On January 16, 2006, a newly-elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf struck a populist tone when she wowed guests attending her first inauguration with a poignant message directed at Liberians.
Said Sirleaf: "Across this country, from Cape Mount in the West to Cape Palmas in the East, from Mount Nimba in the North to Cape Monsterrado in the South, from Mount Wologizi in North central to Mount Gedeh in the Southeast, our citizens at this very moment are listening to my voice by radio - and some are watching by television. I want to speak directly to you. As you know, in our various communities and towns, our children have a way of greeting their fathers when they come home after a long, tiring day of trying to find the means to feed the family that night and send the children to school the next day. They say, "Papa na come. Well, too many times, for too many families, Papa comes home with nothing, having failed to find a job or to get the help to feed the hungry children. Imagine then the disappointment and the hurt in the mother and children; the frustration and the loss of self-confidence in the father.
Through the message of this story, I want you to know that I understand what you, our ordinary citizens, go through each day to make ends meet for yourselves and for your families."
Sirleaf went on to say that times were hard before, but are even harder today as she made a strong pledge that under her administration, she would work to change the situation.
"We will work to ensure that when our children say "papa na come", papa will come home joyfully with something, no matter how meager, to sustain his family. In other words, we will create the jobs for our mothers and fathers to be gainfully employed. We will create the social and economic opportunities that will restore our people's dignity and self-worth. We will make the children smile again; the thousands of children who could not present their voting cards, but repeatedly told me whenever I met and shook their hands that they voted for me. Indeed, they voted with their hearts. To those children and to all other Liberian children across this nation, I say to you, I love you very, very much. I shall work, beginning today, to give you hope and a better future. Now, I would like to speak in particular to our youth. You can believe my word that my Administration will do its utmost to respond to your needs."
Mothers, kids, the new Papas
Eight years later, Liberia under Sirleaf is at a crossroads in a mid-term election year which could serve as a litmus test and possible gauging point about how Liberians are feeling and what they are thinking about the government which has been engulfed in criticisms of a poor and badly managed economy, a rapidly depreciating local currency and a nation struggling to restore its economic sanity.
During the observance of International Women's Day last Saturday, February 8, 2014, both President Sirleaf and President Pro Temp Gbehzonga Findley struggled to give new meaning to the "Papa Na Come" declaration made by Sirleaf in 2006. Revisiting Sirleaf's '06 pledge that papa will come; Findley suggested that the president's commitment should rather be for both papa and mama to come home. "The day I do not have a job I expect my woman to support me and nothing wrong with that."
The Pro Temp's statement prompted Sirleaf to explain her thinking behind the phrase as she suggested that the idea behind her statement in '06 was to empower fathers who are considered the breadwinners of their families.
"The president pro Temp mentioned the statement I made in 2006 or 2007 about papa coming home, the whole idea there was that it will empower father, so that when they get home their children will gladly welcome them because they came home with a job and power to help them to feed them to educate them but we have a problem here the problem is papa stops too many places before he gets home."
Shifting gears, Sirleaf now says, it is time to empower Liberian women so that they will be able to come home. Lost on the new definition being interpreted by the President and the Pro Temp, is that women and children have in fact become the new Papas bringing home the goods for the family.
Despite more representation of women in the Sirleaf government, women languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder are having to work twice as hard as men and are actually already bringing the goods home as the new breadwinners.
More troubling in the new dynamics is the fact that children as young as four and nine-years-old are being forced to become Papas. Many attribute the problem to the lack of easy access to quality education and the lack of incentives to lure educated Liberians abroad to return home in a bid to help make a difference by educating others.
Prior to the civil war, some traditional families used girl children as bread winners for the families to up-keep their homes, mostly through prearrange marriages. During the celebration marking the 75th birth anniversary of President Sirleaf last year, Musu Sloah, President of the Liberia Marketing Association (LMA) acknowledged market women are in fact the new winners for their individual families.
But for many political observers, the resurrection of the populist phrase which drew loud cheers in 2006 and the new explanation by Sirleaf signals a reluctant admission from the Sirleaf that fulfilling promises made during an election year could be tricky especially when they go unfulfilled.
Corruption part of problem
Many see Sirleaf's losing battle in the war against corruption, credited in part to the lack of prosecution as a key reason why many of her election-year promises have not been fulfilled. In the past few months, damning indictments from both the United Nations Panel of Experts report and the United States Government on the issue of corruption and governance dampened Sirleaf's once promising international image.
"The law does not provide criminal penalties for official corruption, although criminal penalties exist for economic sabotage, mismanagement of funds, and other corruption-related acts. Officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Low pay levels for the civil service, minimal job training, and few court convictions exacerbated official corruption and a culture of impunity," reported the U.S. Department of State's 2013 Human Rights report.
The report took aim on the government's unequal justice system and observed that while the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and the Ministry of Justice are responsible for exposing and combating official corruption, the LACC remained a weak option because of underfunding, understaffing, and judicial bottlenecks. "During the year the LACC received 25 cases, investigated 23 cases, and recommended four for prosecution, resulting in no convictions."
