This is my country
The Liberian academic and writer talks about citizenship, belonging, and what unites her fragmented nation.
- Interview by
- Suchitra Vijayan
In early 2007, three things were ubiquitous in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital: almost every other car had “UN” printed in big black letters on its sides, all-female police units from India served as a part of the peacekeeping force, and faded war graffiti was everywhere. The war ruins existed alongside a construction boom and the rise of upscale-gated compounds that coincided with the arrival of a massive United Nations (UN) Mission in Liberia. At its height, there were over 16,000 foreign personnel in Liberia. The arrival of the UN, multinationals, international aid organizations and foreign personnel created new political economies of law, order and governance. UN personnel, for instance, were not subject to local Liberian laws but governed by diplomatic immunity conferred by international law. This immunity soon created a culture of overarching impunity—from accidents to sexual assault—UN staff could not be held accountable.
First deployed in 2003, the UN presence was omnipresent for over 15 years as the country dragged itself from a brutal civil war and elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the 24th President of Liberia and first elected female head of state in Africa. In 2018, after twelve years in power, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf left her office with an inconsistent and disappointing record, a number of unkept promises and a nation struggling with poverty, poor health care, education, and public infrastructure. There were charges of corruption, and acts of nepotism where she appointed three of her children and her sister to key government posts. Despite the many disappointments, even seething anger from her people, she left office and made it possible for a peaceful transfer of power to another democratically elected leader, George Weah, a former professional footballer; something that hadn’t happened in Liberia in seven decades.
But the ghosts of Liberia’s troubled past linger.
Questions about citizenship, belonging and what unites a fragmented people remain. These questions keep re-emerging and threatening the loosely held country with its various factions and claims of belonging, ownership, and nationality. How does one take stock of those years?
Born in Monrovia, Liberian scholar and writer, Robtel Neajai Pailey tries to grapple with many of these questions in her memoir essay, “This Is Our Country” published by Warscapes magazine in February 2020. Pailey is an academic with expertise in international development and African decolonization. She has also written two anti-corruption children’s books. Despite being forced to live away from her country of birth for long periods, it seems that Liberia and its history remains at the core of her scholarship and writing.
Pailey first traveled to the United States in 1988 on a “visitor visa to join her parents,” and later “overstayed, and lived in undocumented limbo” until she was 20. Elsewhere, Pailey has explained that, “by flouting US immigration laws, my parents eventually shielded me from 14 years of intermittent armed conflict.” She then returned “home” to Liberia and worked for President Sirleaf during her first term as a Scott Family Fellow.
The Scott Family Fellows were young professionals “recruited to support the government of Liberia as it recovered from 14 years of brutal civil war.” The Scott Fellows worked in key positions in Liberian ministries funded by a US foundation in collaboration with the office of the Liberian president.
In her long and intimate essay, she recounts those years; the encounters with the president, and how the UN presence in Liberia created various “worlds” that Pailey had to navigate. Pailey writes from a place of sadness and anger. In our conversation she told me, “Whenever I think of Liberia, I do feel a sense of deep sadness.”
“This Is Our Country” transports us back to Liberia in the years following the war and a newly elected president. This conversation begins where Pailey’s essay ends and sheds light on the negotiation and negation of everyday sovereignty experienced by Liberians as they lived and navigated a post-war reality, amidst the overwhelming presence of international experts, aid workers, consultants and brokers. Pailey’s own history of migration, exile, and return to Liberia as a Scott Fellow tells a complicated and textured story. Living at this intersection between the “local and the international,” “the national,” and the “ex-pat,” Pailey articulates these complex socio-political worlds.
One of the moments in the essay that really captures this is when Pailey’s car is hit by another UN vehicle, and even as someone who works at the President’s office, there’s nothing she can do. “They set the rules, fender-bender us, play judge and jury, rape our children,” she writes. She discusses what it means to live under such an overwhelming UN presence, how international organizations have remade the political economy in Liberia through a culture of impunity.
