Saturday, May 4, 2013
Mary Broh stands at a dusty intersection on Tubman Boulevard, squints and surveys scene with three sets of spectacles balanced on her head, one pair perched over her eyes. Broh’s solid black Chevrolet Tahoe, punctuated with the number plate Mayor 1, waits stoically on the curb as she paces back and forth.
“This is a special project, I need you here!” She snaps into a walkie-talkie clutched in her hand.
“Who is supervising this? Hello!” She looks out to the jumble of people milling about.
“Don’t touch the paint!” she tells someone who moves around the small green concrete fruit and vegetable kiosk that she is launching with the support of an international donor.
Liberians jammed in vans, beaten up yellow cabs, or cruising past in SUVs turn their heads as they pass to see what the city’s most controversial public official is up to. Dressed in a gold lapa jacket, with her fine dreadlocks half up with champagne diamonte clips, and a clunky watch strapped to her right wrist, Mary Broh does not look like your typical city mayor; nor does she act like one.
Broh points to a small concrete zinc roofed building with an X marking its wall.
“Someone find out who this place is for! I’ll demolish it!”
Workers in blue uniforms wielding rakes and cutlasses arrive in the back of a pickup and raze and sweep the area at a breakneck speed.
“I’m watching you today. You are a damn lazy man!” She points her finger at a worker.
Petty traders on a nearby street shove their goods into lapas and pack up their makeshift store and flee; a young boy runs holding a plastic chair above his head.
“Liberian people are too dirty!” she exclaims.
After the formalities the mayor jumps into her black Tahoe and speeds off into the distance trailed by a pickup full of Monrovia City Police dressed in navy blue.
By the time I started writing this piece the acting city mayor of Monrovia was engulfed in a scandal that seemed the stuff of a Hollywood action movie. She had rescued her friend, the Superintendant of Montserrado County, Grace Kpahn from the moldy concertina wired walls of Monrovia’s South Beach prison, after Kpahn was ordered behind bars by the house of representatives for failing to implement a legislative mandate concerning misappropriation of the county development fund. The legislature called them “fugitives” and voted for their arrest. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf suspended the pair indefinitely. The case was taken to the Supreme Court. Days later hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Temple of Justice where Broh appeared after being charged by the Ministry of Justice with “obstructing government operation and disorderly conduct.” Broh was slapped and kicked by protestors outside the court who were attempting to make a “citizens arrest.” The police came and chased them away.
When contacted for comment on the incident, Mayor Broh said she had been advised not to engage in any interviews adding that she worked for the president and the president was currently not in Monrovia.
This was not the first time the acting mayor made headlines and been at loggerheads with the legislature and senate. Last year Broh drew ire when she slapped a prominent senator’s assistant across the face during a quarrel, which led them to a vote of no confidence and calls for her dismissal. Broh claimed the woman had publicly insulted her to a point that was intolerable. The house of representatives again called for her dismissal, with some lawmakers describing her as a “rebel,” and “Ellen’s Benjamin Yeaten,” the notorious leader of Charles Taylor’s elite presidential guard.
Broh argues the legislators do not respect her.
“I respect them, but they need to learn how to respect me,” she told me in an interview before the incident.
The acting mayor is a divisive figure. Those in the legislature say she is rude, arrogant and untouchable because of her close relationship to the President, who appointed her. The Representative of District 6 of Montserrado County, Solomon George, made waves when he was captured at a Liberian conference in Minnesota saying that he would shit on Mary Broh. He accused her of corruption suggested she could violence among Liberians who fought the war many of whom live in his district West Point, an area of Liberia that is a patchwork of rusty tin roofs, where toilets and showers are an anomaly.
“Corruption is having a mayor that disrespects her equals and even the poor,” he said in the tape that is now on YouTube.
Broh’s supporters view her as an eccentric rebel with a cause. Secretary General of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce Massah R. Lansanah says that Broh’s work has had an enormous impact on the city and made it more attractive to international investors, among them oil companies such as Total, Chevron, and mining giants like BHP Billiton, ArcelorMittal and China Union.
“Mary Broh has done extremely well and the city has taken a positive change,” she says. “No male or female would be able to do her work. She gets into the gutters, she acts crazy but her impact is positive.”
Lansanah says while the business community and Mary Broh have come to blows before would be a great loss to the city if Broh were dismissed.
