Liberia: The Significance of a Poster War

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Simon Robinson

A few minutes out of Robertsfield airport, the plane began to pitch and shake. That prompted a hurried announcement over the intercom: "Don't panic. The flight — it's OK." Passengers aboard the aging Russian plane laughed or glanced out the window at the lush Liberian countryside below. Most of them were used to flying West Africa's skies. An air pocket was nothing. An engine falling off — that would be something to worry about. A few minutes later the plane had landed safely and the passengers, most of them bound for Freetown in neighboring Sierra Leone, were ushered into the airport's basic transit lounge.

Liberia's President Charles Taylor is not a happy man. Rebels based in neighboring Guinea regularly conduct raids across the border, while the United Nations recently announced an embargo on diamond exports from Liberia. Of course, the country has no diamonds of its own, but that's part of the problem: Taylor and his cronies stand accused of sponsoring the murderous, limb-chopping Revolutionary United Front rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, a country with bountiful diamond fields. Taylor, who escaped from an American prison before returning to Liberia and fighting a bloody "liberation" war, denies he backs the RUF and says he is under attack from America and Britain. The President's cries grew louder a few weeks ago when the United Nations banned all travel abroad by Liberian officials and Taylor's relatives, except for direct trips to the U.N. in New York.

A poster in the airport reflects the president's paranoid state. It depicts a suit-wearing, two-headed man taking a hammer to the word DEMOCRACY. On one head is a top hat emblazoned with the U.S. flag; on the other a Union Jack. "Sanctions Destroy," it reads. "Save Liberia." The poster is pasted in the windows of the four shops in the waiting area and on the outside of the door of the first class lounge. I asked the man behind the bar in the food shop if he had any copies to spare. "Send me a T-shirt from your country and I will give you this one," he offered. I promised him I would and he carefully took down the poster and handed it to me. I wandered back to my travelling companions and showed them my prize.

And then all hell broke loose. An airport security officer grabbed the poster from my hand and demanded to know where I got it. I pointed to the bar and said that I had come to an agreement with the manager. He marched me into the shop and confronted the man behind the bar. They shouted at each other and a small crowd gathered. A well-dressed Liberian man stepped in and said his piece: "He's from outside, let him take our message to the west. That's what we want." "We do?" asked the policeman. "We want people to know our sentiment," said the man. His argument seemed to calm the policeman. He handed me the poster. "Okay," he said, sharply, and then marched off again in search of other misdemeanors. The well-dressed man smiled at me and shook my hand. I thanked him.

Taylor's message is simple: He is unfairly treated; the West should help him, not isolate him; we have it wrong. "The government has reiterated its advice to journalists reporting on critical national events to seek clarification from the Ministry of Information before going public," read a recent front-page story in the government-run newspaper The New Liberia. "This will ensure that the true picture of the situation is projected." A story in the same edition blamed the imposition of sanctions and the border conflict on opposition parties based in the U.S. Another said that newspapers should stop writing about the border troubles because they don't exist. (Strangely, there was also a page of photos from Taylor's mother's 75th birthday celebration.)

But posters and newspaper propaganda aren't helping the country. Most of the Liberians involved in the airport snafu laughed and winked once the policeman was out of earshot. They know that Taylor is far from an innocent aggrieved party. What matters to them is jobs and prosperity. "The big man wants you to have it," one said to me, smiling. "Just remember the T-shirt."