When Richlue was driving me from the airport to the city, I noticed a number of political posters of various parties put up along the road. One of the posters had a photo of the current president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, and loudly exclaimed – “Monkey still working, let baboon wait small small”. That thoroughly puzzled me and I turned to Richlue for an explanation. Rich told me that because of the antics of the past presidents, the people long ago began to call the president – ‘the monkey’. In this particular ad, the president is saying that she, the monkey, is still working and the opposition, the baboon, needs to wait for some more time. That, dear friends, is Liberian politics where the president not only accepts the monkey moniker but also returns the favor by calling the opposition a baboon.
Liberia is caught in election fever right now and everywhere you turn, politics is the topic of discussion. After the end of civil war in 2003, this is the first normal election happening at the end of the term of a president. It is a very closely fought election between the current president, Ellen Johnson’s ‘Unity Party’ and world famous football star, George Weah’s ‘Congress for Democratic Change’. The president is the darling of the international community as evidenced by her getting this year’s nobel peace prize. She has some very creditable achievements to her name, including a multi-billion dollar debt forgiveness deal she won for Liberia. However, nearly 50% of the population is less than 18 years of age, and a significant portion of the country’s youth identifies with the football star.
The youth and the children bore the brunt of the civil war and have high expectations now. This is where the president, at times, succeeds and, at other times, fails. Last week, I was going to check out an apartment and was walking down the street. I spotted a young boy across the road from me. He was singing loudly as he pushed a wheel barrow containing a cooler in it. He was wearing a white, cotton vest with a faded blueish imprint of a politician’s picture. I crossed the road and started walking with him. I asked him, what was he singing? He told me that it is a campaign song for the CDC. So, I asked him, why does he support the CDC? What followed was an impassioned argument of which I understood only 25%. It turns out that he is 18 years old and is in 8th grade. He wants to go to school but the school is very expensive. When he goes to get admission, the school administrators ask for 3600 LD (Liberian dollars, nearly 50 USD). I inquired, isn’t the school free? He says, the books and other things cost lots of money which he doesn’t have. He wants to study further and send his brother to school too, so that they can build a better life. I could not disagree with his simple desire. As we talk, 2 little girls approach him for his merchandise. Apparently, he is selling some multicolored concoction of juice and fish oil. Once he satisfied his cute, little customers, off he went, singing loudly of the glory of his football star who would send him to school.
Ab, short for Abraham, our driver, has a slightly different take. Ab supports the current president. When I ask him why, he says that it is because under this president he has experienced peace for the first time in his life. He starts telling me of the time in 1989, when he was 8 and he was in class when the rebel soldiers arrived close to his village. Everyone left in a hurry and he followed one of his classmates out of the village, getting separated from his family in the process. For 3 months, he, his classmate and the villagers kept moving from one place to another just staying ahead of the soldiers. One day, in a town, his father saw him and he fortunately got reunited with his family. Ab grew up, learnt driving and took up a job in the previous government. But, that president too was busy fighting civil war in Liberia and supporting rebels in the neighboring Sierra Leon. Ab was forcibly sent to a training camp. When he tried to leave, he was caught and beaten till he felt like a bundle of broken bones. The soldiers carried him on a wheel barrow and dumped him in a room. Fortunately, they didn’t tie him and he managed to escape through the window. Ab, 30 years of age today, still rues about what he could have been had he gotten the opportunity – a scientist, an engineer, somebody. He drives us in the evenings and studies for his bachelors degree during the day to make up for the time which passed him by. He still can not find his classmate of yore but supports the president for maintaining peace and giving him the opportunity to rebuild his life.
I could tell many more stories. War is never far from the minds of Liberian people and they have suffered a lot. Peace has been won through lot of sacrifice and everyone wants to build their lives on it. The election process has been hard fought but has been very peaceful till now. I can only congratulate the people on this accomplishment. May the best man or woman win. And, whoever wins, may he send our young juice seller, whose name I missed, back to school.
P.S: Since I wrote the original post, the ‘Monkey’ won the first round of elections winning 44% votes to Baboon’s 33%. The second round is scheduled for Nov 8th. The baboon is turning out to be a sore loser and is threatening to boycott the runoff election unless all his demands are met.