By Alfred Kaidii
The prospect of a general election has awakened political opportunists and champagne feminists to the fact that since their collective performance on the national stage is nothing to write home about, a retreat to reactionary identity politics, no matter how bizarre and patronizingly embarrassing, is both an effective way to outflank their political opponents and is the only pathway to victory. This method of politics, which has been the stock-in-trade of political forces with almost no answer to the structural malaises plaguing the Republic, has as its point of departure the promotion of the individual. Thus, the drift to identity politics, especially in its reactionary strand, has nothing to do with emancipatory political orientation, which centers on the question of historical injustices and material imbalances. It has everything to do with ego-tripping and personal aggrandizement.
This form of Manichean politics is characteristics of neo-colonies where the state is the arena of accumulation with the agency of the working people and other marginalized sectors of society grossly emasculated to blunt progressive politics and undermine any attempt at mass mobilization and organizing for the conquest of state power and the social transformation of society by the working people. In Liberia, this form of politics has its roots in the appalling legacy of state formation but became much heightened after the war years with the corrosion of values, the cheapening of political office, and the bastardization of the interests of working people coinciding with the rise of warlords on the political landscape.
Since then, the politics of identity, although dressed up in the apparel of social-justice framing such as gender equality undergirded by normative considerations, has been the politics of reaction, albeit camouflaged in reformist rhetoric. History proves such reactionary politics have been devoid of the objective of bettering the lot of the poor and dominated in society. Thus, one would make the point in a nutshell: in Liberia, the above outlined has been the pitfall of identity politics, whether in its grotesque tribal iteration or its liberal feminist incarnation.
Lately, in certain quarters of the Liberian political class, a clarion call has been made for women to cohere and unite in supporting each other for elected positions, both at the presidential and levels. Knowing the two individuals at the forefront of this faux call, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Jewel Howard-Taylor, one must go a step further in examining the underlying motive behind the call. What does it seek to achieve, especially when the regime the duo support has harassed, humiliated, and dominated working-class women and left them to their own devices? It is thus necessary to analyze the declaration and examine its implications for progressive organizing. The risk is that if the call goes unchallenged, there is a likelihood such a deceptive call could drown out attempts at progressive organizing that seeks to address imbalances and also project a progressive pathway for marginalized Liberian women.
Also, the additional risk that this would incur is that opportunity for mass politicking and popular organizing could be squandered. The country could end up with a political situation where reactionary forces could again emerge and dictate the course of its political trajectory. The question then curiously presents itself: is the latest call for the unity of women revolutionary and with an anti-imperialist framework? Because any pronouncement about solidarity and unity when it is not placed in the general context of the struggle for social emancipation and radical transformation of society is not welcomed. What follows is an attempt to analyze the call and explain the reasons for the generalized pauperization of women in Liberia.
The Neoliberal Dimensions
Fearing a shift in the tectonic plates of national politics, they indulge in the delusional rhetoric of women supporting women. Despite their political grandstanding, the call from Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Jewel Howard-Taylor for Liberian women to mass under a single ambiance to support each other is devoid of the fundamental objective of addressing the root causes of women’s pauperization and marginalization. The call is not meant to address the economic form of exploitation that has deepened poverty and inequality for working-class Liberian women and kept them on the margins of the socioeconomic pyramid.
Against this background of political deception, we assert that this newfound love for women’s unity, with very deceptive underpinnings, is the naked attempt by these two women who have benefited from their gendered identity to maintain themselves in the power centres of the Republic. This move is the same failed and worn-out strategy that we were bombarded with when the electoral cycle is drawing near in the country, and it hits a crescendo when political campaigns open. And because it serves certain pernicious purposes, sections of the Liberian media amplify it to limit the spectrum of views so that they present these different strands of reactionary politics as the only viable alternatives.
