Liberian slum residents demand change


Crammed into tumbledown shacks on a sandspit the Atlantic Ocean is steadily devouring, residents of Liberia’s most notorious slum have a common desire: an end to their daily struggle with dire poverty.

Next month, when 75,000 inhabitants of Monrovia’s West Point neighbourhood decide who should be the next leader of Africa’s oldest republic, an ex-soccer star or the current vice president, they will not be nostalgic.
“The last president didn’t give any help to the common people – no improvement, no development,” said Ishmael Campbell, a 26-year-old fisherman born and raised in the shantytown. “We need a president who will be there for us.”

While the world feted President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, for keeping the peace after a prolonged civil war, those living in West Point take a dimmer view of her 12-year tenure.

Like most in West Point, Campbell lives in a shack along one of the labyrinthine back alleys where houses are packed so close residents squeeze through shoulder-wide paths choked by rotting fish and sewage.

On Johnson Sirleaf’s watch, an Ebola epidemic saw them under quarantine, hemmed in by barbed wire and soldiers who opened fire on protesters challenging the order. Then a global commodities crash dashed the country’s hopes of mining riches.

The economy quadrupled in size, thanks in large part to peace prevailing, but Johnson Sirleaf was criticised for failing to curb corruption.

The two candidates through to the November run-off election, George Weah, a former FIFA world player of the year, and Vice President Joseph Boakai, must persuade struggling voters they can make a difference.

Representing the ruling party, Boakai presents himself as the candidate for change, playing up humble beginnings to distance himself from the tinted-windows government elite despised by the poor.

Neither he nor Johnson Sirleaf are seen as corrupt, but Boakai has been nicknamed “sleepy Joe” for falling asleep at public functions and few in West Point are buying his message.
“He doesn’t care about us, he cares about himself,” Campbell said.

West Point, where jobs are few and many spend the hot afternoons playing checkers or fixing fishing lines in the shade, is a Weah stronghold.
“The youth are on the streets, but they want to work,” said Eugene Nyuti (35). “George Weah is going to empower the youth.”

Weah is a senator and has been goodwill ambassador for UNICEF; many Liberians call him “the ambassador”.

His policies are vague, although he says he wants to improve the country’s roads and critics say he lacks political experience, but he won a clear lead in the first round of the election, with 38% of the vote to Boakai’s 28.

West Point’s problems are echoed to varying degrees across Liberia, which has relied heavily on international donor support since the end of the war in 2003.

The state-run Liberia Electricity Corporation struggles to generate enough revenue to erect more power lines. Thousands across Monrovia illegally connect to the grid with crude wires.

Still, West Point stands out. Asked about their most desperate need, residents point to the rubbish-strewn ocean lapping at their homes. Old sand bags and tyres have not stopped the problem. Houses regularly slide into the sea.

Towards evening as Joseph Myame (25) watched fishermen roll their wooden canoes onto the beach, he too is praying for a Weah victory.
“Maybe he can make a bit of a difference. But whoever wins, the problems are too big.”