Tag Archives: Liberia

The Traffic Lights of Gender Equality are Stuck on Red!

The city of Monrovia has been taken over by post 2015 fever — roads are being blocked off, schools closed and traffic lights, a novelty to Liberia’s post-war population, made a show. Hotels, including the New Royal, almost touching the Monrovia, are overbooked. Liberians, old enough to remember the country’s hosting of the Organization of African Unity meetings in 1979, liken the current ambience to the period. For women civil society organizations-this is the space where our future is secured-not only by High Level Panel members but also by ourselves.

Civil society organizations, involved in the process, are moving their agenda from New York to London and now Monrovia. ActionAid is one of dozens of Liberian, African and international civil society organisations who want to make sure our views are heard loud and clear when we meet with the High Level Panel on Post 2015 as its members gather in town later this week.

Women leading discussions so far include Gender and Development Minister at opening the session, again setting great example for other countries, of having women in key decision making roles. Gender Minister Cassell, clear and unequivocal of priorities, highlighted the inclusion of adolescent girls/women, VAWG, access to sexual health and reproductive rights, and economic transformation of women in a new development framework post 2015.

While there has been important progress in recent years, gender inequality is still a challenge to women human rights in Liberia, across Africa and indeed across the world. Violence is not the only but surely the most vivid evidence of deep inequalities. Endemic, pervasive, in private and public spaces, violence against women have been a major barrier to women attaining gender equality and participating in the development of their countries.

That is why there is a clear message coming from the Gender Minister, UN Women and women’s rights organisations in Africa and other regions, all united in calling for a gender equality goal post 2015; and ActionAid is fully behind them. And here’s why: The current MDG3 is vitally important to Liberia. However, there must be genuine political momentum and actions; increased resources and accountability to support women’s rights organisations important position to have transformative targets and expanded indicators on women economic rights and on the overall, gender equality.

Clearly what is at stake is the possibility of having a new development framework that presents no goal on gender equality. If there is no goal, this will be a major step back for women, girls and the rest of the world’s population. We need to build on the current set of MDGs and make them better. Professor Gita Sen in her opening remarks stated that, ‘we need to invest effort and resources over the long term’. No gender goal would be saying to the world: we don’t think this is important. It would be saying to girls, young women that they will grow up like their mothers, trapped without rights to live free from fear, equally.

Although the HLP and UN consultation teams claim to be listening to southern voices, but it is far from clear that they will reflect the clear call on a gender goal. This week, President Sirleaf, the first elected African head of state, will speak to CSOs. Will she confirm demonstrated leadership and show commitment on women being at the core of transformation in Liberia, and globally? Half of the world’s population will be watching Monrovia this week and our attention will not be on the ‘beautified’ city or new traffic lights!

Contact: Korto Williams, Country Director, ActionAid Liberia; Tel: +231777748078

Children’s books from the Liberia Series

Two new children’s books from Liberian writers -

From Stephanie Horton “What Happened To Red Rooster When a Visitor Came”

Illustrated by: Chase Walker - Grade Level: PK-3
Red Rooster was the biggest, most beautiful chick on the farm. So what happened to Red Rooster when a visitor came? Read Stephanie Horton’s hilarious tale of the loudest bird on a small Liberian farm.

From Robtel Pailey, “Gbagba”

Illustrated by: Chase Walker

Grade Level: 3-5th grade
Sundaymah and Sundaygar are two siblings who live in Grand Bassa County. On their way to visit their Auntie Mardie’s house in
Monrovia, they encounter various characters in the big city and have an experience that introduces them to a very important word: GBAGBA!


‘Power of Words’: Developing a Culture of Reading Will Unlock Liberia’s Consciousness

I remember my first love.

It was a dog-eared copy of Breath, Eyes, Memory, a coming-of-age story loosely based on the life of its Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat. I found it on the bookshelf of my local library, a red-brick building in the heart of Washington, D.C., with life-sized Egyptian pillars.

I was 12, and the protagonist, Sophie Caco–an immigrant from Port-au-Prince who moves to New York to reunite with her mother–gave voice to my very own story of migration. It appeared as if Danticat were speaking through me, to me, and about me, all at once. This book was the closest I could find to an authentic Liberian story while abroad, far removed from the grotesque images of war and carnage on international newsfeeds. After reading it close to 10 times, I eventually bought my own copy.

Since then, Breath, Eyes, Memory has been replaced by a number of other loves, but none more gratifying than the love of reading. Whenever my world seems to be teetering on an edge, reading brings me back to center. Reading gives me the vocabulary to express myself intellectually and emotionally. Reading makes me appreciate the power of words.

The Ward Academy for Girls on Clay Street develops a love of science and technology amongst its students. Ward Academy students also read on a regular basis to strengthen their phonics skills.

The old adage is true that reading unlocks the imagination, but it also unlocks the soul of a person. It has the potential to unlock the soul of a nation like Liberia struggling so desperately to find and define itself. I’m convinced that if Liberia had a culture of reading, we would develop a critical consciousness. After all, good readers make critical thinkers, and critical thinkers transform societies.

