacted each other through letters. I feel I have a deep bond with them as we have shared with each other our concerns, desires and special moments through words as we have grown up and moved on in our lives. 

Finally, when we left home for university, I started writing letters to our parents and little sister. Those were sweet times as well. 

Since I started working, though, I have been in places where sending and receiving post has been tricky but I still managed to do it via the UN pouch. 

Now that I have started working for myself, I haven't bothered to find out whether Liberia's post actually works. I have heard it does indeed work but I have been too lazy to make an inquiry myself. I should given how much I love sending letters. 

What I have been doing in the meantime is to send letters via anyone leaving Liberia and asking them to put it in a post box next time they see one. And I have sent postcards to friends and family from where ever I have gone to visit. 

I know post cards and cards still do get sent. I am sure people still write letters. But e-mails have replaced letter writing for most people. Not only do e-mails reach the receipient almost instantaneously, but are much faster to write than taking quill to paper. And because one can send an e-mail countless times in a day, they can be as short as possible.  Where before, one would sit and write about what happened in the previous month, one can talk about what happened the day before. I think letters were a much more measured way of writing to one's friends and loved ones but e-mails can be equally eloquent and romantic. 

I still love writing a letter when I get the chance and posting it. It gives me almost a childish sense of glee because it connects me back to my childhood and how I was taught to communicate with my loved ones. 

I feel quite nostalgic for bygone days this evening. It has actually been prompted by a number of incidents. First of all, Haresh is in India to be with his mother who has undergone a critical by pass and valve replacement surgery. My own mother is going to have a similar operation next month. 

And, finally, Wesley's brother has finally returned home to Cape Town, South Africa after several years. It must have been a bittersweet family reunion. He has come home after the passing away of his dear father (Wesley) and elder brother (Wesley). I heard it was a wonderful reunion but full of tears. 

Being alone in Liberia for the first time in so many years, I definitely feel nostalgic and a bit lonesome. I have been thinking about distances, from loved ones, from one's country and the passing of time. We can't stop time, hold on to something forever and not experience change. But we can hold on to memories. 

So I decided to dig out my old shoe box and take out some letters and envelopes to comfort me and linger over happy memories.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Disastrous Turn of Events in Liberia's Elections 2011

This blog entry was written on 7 November 2011 while playing Settlers of Catan

Although the actual details of today's events are still sketchy, it appears that some peoples' fears about Liberia's shaky peace have come to pass. Apparently, three people (or at least 1 person) were killed in an incident involving the police and the main opposition party's supporters today on the eve of the run off's. Businesses were closed early, streets were emptied of the usual chaotic traffic, and people are in a general state of panic. The opposition has already declared a boycott of these elections so therefore, the state of panic is excaerbated by a sense of acute uncertainy.

At least that is how I read many peoples' moods this evening as I sit playing a game of Settlers of Catan this evening with close friends and family. It is 2 AM, I'm sipping a cup of delicious masala chai,  have just activated my knights as the pirate ship looms ever so close, and am pondering the rather terrible turn of events today.

I would like to focus my blog entry on specifically countering the cynicsm and fears about a stable and peaceful electoral process that I keep hearing about around me. There seem to be the merging of two beliefs about violence in Liberia: 1) it is endemic and 2) elections will be just a trigger to fall back into another civil conflict. I think that as unfortunate as today's incident was, it is not any indicator of an electoral nightmare similar to that of Kenya or Ghana. I agree that opposition's antics are problematic - specifically, their persistent efforts to denounce the entire process even before it started - but so far, there are certain reassuring factors about this process to date.

As I have said earlier, the main opposition party, the CDC (Congress for Democratic Change), has lost a great opportunity to build its political credentials. Their view of politics is not long-term, a desire to build a credible political reputation and, to try to win some international support but merely guided by a determination to reach the Executive Mansion.  Politics needs to be viewed as a game of chess but CDC seems to be playing rather a game of ludo.  All we have seen this party accomplish is to cry foul at literally E-V-E-R-Y S-T-E-P O-F T-H-E W-A-Y. Their cries of 'foul, foul' have been uttered by threats of making trouble but nine out of ten times, verablised threats are rarely carried out.

The Unity Party on the other hand has not lost a single day in continuing their campaigning during this electoral period. As soon as the run off's were declared, the President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was back on the road rallying more support and reassuring not only her supporters but the public in general of a peaceful process and promise to accept the outcome. 

There are glaring differences between the political machinations of the CDC and UP Parties that go beyond the criticisms against the international community for their unabashed and insensitively-timed awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Sirleaf, for example. These differences also go beyond the criticisms that the ruling party has unfair advantages of using government and UN machinery for their campaigns. In short, the CDC party is not the peoples' party it claims to be but an immature, crude populist outfit that has built up massive public grievances by emphasising their poverty but not offering any solutions. 

I, of course, have many reservations against the Sirleaf and her regime, too that range from 'the international community has a neo-liberal agenda in Liberia' to Liberia Has Not Adequately Addressed It's War Crimes. Sure, I also agree with the perception that Sirleaf's government has catered to an elite, revived old segments of the previous elite and is even creating a new one. There is also no doubt that an extraction economy with its problems of wealth distribution is being re-juvenated. This government is an entirely outward-looking one. The list of criticisms goes on. 

So yes, Sirleaf's government is not revolutionary nor socialist. But as Prince Johnson said when he conceded to her, she is the 'lesser of two evils.' 

The main thing to stress here is that thus far, it has been a managed process and, will continue to be a managed one. The fact that some violence occurred today is not necessarily an indicator that a return to war is a certainty, as some fear. 

The government had already taken steps to boost the security by importing 4,000 troops from neighbouring Nigeria. ECOWAS has been extremely vocal in professing its support for the electoral process going to the extent of admonishing CDC. The US Embassy here has gone on record to say they will be closely watching the process and in the case of violence will be making recommendations to the ICC. These are some reassuring factors.

So far, it has been a peaceful and managed electoral period with ups and downs not dissimilar to any other in the world. There are successful and lucky politicians and some who should not be in politics to begin with. Electoral results are always contested. Electoral violence also occurs and ends up killing people. This is what we are seeing in Liberia. 

It remains to be seen what kind of turn out we will see in tomorrow's run off's. How much will these deaths play into the CDC's declared boycott? How will it affect voter turn out?

So this is what we have been asking ourselves all day today. The news first came in by word of mouth early afternoon and, Facebook messages started playing as well. All the businesses started closing by 3 PM or even earlier for fear of an escalation and possible looting. In such an atmosphere, we decided to dismiss our staff at around 4 PM so they could get home early.

I went out later in the evening to buy a few things from the supermarket and they had practically closed up except and seemed to be letting customers come through a half-opened door.

Through out the day, we could not confirm what happened, how many people were killed and who fired at who. Did the police shoot first to disperse the crowd? Did someone from the crowd shoot?

BBC and Al Jazeera aired clips today so it has garnered attention but they were literally 1 - minute blurbs that do not provide much context. Some analysis from these news houses would be greatly appreciated.

Here's the Al Jazeera online article "Deadly Clashes Ahead of Liberian Vote" which states that at least 3 people were confirmed killed. Here's a New York Times article "Pre-election Liberia Protests Turn Violent" which reports that at least 1 person was killed.

Lastly, I would like to certainly read more about electoral violence and how and why it unfolds . 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

5,000 Hits on Potatogreens

Not that I care about numbers and statistics and all that, but I just wanted to say that I have had 5,050 hits on my blog! Yay! It is surely worth a blog entry!