In Liberia, like all countries in the periphery and semi-periphery of globalized capitalism, the conditions of women since the neoliberal nightmare have been grossly despicable. Working-class women in these neo-colonial outposts have been the hardest hit by the vagaries of international monopoly capital. These working-class and oppressed women have suffered from the generalized conditions of pauperization and abuse. The Globalization of Monopoly capital has undermined their agency, and this condition has been further heightened by rural-urban migration since the twentieth century, which has not helped because of the lack of employment opportunities in the urban centres, whether in the manufacturing or service sector. The net effect of this is seen more clearly in the ugly statistics on women’s malnutrition, gender-based violence, infant and maternal mortalities, the rate of prostitution, just to name a few. It is a sad truism that the generalized condition of poverty in the Global South has got gendered coloration and dimension.
However, one posits that in this age of neoliberal onslaught with the retreat of the state from social development, and where the commons in the Global South have been commodified and privatized and made the playthings of multinational corporations, the women question is connected to the broader question of social emancipation. We can posit that the disconnection of the feminist question from the general social question that confronts society has all the hallmarks of ideological sterility while situating the former as a standalone project to parrot the mistaken formulation that the struggle does not have a class basis is delusional. Essentially, the authentic feminist struggle, which is a struggle for dignity, progressive civilization, and social emancipation, has class dimensions and cannot be left to the domain of gesture politics.
Clarion Call on Trial
In Liberia, the same forces who have frustrated women and unleashed a torrent of suffering on them are trying to reinvent themselves in feminist circles to attain uncritical support and maintain themselves in the power centre of the state. The same forces whose neoliberal policy prescription further entrenched many women into debasement are on a spree to whitewash their sordid history and reposition themselves for another power grab. Jewel Howard-Taylor and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have done massive harms to Liberian women and we can verify this in the estimated 16 billion Foreign Direct Investment (FDIs) in concession value – which Ellen-Sirleaf promised would have ended the mystery of Liberians including women, and which Jewel Howard-Taylor and her mates uncritically ratified and got handsome kickbacks for their signatures – set the basis for forms of primitive accumulation.
The mortgaging off of our natural resources at a fire sale price, the phenomenon of land grab, among others, set off a dangerous chain reaction of despoliation and social alienation, thus undermining women involved in smallholder production and creating conditions of alienation and hostility. For example, in places like Cape Mount, Sinoe, Nimba, the rural masses went to great lengths to protest the land grab and the terms of the concession agreements that did not take into consideration local involvement.
Sadly, a great many of these concession agreements uprooted people from their villages in places such as Kingjor with no proper attempt at resettlement while land that peasant farmers, a class in which women are the dominant group, were left to contend with such shocking reality. But this condition did not turn these peasant women into workers in the rising towns and cities (if there were any created), as, during this neoliberal moment, capitalism in peripheries such as Liberia does not create the material condition for industrial production and manufacturing but instead set in motion the extraction of raw materials for export and transfer of social surplus to the capitalist metropoles. With the means of livelihood taken away from them, many of these women made their way to urban zones to live in shantytowns and ghetto communities and became street sellers, hawkers, etc., etc.
Against this background of failure and betrayal of women, Auntie Miatta Fahnbulleh, in her no-holds-barred style, took on Ellen Sirleaf and Jewel Taylor and exposed the banality of the call. Weaving together personal experience, anecdotal story, and drawing on her experience, she argued the call is a sick joke that has nothing to do with emancipatory politics. In her article, she outlined, in gory detail, how these two women threw Liberian women under the bus simply because the duo wanted to maintain their monopoly on Liberian politics. She named many Liberian women, enlightened and progressive, who were intentionally undermined as their election and subsequent service to the Liberian people would have exposed Jewel and Ellen for the frauds they are.
The article of Auntie Miatta hit a raw nerve and struck a chord with many of the progressive Liberian women who have not been privy to the details narrated in her piece. In response, Jewel Howard-Taylor penned a ludicrous rebuttal with the title: “Setting the records straight: a rebuttal to Auntie Miatta Fahnbulleh’s irate postings on Facebook about a supposedly fake clarion call for ‘Women’s political Support to other women’ on my person.” While the article, even by perverted Liberian standards, is lacking in argument and is a pathetic show of ignorance, one wants to assess its chief points, or the lack thereof. Beyond that, I want to address myself to her tawdry claims so that the public can see through her response. I would, however, endeavor to throw light on Miatta Fahnbulleh’s politics and musical production and link it to the questions of liberty, freedom, and social justice at home and the continental milieu.