But first, we need access to books. And I don’t mean any old books. The influx of books donated by well-meaning philanthropists may be helpful for now, but what we really need are books with cultural relevance. There’s nothing more empowering than seeing one’s reflection on the pages of novels, on the covers of historical texts, or in the bylines of anthologies. And there are a number of promising initiatives that promote this kind of reading culture.

The Liberia Association of Writers (LAW), in collaboration with CODE Canada, recently started producing children’s books by Liberian artists. At the moment, LAW is collaborating with the Ministry of Education to introduce these books into the elementary school curriculum. And One Moore Book (OMB) (http://onemoorebook.com/), a publishing company established by Wayetu Moore, a young Liberian social entrepreneur based in New York, was founded in January 2011 to publish culturally sensitive children’s books for countries with low literacy rates, like Liberia. Moore and her four siblings, all artists in their own right, wrote, illustrated, and published the first series of books about Liberia.

At the end of this year, OMB will launch a Haiti series featuring Haitian writers and edited by Edwidge Danticat. And next January, OMB will publish a Liberia Signature Series, featuring veteran Liberian writers Stephanie Horton and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. The Series will also include Gbagba– a book written by me and illustrated by Liberian artist and FrontPage Africa layout editor Chase Walker–which educates children about corruption. My goal will be to ensure that every 10-year-old child in Liberia has his/her very own copy.

I am hopeful that with initiatives like LAW’s and OMB’s, Liberian children will begin to appreciate who they are while also developing a critical consciousness about the world around them. A case in point, I recently bought children’s books written by Liberian authors for my three-year-old cousins, Mardie and T-Girl. They now carry the books to school, to bed, to the bathroom. Even though they cannot read, they make up stories from the pictures, silencing my deep alto adult voice with their loud, high-pitched children’s chatter. I can see a spark in their eyes whenever we read together.

The Ward Academy hosted its first “Reading Is Fun” Program in 2011, in which Liberian professionals were invited to read to the students. Robtel Neajai Pailey engages with Ward Academy students on April 13, 2011.

To develop that spark of consciousness in all Liberians, we must build a library in every county capital. Monrovia already has one. Michael Weah and his team at the We Care Library, a spacious second floor suite on Carey and Gurley streets in Central Monrovia, have done a phenomenal job of cataloguing hundreds of books of all kinds. The library even has shelves sectioned off for Liberian authors, with the likes of well-known writers C. William Allen, D. Elwood Dunn, Bai T. Moore, K. Moses Nagbe, Angela Peabody, and Wilton Sankawulo, as well as emerging writers Watchen Johnson Babalola, James Dwalu, and Elma Shaw displayed. And before it went on hiatus, the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings was regularly displayed on We Care computers.

But we need more We Cares around the country, especially on university campuses. I remember the challenge of teaching English composition and African literature at Stella Maris Polytechnic and the University of Liberia, respectively, without books readily available in-country. I would take my students’ assignments home to grade, and spend half the evening crying over pages bleeding with red-ink correction marks. There were so many errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar, but I was always mindful that these students neither had the foundation in English instruction, nor the books available to emulate good writing.

The students constantly complained that they had to read novels in my class without fully appreciating that readers make better writers. Monrovia-based colleges/universities should lead the way in developing a culture of reading by establishing one large inter-university library, accessible by registered students and open to the public. Small, micro university libraries here and there are not the solution. We can demand that a portion of all social development funds be used for library construction and maintenance.

We also need bookstores, and I don’t mean reserving a few shelves on grocery store stands. I mean a mammoth bookstore that could be franchised throughout the country when the time is right. Right now, the space underneath the Ministry of Education on Broad Street seems to function as our national bookstore, but pirating books with little respect for copyright laws is not the answer. This is where public-private partnerships come in. Instead of opening a village of entertainment spots that sell ‘five for five,’ entrepreneurs should be thinking about selling books at an affordable rate. The demand will follow.

I know that developing a culture of reading requires capital, but it’s an investment worth making. Just as we recognize the importance of physical infrastructure in national reconstruction, we must think of books as the intellectual infrastructure needed to protect that development. We must develop a thirst for knowledge that only a love of reading can quench. I discovered that when I was 12.

It is not too late for Liberia.

Vagina Dialogue: A Date with Eve Ensler

The poem Vagina Dialogue: A Date with Eve Ensler was first published by ‘Sea Breeze: Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writing‘ in 2006.   Sea Breeze which is edited by Stephanie Horton  was one of the first online literary journals on the continent.  The journal has a 7 year archive of must read radical and feminist writings by Liberians – Enjoy!


