Saturday, August 31, 2013

China's Fishing Fleet, Africa's Seas

Quartz post earlier in August, entitled, "China’s government is subsidizing your sushi—and driving other countries’ fishermen out of business,"while worth reading in full, included two graphics that I'm reposting here, which highlight the impact of China's worldwide fishing trawl on Africa's local fishing industry and the fish themselves:

While China might not be exactly subsidizing the sushi in Monrovia, which to my understanding most of the restaurant owners procure themselves from Liberia's waters, the issue of overfishing is a proxy for our global over-exploitation of resources, and the strain of the burgeoning emerging markets' billions of consumers have added in the past decade.

  For more about Liberia's fishing situation, there's no better place to check out than the government's Bureau of Fisheries website, which was relaunched last year, and is a great resource and shares a lot about what it being done to protect Liberia's oceans.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Liberian in London

A lot of my Liberian friends have never left the country, or boarded an airplane. I've often imagined what it would be like to have one of my Liberian friends visit America or Europe (and I am sure a lot of Liberians daydream about the same thing). I would love to be witness to their reaction to all the things they've never seen before.

I had the opportunity recently to experience this in some form when I showed a co-worker around London recently. It was much like I had foreseen it to be, in terms of his general astonishment, but I thought his observations, those things he did take in and those he didn't comment on, were worth sharing:

(1) Heathrow Airport, larger than the entire city of Monrovia.

(2) The difficulty of finding rice at meals. Liberians are famous for their preference for rice, and I know many don't even consider a dish without rice to really even be food, and I saw this in practice where my colleague was left dissatisfied with couscous and basmati rice. He said he would recommend that Liberians travel with their own rice when going abroad, although the practicalities of having this served at a restaurant would still be an issue.

(3) We had a bit of time for sightseeing, and he wanted to see "that huge church," so I took him to St. Paul's Cathedral. It being the summer, it was quite crowded with tourists; there was a line out the door to get tickets (St. Paul charges for entry). Luckily but also a bit curiously, my colleague had little interest in seeing the inside, but mostly wanted his picture taken outside the building. So we were there about 5 minutes.

(4) The London Underground mesmerized him. "A whole city under the city," and "There are people living underneath us while we walk on top of them," were just a couple of a the many comments he made. He seemed less impressed with actually riding a train and the whole automatic entry system etc than with the general idea of inhabiting the subterranean. He commented on this repeatedly; the whole idea seemed to almost terrify him. I think he found it unnatural that people spend time under the surface of the earth like that.

(5) Back at ground level, he observed that most buildings were made "out of stone," which I took to mean the marble and portland stone façades, as opposed to the painted cement of most multi-story buildings in Liberia.

(6) Also, he didn't recognize what was sticking out of the roofs of most buildings; I hadn't anticipated this: I explained what a chimney was, which confused him a bit as he didn't see any fires lit inside any of the buildings he had been in. I realized how odd it sounds to explain that everyone has central heating but occasionally uses a fireplace, for recreational or ceremonial purposes...? How strange is that, when you think about it that way.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Imprisonment of Rodney Sieh

Uplifting reports of the successful running of Liberia's second marathon are being overshadowed by two negative stories out of Monrovia: that the entire prospective entrant class to the University of Liberia, all 25,000 of them, failed their entry exams, and secondly that the editor of FrontPage Africa, one of Liberia's most respected online and offline newspapers, was jailed last week following a failure to pay a libel fine of US$1.5m. FrontPage Africa's presses were halted, although the US-based website still operates. For details, the below is reposted from the Committee to Protect Journalists, including links to the original government audit report:

The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemns moves by Liberian authorities to shut down FrontPageAfrica and jail its publisher for not paying US$1.5 million in damages related to a libel conviction.
Police shut down the offices citing a court order, pictured on FrontPageAfrica's website, that said the offices would remain closed and publication cease until the damages are paid in full. The website is registered in the United States, not in Liberia, and is still publishing news.
FrontPageAfrica's publisher, Rodney Sieh, was jailed on Wednesday after telling a judge that he was unable to pay the damages owed to Chris Toe, a former government minister who had sued Sieh, FrontPageAfrica, and Samwar Fallah, a reporter for the paper, for libel three years ago. Toe sued them for US$2 million in February 2010 after the paper reported the findings of an official government inquiry that accused Toe of corruption, according to news reports. Toe resigned from his government position and was never charged. In his complaint, he saidFrontPageAfrica's reports were libelous because he was never convicted in court. He has denied all of the allegations against him.
In February 2011, a court convicted Sieh, FrontPageAfrica, and Fallah and ordered them to pay a total of US$1.5 million in damages and US$90,000 in court costs, Sieh told CPJ before he was jailed. Sieh told CPJ that FrontPageAfrica could not afford to pay the damages. Local journalists told CPJ that the heavy fine imposed was a deliberate ploy to shut down the critical newspaper. FrontPageAfrica has repeatedly reported on corruption, official misconduct, and human rights abuses.
Information Minister Lewis Brown said that Sieh had chosen to go to jail rather than "abide by the court's ruling to pay," according to news reports. Sieh has refused to eat or drink water since he was jailed, his colleagues told CPJ. He will remain jailed until he pays the damages, according to news reports.
"The excessive damages levied against FrontPageAfrica have all along been a transparent ploy to shut down a newspaper that has gained international acclaim for exposing corruption and official misconduct at the highest levels of the Liberian government," said Peter Nkanga, CPJ's West Africa Consultant. "Rodney Sieh does not deserve to spend a moment in prison, but if authorities would concentrate on investigating and prosecuting corruption allegations, they might find someone who does."
In 2011, the court denied FrontPageAfrica's motion for retrial despite reports of the jury being bribed. Liberia's judiciary ranks as the third most corrupt Liberian government institution, according to Transparency International's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer. Liberia has a history of silencing press critics through libel lawsuits, according to CPJ research.
On July 16, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the judgment against FrontPageAfrica, saying that the appeal process had not been completed, Kofi Woods, lawyer for FrontPageAfrica, told CPJ. Under Liberian law, an appeal can only be heard after the defendant pays a bond of 2 percent of the total amount, Woods said. The lawyer said Sieh did not have the money for the bond.
Authorities have not been able to find Fallah, who has resigned from FrontPageAfrica.
FrontPageAfrica said the newspaper is appealing the case before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. The ECOWAS Community Court, which has jurisdiction to hear individual complaints of alleged human rights violations, is the judicial arm of the Nigeria-based Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The court's decisions are legally binding on ECOWAS member states, which include Liberia.

The Press Union of Liberia has also called for Sieh's release. Both these embarrassing developments are black eyes to Liberia during a week when a 7-member Congressional Delegation, accompanied by Bono and Condi Rice, held an audience with President Sirleaf and members of her cabinet, a session of profuse mutual admiration, reportedly. No mention if the issue of Sieh's imprisonment was raised during the event, but on Twitter and elsewhere, including the comments sections of the articles boasting of the CoDel, Liberians and non-Liberians are clearly upset.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Liberia Marathon tomorrow

The second Liberia Marathon is tomorrow, and while once again I am not running in either the full 26.2 mile race, nor the 10K, I wanted to highlight two runners that are, and both for good causes.

The first was mentioned in the previous post: Blair Glencorse, head of the Accountability Lab, is running the 10K. Check out their Facebook page, also.

Secondly, Bert Monro, head of business development for Hummingbird Resources, a UK-based mineral exploration company, will be running the full marathon in a pink pygmy hippo costume, to raise funds for, and awareness of the Pygmy Hippo Foundation, which Hummingbird founded a few years ago to protect critical forest habitat of pygmy hippos, less than 3,000 of which survive in the Upper Guinean forests of West Africa, particularly Liberia. 

To support to Bert's ridiculous run, visit his Just Giving Page, where every donation of £30/$45 or more will receive a "Run Like a Pygmy Hippo" t-shirt. Also check out the Pygmy Hippo Foundation's Facebook page. All donations go to the Pygmy Hippo Foundation, which will directly be used for conservation initiatives for Liberia's unique pygmy hippos. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013


One more post related to last weekend's 10-year anniversary since the end of Liberia's civil war:

Two posts, both authored by Blair Glencorse, a friend who runs the very innovative Accountability Lab. Both reflect on the state of Liberia's society a decade since the end of the conflict. At African Arguments, Blair talks about the scourge of corruption and impunity, a topic close to my heart, and outlines how the Accountability Lab's philosophy and work set out to combat these civil ills and build a more robust social contract. Blair boldly, and to my mind, rightly identifies corruption as the leading impairment to Liberia's progress.

"Liberia is still far from a well-functioning society with secure peace and sustainable development."

Secondly, on Devex, Blair looks at Liberia's aid dependency, and the massive volumes of direct and indirect foreign assistance Liberia and its government have achieved in the last ten years, and whether all those millions have translated into much in terms of substantial change among Liberia's citizens.