For instance, a 2015 report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) said “UN peacekeepers in Liberia bought sex with money, jewelry, cell phones, televisions, and other items in countries where they are deployed.” But very little has been done to hold many of these perpetrators accountable. She poignantly states that the “law that was going to administer justice was the law of the international world.”
This conversation happened in early February when I had just returned from India and where a people’s protest had emerged in the aftermath of new citizenship laws. I saw many of the concerns that continue to occupy my thoughts reflected through Pailey’s arguments, most importantly the irreconcilable promise of freedom and the promise of nationalism.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s first talk about the protagonist of your essay: Liberia. Reading your essay, I could sense anger. I was wondering if you could talk to us about Liberia and what happened to this great promise of freedom? I also wondered if, in some ways, you felt that the great promise of freedom had been compromised, even when you had more than 10 years ago returned back home to work in the President’s Office.
Liberia has a very interesting, peculiar, complicated history. It was imagined, founded and established in the mid-19th century by black settlers who came from all over the world. Some were free men and women who emigrated from the United States because they just got fed up with the racism and sheer structural inequalities in that country. Others were enslaved, so in exchange for leaving the United States, they were manumitted by the American Colonization Society (ACS), which partially planted the seed of Liberia’s existence. I call the ACS a pseudo-humanitarian group because they were preoccupied with getting rid of free blacks who posed a threat to slavery in the Southern parts of the United States. If enslaved people saw free blacks traipsing around they would, in turn, aspire for that freedom.
So, the free and formerly enslaved blacks from the US were joined by free and formerly enslaved blacks from the Caribbean as well as Congo River basin inhabitants who were on board slave ships that were intercepted and sent to Liberia. But, as is the case of human history, whenever a country is “founded” or “established”, there are always people who already inhabit that geographic territory with lives and livelihoods of their own, and ways of being, doing and seeing the world. When settlers arrived in what would later be known as Liberia, they inhabited the Atlantic coast initially before pushing further inland to establish political dominion over a larger swathe of territory. During this period, they encountered 16 ethno-linguistic groups already occupying the coast and hinterland.
Liberia is often thought about as the great American experiment gone wrong. You can’t bring black people from such different sensibilities, such different ways of viewing the world, and plop them into a territory, expect them to get along and to ultimately develop a particular national identity that will coalesce. So, there were frictions, including indigenous wars of resistance against settlers, but also collaborative encounters, such as when some indigenous groups helped settlers stave off malaria.
Yet, while settlers battled British and French colonial encroachment after establishing Africa’s first black republic in 1847, they barred from citizenship most of the 16 ethno-linguistic groups until a Unification and Integration Policy changed this somewhat in 1946. Precipitated by political upheavals from the early 1970s related to the politics of exclusion, a coup in 1980 effectively toppled settler domination, which culminated in a 14-year protracted armed conflict that eventually led to the election in 2005 of President Sirleaf.
We are still reeling from our history, from our inability to reconcile diametrically opposed ways of being and doing. What I often argue in my scholarly work is that in the 21st century, we have experienced a resurgence of the settler-indigene divide in a returnee-non-returnee divide, pitting those who may never have left Liberia before/during/after the war against those who are returning in the post-war moment. So, the promise of freedom, of national identity consolidation, was never fully realized.
The other thing that jumped out to me was this idea where you say that very little is unmarked by the outside world. I was wondering if you feel the same is true of Liberia as well—to always remain and be imagined in relationship with something else. Do you think you can now write about Liberia in ways that don’t reference something else?
Liberia is a hybrid entity. As much as I want us to be insular, and to think of ourselves as capable of surviving without the outside world, it’s pretty much impossible because of the encounters that I’ve talked about; the fact that these black people were coming from all across the globe, and they had already been marked by the outside world, given their experiences of slavery and colonialism.
I am also marked by my own transnationalism. I was born in Liberia but left when I was six years old. I grew up in the United States, but I have travelled extensively and lived in about six different countries. So, my experience is one that is part and parcel of the Liberian experience of hybridity.