Korto WilliamsimageVagina Dialogue: A Date with Eve EnslerMy vagina became political last night
And does not want a monologue
It does not want to know its scent or color
It has known this for many years
There is no search for a clitoris
It is there and needs no friendly hands to find it
It wants to dialogue with Eve
Open an intellectual discourse
And challenge her feminist presumption
Of a global sisterhood that does not exist
It does not want to know about texture and depth
It has known this for many years
It wants to discuss the concept of community and individualism
And the impact it has on our bodies
It wants to talk about geographic regions in her monologue
And get on a blue mat to talk about female circumcision
And the right to abortion
It wants to dialogue
A monologue will make some laugh, others shocked
Of course, some wet and others hard
But a dialogue will bring to light our historical antecedents
It will tell why childbirth remains a secret and sacred discussion
Despite the role of the vagina in it
A dialogue will dismiss the search for the clitoris, especially
When we have to find our rights within society
To marry, especially if it is another vagina
A dialogue will bring light to the issue of why Michael Jackson
Cannot be replicated against the ‘sexy secretary and the little girl in the lavender teddy’
Eve, my vagina is angry and needs to update the issues in your vagina, oops . . .
monologueContinue reading at Sea BreezeCopyright © Korto Williams

Of Sheroes & The Fire Dance

Today I’m thinking of painted halos. A metaphor, see? How the crowned are throned and made into angels . . . people with halos painted by other people without.

Of sheroes, I may have found one in a political leader. Is such a thing at all possible?  Do politicians today without painted halos exist? Politicians? They are scary for true. Their plasticity. Their shape-shifting toothy lies. Their cold, stern, power-driven philosophies. I’m wondering.  We in Africa have known and seen great freedom fighters, great thinkers, great human beings. Most lived embattled lives until their early deaths (usually by murder). Thinking tonight about this could-be-a-shero and her dance of fire.

Since ancient times, dance in Africa has been a rigorous discipline, artistry indivisible from life’s rhythm. Instruction to learn a dance is a long, long process over years and years of study. A dance draws on the elements; the natural world; the spiritual world; the dancer’s soul divinity. To see a dancer glide is to witness craft honed through arduous dedication.

My could-be-a-shero’s name is Manjerngie Cecelia Ndebe. During a peaceful protest vigil, tear gassed by the new US-trained special security police, she was arrested, dragged to jail, incarcerated without charges for hours. Her dance of fire was in the streets, baptized in the blood of those murdered by the police:  The bony hungry protesters weakened by malnutrition, outraged at their condition. Her dance of fire was in a filthy jail cell.

Said Martin Luther King, Jr., “I am not afraid to go to jail for justice.” This is the dance of fire Manjerngie Ndebe danced. She knew the costs. Regardless, she danced to the elements dodging bullets. Sheroic. There may be other deeper reasons, too, why she, the Standard Bearer of a registered political party (the Liberia Reconstruction Party) was manhandled and snatched off the streets. In an open letter, she boldly challenged Ellen Loj, the head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Her burning words (excerpted):

“Through the war and now in the name of peacekeeping, the international community has created jobs for its member country citizens in various capacities like experts, GEMAP, UNMIL, UNDPD, USAID, International Contact Group, EU, and many others without paying income taxes to Liberia while many Liberians are unemployed.

“The international community brought in GEMAP September 2006 and under its continual monitoring and control, Liberia has been rated among the top corrupt countries of the world. The oil wells on the coastlines of Liberia have been given to companies of member countries of GEMAP through corrupt legislative bills written and forced on the Liberian Legislature for passage by the international community that came in to protect us from corruption.

“Through the Diamonds for Development bill of 2006, the international community also gained unlawful access to our diamonds, gold, precious metals, precious wood, and other natural resources by corrupt means that the elections has been rigged to protect.

“The expenditure on the salaries, benefits, and logistics of UN and other international organizations’ staff in Liberia could carry out domestic agenda development in Liberia for 50 years. It is time you all leave Liberia so we can manage our resources and develop our land. If there is peace for eight years while are you still here while UN in the Ivory Coast is leaving already? Is it not because of our oil, diamonds, and other natural resources that you are expanding your stay in Liberia to exploit?

“With your recommendation and control Liberia’s security is under foreign command against our constitution and armed robberies in Monrovia are high while our borders, sea, and resources are exploited by all of you. We are the only democracy in the world without our army defending our cause and a foreign chief of staff against our constitution is in place that Madam Loj has never condemned.

“UNMIL continues to be here not for the protection of Liberians or Liberian peace but for the protection of foreign exploitation of our resources and to suppress justice and the rule of law. UNMTL Headquarters are not accessible to Liberians and to enter there, security checks are worse than at international airports.”

Who is this woman, this fire dancer, this modern day Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti? We will see. May the dance not be too arduous. May she not crack a rib, or  lose her life. May her halo prove to be unpainted.
Mwetana: We Are Moving

South Africa, Liberia and Sudan

First published in Pambazuka News 21/6/2012

In the early hours of June 9, 2012, a 23-year-old gay man, Thapelo Makhutle was mutilated and murdered in his home in Kuruman, Northern Cape, South Africa. In the same week, on June 4, 36-year-old Neil Daniels’ body was found burned in Cape Town.

