“Help us! We are suffering too much in our country!” shouted the Rev. Mary D. Robinson as she sold fish from the sidewalk in the Park Hill neighborhood of Staten Island, a borough of New York City.
Colorfully dressed in the traditional West African style of a matching print top, skirt and head scarf, the 55-year-old Liberian was pleading for greater American involvement in the first elections since 1997 in her war-torn home country.
Robinson, the founder and senior pastor of the Christ Memorial Christian Church, a Pentacostal congregation in Staten Island, moved to the U.S. in 1990. She was in Liberia from February to July this year and described the desperation of her extended family, many of whom she supports with money she sends back from her fish sales. “No light, no water, no phone! We are suffering!”
While Robinson and the others in Liberia’s largest community in America don’t have the right to vote in the upcoming election, that hasn’t stopped them from voicing their opinions on the role they believe the U.S. should have in the small West African nation.
In particular, the election has caught attention because of the candidacy of former soccer star George Weah, who rose from the slums of Liberia to become a multimillionaire based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Ties to U.S.
Weah’s U.S. residency is just a tiny part of the long and sometimes tortured relationship between America and Liberia, a country founded by former slaves in 1847. With a constitution modeled on the U.S. constitution, its capital, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe and its flag shares the colors and bars of the American flag.
In an ironic twist of history, the former slaves who helped found the nation proceeded to subject the “native” Africans who made up the vast majority of the Liberian population to much of the same persecution they had suffered on American shores. The generally lighter-skinned former slaves, who made up about five percent of the population, were the ruling class in Liberia for more than a century until a master sergeant in the army, Samuel Doe, staged a coup in 1980 and publicly executed President William Tolbert and 13 of his top government ministers.
Doe dominated the country until economic collapse led to civil war in 1989, and in 1990 dissidents belonging to Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) overran the capital, plunging the country into further turmoil and years of violent instability.
During the civil war more than 250,000 people were killed by Taylor’s ragtag army — many of them boys strung out on drugs — and thousands fled the fighting.
The conflict finally reached a breaking point in 2003 when Taylor — under intense international pressure and in the battle of his life with rebels for control of Monrovia — fled the country and went into exile in Nigeria.
U.S. Marines helped stabilize the country and propped up an interim government before handing over to United Nations peacekeepers in 2003. Two years of relative calm have laid the groundwork for Tuesday’s elections.
The candidates — soccer stars to warlords
“The elections definitely are going to go forward on the 11th … and the rule of law will be fully respected,” Donald Booth, the U.S. ambassador in Monrovia, told a news conference last week after a dispute was resolved that had thrown the feasibility of the elections into question. The U.S. is providing funding and observers for the polls and is a major aid donor.
“All the indications I have had are that these are going to be free and fair elections,” he said.
The presidential field is a crowded one — 22 candidates, including soccer star Weah, Harvard-educated former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Sekou Conneh, a former rebel who helped drive Taylor into exile.
It is Weah’s rags-to-riches story that has captured the world’s attention. Now 40, Weah turned his soccer playing talent learned in the slums of Monrovia into superstardom in the stadiums of Europe. After retirement, the multi-millionaire moved to Fort Lauderdale with his American wife and children.
Despite his lack of education, in politics or otherwise, Weah’s popularity among the youth of Liberia may prove tough to beat. His main opposition comes from Johnson- Sirleaf, who represents the old political elite — she was a senior minister in the cabinet ousted by Doe in the 1980 coup.
Imromptu political debate
Staten Island’s Liberians, said to number 5,000 (thus making them the largest Liberian community in the U.S.), have been passionately discussing the merits of his candidacy, a debate fueled by a visit earlier this year from the candidate.
On a recent afternoon, a group of 15-20 men, all hailing from Liberia, talked animatedly about the upcoming election on a sidewalk in Staten Island’s Park Hill section.
“We want a good leader that has been chosen by the people,” said Shiaka Kamara, 29, who has lived here since 1997.
Kamara was part of the group of men who came and went from the sidewalk meeting place where Robinson and another older Liberian sold candy and fish. About 50 yards down the block, a group of eight colorfully dressed women had set up shop under umbrellas and were selling bags of hot peppers and small green eggplants — items traditionally used in West African cuisine and sold in open markets there.
Kamara said that he was skeptical of Weah, fearing his presidency could become a “replica” of what happened with Samuel Doe, a once-popular leader who proved to be disastrous for the country.
A friend of Kamara’s, Lafayette Bracewell, 43, explained that although he knows Weah and grew up playing soccer with him in the streets of Monrovia, he doesn’t believe the sports star will be good for his country.
“He doesn’t have the technical know-how as a politician to become president of the nation,” said Bracewell, who has lived in the U.S. for nearly four years.
Just as Bracewell was explaining his position, another young man came walking up the sidewalk. “Five days until the world-renowned Ambassador George Weah becomes president of Liberia,” he shouted.
Dennis Weah, 29, was adamant that the presidential candidate that shares his last name is the man for the job. Bracewell and Kamara let him have his say, but they were dismissive of his opinions, in part, they say, because although Dennis Weah shared their Liberian ancestry, he was born in the U.S. and has spent relatively little time in Liberia. His good fortune in having avoided living through the years of war discounted any opinions he might have as far as Kamara or Bracewell were concerned.
Bracewell argued that with all of the problems Liberia is currently suffering from — massive unemployment, a justice system in tatters, no water, no electricity, no proper school system, a nation basically in freefall — what the country needs is a leader who has real political expertise.
“We need our country to be a nation and not a tribal country,” said Bracewell. “We need someone who can unify us, not someone who people will manipulate.”
Disappointed with ‘stepchild’ status
Richard Diggs, 32, pulled up curbside in a minivan and waited patiently to have his say about the situation in Liberia. A behavioral specialist who has lived in the U.S. for two years, he works in social services. (In fact, two of the people he works with were sitting in the backseat of his comfortable mini-van, replete with air-fresheners, as he chatted.)
“For me, I’m disappointed by the fact that the very people that have caused that our country, Liberia, to become what it is today, are the very same people that we see again coming to this election,” said Diggs, referring to several candidates with ties to previous regimes.
“If I could vote for George Weah, I would.” Diggs added. “Is he the person I would really love to become president of Liberia, no…. But between two evils, you pick the lesser evil…. He is the only angel who is coming forward to help us.”
Diggs said he felt let down by America, particularly in light of its history with Liberia. “We look up to America for leadership, for guidance, but they were never there,” said Diggs.
He added that he was angered by what he calls “stepchild” status Liberia has been given by the U.S.
“We fought our war over there, but they didn’t do anything. I am disappointed in the cold shoulder that America has given Liberia.”
Praying for the best
The group of women selling vegetables disagreed with Diggs’ opinion of their adopted country.
Mary Williams, 54, who has lived in this country for ten years, said she thanks God everyday for the help Americans have given her country.
“We pray for America. From the bottom of my heart, I thank God for George Bush…. Once the American troops got on the shore, everything went fine. There were no more tears, no more shooting,” she said, referring to U.S. military involvement in securing a ceasefire in Monrovia in 2003.
Marta Garnett, who sat with Williams, explained her gratitude for American involvement in securing the peace in her country: “When the war started, America was the only country that came to our rescue, before any other country. I thank God for America.”
As for the election, the women were putting their trust in God for some form of deliverance. “We are praying for God to put who he wants to be the president of Liberia,” said Garnett.