62 hours in Liberia: the flight we nearly missed

Date:

Thursday, July 28, 2022: The flight was uneventful, except for the cabin crew celebrating a passenger’s birthday.  I have been on a dramatic few though. The most memorable was on South Africa Airways to Joburg in 2014. That night, my stomach rebelled for snacking on banana and groundnut paste sandwiches, which I had assembled hurriedly before running to the airport.

While I stood in front of the washroom tapping gently on the door, the occupant took forever in the place of convenience. After 20 minutes, I couldn’t endure standing on my wobbly legs anymore while whatever it was in my tummy was fast moving downward. I threw gentility into the sky and banged on the door so loudly that the cabin crew turned up for peacekeeping duties. A minute later, a woman cat walked out, carrying a rainbow on her head. In one hand was a make-up kit; the other, a lipstick.

On another flight on Egypt Air to Dubai, turbulence kept rocking the plane so violently that a group of Ghanaians started chanting, “Rough road! Rough road!”

But this Kenya Airways flight, my first to Liberia, had nothing for the bank of memory. I was curious about the country I had heard so much about and was visiting for the first time.

Liberia, one of Africa’s oldest nations, conjures images of a nation pressing a self-destruct button. Its unemployment figures have been flagged as a national security threat. Corruption has grown into a full brown cancer with the executive and the legislature conniving to dissolve the country’s antigraft institution, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC). Their reason? The anti-graft body was carrying out unnecessary prosecutions.

West Africa is struggling with unemployment and corruption, but Liberia’s is peculiar because of its recent past civil wars.

The country failed to pick the blueprint of visionary leadership from Rwanda and its neigbour Ivory Coast, which recently spent perilous times in the jaws of civil war.

In the four years since the election of President George Weah, poverty has reportedly increased from 50.9 to 52%, according to the World Bank’s 2021 Poverty and Equity Brief. The brief revealed that “44 per cent of the population lived under extreme poverty ($1.90 per day) and poverty in Liberia is projected to increase over the next few years, driven by increasing food prices, lower commodity prices for minerals, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” The country’s rich mineral and agricultural resources are hardly tricking down to the common man.

On the security front, there have been recent murders of three prominent Liberians. John Hilary Tubman, 76, son of former Liberian President William V.S. Tubman; and William Richard Tolbert III, 68, the last-born son of the late William R. Tolbert Jr, Liberia’s 20th president; were mysteriously murdered in what looked like a hatched job. Ms Maude Elliot, a senior officer of the Liberia Immigration Service, also met a similar fate.

As an avid listener of the BBC, optimism is hardly heard in the voices of the many Liberians who complain about their living conditions. In Ghana, the Liberian refugees at the Bujumbura Camp, who have refused to go back home, say it all. All is not well.

All these were on my mind when I boarded the aircraft.

As the aircraft shot up to the sky, I picked a book to read. The book “Left Behind” is a Christian fiction about the rapture. It starts with dozens of passengers in an aircraft disappearing naked, leaving behind their clothes.

Fortunately for the passengers left behind, heaven didn’t find the pilot worthy. However, panic struck that flight.

Amid the chaos on the aircraft in the book, I dozed off. I caught myself a few times trying hard not to stray my head onto the shoulders of my co-passengers, Adiza, a colleague at the Media Foundation for West Africa and a Liberian woman who was chewing gum loud enough to perhaps warn me about the undesirable direction of my adventurous head.

I snapped out of the nap an hour into the two-and-half-hour flight and shuffled between the book and conversation with my colleague.

Landing at Robert’s International

By 5.10 p.m., the captain’s voice filled the aircraft. It was raspy as if he had been warned that speaking loudly and clearly would cost him his flying licence.

As we descended, Liberia’s verdant forests and beaches came into view. The Robert’s International Airport itself appeared as though it was enveloped in a forest. What it lacks in the concrete jungle that constitutes most airports around the world is made up for in tranquillity.

At 5.30 p.m., we touched down. As the aircraft taxied towards the arrival hall, it didn’t take long to realise that Liberia’s only international Airport had seen better days.

A few dilapidated buildings lined up on the edges of the tarmac. Some looked burnt.

It gave the impression of a country yet to collect the ashes of the two bloody civil wars that killed and maimed thousands. And the long road to recovery was yet to reach the airport.