But civil society activists claim she is making the city unbearable and creating further divisions between the wealthy elites and the poor.
“She disrupts places and destroys things by instinct and that is very dangerous,” says Abdulai Kamara, head of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building.
Bestman Toe, President of The Slum Dwellers Association of Liberia says that while the city must be developed the Monrovia City Corporation and the Ministry of Public Works, headed by Minister Kofi Woods, has failed to offer the urban poor an alternative. Toe claims 70 percent of the 1.5 million people living in Monrovia, many of who migrated during the war, are slum dwellers.
“The city needs beautification and infrastructure to be built and there are no alternatives being offered by the government to the demolitions,” says Toe.
Broh again came into the media spotlight when houses were demolished by the MCC and Ministry of Public Works before the UN High Level Panel meetings on the Post-2015 Developmental Agenda came to Monrovia in early February.
The acting mayor sits behind an iPad at the end of an oval table in her dark, wood-paneled office in the sleek marble Monrovia City Corporation headquarters built during the rule of the elegant President William V.S. Tubman. She is meeting with World Bank consultants who have been hired to help rebuild the MCC that was a shell of an institution after the civil war. Broh takes notes and periodically raises her finger to tap away incoming calls on her two smart phones. She says she plans to improve urban services, create more green parks and areas and to create employment for youths.
“We have urban growth we cannot contain and we don’t want more slums; we want to create a productive, resilient and inclusive city,” she says, echoing the donor lingo that has become a dialect in a country where non-governmental organizations are ubiquitous. She announces her motto: “A clean, green, prosperous and safe city.”
The consultants leave and Broh frantically prepares for a radio show. Three young women flit around the room searching for documents and factsheets. Broh complains about her office assistants being “sluggish” and tells me to report on it. She walks with sharp steps down marble corridors of city hall, her leopard print slingbacks clacking, pulls open office doors and tells a few departments that their work has to be up to scratch because there is a journalist in the house.
“I want a clean, green city, but the people are against me!” she says as we shuffle down the back staircase.
Outside stand men and women from the General Services Department sit with a half-annoyed half-puzzled look on their faces. “I shut them down because they are inefficient,” she tells me.
An elderly male worker walks down the hill. “Where are you – is it lunch break? Get to work or you’ll lose your job!”
I watch as her driver and her assistant Maaki anxiously try to swat a fly out of the car before the Mayor comes back.
In the pocket of the leather seat in front of Broh’s is a large bottle of hand sanitizer with a label that read Alcohol Pur – Killing Bac.
We drive through the streets of Monrovia, past the Executive Mansion that is under repair and through Johnson Road. Broh’s eyes dart as she points to imperfections in urban landscape that rolls past: rubbish on the street, buildings with faded paint and moldy exteriors, petty traders and people cooking fried plantain and kala on the footpath.
“When I don’t come on the street there is a lot of nonsense going on,” Broh says. “We should have tree-lined streets.”
As the Mayor walks up to the studio of Radio Monrovia, she points to clothes drying on the ground of a construction site and market stands that she says must go. People stand outside the front of the store and begin to shuffle things off the street. Broh calls for a team to come in and clean up the area and walks up to the studio.
She addresses the Solomon George issue and the criticism of the demolitions.
“[T]here is a certain group of people in town here that is against urban renewal that would like to see a permanent underclass of people that will be beholden to them, so they can hold onto their power base, ” she says.
On the issue of demolitions on the demolitions before the High Level Panel she responds:
“They were selling their coal, they were bringing their children to bathe there, they had their slop buckets all lined up, they were brushing their teeth, bathing upfront, you mean on the main street? Can you imagine that? Where did you ever see this?”
As Broh exits the radio station she orders her staff to open a grubby garage filled with old cars. Marketers have hidden their tables and stools. A heavy man piles them together and kicks them in. She orders them to smash down a rusty roof that juts from a wall. A stout elderly woman splashes water on the ground and haggard old man with a little brush broom made of sticks looks confused and runs back and forth.
“All of these people here are illegal aliens,” she says referring to the residents of the street most of whom are Fulas, Mandigoes and Malians.
She begins to lecture a crowd that gatherers around.
“These places will be demolished,” she points to four little shops.