Liberia represents a migratory nation. Even those “indigenous” 16 ethno-linguistic groups didn’t start physically arriving in Liberia until the 12th century; they too were migrants. There were also mixed marriages amongst the indigenous, the Congo River basin settlers and black emigrants from the US and Caribbean. So, to claim indigeneity in the 21st century is almost absurd.
As a personal example, my great-grandfather apparently migrated to Liberia at the turn of the 20th century from Kingston, Jamaica. I’m still trying to trace where he lived in Kingston. My mother, younger sister Ella and I visited the archives in Kingston in 2017, but we haven’t been able to pin down the exact location of his residence. I also have lineage from Sierra Leone on my father’s side, particularly the Kroos of Sierra Leone who lived on the Atlantic coast as seafarers. If you speak to any Liberian, they would probably have a similar story of hybridity.
You also call yourself an “impractical nationalist” in the essay. What does that mean? Do you still see yourself as an “impractical nationalist”?
In the essay, I say that other people referred to me as an “impractical nationalist.” I don’t think there’s anything impractical about being a Liberian nationalist since so much of the outside world dictates who we should be and what we should do. I find that to be very problematic, so am very invested in charting Liberia’s future transformation on our own terms.
I want to see us be better. I want to see us do better. I think part of that is trying to figure out who we are as a nation, what our history is, and acknowledging that this history is a very difficult history. It’s a painful history. It’s a very violent history, structurally as well as physically violent. The only way for us to reconcile tensions in our past and to move forward is to work together in fiercely nationalist terms.
Liberia is particularly interesting because it’s one of the only two countries in Africa that wasn’t colonized formally by Europeans; Ethiopia was the other. We never went through a period of nationalism. Most formerly colonized countries had a common external enemy to fight against. In Ghana, for instance, there was the British colonial force. In Senegal, it was the French. Liberia didn’t have that at all. Our common enemy, I have argued previously, has been each other. And so, it’s become very difficult, though not impossible, to coalesce as a people.
I think the only time we came together tactically, at least from my own memory and experience, was during the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016. The existential threat of Ebola, our common external enemy at the time, forced domestic and diasporic Liberians to collaborate on eradicating the virus. I hoped that would have been a great moment for us to say, “Okay, it is possible to work together despite our differences.” I think perhaps that moment was lost. I’m a bit more pessimistic than I want to be, but I continue to hope that we can one day return to that moment of national solidarity to propel us towards true transformation.
And one of the moments in the essay that really captures it for me is the moment your car is hit by a UN vehicle and there’s nothing you can do. Soon after that, you say, “They set the rules, fender-bender us, play judge and jury, rape our children…” I would really like you to discuss what it feels like to live under such an overwhelming UN presence, how international organizations have remade the political economy in Liberia through a culture of impunity.
I felt like three different worlds coexisted in Liberia during that time and it’s still very much the case now.
We had (have) the realm of the “international,” including multinational companies; a huge UN presence, 15,000 troops or so but also civilians; and NGOs that were basically the proxies of international finance institutions and donors.
We also had (have) the “transnational” realm, comprising those with one foot in and one foot out of Liberia. This is the world of returnees, Liberians who had lived abroad for a number of years, returning from the West African sub-region, including Sierra Leone, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and also those who had travelled further afield returning from the United States or Europe.
Finally, we had (have) the “domestic” realm comprising Liberians who stayed in the country for most of the war and understood (understand) the local context most intimately.
These three realms have their own rules. They have different terms of engagement. For example, the ‘international’ realm is otherworldly because those who inhabit it are exempt from domestic regulations. Liberia’s rules do not apply to them at all and this creates a system of impunity. When I worked for the government of Liberia, I found that internationals exhibited a certain aura of arrogance because they didn’t have to follow Liberia’s rules. That’s why I thought it was important to highlight what transpired after the UN vehicle fender-bendered me, because when the Liberia National Police showed up, they couldn’t actually file a report because they had no jurisdiction over UN personnel.