The 2013 report alarmed that judges were susceptible to bribes to award damages in civil cases. "Judges sometimes requested bribes to try cases, release detainees from prison, or find defendants not guilty in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable rulings from or to appease judges, prosecutors, jurors, and police officers. The Ministry of Justice continued its calls to reform the jury system."
Besides the issue of corruption, the government has also been struggling to deal with a serious issue affecting landowners and the complicating dilemma for concessionaires unable to get anything done due to squabbles with villagers. Last December, the UN Panel of Experts recommended that the Government of Liberia should continue to address the grievances of local communities affected by the allocation of customary land to international palm oil agribusinesses.
"Unless communities are provided with adequate guarantees regarding employment, social development and a sustainable future for their land, and the independent legal and technical support to ensure these outcomes, the risk of conflict in concession areas remains high. The Panel recommends that the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil conduct a review mission to Liberia without delay to assess the compliance of international companies operating large-scale concessions with its principles and criteria."
The panel report recalled an incident on September 3, 2013, where EPO's exercise was disrupted by approximately 100 men armed with machetes from Debbah Town, one of the settlements within the area, protesting the expansion of the agricultural development. Grievances have also affected concessionaires Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum.
Challenges amid inroads
For the foreseeable future, many see education as the key that could go a long way in restoring hope to a nation, the United States Aid for International Development says, is significantly behind most other countries in the African region in nearly all education statistics. USAID is currently working through the Girls' Opportunities to Access Learning program, funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation's Threshold Grant to Liberia, to increase girls' enrollment, attendance and retention in primary schools in Lofa, Bong, and Grand Bassa counties.
According to USAID, at the national level, the project addresses the challenge of overage enrollment and broadens the impact of the Program's efforts through its support to the Ministry of Education to update its National Policy on Girls' Education. While the results of such a program may still be years away, blame is also being shifted in another direction, that the government has been unable to implement a strong agriculture program to bolster Liberia's food security and nutrition which international stakeholders agree is very important for the country's economic growth.
In 2008 the government and the United Nations Joint Programme on Food Security and Nutrition designed a comprehensive three-year programme aimed at providing a coherent and coordinated response to the problem of food insecurity and malnutrition in the country. Six years later, the problem persists despite some inroads in the rehabilitation and construction of key roads, as a means to improve access to markets and basic social services.
The rehabilitation and improvement of essential 'farm to market' roads and bridges in Bong, Nimba and Lofa counties- linking vulnerable farming communities to market places, health centres and schools has helped to some extent to alleviate some of the problems. To date, some thirty-five kilometres of farm to market roads have been rehabilitated, 33 culverts have been installed and five bridges have been fully repaired. The rehabilitated roads link Wagliela, Davoiyee and Gblason towns to Sanniquellie, the capital of Nimba County, providing farmers with year round access to the main regional market place.
An irrigation scheme in Gbidin has also been repaired and 100 workers have been trained to ensure its proper maintenance. Eight hundred farmers are now able to irrigate their rice farming land, leading to two harvests per year instead of one. With work yet to commence on the Somalia Drive route, many Liberians remain hopeful despite the slow pace of post-war development.
School-age kids working the streets
For Sirleaf, the journey from the populist 2006 'Papa Na Come' refrain has been rugged much to her own doing. Besides the poor economic state, the losing war against corruption and some poor decisions, the lack of political will to bring those close to her to book has been cited as a key reason why her government remains entrenched in a state of doubts in the eyes of some stakeholders unconvinced about Sirleaf's ability to tackle corruption. For some of Sirleaf's supporters, there have been glimpses of the Iron persona. Like last week action the president took against a distant relative who tried to compromise police investigation into the alleged rape of the relative's granddaughter.
Speaking during the official program marking the observance of International Women's Day at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS) on Saturday, March 8, Sirleaf declared: "I wear black today to the memory of all the young women whose lives have been taken from them by vicious and violent men. I wear black for the 13-year old girl whose future was sacrificed by her grandmother who compromised rape with an offender by having him taken out of prison when he had been arrested for this vicious act," stressing, "I assure you he has been rearrested and she has been fired."
The action taken by Sirleaf came in the midst of disturbingly high cases of rape involving young boys and girls. The Ministry of Gender and Development reported a total of 2,493 sexual and gender-based violence crimes across Liberia, up from 2,029 cases in 2010. A majority of these (58 percent) were rape cases, of which 92 percent or 1,348 involved rapes of children between the ages of three months to 17 years.
The statistics are a painful reminder that those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder are continuing to struggle for survival; and making ends meet has forced many to do odd things: Mothers giving their underage daughters to men, and young boys and girls forced to trek the streets in search of a daily bread. Post-war Liberia's breadwinners have suddenly been transformed from Papa's to mothers and their school-age children working the streets to bring home the goods.