“If you clean your community, I’ll respect you,” she says. “Certain people can’t live in the city. You have the right to be in a city, but you can’t turn this place into a ghetto,” she adds in the same breath.
The crowd stares at her with a bemused expression.
Broh was appointed acting city mayor in 2009 by President Sirleaf, who she met in New York, when the president worked for the United Nations Development Program in 1996. Broh campaigned for Sirleaf in 2005 and describes her with a kind of reverence, saying that it is “by design” the president came to power. Prior to her role as acting Mayor Broh was the President’s Special Projects Coordinator, the Director of the Passport Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then Deputy Managing Director for Administration at the National Port Authority.
Broh came of age in Liberia but lived in the United States for 33 years. She worked for a children’s wear manufacturer for 12 years and for the toy division at Marvel Comics, managing shipping, logistics and distribution, where she worked long hours and shuffled on the subway between Middle Village, Queens and Manhattan.
When Broh moves throughout the city and talks with her staff and citizens it is as if she is commander in chief of a dysfunctional assembly line.
In New York, she says “if you made one mistake there would be a chain effect … everything had to be synchronized. That’s New York and you know everything is fast and I enjoy it and that’s what I bring here.”
But for Broh Liberia’s young society, whose lives and schooling where disrupted by the war, lacks a good work ethic.
“I’m trying to teach them good work ethics, how to take responsibility, how to finish your work, how to meet your timelines, deadlines, working hard and getting good results,” she told me during an interview.
A few days later, during an interview, I ask Broh about a particular book among those lined up neatly on her immaculate desk – called From Third World to First: The Singapore Story written by Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. She opens the book to a photograph of Yew sweeping the streets of Singapore in his early days as a politician. Broh says she doesn’t have political aspirations, but the picture illustrates how public officials ought to behave, they should get their hands dirty.
Broh is a fierce micro-manager and many times takes the work she delegates to others into her own hands.
“In find myself playing the role of janitor in chief,” she told me in the Tahoe on the way back from the radio station.
Broh’s public persona contrasts greatly with that of President Sirleaf who Broh describes as reserved and calm. It was Sirleaf herself who gave Broh her popular nickname, “The General.”
“I’m just the opposite. […] You and I are not going to fight on the street but we’ll go gutter,” she tells me.
While Broh was once lauded for her efforts to clean the city, public opinion has turned sharply against her in recent times.
Kaifala Losene Sayon, a 34-year-old university student who has worked in Waterside market for the past 10 years acknowledges the impact that Broh work has had on the city but would still like to see her go.
“Waterside used to be dirty–there was dirty water, no garbage collection, and no one painted their shops–Mary Broh cleaned the area,” he says. “Mary Broh has made 80 percent of central Monrovia clean.”
But Sayon says that Broh is too argumentative and combative in her style.
“She don’t respect noboby’s rights. People close their shops when they see her,” he says. “I will be happy if she is dismissed.”
At the conclusion of writing this article I received a press release from the executive mansion stating that Mary Broh had turned in her resignation. Sirleaf, in a carefully-worded nationwide address, acknowledged Broh’s contribution to Monrovia and announced that Broh would be leading a project to create a market complex for women with a playground and school in the neighboring city of Paynesville.
I remembered listening her on Radio Monrovia and thought about how quickly Broh’s fortunes had turned since the prison break saga.
“Nobody will dislodge me. They will not make it, I am here to stay,” she said defiantly.
While Broh’s legacy will be contested on the city streets for months, perhaps even years to come, she is an acting city mayor the citizens of Monrovia will never forget.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April edition of Forbes Africa.
Friday, May 3, 2013
We passed the Ministry of Defense late one night. Located in the Barclay Training Center, the ministry sits on one of the most poorly-lit roads in downtown Monrovia – Camp Johnson. The street is awash with darkness, even on nights when football matches are played at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium, whose neon lights chop up the city’s opaque, blue-black skyline.
Soft moonlight fell over lifeless figures on the sidewalk laying between red and white tape and the walls of the barracks that are carved with murals depicting military discipline, service and glory. The road's shoulder pulled us closer, and hundreds of forms became visible, making the sidewalk appear more like a train station in an Indian metropolis whose platforms housed poor souls each night. I stood outside for some minutes. A few men came up to the car window and asked for some help, for some change. We drove off.