Undressing the Spurious Arguments
First, Jewel’s response reminds us about the perverted nature of Liberian politics and the fight we must embark on to bring reason to public discourse. The text is lousy on logic, and the writer did not understand the central argument of Auntie Miatta. It only further exposes the bankruptcy of the writer, which explains the level of mediocrity that has gripped our politics and society. For a woman who brandishes her longevity in Liberian politics to be so intellectually challenged and not understand the text she replied says much about the writer than the person, she replied to. Here lies the central problem about Liberian society made manifest in the inadequacy of education, the lack of critical perspective, and the shallowness of the political class have all been elevated. What a brilliant feat Madam VP! What mediocrity! What an insult to our intelligence from Liberia’s vice president!
The Liberian vice president said she responded to Auntie Miatta’s blunt piece to stop the festering of ‘misinformation’ and ‘set the record straight.” That her act of responding is “courageous.” In the horse’s own words, she discharges: “I have chosen this path, given her attempt to cast aspersion on my credibility and political career which I have fought to build and jealously guard over the past 21 years. I have chosen this medium to set the records straight as proof of my selfless service to humanity and my commitment to the fight for Gender Equality. History records my career as a STRONG FEMALE POLITICIAN, who has broken many glass ceilings and kept the fire burning in order to remain a Positive Role Model and Mentor; for African women in general and Liberian women in particular.”
I will ignore the attempt at presumptuousness and self-adulation. I will neither ignore her logic nor her poor grasp of the feminist question. To do so is to do a great disservice to the Liberian people. One must take her on it so the Liberian public can see how limited their vice president is. In correcting “misinformation” the vice president cited her contributions to so-called women causes in Liberia. In her brand of feminism and support for women, gender inequalities in production and distribution, land rights, decent work, the provision of sustainable livelihoods for women are out of her playbook. Class is not a useful category to her in understanding the gender question.
Furthermore, she has not drawn the connection between the neoliberal economic policies of successive Liberian governments and gender inequality or sexual and gender-based violence. How the former has fueled the problems of economic stagnation, rural underdevelopment, and grinding poverty for women are alien to her. In short, the problems faced by poor women are not understood in terms of the radical critique of political economy and the economic model of the organization of our society. For her feminism means impoverished women must be the “objects of the charity of others.”
But even her posturing and record are infantile and reek of delusion, and the boastful enumeration of her contributions to Liberian women, if not for the seriousness of the issue, treats us to an absurd circus. That after 24 years that this is the list this lady could quibble together as her stellar accomplishments is a window into the depth of mediocrity that has bedeviled the Liberian political class. What she spews as her record is a trashy parade of bunkums — such is the record any toddler in a serious country at an entry point in politics would accomplish and never brandish. However, one does not have to be surprised by such mediocre chest-thumping. Her list is a testament to national leadership at its nadir, symbolized in the elevation of nondescript politicians, of whom she (Jewel Howard-Taylor) is the most grotesque epitome.
She Challenges Miatta Fahnbulleh about the latter’s record on women’s empowerment, at least partly driven by pervasive ignorance but is akin to the metaphor of a dwarf challenging a giant to a fight. This absurdity coming from the estranged wife of Charles Taylor, the butcher of Monrovia and a man who institutionalized murder, thuggery, and political banditry— and from a woman who exhibited deafening silence when her husband ruined the lives of young women and presided over a decayed state that frustrated the futures of women and they were under constant threats is a despicable attempt at historical revisionism. What Miatta Fahnbulleh has contributed to the women’s question and the generalized struggle for social justice and human dignity, the VP cannot even come remotely close. It is even ironic coming from a woman who has made the vice presidency of the country be devoid of value, dignity, and political authority—as she will go down as the most useless vice president since Moses Z. Blah.
The former has been a lifelong struggle icon, using different genres of literature to espouse her politics about women’s inclusion through the framework of emancipatory politics. As a musical icon, she uses her music and gifts to shed light on social injustices and the plights of women, whether it has been lifting the lid on poverty and inequality or championing the causes of working-class women. She has lifted Liberian arts and, through her intellectual and cultural productions, has given a sense of renewed optimism to Liberian women.