How can we square the amount of attention, resources and effort put into rebuilding Liberia with these conditions on the ground? At its heart, this is an accountability problem through which the Liberian government has become oriented not toward its citizens, but toward a well-meaning, generous but ineffective international community. While there are many truly excellent development workers in Liberia, they are operating within an outdated aid system that breeds dependency, undermines capacity and ignores sustainability. Well-qualified Liberians are drawn away from government or civil society positions by higher wages in donor organizations. Each of these entities has their own agenda, procedures, obligations, reporting methods, funding streams and target beneficiaries. The result in many cases is overlapping authorities, duplication of efforts and significant space for corruption.
Both are worth reading in their entirety, and the Accountability Lab is a great organization to follow. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

...Showcased Their Talents

 EJ Roye Building towers of Monrovia Harbor, from a postcard c.1970.

"The E.J. Roye Building, on Ashmun Street, before it was 

damaged during the civil war, used to include a theater where 

Liberian children showcased their talents."

This is probably the last post I'll make on the 10-year anniversary of the Accra Peace Accords, with culminated in a weekend "Jamboree" attended by the President and many of her ministers. 

EJ Roye Building, ©2012 Matthew Jones

There's been a fair volume of journalistic reflection on this milestone, a spectrum ranging from colorful and at times anguished and personal writings in the Monrovian newspapers, and some more cursory and rather high-altitude perspectives in the international press. I liked this clever architectural allegory, concluding a New Dawn report from the Decade of Peace celebration on Saturday, both an all-too-rare bit of atmosphere exposition for local journalism, and a poignant image of how Liberia is still scarred, and what it has yet to regain. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Positive Peace

Finally, this weekend's anniversary of the Accra Peace Accord signing saw a good deal of press coverage marking the decade since the end of Liberia's Civil War. Liberian journalist and researcher Robtel Neajai Pailey wrote a very nice essay, published on the Guardian website, which included this poignant passage: 
However, a decade on, we are reminded of how far we have left to go. A raised voice, threats of riot and protest, and overall disillusionment remind us that peace is the mask we wear to hide our fears of violence. Although the guns have fallen silent, Liberia is experiencing what social theorist Johan Galtung called negative peace – that is, peace derived from the absence of physical violence. Over the next decade and beyond, Liberia must strive for positive peace: the absence of indirect, structural violence manifested in poverty, inequality, and impunity. 
When Liberians publicly rebuke corruption, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians lament that a third of their land is being leased to concession companies without local consultation, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians scorn the pay disparities between those who come from abroad and those who remained in the country during the war, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians call for a war crimes tribunal and full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations, they are calling for positive peace.

Friday, August 16, 2013

MICAT Panel Discussions: A Decade of Peace

Monrovia marking a decade since the end of Liberia's civil war is culminating around the date of August 18th, which is when the Accra Peace Accords were signed in Ghana in 2003.

In this week leading up to that occasion, Liberia's Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism (MICAT), has been hosting several panel discussions, inviting members of the various delegations to the Accra negotiations to recount the events of that time. The sessions were broadcast on YouTube and I've reposted two of them below.

MICAT has a fairly decent and active Twitter feed, which has been partly live-tweeting these panel events. Many of those speaking forth are figures who are either in the present administration, or have notorious reputations from the civil war era.  I'll let the often-times candid statements and testimonies on the videos speak for themselves, but for press reactions and opinions on these conversations, I'd recommend reading FrontPageAfrica's filings, or the reporting of American journalist Clair MacDougall, who also blogs at North of Nowhere.

Monday, August 12, 2013

10th Anniversary of Taylor's, and Many Others, Exile

August 11th, 2003 was the day that Charles Taylor departed Liberia for Nigeria. Local reporter Jonathan Paye-Layleh, filing for the Associated Press, interviewed Jewel Howard-Taylor, at the time Taylor's wife and now his ex-wife and a Liberian Senator, about the exile.

This is one of the few press reports marking the anniversary of the end of the Civil War, although the article states that President Sirleaf will mark that 10th anniversary of the signing of the Accra according on August 18th.

Relatedly, a BBC reporter assembled a short news video about refugees in neighboring West African countries who have not returned home to Liberia in the 10 years since their flight. The caption article states that Liberia has been "marking 10 years since the end of the civil war" but there has really been very little of that at all, and almost none outside of the international press.

The report also does not examine motivations for staying outside of Liberia beyond fear of violence, trauma, or lack of peace in the country, despite that general absence of civil violence in most parts of Liberia over the last decade. While these reasons are surely legitimate motivations for staying put, the reporter doesn't not investigate other compelling reasons, such as better access to jobs or other income opportunities, or social and economic advantages, for staying in Nigeria, Ghana, or elsewhere.
Tweets by @moved2monrovia