Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Liberia violence breaks out before election

Liberia's presidential election has been thrown into deadly chaos after at least two people were shot dead during volatile scenes outside the headquarters of a candidate who has called for a boycott of Tuesday's vote.

Supporters of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party candidate, Winston Tubman, clashed with police near his beachfront offices. Armed police responded with live rounds and teargas, killing at least one person. Tubman and his running mate, the former footballer George Weah, were trapped inside the building suffused with teargas for much of the day. "We are not only sad, we are very disappointed," Weah told the Guardian. "We were holding a peaceful rally and live bullets were used. To see people being killed is shocking. We are here trapped and unarmed and they keep shooting teargas. This is wrong."

Later, a Guardian correspondent witnessed a second protester being shot in the head at point-blank range by a Liberian police officer. The man, who was not armed, died immediately. An air of stunned shock hung over the incident in the searing tropical afternoon.

To read more, please go to the Guardian's website.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Liberia's heated election and fears of media crackdown

People are in the streets singing and dancing.

Motorbike drivers, sometimes carrying as many as four passengers, are racing up and down the roads, horns blaring. Street sellers, taking advantage of the crowds, are plying their wares - bananas, groundnuts and pouches of cold water.

They have been waiting for hours for their hero - the world football legend George Weah. He is the vice-presidential candidate for the main opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Winston Tubman is running for president on the same ticket.

Today, they are on their way here to Ganta in the north-east of Liberia to campaign and the excitement is mounting.

"They're coming," someone shouts suddenly.

Everyone rushes to see the convoy arrive. But in the mayhem, a man gets knocked down by one of the CDC cars. I join other journalists by the podium where the visitors will speak, and it is here where I see, at first hand, attempts to stifle the press.A Liberian journalist starts taking pictures of him lying on the ground covered in blood. This will be the story in all the papers tomorrow.

To read more, please go to the BBC website.

BBC's From Our Own Correspondent dispatch from Liberia

Tamasin Ford finds worries about intimidation and attacks on journalists as the country prepares for a general election. To hear this report, click on this link.

Monday, 17 October 2011

BBC's From Our Own Correspondent dispatch from Liberia/ Sierra Leone

Tamasin Ford visits the centre of the country's diamond trade and meets some of the victims of its decade long civil war. To hear this report, clink on this link.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf faces a tough presidential election in Liberia

