Thousands protest price hikes, corruption in Liberia

Demonstrators hold a poster portraying Liberian President George Weah as they gather outside the Liberian Mansion in Monrovia during an anti-government march to protest at inflation and corruption. (AFP)
Updated 07 June 2019
0

Thousands protest price hikes, corruption in Liberia

  • The football icon George Weah is being challenged over the same issues on which he campaigned in his rise to the presidency of the impoverished West African state just 18 months ago
  • Weah issued a statement defending his record, blaming past governments for the country’s entrenched problems and sternly warning the protest organizers

MONROVIA: Thousands of people took to the streets of Liberia’s capital Monrovia Friday to protest rising prices and corruption, posing a key political test for President George Weah.
The football icon is being challenged over the same issues on which he campaigned in his rise to the presidency of the impoverished West African state just 18 months ago.
About 10,000 people took part in the demonstration, according to an AFP count, while a police official put the turnout at around 4,000.
Some held aloft placards reading: “We are tired of suffering” and “We want better living conditions.”
The mood was upbeat, with people dancing and singing. But in a country traumatized by years of civil war, many braced for possible clashes, and some stocked up on food, fearing prolonged disruption.
Twitter and Facebook, widely used by protest organizers, were down.
“I am staying home to make sure that my kids don’t get in the streets. I have good reasons to be scared. In the history of this country all of our big crises started with demonstrations and ended in serious violence,” Mustafa Kanneh, 43, told AFP.
The UN’s special envoy to West Africa and the Sahel, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, said last month he feared the authorities did not have the means to successfully manage large-scale protests.
“The capacity of the Liberian state is still quite limited... There are serious logistics and financial challenges,” he told a local daily.
The coalition that organized the march, the Council of Patriots, comprises dozens of civil society groups as well as politicians.
On Thursday, Weah issued a statement defending his record, blaming past governments for the country’s entrenched problems and sternly warning the protest organizers.
“You can say whatever you want to, but be warned that cusses, insults and incitement of violence will never again be permitted under my administration,” he said.
Weah, 52, is revered in Liberia and beyond for blazing a trail for African footballers in Europe.
But he is struggling to revive a country that is one of the poorest in the world and still traumatized by back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that claimed a quarter of a million lives.
Rising prices are a major source of discontent.
“Before, 500 LD (500 Liberian dollars — $2.5, 2.3 euros) was enough to adequately feed my family each day,” said Angeline Flomo, a 35-year-old housewife and mother-of-four.
“Now, 1,000 LD can’t feed us. This is how bad things have become. A bag of 25 kilos (55 pounds) of rice used to sell for 1,500 LD, now it is 2,800 to 3,000 LD. We are finding it difficult to make ends meet.”
Fingers are being pointed at past and present managers of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL).
Last October, rumors swirled that newly-printed Liberian dollars worth US $102 million, intended for the CBL’s reserves, had disappeared shortly after arrival from abroad.
Charles Sirleaf — the son of former president and Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — was detained in March with two other CBL figures.
An independent probe found no money was missing, but flagged “concerns regarding the overall accuracy and completeness of the CBL’s internal records.”
More irregularities came to light related to a cash injection of $25 million that Weah ordered in July 2018 to mop up excess Liberian dollars and bring inflation under control.
Weah says he is aware of the burden of ordinary people, and improvement to health, education and roads remain his priorities.
“We have done much over the short time to (address) bad conditions, which of course are not our making,” he said Thursday.
“We met the hardship and inherited all the bad conditions and without making excuses, we are solving them.”
Weah maintains Liberia will benefit from an International Monetary Fund aid program, but experts say IMF support typically comes with demands for reform and belt-tightening.


Dharavi slum beats Taj Mahal as India’s top tourist destination

Updated 25 June 2019
0

Dharavi slum beats Taj Mahal as India’s top tourist destination

  • The squalid district was featured in Oscar-winning movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
  • Tour groups to Dharavi normally consist of around five to six people, with visitors guided through its cramped alleys

NEW DELHI: One of the world’s biggest slums, located in Mumbai, has pipped the famous Taj Mahal to become India’s favorite tourist destination.

Dharavi, where close to 1 million people live in an area of just over 2.1 square kilometers, was named by travel website TripAdvisor.com as the 2019 top visitor experience in India and among the 10 most favorite tourist sites in Asia.

The slum has grown up on swamp land in the center of the coastal city of Mumbai over the past 150 years and has poor infrastructure and a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene facilities.

The squalid district was featured in the 2008 Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” which tells the story of a Mumbai teenager accused of cheating on the Indian version of TV gameshow “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

However, in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Katherine Boo portrayed a new side of life in the slum in her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum,” which showed it bubbling with hope in a changing world.

The recent Bollywood movie “Gully Boy” also gives the slum a new look with a coming-of-age tale based on the lives of street rappers.

“Slum tourism started in 2003 for the first time but it picked up after the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” said Dinesh Bhurara, who runs travel agency Mumbai Dream Tours.

“Dharavi is not like a slum, but it is a city within the city. It is well-organized and people from all communities and religions coexist together. They work very hard. When tourists come, they see a new life in the slum which they don’t see in Mumbai and outside. This connects with foreigners,” Bhurara told Arab News.

Bhurara, 24, was born and brought up in Dharavi and started his travel business three years ago after gaining experience with other tour operators.

“People have lots of misconceptions about Dharavi. Movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ stereotyped the slum by showing its poverty, underbelly and by typecasting characters. But it’s not like that. When tourists visit it’s an eye-opener for them,” he added.

Tour groups to Dharavi normally consist of around five to six people, with visitors guided through its cramped alleys, and shown around houses and businesses.

“For tourists this is an educational tour. They learn how business is done here, and how people survive with their sheer efforts and aspirations. They also go to business and industry areas,” said Bhurara.

The peak season to visit Dharavi is between November and May with travel agents recording an average of 200 foreigners touring the slum every day during the season.

Bhurara charges 700 rupees ($10) per person for a four-hour trip to Dharavi and has five partners who run the tours with him. “When we take tourists inside the slum, we not only take them into an area, but we also take them into our lives and show them how life can exist even in this space. Many get inspired and are awestruck by the sheer energy inside the slum.”

He said the tourist influx had encouraged many Dharavi youngsters to learn foreign languages as a way to earn a living and he himself had taken up Spanish.

According to Bhurara the majority of tourists are from Europe and China. “People in Dharavi are now attuned to foreigners visiting them and they really appreciate that. For youngsters it’s an extra opportunity to earn some more. So many college students pick up foreign languages to earn something extra,” he added.

Dharavi is a hub of small industries with exports of leather and recycled goods reportedly worth $1 billion a year. More than 4,000 businesses operate there alongside thousands of single-room factories where migrants workers from eastern and western India are employed.

“Many people, even in Mumbai, are not aware of this part of Dharavi,” Vinay Rawat, a tour operator, told Arab News. “In Mumbai people come to see the most expensive house of the industrialist Mukesh Ambani and they also want to see the cheapest place in Mumbai which is Dharavi.”

Rawat added that wealthy people lived in Dharavi where new high-rise buildings had been constructed. He said people had lived there for four generations but that there were fears that the prime land could fall into the hands of property developers.