According to the crowdsourcing site, Farmi Tracker, 23 homophobic murders took place in South Africa between April 2010 and February 2012 . A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on South Africa and LGBT Rights found lesbian and transgender men in townships and rural areas faced a life of hyper-discrimination and abuse both from private individuals and the government .  Fear of the police was paramount both in terms of protection and reporting crimes and even those which are reported only in one case has sexual orientation been acknowledged as responsible.

“In many instances, interviewees said, police did not respond appropriately when interviewees sought justice, or even compounded the initial abuse. Virtually all of those interviewed who tried to report physical or sexual violence to the police faced ridicule, harassment and secondary victimization by police personnel.”

The question for South Africa is, what is the purpose of a constitutional protection if it is not materialised in people’s everyday lives? It is shameful that neither the South Africa media nor any member of government is outraged by the level of violence unleashed on young black LGBTI people. Yet they hide behind the constitution, which is lauded across the world as being exceptional in its content. For more details on the funeral and memorial service for Thapelo Makhutle see “A dangerous visibility” on Black Looks

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Liberia: Going Home the Same Way They Came: Buduburam on My Mind as D-Day Nears

Perched on vast acres of land dotted with concrete buildings marked in colorful chalk, Buduburam Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, has always been a place of transit for Liberians. Camp dwellers are like expectant passengers on a flight whose destination is still undetermined. Most of them hope to land in America, or somewhere in Europe, on a resettlement package. They hope to be anywhere but here.

I remember making the two-hour journey in 2002 to the Camp every Friday at the crack of dawn to teach English at the elementary school. Back then, I was a 20-year-old study abroad student at the University of Ghana-Legon, an idealist with many causes. Refugees, and particularly Liberian refugees in Ghana, happened to be my latest crusade.

When I enter the Camp in May for the first time in nearly 10 years, Buduburam looks like a town hit by the plague. It is virtually empty. In 2002, there were over 30,000 refugees at Buduburam. Now about 5,000 remain. Nearly 19,000 refugees have been repatriated to Liberia since October 2004, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ghana. Just 118 Liberians were resettled to third-party countries from 2007 to 2010.
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Interviews with Brenda Hollis & Stephen Rapp, current and former chief prosecutors of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; Charles Taylor’s defense attorney and daughter & others on the Charles Taylor guilty verdict

Following the recent guilty verdict delivered to Charles Taylor [read my commentary here]  I conducted a number of interviews in the Hague immediately following the verdict.  To listen to the interviews, visit SOAS Radio 

Reflections on Charles Taylor and Justice

Much has changed since I covered the first day of Charles Taylor’s trial for Pambazuka News on June 4, 2007. That day, he failed to show up to court, calling the case against him a “farce.” Today, he was in full view, stoic, resolute and somber. As I sat in the public gallery of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon building at The Hague, peering at the man portrayed as the most notorious African warlord in contemporary history, Taylor’s fate was solidified by one word: “GUILTY.”

After nearly nine years in limbo, Taylor was convicted today on all 11 counts of crimes against humanity and violation of international and Sierra Leonean law in that country’s civil war spanning November 1996 to January 2002. Taylor is the first head of state – and the first African – to be convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremburg trials of 1946. The UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was mandated in 2002 to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the war that destabilised much of West Africa and stunted economic/political activity. Taylor’s trial is the last one.

Sierra Leone and Liberia have both been touted as post-conflict success stories, following what some would argue is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ externally imposed system of state-building. But while Sierra Leone and Liberia have attempted to emerge from the ashes of civil war, the specter of Charles Taylor has always hung over their fates like an ominous cloud, forever linking the two neighbours beyond their peculiarly similar historical trajectories. Taylor may have wreaked havoc in both countries, but he has languished in a Hague prison for the past five years, facing the full weight of international law for only aiding and abetting rebel factions in Sierra Leone’s civil crisis, privately providing arms and ammunition to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) while publicly promoting peace as a standing head of state in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

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The Promise of April 12: A Preface to Liberia’s Complicated Biography

April 12, 1980 is often described as the beginning of Liberia’s end. I think of it as the preface to Liberia’s long, complicated biography, the beginning of our awakening. It was a day when our pomp and circumstance left a deafening echo; when we were all exposed, laid bear by the realization that being the first African republic meant nothing in the grand scheme of things.

It was a day when the bubbles in our carefully watched ground-pea soup spilled over; when the chunky pieces of that brew refused to blend in. It was when we imploded and exploded at the same time.

It was a day of ‘enough is enough.’ We all have one of those days, when we decide to throw caution to the wind, when we decide to step out on faith, even if the consequences might be dire.

April 12 held such promise for Liberia. It was a day when marginalized Liberians finally realized that the system could work for them, that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time.’ It was a day when we all realized that oppression is man-made, and that another Liberia is possible.

Unlike most people, I don’t think the 28-year-old revolutionary zeal of Samuel Kanyon Doe was misplaced or misguided by ‘invisible [CIA] hands,’ necessarily. Doe was probably very committed to change, to dismantling a system that was rotten to the core.