We had to wait almost an hour for the UN Police to come. And this really infuriated me because in our own country, we couldn’t dispense justice against external actors. The fact that I worked for the president of Liberia made no difference at all. The law of the international world reigned supreme. Using the narrative of a UN pedophile who committed suicide after he was exposed for repeatedly raping young Liberian girls, I also demonstrate in the essay how the UN has a long history of shielding sexual predators.
Impunity in the “international” realm also manifested in the “transnational” realm. For example, a number of Liberian returnees implicated in various cases of corruption during Sirleaf’s two terms in office were never prosecuted. Many resigned from public office and returned to their countries of settlement; to this day, we haven’t been able to restitute the money they allegedly stole.
So, in hindsight, I can say with surety that the three different realms operating in parallel created a cesspool of chaos. This is what I tried to convey in “This Is Our Country.”
And you also talked about this structural nature of inequality in relation to the UN presence. The aid economy also completely transforms the political economy.
I think the whole aid industry is a farce. I call it a “charade” in the essay.
I live in the United Kingdom (UK), where a lot of British citizens often lament, “We’re sending so much money to Africa. We’re giving them so much money in aid.” But, because aid flows are so opaque and lack transparency, a lot of taxpayers in the UK don’t even realize that much of it remains in the UK. It gets used up in “overhead,” administrative costs that bankroll very exorbitantly paid international aid workers, including technical assistants or advisors who come from so-called “donor” countries. It gets channeled through international NGOs which use it for compensating foreign staff who are often clueless about the local contexts in which they work.
By the time aid trickles down to “recipient” countries like Liberia, we might see a very small fraction of it. It angers me when citizens of the so-called global north have misguided assumptions that there’s so much aid being hurled at Africa, and that we are corrupt and lack the skills to manage donor largesse. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The other exasperating thing about the international development industry is that it’s also structured in hierarchies of inequality. So, for instance, if you have an American or European passport and work for an international organization in the so-called developing world, you’re paid significantly more, sometimes 10 times more, and receive benefits that far surpass someone who would be classified as a “local” worker, even though domestic staff have cultural competencies that eclipse their international counterparts. As a result, the Liberian government replicated this system of disparity by adopting salary tiers. For example, Liberian returnee government bureaucrats tended to be paid much more than non-returnees, by virtue of the fact that they had experiences abroad or had degrees from Europe or the United States.
The aid economy also foments tensions between so-called global south citizens and their governments because citizens in countries like Liberia believe, just as taxpayers in donor countries, that their governments receive a lot more money in aid than they actually do. President Sirleaf often used to demand that donors “shorten the road between commitment and cash.” She was effectively criticizing them for making broad sweeping public relations announcements about aid pledges that often took months, sometimes years, to actually materialize, if they did at all. This is a dangerous donor practice that should be discredited and banned.
During the Ebola crisis, for instance, many Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and Guineans remained convinced that the virus had been manufactured by their governments as a means of extorting donor funding. Many failed to realize that aid rarely gets disbursed to governments directly. Partly generated by donors, these faulty assumptions about how the aid industry operates exacerbated tensions between West African governments and citizens at a time when communication and trust were paramount. The situation became so dire initially that citizens refused to listen to what their governments had to say about instituting measures to curb the spread of the virus.
I was wondering if you can talk about your upcoming monograph “Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia”?
Forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2021, the monograph is based on my SOAS, University of London, PhD in which I examine domestic and diasporic constructions and practices of Liberian citizenship across space and time and their myriad implications for development. I use a contested 2008 dual citizenship bill which was never passed in Liberia to ask broader questions about what it means to be a citizen of a post-war country.
The book is an interrogation of the presumed symbiotic relationship between dual citizenship and development; I’m decidedly critical of both. I argue that Liberian diasporas have simultaneously helped and hindered post-war reconstruction, which has profoundly impacted claims for and against dual citizenship as a development intervention.
A national referendum scheduled in October 2020 in Liberia includes a proposition on dual citizenship which will be a very interesting test of my findings.