Thousands of young men queued for a chance to be among the Armed Forces of Liberia’s new recruits last week. They stood in the stark sunlight and unrelenting heat, shading themselves with flimsy manila folders filled with any certificate that provided some evidence of discipline, achievement, worthiness. The men leaned and squatted up against the walls and sat in the gutters of the opposite shoulder of the road, waiting for an opportunity to submit their resume for a shot at one of the 200 to 300 positions in the AFL, despite the fact that hundreds of others had left allegedly due to poor wages and lack of benefits.
A young university graduate dressed in a suit squinted, walking back and forth between a soldier and the far side of the gate, hustling, trying to jump the queue so he wouldn’t have to wait another day.
Last week Liberia’s massive (youth) unemployment problem sat there on the sidewalk: sweating, impatient, irritable, but forced by circumstance to wait.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Last night I attended the wake of Anna Moneh Quiwah, the late mother of Liberian football legend turned politician, George Manneh Weah. The wake, held at Antoinette Tubman Stadium, located in the center of Monrovia, was attended by thousands of supporters. It reminded me of the huge political rally held by Weah’s party the Congress for Democratic Change during the heat of election campaigning in 2011, when it looked as though they might claim victory. This was just another example of the ‘Weah Effect.’ See photos below.
Friday, April 12, 2013
The rattan cane cuts the air and the wind gasps.
“Four!” The little girl shouts as the young broad-shouldered man, her father, who stands at some distance from her, sweeps the cane up in the air for the next strike.
The sun had risen and these were the morning hours when the air was chill and work could be done without one’s head steaming and body slicking with sweat.
The girl stands on a sandy patch in her faded white underwear. Her short hair is braided tightly in cornrows that end on the atlas of her neck; her body is narrow and sinewy, muscle carved and molded by her heavy-bucket-carrying, smokey-coal-pot, rusty-tin-shack life. The girl’s arm is extended out, her hand held stiff – a bitter gesture, as though she were politely asking her father to beat that mean cane, bony and stripped of all of its skin, on her palm, that was yet to callous and harden.
The man rolls the cane into his hand and focuses his eyes on her palm and traces the action – guiding the stick with his thick thumb and first two fingers he delicately strikes down.
“Five!” She continues to count as her hand reddens and raws.
The girl cannot remember why the rattan was brought out. Her father had stormed into the kitchen, past the heavy aluminum cooking pots and plastic tubs, and snatched it from its sleep in the corrugated-zinc corner.
“You rude girl!” He yelled as she ran outside and stood on the patch of sand just outside the front door, the arena for punishment.
When he became vexed his eyes would spark with anger and his skin would tremble like the surface of boiling water. But he soon cooled, picked up the cane and methodically meted out his discipline that always seemed more like a calculated revenge.
The little girl had thought about stealing the rattan stick, burying it under the sand or throwing it to sea, but she knew that he could choose a bigger, heavier object from the junkyard they lived in. They stayed by the sea, squatting on a sandy block, fenced in by concrete bricks turned black with mold. Inside these walls were cars with missing parts, loose wood planks, and dirty sand, whose surface was littered with garbage and clothes laid out to dry on grassy patches or the dusty bonnets and roofs.
“Twenty.” Her screams that had risen as the number of strikes mounted, wove into a whimper.
The girl’s mother, a heavy pretty woman, sits with her back turned. She squats down dressed in a worn lapa, her hair covered in a net, and washes the spoons and scratched plastic plates, the heavy metal pots, preparing them for breakfast.
Hot tears roll down the girl’s cheeks and her cries are now thin and breathy. It is unclear the number her father is heading towards; she has stopped counting. The girl can only hear the cane cutting the air, the water splashing in the washing trough, the chinking spoons.
After some time she sees a figure in the distance. A neighbour, another young man, walks toward her father to his side and gently mouths a few words. None of them make eye contact with the other. The girl’s father pauses. He raises the rattan stick one last time and walks back into the zinc house with the cane clutched in his fist at his side. The little girl sits on the ground and listens to the ocean’s steady breath and presses her palm against the other that is red and stinging. Her mother continues washing the dishes and her older sister comes out and starts to scale the small thin fish.
The girl looks around at the faded cars, with their hard shells and missing parts and imagines sitting behind a steering wheel, starting the engine and driving out of those moldy walls and into the sea.
Posted by Clair MacDougall at Friday, April 12, 2013