One day, his story will be written, and we will discover that the young man who boldly entered the Executive Mansion in 1980 was very different from the head of state who sat half-naked on a concrete floor in 1990, begging for forgiveness while his executioners emasculated and tortured him. On April 12, he was a hero to many.

I was born on April 12 in a time of relative peace two years after the 1980 coup, so I’ve had 30 long years to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle, to question why some of us mourned while others celebrated. My relationship with April 12 has always been ‘complicated.’ Today it is a day of meditation and contemplation.

Those born in April are known for their bravery, fierceness and commitment to equity and fair play. They often pay a price for that courage with social isolation. People born in April say the things that everyone else is afraid to, and do the things that people dare not.

We naively believe that the underdog can and should prevail. That’s how I view Doe’s actions on April 12, as the underdog attempting to rage against a machine that he probably wasn’t completely prepared to change.

Whenever I think about what April 12 signifies for me on a micro level and Liberia on a macro level, I can’t help wondering what could have been. I wonder what the young master sergeant was really thinking when he entered the Executive Mansion. I wonder what would have happened if power had not gotten to his head, what would have happed if his own paranoia had not gotten the best of him. I often wonder why and where it all went wrong, when the dream of April 12 slowly spiraled into a nightmare.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said that ‘power concedes nothing without a struggle.’ Let’s remember that the struggles defined by April 12 have not disappeared, nor have they been resolved. Indeed, the stakes are higher now than they ever have been for Liberia.

They lie in Liberia’s contemporary struggles to protect the rights of gays and lesbians because a nation that can accept all of its citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, is a nation willing to embrace true transformation. They rest in the struggles to marry the ‘traditional’ with the ‘modern,’ validating Sande principles while upholding the rights of women and girls.

They lie in the struggles to not replace the 19th century Indigenous vs. Settler divide with the 21st century Homeland vs. Diaspora/Returnee divide. Because we all know that those of us who have returned from abroad are not making any real sacrifices–financial or otherwise.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.

The entire month of April, for that matter, has become a reflection on some of our most turbulent moments–from the rice riots of April 14, 1979, to the execution of Tolbert’s 13 Cabinet officials on April 22, 1980, to one of the bloodiest battles during the civil war on April 6, 1996.
The truth of the matter is Liberians who remained in the country during the war sacrificed their livelihoods, and often their lives, to keep things afloat when we had the luxury of escaping for safety.

They rest in the struggles for equitable land re-distribution, learning from the failed mistakes of Zimbabwe, where land was owned by less than 10 percent of the population.

They lie in the struggles to attract foreign direct investment while protecting rural dwellers from environmental degradation, economic exploitation and land grabbing.

They rest in the struggles to clean Monrovia and other urban centers while respecting the dignity of the displaced.

They lie in the struggle to ensure that all Liberians are paid a living wage, regardless of their positions in any hierarchy–from our drivers, cleaning staff, and security guards to our young parking attendants.

They rest in the struggles to promote reconciliation while ensuring that justice prevails, because no matter how much we’d like to sweep the TRC recommendations under the table for political and ideological reasons, we must deal with the past head-on.

For starters, it is unacceptable that Volumes 4&5 of the TRC report–testimonies in which Liberians for the first time had an opportunity to speak their truths, to purge themselves of the specter of what they did or suffered during the war–have yet to be published. A nation that is able to move beyond its past without sentimentality, anger, or vengeance, is a nation that is forward-looking.

Let’s memorialize April 12 as a day of remembrance and April as a month of meditation, so that we don’t forget what could happen when the vast majority of Liberians feel that they are second-class citizens, or no citizens at all. Let’s make the promise of April 12 a promise of 2012 and beyond.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at robtel@newnarratives.org

Fighting For Black Gold In Africa: Liberians Approach Oil Finds With Caution

News released at the end of February that Liberia was on the cusp of an unprecedented oil discovery garnered much more than just praise and adulation. Listservs and websites lit up one by one with lightening speed. Liberians reacted like rabid bulldogs frothing at the mouth, barking at the Liberian government, oil giantsChevronAnadarko, and the relatively unknownAfrican Petroleum about the dangers of the ‘resource curse’. These energetic reactions from an increasingly politicised population are perhaps evidence of the healthy debate that never quite got off the ground in Nigeria when that country first discovered oil.

Some commentators are likening the West African sub-region to the old ‘Wild West,’ with oil figuring prominently as a site of multiple contestations: political, social and economic. AllAfrica.com reported that, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, West Africa’s coast, which covers Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, is home to an estimated 3,200 million barrels of oil and 23,629 cubic feet of gas. Nigeria’s oil woes, marked by often violent anti-government actions in Ogoniland and across the Niger Delta, have been a sobering lesson of what can go wrong. Sierra Leone, which discovered oil in 2009, is being accused of speeding through its Petroleum Act vetting process, which was largely guided by agreements with oil companies and lacked proper civil society engagement. Ghana has followed a slightly different, and perhaps healthier, trajectory. When oil was discovered in 2007 government made some attempt to engage with civil society at large, even enabling petroleum agreements to be posted on the Ministry of Energy’s website.

