Pretty Flamingo

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

George Weah, the African football legend, has accepted the post of Peace Ambassador in Liberia. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world but home to Weah (47) who began an astonishing career in the Clara Town slum in Monrovia. Liberia intends to erase the legacy of a brutal civil war, build peace and become a middle-income economy by 2030. Mr Weah’s task is to unify the nation to meet the challenge. The ambitious plan was inspired by South Africa’s “vision of a flamingo nation of multiple colours united in its diversity”. But a ‘Rainbow Nation’ on the skids is not a propitious omen – or so one would think.

Liberia has consciously opted for a developmental model driven by “capitalisation” and integrated into the globalised market. A new knowledge-based economy is to rise from the ashes of the “rentier state” as foreign direct investment is channelled away from rubber plantations, iron ore extraction and timber exports into manufacturing and agriculture. The dangers are acknowledged; iniquities that come with globalisation and trade liberalisation; vulnerability to systemic shocks and the vicissitudes of capital and export markets.

There is significant oil potential. The latest deal with ExxonMobil and Canadian Overseas Petroleum was consummated for a $45 million signature fee. Chevron and other international players also hold concessions. Mr Weah will have to be careful. An abundance of oil could invoke the “resource curse” corrupting and destabilising government and renewing a cycle of war. Already there are allegations of shady deals.

Weah was voted World and European footballer of the year in 1995 and the African player of the century in 2000. He won the first round of the presidential election in 2005 but lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (74) in the run-off. He dropped charges of fraud in the interests of peace and Sirleaf became the head of state in January 2006. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – Chevron thankfully named a supertanker after her – and First Lady Laura Bush found time to attend.

President Sirleaf is the darling of the international community, a status reinforced by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. She has “struggle” credentials spending 9 months in prison and years in exile between indiscriminate stints in government over three decades. Sirleaf has worked for the World Bank, Citibank, Equator Bank – a subsidiary of HSBC – and was the initial chairperson of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, part of the George Soros network of society-makeover foundations. She’s Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Trevor Manuel rolled into one.

You may also add Jacob Zuma. Last year fellow laureate Leymah Gbowee resigned as head of the government’s Peace and Reconciliation Commission and launched a scathing attack on the president accusing her of nepotism. Sirleaf’s sons occupy high positions not completely explained by a lack of local talent. Robert is head of the state oil company and a senior economic advisor; Fumba is head of the National Security Agency; and Charles is deputy governor of the Central Bank.

Gbowee also protested the President’s focus on infrastructure did not put food on the table and the gap between rich and poor was growing. Alleviating poverty may not have been the intention. Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia says that between 2006 and 2011 Sirleaf granted more than a third of Liberia’s land to private investors to use for logging, mining and agro-industrial enterprises. More than seven million acres are now forestry and agricultural concessions. A further 1.6 million acres awarded to palm oil investors threatens the survival of hundreds of thousands who could lose access to their homes, farms, and the forest and water resources they depend on.

President Sirleaf’s performance has however pleased the IMF and World Bank, the leading imperial nations, international bankers and transnational corporations. In exchange for munificent debt forgiveness she’s agreed to restrict annual borrowing to 3 percent and to limit expenditure of borrowed funds to one-off infrastructure project – that’s basically handing over the economy to outsiders. She’s also offered US Africa Command, part of the American armed forces, a base of operations and headquarters in Liberia.

Sirleaf evaded a 30-year ban for initially supporting former president Charles Taylor until they fell out. He received a 50-year sentence after a ritual appearance at one of the infamous international criminal tribunals – this one in Sierra Leone. Naomi Campbell gave sensational “evidence” about receiving “blood diamonds” while staying at Nelson Mandela’s guesthouse. Intriguing. Also interesting is the view of the Senegalese Alternate Judge Malik Sow who said the trial had been rigged and there was no proof on which Taylor could be convicted. In the UK parliament passed a special act so that Taylor could serve time in a London jail.

All of which makes it abundantly clear that Liberia’s Vision 2030 is the same reconciliation and reconstruction pap that was fed to South Africans to divert attention. There was no intention to deliver and Liberians should not hold their breath. In South Africa the rugby team came in handy; Ellen, critics say, is using Weah and compromising him into the bargain as a leader of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change.

Weah has his flaws – not least inexperience. But he has also been “bastardised” because he obtained his multilingual and literary skills without going to an Ivy League university. Liberia was founded as a colonial project to resettle American slaves who had been freed. They’ve looked down on the indigenes – whose ancestors may have sold them into slavery in the first place – since their arrival in 1821. As with the Rainbow Nation there are desperate ironies of race and class.

Since the Marikana massacre South Africa’s development rhetoric is receiving short shrift. The patience of old comrades in the wider world has worn thin. Black majority rule under the domination of white monopoly capital has simply entrenched and propelled inequality. Capitalism has been in crisis since the 1970’s. Tax cuts for the rich, an assault on organised labour and outsourcing production to cheap labour zones have not solved the essential problem of overproduction; nor has financialisation – casino banking – which creates no new value and at best shifts money and fleeces taxpayers.

Accumulation through dispossession – primitive accumulation a few centuries ago- is now the only game in town. It amounts to the theft, forcefully where necessary, of already created wealth; the privatisation of all national assets including land, plants and knowledge itself. Reports suggest institutional cruelty is now the norm. More than 30 000 people who applied for 90 jobs in Pietermarizburg were put through a 4km fitness run in the blazing heat. Several died and hundreds were hospitalised. They shoot horses, don’t they? Many would not have had a chance anyway. In this heartland of presidential support it seems nothing is accessible without a party card signifying devotion to Jacob Zuma.

Torture, vigilante killings, extra-judicial executions, deaths in custody are the backdrop to everyday life. Shack dwellers denied sanitation take their revenge on Durban’s Golden Mile; consigning turds to the surf on this once gloriously privileged stretch of ocean. Others are burnt to death in the shack settlements on the hills because there is no electricity or decent housing.

Political economist Patrick Bond paints a picture of rising poverty, cities sinking into squalor, delusory economic growth, crony capitalism, increasingly unaffordable basic services (where they exist), ecological devastation and rising foreign debt. The only success claimed is against AIDS, a disease that does not exist. “Why? Our economy is structured so as to generate poverty-expanding ‘growth’ of GDP. As accumulation of capital occurs in much of South Africa, the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer.” He predicts – within five years – the kind of austerity now being felt in Europe.

None of this is necessary. Not in South Africa or Liberia or the UK. The usual government excuse is a lack of money. This carefully nurtured illusion is under increasing challenge. Governments can create money at no cost, and as banks do, out of thin air. What was heresy not so long ago is now officially admitted in Westminster. MP Jesse Norman said, “This financial alchemy is an extraordinary privilege, which we as citizens and taxpayers underwrite.”

Monetary reform groups are growing in numbers and influence. They want the right to issue money to be returned to people and their governments – not issued by banks as debt. Even the chairman of the Financial Services Authority in the UK, Lord Turner, is talking about creating money free of debt and spending it into the economy to end the recession. The possibilities for serious improvement – in townships and rural communities – are immense.

Perhaps George Weah, a continental icon, is the man to spread the word in Africa and expose the development fraud intended to enslave nations.


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