An international conference aimed at the empowerment of women has caused a stir in the host country’s capital Monrovia after slums were bulldozed to give delegates world-class views from their hotels.
Hundreds of men, women and children who live on beaches in the war-torn West-African country have been told to move out of their homes of over 30 years with only minutes to remove their belongings before bulldozers flattened them.
The International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security has seen over 800 domestic and international participants descend on Monrovia this week to participate in discussions on Saturday and Sunday, presented by Liberia’s premier and Africa’s first female President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The conference’s international delegates include female leaders; heads of state and government; ministers; CEOs, presidents and executive directors and is co-chaired by President Tarja Halonen of Finland.
The Colloquium seeks to realise the aims of UN Security Council Resolution
1325 on women, peace and security to ensure that women are protected from the worst abuses in times of conflict and ’to empower them to play their rightful and vital role in helping their countries prevent, end and recover from conflict’.
Slum resident Jasper Tuweh, 40, said a man from the Mayor’s office at the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) came at 10am one morning last week, accompanied by police officers, and ordered him to vacate his concrete-walled home of some 30 years.
Minutes later it was reduced to rubble, along with a mass of other slum sea-front property in the area.
Sitting on the rubble where her kitchen used to stand, his neighbour explained how she was trying to use what the bulldozers had left to cook a meal for her six children.
The following day, the police returned to seize her pots, pans, food and clothes, leaving her destitute.
“No-one came to inform us previously,“ Jasper added.
“We just took our belongings outside, and our children, women and hotel guests just looked on as City Hall destroyed our homes. They did it because the President is coming.“
The President he is referring to is not his own, but the President of Finland, whose entourage has booked out the newly-constructed Cape Hotel which stands directly behind.
The Finish team appeared to know about the clearances, and even to condone them.
Elisabeth Rehn, the former UN Under-secretary General, defence minister and now Minister of State for Finland said anyone who was having guests to their country would want to “clear up” in preparation.
“The President of Liberia has paid for those who have been moved,” she said.
“There is very strong work on cleaning Monrovia to get people working. The President feels very strongly about lifting Liberia. She has paid for new houses for them.”
But neither those who have already been left homeless, or those who will be made homeless next appear to know where to go.
Princess Tiabe, a 23-year old girl who lives in a near-by slum house has a yellow cross marked on her door with the words, “Remove MCC” spray painted beside it.
Both her and her seven-month old son will be made homeless when the authorities return to destroy it at a time of their choosing.
“I don’t know when it will happen, I don’t know where we will go. All I know is I have no power to do anything about it,” she said.
“I’ll be standing here on the day they come for my house. We will have to live in the open.”
Pamela White, Mission Director for USAID in Liberia said the women’s conference “certainly is probably part of it”.
“They cleared slums on the port-side a couple of weeks ago, and I understood residents were supposed to be given two months’ notice. I thought the deal was not to take down anything even semi-permanent, just houses made of wood.
“It’s a good question: where do they go?“
Some residents have found make-shift accommodation in nearby Westpoint, a sprawling crime-addled slum that is home to thousands of some of the poorest people on the planet.
There are many sea-front slums in Monrovia, the capital of a country that is struggling to introduce reforms to rebuild itself after being decimated by 14 years of civil war.
Initiatives include resuming trade in lumber and diamonds after the UN introduced an embargo on exporting its most valuable assets in 2003, and tidying the capital up in a bid to one day attract tourism.
Brian Cohen, of the US Economic Growth Office in Liberia confirmed he had witnessed a similar operation of flash slum clearances conducted outside his embassy residence two weeks ago.
“Certainly the new mayor is taking a very aggressive stance towards them,“ he said.
The Monrovian mayor’s assistant was contacted for comment but refused to grant an interview on the telephone.
It seems the slum-dwelling women of Monrovia will have little to celebrate on International Women’s Day today, while their diplomatic visitors take in the breathtaking sea views they were up until last week allowed to enjoy themselves.