As the global population expands and countries like China and the U.S. compete for dwindling energy resources, oil and gas could become a springboard for Africa to leverage its relatively untapped potential. But in all the excitement we shouldn’t have selective amnesia — it isn’t hard to find examples of oil resources having a negative effect in the political sphere. For example, oil revenues helped Sudan fund the government’s war in the 1990s against what is now the sovereign nation-state of South Sudan. In Congo-Brazzaville in 1997, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s private militia used money obtained from the sale of rights to Congo’s future oil production to fuel a four-month war against incumbent President Pascal Lissouba. And Angola’s vast oil reserves were used by the government to set up oil for arms deals with its international business partners, which enabled these stakeholders to profit directly from the civil war in that country.[i]

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IWD: Seek Ye First the Economic Kingdom, Woman

Africa’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, urged colonial Africa to “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added onto you.” Nkrumah was alluding to the biblical verse, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto.” He would later revise his statement to say that economic independence was what African nations needed first and foremost.

Nkrumah’s prophetic statement is particularly relevant today, when so many African countries must contend with a global capitalist system structured in dominance.

The age of neo-liberalism is upon us, and the bulk of the weight has landed on African women’s heads. Gender theorists and women’s activists tend to focus on political and social rights as a necessary condition for women’s empowerment. Economic rights seem to be an afterthought, as if that will fall into place when the political and the social are reconciled.

What Liberian women need to do is seek first the economic kingdom. There’s something about earning one’s income that makes women formidable. A young girl who sees her mother working a 9-to-5 is more likely to want to be a breadwinner in her own home. An employed female university student is less likely to fall prey to the advances of an older man wanting to add her to his list of conquests. And a woman who runs her own business is less likely to tolerate being beaten by her husband or boyfriend.

This is the thinking that earned Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yunus was on to something when he patented the idea of providing small loans to rural women in Bangladesh. The idea spread like wildfire throughout the development world. Nowadays, any successful model of entrepreneurial development, especially women’s entrepreneurial development, must include micro-credit schemes as its hallmark.

Women’s economic empowerment has become another fad that I hope will outlive itself. This month the fourth class of Liberian women entrepreneurs graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women scholars program, which runs in 42 countries. The program is a five-year initiative that provides business and management education to women as well as access to capital, networks and mentors. According to the program organizers, the rate of success for participants is a statistical dream: 70% of graduates of the program have increased business revenues, and 50% have infused the labor market with new jobs.

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Anti-gay rights crusade in Africa a distraction

2 1/2 years since it’s first reading in October 2009, the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill full texthas once again been tabled in parliament. The bill was shelved in 2010 at which time President Yoweri Museveni warned those advocating for the Bill that it was sensitive and would compromise Uganda’s international standing. Again the Bill was tabled in 2011 and was followed in April of that year by apetition signed by 2 million Ugandans in support of the Bill. Two international petitions opposing the Bill were circulated in May 2011 - Avaaz [1.6 million signatures] and All Out [500,000]. On May 13th the Bill was shelved but Ugandan activists were convinced it would return at some point. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when on the 7th February 2012, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was re-introduced to parliament amidst ominous cheering and clapping from MPs .

The day before the Bill was tabled, Melanie Nathan [O-blog-dee-o-blog-da] spoke by phone to the Bill’s author, David Bahati who sounded enthusiastic that the contents would be “more moderate”

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Liberia Anti-Homosexuality Bill: An open letter to Leymah Gbowee

A Piece of the Peace: Leymah, Please Speak Out for Human & Civil Rights for All Liberians

Dear Leymah,

Your courage is legendary. You are an icon in your own time for peace-building.

In answer to a question about what worries you, you said: “The safety of my children and their future. The conduct of the world.”

Your reply shows what fears tremble inside a mother’s heart.

It is said that you speak your mind without fear or favor. When appointed by President Sirleaf in late 2011 to head the Liberian Reconciliation Initiative, you said that the “LRI’s broad aim is to provide an independent and impartial platform for all Liberians irrespective of social, economic, political, and geographic orientation to collectively address past abuses, reconcile fractured relations and communities, and promote dialogue and consensus building as instruments of politics and public culture.”

I want to believe that you agree LGBT Liberians are included in this mandate. Your voice must be heard above the present uproar about LGBT rights, because there seems to be a collective dissociative fugue around the cruel ways the civil and human rights of gay, lesbian and gender-variant Liberians are violated.

You have said: “Reconciliation is like dressing a sore: You can’t bandage a sore without first cleaning it.”

