“Hey Liberian people, I know you got an election going on and all, and I’m gonna let you finish, but Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was one of the best presidents of ALL TIME…”
That’s the message sent to Liberia by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee today when made Ellen Sirleaf Johnson one of three recipients of the Peace Prize. If you weren’t aware, Liberians are headed to the polls next week for the second election since the end of 23 years of social upheaval.
As Liberia expert Michael Keating puts it today over at Foreign Policy:
I think it is fair to question the Nobel’s Committee judgement in awarding this prize in a situation where its announcement might be construed as a full-throated endorsement of President Sirleaf’s reelection on the part of the international community. The situation on the ground in Monrovia is much more nuanced than Madame Sirleaf’s coterie of uncritical foreign fans would have us believe. Many of the gains she takes credit for are real but they are still only benefiting a very small group of Liberian citizens.
In a recent Newsweek article, Prue Clarke and Emily Schmall, highlight amongst other specks on the presidents spotless international image, the situation of average Liberians in a country where 9 out of 10 live on less than $1.25 a day, high levels of corruption in the current regime, the inability of the president to deal with social problems such as high levels of rape in the country, and the recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she set-up that she should not be involved in politics for 30 years. The article also points out that while the Unity Party is able to hold rallies of 40,000 people, some of her former supporters, especially women, are starting to rethink their stance on the President.
The problem is that Johnson Sirleaf’s national support is just not as strong as her fan base outside Liberia. The international community has invested a lot in the technocratic peace-building development scheme they’ve deployed from Afrghanistan, Sierra Leone to Liberia. While the international community encourages the integration into the global economy, and the holding of free-elections, many Liberians are being prompted that a vote for the status-quo will be a vote to maintain a fragile peace.
It was this context I encountered when I visited Monrovia this summer. In July, when George Weah’s CDC rolled into town young people swarmed the streets bringing daily operations in the city to a halt (and they are repeating the same feat today; an estimated 400,000 people turned up for a rally in Monrovia).
Under her watch, Monrovia has become a city where foreigners (i.e. aid workers, businesspeople, diplomats) dominate all aspects of the local economy, culture, and daily realities. The entertainment industry exemplifies this. When you go out to the big nightclubs, the scene is dominated by ex-pats and the children of the country’s elite. The music reflects their foreign-oriented tastes.
While the CDC supporters are unfortunately engaged in a game of politics that will ultimately benefit the few leaders of the party, that Johnson Sirleaf is very unpopular is quickly clear. To get a taste of how unpopular Johnson Sirleaf and the political class in general are, you must turn to the Hipco movement, which coalesces around a group of musicians.
The movement is full of talented artists who speak their mind against the inequalities and injustices imbedded in Liberian society. The sentiments of young people who have been manipulated, abused, and ignored by ruling politicians over the years, can be heard in songs like, “They Coming Again” by So Fresh. What the artists lacked was support and resources to sustain a living from their work, and retain an independent voice away from the political parties. While their music wasn’t played in the city’s fancy nightclubs, it was used to rally the poorer youth of the country amongst whom the local music is immensely popular.
One afternoon I sat in on a meeting between some of the country’s most popular artists and one of the political parties. That party’s campaign organizers attempted to conscript them into their ranks in the hopes to catch more of the youth vote. While several artists went along with it, not able to resist the large sums of money offered that would support large extended families, some refused out of both principle and fear of retaliation from opposing parties.
In trying to support the Liberian artists, Akwaaba Music and I teamed up to try and release some of their music to expose it to an international audience. The guiding philosophy is based on the idea that sometimes in order to be appreciated at home you have to have some recognition from abroad. Since today most of that recognition is going to the head of state, it’s time to shift the focus to its people.
That compilation will be out in two weeks, but you can get a preview right now through a mix I put together, along with the track list and my personal perspective on each song at AkwaabaMusic.com.
You can also listen to the mixtape here.