Glimpses

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to contract the services of a very efficient, punctual and polite taxi driver, a man whose name is Chemon. Chemon is Liberian, but spent 10 years living in Guinea during the civil war, where he perfected his French – we often chat in “Frenglish”, my first language. Part of the reason I’ve begun working with him is that transportation in Monrovia is an absolute nightmare, and I’m weighing my words.

The only form of public transportation available here are shared taxis – four people in the back, one in the front. You line up on the side of the road, and wait until a taxi with a free seat stops to pick you up. Now, there seem to be unspoken rules about the order in which people get a ride – a few times, I stopped to wait for a car where several other people were waiting and I was the first one to get a ride. Most of the time, however, people get ahead of me and I end up waiting inordinate amounts of time. Our projects are about 30 min outside Central Monrovia, in a very busy area called Red Light. It’s a popular route, and there are always massive amounts of people waiting to get a ride in both directions.

Rush hour in Monrovia

Unlike most NGOs here, The Niapele Project does not have its own vehicle, and when we need to accomplish several missions during the day (a meeting in Red Light, going to pick up or drop off something downtown, another meeting half way), it’s just not feasible with public transportation. Of course, I could just settle for accomplishing less each day, but given my limited time in the field and the fact that it’s not really my style to work slowly, I struggle for some time to balance my sense of urgency and the realities of getting around.

The solution to this problem is to “charter” one of the little yellow shared taxis for the day – for (generally) $5/hour, you can have your very own yellow taxi to take you wherever you heart desires. That would be great if it wasn’t for the fact that $5/hour for 8 hours is $40/day, and I don’t have the means to afford that. So, until I met Chemon, I either chartered a taxi when I really neeeded it, or just accepted the fact that less work would get done.

In addition to the qualities I first mentioned (efficient, punctual and polite), I am also Chemon’s only expat client, and he charges me very reasonable rates for the day – as long as I pay for gas ($40 to fill the tank, once a week), I can give him $5, 10 or $15, depending on how much I use his services during the day. So we’ve developed a really good working relationship, and, thanks to him Henry (Niapele’s program manager) and I have really boosted our productivity.

Chemon just left for two weeks, but he left his beat up little yellow taxi with one of his friends, so that I didn’t end up in a transporation conundrum again. Because of the time he spent in Guinea, Chemon is buddies with many Guineans here in Monrovia – an apparently tight-knit community. Yesterday, I met Chemon’s friend, my new driver, a gentle Guinean man named Harouna. Harouna took me around all day yesterday, and because “Christmas Season” is suddenly in full swing in Monrovia, we were faced with much traffic, and much time to chat.

I woke up yesterday to the news that Dadis, the junta leader in Guinea, was the victim of an assassination attempt by “renegade presidential guards”, an attack allegedly masterminded by one his aide de camp, Lieutenant Aboubacar Sidiki Diakite (“Toumba”). There is no radio in our beat up little yellow taxi, so I asked Harouna if he had heard the news. He hadn’t, and when while I was updating him on the assassination attempt, he was visibly distraught and kept saying “C’est grave, c’est tres grave” (“It’s serious, it’s very serious”.) He echoed a feeling that I heard from Chemon, which is that Dadis had the courage to take over the leadership of Guinea because he was emboldened by Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore (“C’est grace a Compaore que Dadis a pu s’asseoir”).

Apparently, Compaore provided the airplane that carried Dadis to Morocco, where he is apparently seeking treatment for his wounds and undergoing medical tests. Meanwhile, according to the African Press Agency, “ECOWAS [reiterated] its call for the immediate establishment of a new transitional authority and the holding of credible elections in the first quarter of 2010 without the candidatures of members of the CNDD and the Prime Minister.”

The ECOWAS statement contradicts what Compaore, the ECOWAS-appointed mediator in the Guinean crisis, called for recently: that Dadis should remain in power for 10 months, and that he could run in the election provided that he step down from the government four months prior to the plebiscite.

The situation in Guinea is extremely volatile, and Dadis’ departure leaves a power vaccuum – while his 2nd in command is left in charge, the potential for a counter-coup and a descent into violence are very real threats.

I’ve mentioned it before here, and my new Guinean friends as well as many people here in Liberia share the belief that Compaore’s appointment as mediator was a miscalculated decision on the part of ECOWAS. Of course, many people here have a tainted perspective of the regional body, due to the perceived failure of the ECOWAS mandated peacekeeping mission in Liberia in the 90s (ECOMOG), which some believe contributed to fueling or at least prolonging the conflict. Compaore is also known to have supported Charles Taylor, in return for Taylor’s participation in the assassination of Thomas Sankara, the young progressive leader in Burkina who Compaore replaced.

It’s been really interesting to catch glimpses into how Guineans and Liberians feel about the crisis in Guinea. As Louise Arbour of the International Crisis Group recently wrote, the potential for regional destabilization should not be underestimated. Many people here fear that a crisis in Guinea could have repercussions on its fragile, recovering neighbors. For instance, should Guineans begin to flee their country and take up residence as refugees on Liberian or Sierra Leonian soil, it would create tensions around the availability of jobs and resources.

Perhaps the stability of West Africa doesn’t seem like a priority – the financial crisis, the recession, unemployment, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, swine flu and what will Jon and Kate + 8 do next take up all the available “worry space” in people and policymakers’ minds. I’m not usually a fan of overused aphorisms, but “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind. 

2 thoughts on “Glimpses

  1. This is fantastic and very insightful – thanks for explaining the complications of ECOWAS and Compaore in Guinea.

    Also of note –
    1. “not really my style to work slowly” officially wins understatement of the year – hands down.
    2. Jerry charged us to fill the tank every other day – even, inexplicably, on weeks when the car was in the shop. This is much improved.
    3. Jon and Kate who? These days in American news, it’s ALL Tiger Woods infidelity, ALL the time.

    Yet again your post has made my day. Go to Blue Lake tomorrow!!!

  2. Very nice post.

    I think you could pressure down prices a little bit more though. US$5 per trip (including to meeting + wait during meeting + back from meeting) is definitely possible. Then we have the motorcycle taxis: yes a little bit more on the risky side, but quick, cheap and infinitely more comfortable

    After I returned to Liberia in August my cab driver called me after just a few days. He had been trying my number a couple of times a week for 2 months just to see if I was in the country again. In fact he still calls to check when I am coming back down to Monrovia.

    The first I noticed of the recent hubbub in Guinea was the sudden UN flurry up here. Patrols have gone from zero to several times as day, UNMIL, UNPOL with jeeps and yestersday two helicopters in astonishingly close formation flying very low. Presumable checking that our fieldworkers were not a flood of refugees.

    I’m curious to see what “christmas season” looks like in Monrovia. Though my christmas plans mostly include a fat package from Amazon and cold beers on the beach.

    Keep up the good work! // V

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