Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

LIBERIA: Controversial Mayor is Talk of the Town

Rebecca Murray

MONROVIA, Jul 1 2009 (IPS) - Myaha Johnson sits with her family beneath a flimsy shelter of black plastic, looking with despair at the charred remains of what used to be their home. Mary Broh, Monrovia’s controversial mayor-designate, had just swept through the neighbourhood with her task force, vigorously tearing down residential structures along the back road, including their own.

Mary Broh wants thousands of Monrovia's poorest people out of her city, back to the land in the countryside. Credit:  Rebecca Murray/IPS

Mary Broh wants thousands of Monrovia's poorest people out of her city, back to the land in the countryside. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

"She said we were living on illegal land and she started breaking down the place. She never gave us time to move, she never gave us time," says Johnson, a 28-year-old mother whose husband was killed in Liberia’s civil war. "It took them about one hour to smash the house down. We didn’t have time to take our belongings out."

A week later the task force returned. "She waited one week, and then she burnt down the place," Johnson says. "She came with four trucks. She put gas on the heap and it just started burning. We tried to talk to her but she said, ‘Just move’."

This year the rainy season has hit the homeless Johnson family and their neighbours especially hard. At night, Myaha’s mother, sisters and daughters sleep on a mattress along the edge of the rutted road, and run to shelter in a nearby doorway when the heavy rain falls.

During the day, sodden, dirty mattresses are laid out to dry near a boiling pot of rice, while children play amidst piles of rotting rubbish. Next to a decrepit mansion abandoned in the war, the squalid Atlantic beachfront is a humiliating community toilet and place to wash.

"They are saying this land is government land," says Johnson, who fled war-torn northern Lofa County to the capital almost twenty years before. "[Mary Broh] told us to go up to the Interior. But she doesn’t give us anything to go. No money. I don’t have a job, I sell cooked rice – this is how me and my three children survive."

During the decades-long war, thousands of Liberians like Johnson migrated en masse to Monrovia from rural counties to escape the fighting. According to the national census report published in May, Monrovia’s Montserrado County still holds over one million of the country’s 3.5 million citizens, six years after the conflict’s end.

Adequate housing, sanitation, and electricity are out completely out of reach for most in Liberia’s capital. Many find shelter in abandoned private or government-owned property. And with skyrocketing unemployment nationwide exacerbated by the world economic crisis, nearly 70 percent of all Liberians live on less than one dollar per day.

"What government intends to do is get a housing development here and build houses to accommodate the huge population of Monrovia," says George Miller, the Assistant Minister for Land. "Now if you can’t wait while we are trying to purchase some land and put in some housing with the housing authority, then you should go back to where you came from."

Miller adds, "The government is doing everything in its power to reduce the population of Monrovia, do you understand? Sometimes when you find out where jobs are created, there will be an exodus going to that particular area."

After Broh’s previous stints combating corruption at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Port Authority, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf nominated her mayor in February 2009. At the same time, she was appointed to take the lead on the Special Presidential Task Force to clean up Monrovia. Broh is direct in asserting her priority: "We will try to depopulate – people must go back to their county."

Her energetic army of volunteers, led by Broh herself, have stormed Monrovia’s congested downtown, its poverty-stricken slums and sprawling marketplaces, with rakes, shovels, bulldozers, trucks, gasoline, and accompanying music.

Encircled by crowds of residents, merchants, pedestrians and police, the task force has swept up tons of garbage and rubble, and broken apart and burnt down market stalls, business and residence structures they declare to be illegally built on government land.

The city’s Chamber of Commerce is thankful for the removal of the makeshift structures and wheelbarrows, which obstructed their storefronts – and Monrovian businesses have funded much of the equipment used by the task force. Commuters commend the city’s improved road access, and residents at a demolition site nod in agreement with Broh’s condemnations of squatters, garbage, and lack of community mentors.

Broh believes that cleaning up the city is a major step in Liberia’s emergence from conflict. "The war is over maybe three, four years now, and people have to realise now that this is not the only post-war nation," she says. "Rwanda was able to do it – Kigali is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. And they lost a million people. Look at Sierra Leone. All these countries, they are recuperating."

And she is contemptuous of the Liberians who crowd Monrovia’s slums. "They don’t want to go back, they want to stay in the city and slum," Broh explains.

"Because they are just too lazy. Nobody wants to go back to the soil. Laziness is the root of this whole thing. People don’t have work ethics. It’s dependence syndrome, that’s what it is. They beg – we have a lot of beggars – because they want to sit under the shaded tree all day and do nothing."

But Broh is not without her critics. Angry market vendors have demonstrated outside President Sirleaf’s residence, and have met with Broh at City Hall to protest the destruction of their property.

"The country is in a serious situation," says Romeo Gbartea, a consultant with the Governance Commission. "The government needs to work in conformity with the people, and the people need to understand that things that need to happen will be well announced. Part of the problem that people continue to have is that she does not have a plan… Mary Broh wakes up in the morning, and decides where to go. Then she goes into the community and breaks down their houses. She doesn’t have a plan."

"This is a postwar period where survival is most important," says Alairic Tokpa, a University of Liberia political science professor, and founder of the New Deal Movement. "The government has no program, no authority programs to accommodate the needs and the interests of the poor people of Monrovia – and these people are being kicked out of their shelters, their homes."

Broh’s controversial role with the Presidential task force has prompted the Senate to withhold its confirmation of the mayoral nomination, but President Sirleaf has since ‘appointed’ Broh as acting-mayor in an attempt to circumvent the legislative process.

"The Senate’s argument is that since she has not been confirmed, but appointed, she cannot go with all the powers ascribed to the City Mayor such as raising taxes on businesses of Monrovia," explains Tokpa.

Broh remains undeterred by the political wrangling and increasing public protest. In Jallah Town on a recent afternoon in May, she sat with her assistant in a car filled with papers, clothes and a bag of marijuana seized from dealers in a previous demolition that she intends to burn.

"Did they tell you that they stoned me and we had to get out of there with the police?" she asks sharply, when questioned about burning down the Johnson neighbourhood structures. "They got angry and for some reason they started stoning my staff, and stoned the police… They were very violent."

Stepping from the car she tours a makeshift garage, yells at its proprietor and talks with accompanying journalists. "They are not listening, this is a lawless place," she says. "Somebody has to crack the whip."

I go around and see dirt, I will tell you straight out and go inside and make you clean it, and if I come back and see it, I’ll make you go."

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