Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Campaign Season

Its not only rainy season but also the campaign season here in Liberia. International journalists have been arriving in Liberia all week; the local press and the public talk about almost nothing else. The city is festooned with signs, posters, handbills and billboards for the various parties vying for the presidency, although the Unity Party, of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Vice President Joseph Boakai, predominate.

As has been observed elsewhere, President Sirleaf's signature campaign slogan, "Monkey Still Working Let Baboon Wait Small," is met with raised eyebrows, if only in the sense that it is hard to imagine an American politician choosing to refer to themselves as a monkey, much less their opponents as baboons.

If the phrasing is easily accepted by Liberians, the general message has also struck many as unsatisfactory, that being: she promised to run for one term, but she wants to stay in power. That there is still so much that needs attention is evident--such as one "Monkey" banner's placement on the center of Broad Street, hanging from the wall that surrounds the still-abandoned former National Housing Bank tower, its tiled façade still pockmarked with bullet holes and rocket blasts.

This message is often read with a mixture of smirking bewilderment and snorting disgruntlement by even those who support her, as are some of her party's other campaign slogans, currently ubiquitous around the city.

Several signs on Tubman Boulevard use a different metaphor to push the "She's still working" argument, without the name-callings: don't change the pilot when the plane hasn't even landed yet. Although this might not be best suited to a country where probably more than 95% of the population will never be privileged enough to ride on an airplane. Also, an air travel metaphor so quickly recalls the widespread criticisms that President Sirleaf spends far too much time flying around the world, being an international celebrity, and far too little time at her desk, keeping watch over her administration and untangling the country's many daunting problems.

And if the metaphors in these first two campaign slogans can be viewed derisively, only more so can the other central message for her campaign: Da Their Area. Taken from a relentlessly repetitive, omnipresent Hipco superhit from earlier this year, dumyarea ('that's my area') went from song title to popular parlance in a matter of weeks.

Originally, the song's refrain and lyrics described the workaday struggle of petty street traders, who guard their own prime real estate on the streets and sidewalks of this crowded capital, trying to make a few hundred Liberian Dollars, enough to eat for the day.

These are the same sellers whose informal market stalls have been destroyed under the bulldozers of Acting Mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh, appointed by President Sirleaf, and crusaded to clear the streets and alleys of undocumented constructions that it has earned her the nickname "Mary Break-It." That President Sirleaf's lieutenant has been moving against the street-vendors, whose daily divvying up of the public street to survive is the subject of the popular tune that her own Unity Party has adopted as its theme song, is an irony apparent to many a Liberian who doesn't possess a dictionary definition of irony.

The semantics of this song and its signature tagline also present unpleasant double meanings politically. In the lyrics, "da ma area" was extrapolated to become not only, "that's where I am," or "that's where I am from," or "that's my neck of the woods," but also "that's my favorite" or "that's my area of expertise," or "that's what I am known for." This meaning the Liberian public adopted instantly.

The Unity Party just as quickly co-opted this new phrase with enthusiasm, employing it on a great many campaign placards, lining the streets of the city and posted along the walls of many government buildings.

There are such a great many of these, at least more than 20 variations that I have seen, and I won't post them all. Suffice to say, the incumbency has a lot of areas. Many of these are totally uncontroversial, and would be only what might be expected from any campaign slogan: Accountability is mundane enough. International Respect, Women's Rights-- there's little argument that Sirleaf has been a master at those.

Another iteration I saw in town, "Debt Waiver," repeats the theme of several large banners celebrating a debt-free Liberia, will resonate less with voters. Sometimes I wonder whether a majority of Liberians are even aware that the former administrations had gone several billion dollars into debt, or know that this problem has been solved.

"Salary Increment" is perhaps a more controversial one, but I suppose Sirleaf would not be the first politician to suggest to increase the salaries of government workers if re-elected. This topic is not without controversy, as anecdotes abound of low-level civil servants having difficulty getting their US$70 or $90 or $100 per month wage, while some of the top-level public servants pull in huge official salaries and benefits packages. One of President Sirleaf's boldest moves while in office was to downsize the government rolls, a bold action in a country with such high unemployment.

Its also a bit amusing that the placard championing education is printed "That's their area" instead of "da their area" --the phrasing switches to bookish serees English from the local kollunkwa English. Lightheartedness aside, public education is so terribly, tragically inadequate in this country that it is perplexing to see the administration boasting of it as an "area" of expertise-- even though President Sirleaf quite vocal about her continued dissatisfaction with the state of public education in the country.

Just next to one such campaign sign on UN Drive is a larger more permanent mural, a "Tax Sensitization Message" the Ministry of Finance, linking the appropriate payment of taxes to the treasury as allowing for free education in Liberia. This revenue transfer would work in theory, but in really this is still a country where money for grades, if not sex for grades, is a commonplace practice through the college level, and so to say that education is free is either ignorant or wishful, but either way inaccurate, and makes the UP's claim that Education is a point of pride rather difficult for some Liberians to accept.

Next in the series of "area" signs are some subjects with even more negative connotations. "Oil Exploration" is one. Multibillion dollar multinational investments in iron ore, oil, and other extractive deals and resource concessions have been signed by the Sirleaf administration. The benefits of these deals, it is frequently speculated and presumed, have been kept within a politically-connected elite.

And this is where the metaphor for "Da Their Area" can be most unkind. In Liberia, as in much of West Africa, the government's portfolios continue to be viewed not as public assets but as private fiefdoms. This tradition is ebbing slowly, and has decreased under the Sirleaf Administration from the Doe and Taylor years, when the state's coffers and country's assets were viewed as personal possessions of the President.

But to say, that's my area, when speaking of education, or the building of roads, or the courting of international investment, and to recall its original connotation as described in the song, is to suggest that the Ministry of Education, or Public Works, or Lands, Mines, and Energy, are turfs that have been carved up by those appointed to oversee them. These precisely echo accusations about they way Liberian governments have always been run.

Despite its breakaway popularity, Dumyarea is not a song celebrating the shared benefit of the commons. It ultimately is about dividing up public space for personal gain, about claiming territory from which to make a living. That is a tradition of African governing that survives, and while Sirleaf speaks out against it, the reality of the last six years is that such an attitude and approach has been far too prevalent in her administration.

One of the placards reads, Fighting Corruption-- Da Their Area. On the topic of corruption, there seems to be the most pointed dissatisfaction, among even some of her supporters. Corruption is an acid which still courses through the veins of this country and its government. Even if she is on record as proscribing anti-biotics, the medicine has been more evident as a slow, diluted drip than a quick shot cure-all.

There is another campaign banner which has been unfurled about town in recent weeks: "Six years on, look how far we've come." Presumably, that is meant to make voters realize how much progress has been made. Reflecting on where Liberia is from where it was half a decade ago reveals successes that are indeed so remarkable that it is astonishing to compare Monrovia to its condition of even a few years ago.

But in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of most Liberians, unemployed, undereducated, malnourished, and frustrated at the inequalities in their society, a review of these past few years also stings with certain disappointments, even outrages.

President Sirleaf has been quite frank about these frustrations. She has been forthright about the unacceptable state of the country's institutions: its schools, its hospitals, its courts, its jails, even its ministerial offices. It is from this refreshing admission, then, that the logic returns to the campaign slogan: give me more time, and I can keep us on the path we are on. I agree with this, and believe that she deserves to continue to govern.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, if there is one statement that voters of all parties could agree on, it might be that which is so obvious: there is still so much to do, and such a long way to go.

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