LGBT Liberians live in fear, disempowered and daily imperiled. The war for them has not ended. Their lives are defined by danger and violence, persecution, hate speech and threats, discrimination and harassment. They are stigmatized, publicly rejected and almost completely abandoned by government. Their vulnerability affects all areas of their lives — church, school, employers, landlords, media, street mobs, rapists, predators, political actors, opinion leaders, family.
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From Lifting Liberia to Lifting Liberians: Second Term Challenges for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

 Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an activist/writer who spent her formative years in Washington, D.C.  Robtel moved to Liberia in July 2007 to work in the Office of the President, Republic of Liberia, as special assistant for communications, where she was engaged in speech writing and managing the Office of the President’s website.  Robtel is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

In an annual message to the National Legislature on Jan. 23, 2012, just a week after her second-term inauguration, incumbent Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf proclaimed, “In our first term we lifted Liberia; now we will lift Liberians!” The President was alluding to the tenets of Liberia’s first post-war three-year medium term development agenda, the Lift Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), aimed at enhancing peace and security, revitalising the economy, strengthening justice and the rule of law, and restoring infrastructure and basic social services.

In asserting that Liberia had been lifted, the President was referring to key achievements in her first term, including but not limited to: renewing diplomatic ties with a number of international partners and multilateral agencies such as the United States, China, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund; refurbishing pot-holed ridden roads and constructing new ones; building hospitals and clinics, elementary, junior and secondary schools and community colleges; securing US$16 billion in concessions in iron-ore, mining, forestry, rubber, and oil palm; and devolving power to Liberia’s 15 sub-political divisions through political and fiscal decentralisation, amongst others.

Although some scholars and practitioners would argue that post-conflict reconstruction follows a ‘one-size-fits-all’ pattern of political and economic manipulation and engineering by the West[i], the Liberian president would certainly not agree with this assertion, having worked for the World Bank and United Nations in a previous life. Following the Lift Liberia PRS is an ambitious goal to make Liberia a middle income country by 2030, as articulated in the country’s 18-year Liberia Rising 2030 agenda, due to be crafted following nation-wide consultations beginning February 2012. Despite these lofty goals, there are a number of socio-political and economic challenges ahead in the next six-year term.

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Interview with the cast of Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Pray the Devil Back to Hell” Robtel Pailey interviews the cast and members of the production team. The film is available in full on PBS along with four other films in the series “Women War and Peace“. Listen here

Women of Liberia: “This cannot be our time”

Last week Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and activist, Leymah Gbowee  both received their Nobel prize in Oslo.

Robtel Pailey like millions of Liberians across the world, celebrated the moment.  But all is not well for women in Liberian women.

On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore a somber cloud that hung over the occasion, suspended in the air like an ominous sign that saying We have not yet arrived.” I couldn’t squelch the feeling that this cannot be our time until all Liberian women and girls are valued in the same way we celebrated our Nobel laureates. President Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee acknowledged in their respective Nobel lectures the awesome challenges that Liberian women and girls, and by extension women and girls throughout the world, still face. 

Surely, this cannot be our time when fewer women inhabit a seat in the Legislature than they did six years ago, though a woman holds the mantle of Executive power. In some progressive countries like Rwanda, women comprise over 50 percent of Parliament. Liberian women will represent less than 10 percent of the 53rd National Legislature when they convene in January 2012. This cannot be our time when local governance structures provide even fewer opportunities for women to lead, and by extension, make decisions fundamental to their livelihoods. 
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Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee represent the resilience of Liberian women, of African women, of women the world

I doubt many are surprised that Leymah Gbowee has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The same cannot be said of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Accusations range from corruption to mismanagement – nothing new for political leaders. What stands out for me is Johnson Sirleaf remains the only African leader to agree to hosting the US High Command in Africa – AFRICOM. This is not really surprising given Liberia’s historic connection with the US [Leymah speaks of this unpleasant relationship in her Google interview] Nonetheless the two women are connected – Leymah Gbowee and the women of Liberia were influential in Johnson Sirleaf becoming the first woman president in Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf and Gbowee represent the resilience of Liberian women, of African women, of women the world over who thirst for an end to militarism, gender-based violence, death, destruction, war, and missile strikes in the name of “liberation”.

How can this be when Johnson Sirleaf offers to host AFRICOM and the support the militarisation of the continent?

Liberian Robtel Pailey, who up until recently worked at the ” Executive Mansion” under President Johnson Sirleaf, examines their similarities.

Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, became the second and third African women to be awarded the Nobel peace prize on 7 October.

Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf have forever transformed the image of Liberia, from a pariah nation of warlords and gun-slinging, drug-induced prepubescent boys, to a country clawing its way back to civility and normality.

Their journeys to this prestigious award, announced just four days ahead of Liberia’s high-stakes presidential and legislative elections — elections that will determine the country’s development trajectory and democratic consolidation — signify Liberia’s journey to consciousness.

As someone who most recently worked in the Liberian Executive Mansion under Johnson Sirleaf’s tutelage for four years, I know that she and Gbowee, whom I interviewed earlier in the year, represent the ethos of our nation.

Leymah Gbowee – militant pacifist!