Inside the arrival hall, influence peddling was at play. A man in plainclothes waved on a couple that was to meet port health officials for a COVID-19 vaccination card inspection.

Soon, it became a turf war. Another official ordered the couple back into the queue. Their benefactor ordered them back.

A friendly port health official’s “Hello, Akwaaba to Liberia” jolted me, and truncated my concentration on the unfolding drama. After this, an immigration officer broke into a welcoming smile with another round of Akwaaba and a fatal attempt at speaking Twi.

With the immigration formalities out of the way, the luggage claim became another hurdle. Luggage handlers were busily tossing the bags onto the dysfunctional carousel for someone else to lift them onto the floor.

It didn’t end there. The airport had no trolley. We had heavy stationery meant for a training programme on investigative journalism and anti-corruption reporting. I had to lift the luggage on my shoulder. But after 20 steps, a man whose stomach was threatening to tear his shirt’s buttons pointed to a scanner.

“Put your luggage there, it has to be scanned,” he said with a dismissive wave.

We complied.

With the stationery back on my shoulder and my main luggage firmly in my grip, it didn’t take long to be out of the airport. Then came haggling with a taxi driver over the fare to our hotel.

We settled on US $50.

To Liberia’s credit, one can’t help but notice the landscaping around the airport, particularly the well-manicured lawns. I jokingly told my colleague it appeared Liberia’s elites were not interested in airport lands.

“They probably don’t have the money yet to develop it,” she replied.

Journey to Monrovia, President Weah’s performance

As the green fields faded behind us, the everyday struggle of the average Liberian began to manifest.

I was shocked to see petrol and diesel in jars for sale. Their patrons are the ubiquitous commercial motorcycles, okada, as they are known across West Africa.

Unlike Ghana, where illegal miners have heavily polluted rivers, Liberia’s rivers and streams were impressively clean.

Unlike Ghana where illegal miners have heavily polluted water bodies, in Liberia, the rivers and streams are clean

However, our driver, Peter, was quick to point out that Liberia was also dealing with illegal miners, particularly from Ghana and Nigeria.

When the discussion turned political, he had no kind words about President George Weah, who he said deceived his way into power.

“He is vindictive. No leader has divided this country after the civil war like Weah,” he said, as he steered off a hole that nearly swallowed a tyre.

It would take almost 30 minutes before we enjoyed some level of normalcy from the dust and bumpy ride.

Apart from completing a few projects that the country’s post-civil-war President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, had started, Peter said  President Weah found more pleasure in dancing on TikTok and cooking on television than delivering on his promises.

 

Liberian leader George Weah gets the BUGA dance bug - P.M. News
Liberian President, George Weah, has received a lot of backlash for dancing on Tiktok

He had no compliments for Madam Sirleaf either. Interestingly, former President Charles Taylor, who is in prison for war crimes, fared better on Peter’s scorecard.

It was clear that in the absence of well-developed transport infrastructure, commercial motorbikes were filling the gap. Some of these motorbikes had umbrellas fixed on them to protect the rider and passenger.

On a section of the highway, which our chatty taxi driver claimed had been abandoned for more than two years, minutes passed between seeing a single car or any of the rusty minibuses that provide transport. The commercial buses that mocked the term “road worthy” were not as many as the yellow taxis that defy cargo limits.

Some taxi drivers defy cargo limits

The driving skills on the roads made me wonder who are the worse drivers—Ghanaians, Liberians or Nigerians. When it comes to driving in Ghana, some say it’s chaos out there. In Liberia, it is no different.  The traffic rules appear simple. Rule one: big cars and tricycles have the right of way. Rule two: you’re responsible for whatever the rider in front of you chooses to do. The recklessness with which the tricycles bob and weave through traffic can heighten the condition of hypertensive motorists.

Hunting for a hotel, the Asian influence

After almost two hours on the road, we finally arrived at Bela Casa. But a quick look at the cracks on the façade and the hotel’s dimly lit corridors didn’t inspire hospitality.

My colleague, an ardent traveller within the subregion was quick to suggest that we take a look at the rooms first. The hotel manager reluctantly agreed. Adiza’s intuition was right. It was stuffy enough to trigger a cold.