They call her Ma Ellen, a fond nickname for Africa's most powerful woman. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the continent's first female president who took on a country ripped apart by 14 years of civil war. When she took office in 2005, Liberia's schools, roads and hospitals were in disrepair, the justice system was in tatters and many of the country's young people were skilled in just one thing: how to hold a gun.
Since then, Sirleaf has made impressive strides in transforming Liberia. She erased nearly $5bn (£3.2bn) in debilitating foreign debt in just three years. Foreign investment has returned. The annual government budget has risen sixfold from $80m to $516m. Winning the Nobel peace prize on Friday confirmed her heroic international status. But what is less clear is whether her success has trickled down to all of her people.
In Sugar Hill, a slum on the edge of one of Monrovia's bustling markets, a group of jobless young men sat lounging on crumbling brick walls. Many spend their days drinking 8PM, a strong Liberian gin, and smoking drugs. "For young men like me she hasn't done anything," declared 32-year-old Prince Flomo, a former combatant. "We put her there as president because we thought she was going to make things all right." He supported Sirleaf in 2005 but will not vote for her re-election in the country's second post-war general election on Tuesday.
Another young man declared: "Ma Ellen waived debt, that's true. She did well. But where's the development? Where's the jobs?"
Thousands of young men who fought during the 1989-1996 war still roam the streets "crooking" to make a living. Many came out of the disarmament process without the skills needed to find work. Some followed the lure of money across the border to fight in the civil war in Ivory Coast.
Many who voted Sirleaf in 2005 now backing the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party. The CDC presidential candidate, Winston Tubman, was, like Sirleaf, educated at Harvard and is the nephew of Liberia's longest-serving president, William Tubman. His running mate is George Weah, the world-renowned football player who ran Sirleaf a close second in 2005.
Six years later, even as the vice-presidential candidate, Weah poses problems for Ma Ellen's re-election.
The announcement that Sirleaf had won the Nobel peace prize had little effect on the thousands of opposition supporters at the CDC's final election rally on Friday. "Muyan, muyan, muyan," they chanted – a battle cry for their beloved footballer, meaning "move forward".
But among opposition leaders, the prize has sparked resentment and recrimination. "It is undeserved," said Tubman. "It is a political interference in our country's politics."
One young voter said: "We thank God our pa now come because our ma fooled us."
Sirleaf is aware foreign investment hasn't yet brought much-needed jobs to Liberia. "It's difficult for them to understand that development takes time. That progress is incremental," she told the Guardian. Her government has attracted billions in foreign investment, and the first shipment of iron ore in 20 years left Liberia last month.
However, the average Liberian has yet to feel the benefits.
"They had a lot of confidence in me when I took over and they figured I would just turn things around. There would just be a quick fix, a magic wand, everybody would have a job," said Sirleaf.
Her government has been dogged by allegations of corruption and criticised for not doing more to tackle unemployment and restoring basic services such as electricity.
But the 72-year-old can still command an audience. At a campaign rally in a Monrovia church this month, the building was crowded with people trying to get a glimpse of their president.
"In the last six years we have done more than has been done here in the past 30 years," cried Sirleaf. "And we've done it with peace," she declared.
On the day she launched her campaign in the national stadium, the capital ground to a halt. She was forced to cut her speech short as people in the heaving crowds started fainting from the searing heat. As she toured the country on her campaign trail, roads became impassable.
In 2005, more than half of voters were women who turned out in high numbers to support Sirleaf, and she is relying on them to do the same thing on Tuesday. "The women's role has always played a big role. Their vote will be critical," said Sirleaf.
But women too are frustrated. Mamie Folay runs a small "cook shop" on the outskirts of Monrovia. A CDC poster hung from one of the peeling concrete walls of the small dark room.
Serving up bowls of rice to customers, she said: "I voted for Ellen but from 2005 up to now I can't get nothing to sustain myself."
Folay manages to make enough to feed her family but not enough to send her children to school. She complained of the soaring price of rice.The high cost of living has become a key issue in this election. Jewel Howard Taylor, the former wife of the ousted president Charles Taylor, is a popular figure among the women of Liberia. The senator from Liberia's third-largest county backed Sirleaf in 2005, but this time she too has switched allegiances.
"The first thing that's important to me are issues of the high level of poverty and unemployment and that's a high issue on the CDC agenda," she said.
Liberians historically vote along tribal lines so the existence of 15 other presidential candidates could take much-needed votes from Sirleaf.
One of those 15 is Prince Yormie Johnson, a former warlord, who in 1990 was filmed drinking beer while his men tortured and killed the ousted president Samuel Doe. Johnson eventually fled to Nigeria but when peace came Sirleaf chose not to have a war crimes tribunal in Liberia after the war, opting instead for a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission. Johnson reinvented himself as a born-again Christian and in 2005 was elected senator in the country's second largest county.
He is not expected to win but could help in forcing a run-off election in early November. If this happens, Sirleaf's re-election could be in the hands of the losing opposition parties. Their decision on where they pledge their loyalties could be crucial.
But Ma Ellen still believes she can win the election in the first round. "Ellen promised. Ellen is delivering," states one of her many billboards scattered up and down the country. But her success on Tuesday will depend on whether the promises she has kept can outweigh the ones she hasn't.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Scramble to flee Ivory Coast's unrest

It is early in the morning and the sun has only just risen above the the river which divides Liberia from Ivory Coast.

Fighters from Ivory Coast's former rebel group stand along the river bank watching, as hundreds of people packed on to rafts cross the river to reach the safety of Liberia. 
Just 50m (165ft) of water separates the two countries at this crossing point.
Throughout the night, gunfire echoed across the divide. Liberians woke to a rush of refugees scrambling over the river to escape what they fear most - a return to civil war.
One of the men wearing army fatigues and a red beret talks on the phone as he shouts orders to people around him. He looks like he is the one in charge. Another with an AK-47 clasped in his hands stands nearby.  They both head towards a motorbike by the edge of the river bank where a fellow fighter, with a rocket-propelled grenade draped over his shoulder, waits to drive them.

These men belong to the New Forces - the former rebel group from the north of Ivory Coast which is giving its backing to Alassane Ouattara, the man the UN says won November's presidential elections.
But incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down - splitting the country along the same north-south divide that the election was intended to heal.  In 2002, the civil war left the rebels in charge of the north and the government army in control of the south.
To read the full BBC article, click here

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Liberians Struggle to Cope With Fleeing Ivorians

Albertine Yahwah sits on a hard wooden bench, cradling her little baby in her arms. The 20 year-old walked from the Ivory Coast with her two children and her husband to reach this small town across the border in Northern Liberia.

Avoiding the main roads, she trekked in her slippers through forests and over broken bridges. It took her three days. Exhausted and hungry, the young mother explains why she fled her home and the country she loves.

“In my village, while we were voting, Gbagbo people came to force us to vote for them and then Outtara people would come and force you to vote for them. That’s why I got scared and I came,” she says. Albertine comes from Danane, the heartland of Allassane Ouattara’s rebel- held north. The former Prime Minister was declared the new President in the November elections before the courts overturned the result.

The Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has support in the Christian south, issued a rival claim to victory but then the UN Security Council passed a resolution to formally recognise Ouattara as the President. It has left the country split down the middle, with two Presidents trying to claim power. The army and security forces back Gbagbo while Ouattara has support from former rebels, the UN, African leaders and the West.

To read the full article, click here