One of three 2011 Noble Peace Prize winners, Leymah Gbowee interviewed by Megan Smith. What makes this interview particularly interesting is through Leymah own personal history we begin to understand her journey from childhood to the strong powerful woman she is today – through domestic violence, being ostracized by her father and raising four children and the struggle for peace against the warlords of Liberia. She also puts the Liberian war into historical context, something which is often missing from news reports.

“Where do we start talking about the atrocities? We need to go back to 1822 and start that conversation because thats where everything started”

I have to say that I am proud to have met Leymah in Accra in 2010 at a workshop on militarisation in which the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell was screened. She is one hell of a special woman, none of the forked tongues of politicians and opportunitists. Leymah is real – a strong and powerful African woman. If you havent seen the film it will be showing on PBS on 18th October.

Who is Leymah Gbowee ?

Leymah Gbowee is a “militant pacifist”, a “peace activist”, and a real mover and shaker. She is a woman who recognized that women had to organize, across all barriers and across all divisions, that women had to transform themselves and one another if they wanted to change the world. They had to learn to participate in peace negotiations, for example, by refusing the symbolic chairs and other morsels offered them, by confronting the materiel of war and violence with the human force of peace, compassion, and love. When the Big Men of Liberia met in Accra to negotiate “peace”, Gbowee and her sisters in white t-shirts raised a ruckus outside, and just about held the delegates hostage.
From the outset, Leymah Gbowee identified humanity as the site of her struggles and organizing. That means organizing structures, such as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, followed by the Women In Peacebuilding Network, or WIPNET. From there, she has gone on to organize the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, based in Ghana. Gbowee’s vision of women is African, from Cape to Cairo, and from coast to coast.
Peace and justice, child by child, person by person, space by space, and beyond. That’s what Leymah Gbowee has been organizing. That’s what is so difficult, if not impossible, to represent. That’s what The New York Times missed. But you don’t have to. On Tuesday, October 18, in the United States, PBS will broadcast the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the work of Leymah Gbowee. Don’t miss it. It’s inspiring, as is its subject.

Bati o bati! Special issue on women’s writings from Liberia

This month’s Sea Breeze is a Women’s special issue with interviews, short stories, essays and poems from Liberian women.  This really is an inspiring collection of work edited by  Liberian feminist and poet, Korto Williams -

Bati o bati!

We are the Ones! Creative Agency and Activism for Women’s Rights in Liberia!

I lost the fire in my belly; the flame that gave me fire to light the torch to fight for women’s rights and gender equality. It is missing somewhere between what Stephanie Horton refers to as the “psychology of the ovary phenomenon” and the international accolades Liberia receives for electing the first female president in Africa. However, immersed in the fiery colors and sounds of the writers and artists in this issue over the past months, I re-experience the epiphany that loyalty is held only to truth. Feminism and creative presentation of intellectual thought have taught me that I must never lose sight of that heaviness in my spirit, an experience that usually follows the overwhelming entry of patriarchal tools in presumably safe and potential political spaces for gender equality.

The honour and humility that I feel working as guest editor for this women’s issue of Sea Breeze Journal is accompanied by a search for answers that allays the vacuum of who we are and how we make concrete our journey of reaching our full potential in a society that struggles against us. This struggle is clearly couched in a story I heard three years ago and will share with you:

Bati o bati! is a popular rallying call of politicians and those that want to be political, and is said to have originated from Southeastern Liberia. Contrary to popular belief, this call did not originate from a politician’s space, but was originally spoken within the context of gender division of labor. The picture is of a weary woman returning from the farm with the baby and all the other loads; her husband, walking behind her swinging a cutlass, is commonplace in most of our childhood memories. She gets near the town and she calls out for support, bati o bati! She has something heavy to put down–to lighten her spirit, to free her body.

It was one of the most intriguing pieces of information I have ever digested, and is symbolic of the power dynamics around authorship, ownership and storytelling. It is also connected to the mental and emotional “labor” we had to overcome to complete this issue. This labor required strength. Our spirit of collectivism has given us the right to call out bati o bati!  We have something heavy to put down! Simply stated, we are few; we are striving to tell the “truth” of our state, sadness and sole purpose of breaking the chains of patriarchy that hold us and our women and girls down — underground and in silence. In this issue, we bring our combined voices to the fore, pulling out our pain and aspirations into black, white and color, and sound.

This situation feeds into the emerging conversation in Liberia, the first African country to have an elected female president. Women leaders have multiple demands from patriarchal presumptions and societal expectations to bring a certain brand of leadership to the table. The perceived privilege of leadership is like the proverbial albatross around their necks. It is assumed by progressive women that once a woman has broken the glass ceiling and reached what is, in most cases, a man’s position, she will have a bias towards women’s issues and frame her problem-solving and decision-making in their interests. This is not always true; and without doing an in-depth interrogation of women in leadership and associated issues, I will state the obvious: that the fact that an individual is female does not guarantee a feminist, woman-centered perspective in their leadership style.   Continue Reading Sea Breeze…

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