Our taxi driver quickly suggested an alternative— Boulevard Palace—a hotel that dominates the skylines of Monrovia. However, it is expensive, the driver warned. It’s a Lebanese property.

On our way to Boulevard, we settled for Murex Plaza another Lebanese-owned chic boutique hotel. The rates were high for what was on offer, but Adiza, an adept bargainer, helped the situation.

With the training done on Friday, Saturday was meant to be for sightseeing. However, we had to abandon the idea because our host couldn’t remember any tourist attraction in Monrovia, except the beach.

A street in Monrovia’s central business district

But that idea was quickly dismissed when we learnt foreigners were targets of knife attacks. A UK embassy travel advice and a few friends we spoke to didn’t give much encouragement.

I ate, read, worked and slept.

In the afternoon, my colleague suggested we give our taste buds a treat at Boulevard after she took the trouble of scanning their menu online.

The taste of the  food didn’t match the US$82 we spent altogether. Fried plantain saved the day. Liberians, for some strange reason, spend the US dollar alongside the Liberian dollar. If we were paying our bill in Liberian dollars, it would have been L$12,628

The food didn’t taste as appealing as it looked on the menu

In the country’s central business district, the Asian influence was glaring. Lebanese, Indian and Chinese shops competed for business. I learnt that those three countries contributed about 70% of Liberia’s economic backbone.

On Sunday, we headed back to the airport. The hotel receptionist promised an airconditioned car for $US50. We had the car without the air-condition and the driver appeared to have taken driving lessons from the snail. At the airport, he tried to pull a fast one. He said we were to pay $US50 each. He didn’t have his way.

However, the biggest trouble awaited us at the entrance of the departure hall.  The gate had been closed. A security man appeared from nowhere to man the gate. I tried calmly to explain things to him, but he wouldn’t budge.  Adiza tried too, but he just gave a mean look, his hands buried in his pocket.

Then Adiza, one of the calmest people on earth, burst into rage. I joined the tantrum match. It made some headway, and it attracted eyeballs and ears too. A Fly Africa World staff appeared, but, after hearing what was causing the commotion, he shrugged and left. A more diplomatic one came out of the hall and had sympathy.

The gate was opened.

The explanation for closing the departure gate 30 minutes before the check-in time ended didn’t make sense. The airline’s staff explained that it was because most passengers who arrived late after the check-in had been closed, created scenes when they’re denied boarding.

At the immigration, the officer was interested in changing GH₵ 55, which he probably begged from Ghanaian travellers, into dollars. And he wanted a tip too. I only smiled and moved on. The security personnel were subtly making similar demands.

After clearing these hurdles and the boarding formalities, we raced to the bus sending us to board the aircraft. It was just the two of us. Three other passengers came in later.

We took off 30 minutes ahead of the schedule. Our destination was Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The flight to Liberia may have been uneventful, but there was enough in my 62 hours stay in Monrovia to convince me that Liberia needs to shake off the dead skins of its bloody civil war.

Rwanda did it. Liberia can, too.

You may also want to read:

Sierra Leone: Protests, Blood, Curfew and Crisis

Chaos, grief in Mano River States as authorities tighten repression against protests

7 COMMENTS

  1. Bella Casa is owned by Liberian and his manager is from Srilanka, he looks Indian though. $82*154=LRD $12,628 or less, The driver to the airport charging extra $50 wasn’t smart at all. How could he be thinking of getting that free money.

  2. Nice write up, Seth. You brought back memories of my very regular work trips to Liberia between 2013 and 2017. Talk of Murez and Boulevard 😀.
    Nothing seem to have changed or improved

  3. A very good read. But as a Liberian who has travelled in and out of Liberia countless times, what I don’t understand is why did it take you two hours from Roberts International Airport to the Hotel in Sinkor?
    It’s 45 minutes from the airport to ELWA junction and then 15 minutes to the Bella Casa hotel. I’m just concerned what caused such a delay.
    Thanks.

  4. I like this soft side of The Fourth Estate. I had a good read and very descriptive. It was as if I was on the journey with you. Seth, you’re really good with travel writing. I remember. Something similar on Sao Tome from you some years ago on graphic online. I visited Sao Tome because of that article. Keep it up.

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