Committed to her politics of emancipation, the musical Diva—who, like all conscious artists during the anti-colonial and nationalist moments in Africa—chose her side during the fight between the camp of reaction and revolution. She paid by suffering humiliation, persecution, and harassment for being on the frontline of the struggle. However, these bouts never broke her convictions but fortified her politics.
Furthermore, Miatta Fahnbulleh comes from a generation of Liberian progressives who understand the women’s question is linked to the social question. The former cannot be subordinated to the latter but is part of a programmatic continuum that seeks to end exploitation, domination, and alienation. Her politics finds its purpose in lifting humanity and shedding light on the sordid lived experience of the collectivity of the Liberian people while her radical fire is waged to center the plights of the wretched of the earth in the national discourses and struggle for an enlightened alternative.
She did not go into politics to engage in personal accumulation. It has never been about the promotion of the self, but always about dismantling social forces and systems of oppression as opposed to gaining status symbols. Note, as revolutionaries, we are not in the business of outlining personal interventions and projects that benefit the masses of the poor. Miatta is a revolutionary and not a self-publicist who gives to the poor to be noticed and heralded. These are unsustainable initiatives that do not develop the agency of the people and make them the masters of their destiny. We leave the production of a laundry list of contributions to the poor to narcissists like Ellen and Jewel, who think that handouts to the masses are enough to keep them in the press and build their credentials for some phony awards.
For more than half a century, the Diva Doyen in Miatta Fahnbulleh has been at the forefront of social justice activism and has made her mark in the global music world. She has used her voice to bless hearts, illuminate spirits, and inspire progressive political imagination. Her song Obaa (Woman—This is our time), with its excellent messaging and exquisite beat, has been a sound of resistance and inspiration for poor and working-class women who, due to their poverty and mystery, have been suffering from impostor syndrome. That song showed a woman at the height of her creative and musical powers. As for her latest song, “You Pray for Me,” no less a person than Cherbo Geeplay, a poet laureate, made the following remark: MUSIC: You will have to Listen to Miatta Fahnbulleh’s latest…”You Pray for Me” to fall in love with this beautiful solo, which laments the trauma of the Covid pandemic while evoking the divine. It is heavy on trumpet but exquisitely rendered. I have listened to the song almost six times already…this one score. The song is infectious, soothing and the video, really well done, it’s all here to be vetted. An activist, also—Miatta, is true, Liberia’s own musical queen: a contemporary of Miriam Makeba, Aisha Konneh, and Salif Keita and perhaps, Liberia’s most accomplished and well-known musician of our times, she yet again delivers here with passion but also with great lyrical verve! Well done!
When Jewel Howard Taylor caustically asks, “where is your record, in your field of work’ Auntie Miatta? In the first place, it does not surprise one in the least that she would ask such a childish question. The estranged wife of Mr. Taylor is the go-to person for political gaffes in Liberian politics, only edged by her boss, clueless Weah. One wonders which Miatta Fahnbulleh is she talking about? Is she referring to Miatta Fahnbulleh, who, as a very young woman, was thrown into the dungeon of a dirty prison cell because of her politics and activism? Is she talking about Miatta Fahnbulleh, who understood equality for women was impossible in a country where the masses of the people were subjected to persecution and domination? Is she asking Miatta Fahnbulleh, a contemporary of Miriam Makeba, a friend to Fela Kuti, the one who sang with Hugh Masekela, and who immersed herself, through her sounds of defiance and critique, against social injustice and colonialism on a continental scale? Is she talking about a woman whose internationalism and her struggle for women transcends Liberia? In a nutshell, what Miatta Fahnbulleh, a woman with immense talents and contributions as a musician, radical activist, national leader, has accomplished in the 72 years of her human existence, Jewel Howard-Taylor cannot accomplish half even in two hundred years of the latter’s existence—and even with the decoration of the vice presidency of Liberia. And without Charles Taylor, she would have been a footnote of history, but one cannot possibly say this about Miatta Fahnbulleh!!