Words Mightier Than The Sword by Morgana Wingard


(Our latest piece for Forbes Africa with Clair MacDougal)

By Clair MacDougal

"I like to talk to the common people, I don’t like politics.”

Mae Azango sits on the edge of her bed in her old home that is wedged in a rocky enclave between the gray United States embassy and the modern apartments occupied by expatriate workers in Mamba Point, the poshest part of Monrovia, Liberia. Azango’s larger-than- life personality fills every inch of the dim, cramped, lemon-colored room where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter, Madasi. Within five minutes Azango has hijacked the interview and is yelling out the story of how she came to be one of the best-known female journalists in Liberia. Without a hint of irony, Azango refers to herself in the third person, claims to be a household name and universally feared by Liberia’s political establishment; then announces to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf that she will never compromise herself by taking a job from her. { Read the full article below }

Liberia's motorbike taxi ban cuts accidents, but revs up other problems by Morgana Wingard

Musa Sayee Konneh stands on a street corner in Monrovia amid a fleet of parked motorbikes, with faded Liberian dollars folded around his middle finger. On a good day, grubby bills would fan from his hands. But since the government banned motorbike taxis from the capital city's main roads this month, Konneh's work has been curtailed. So far today he has earned just 90 Liberian dollars (70p) for half a day's work, a quarter of his usual take.

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Accountability in Liberia: How the music industry is creating change by Morgana Wingard

By: Blair Glencorse, Accountability Lab Executive Director, and Nora Rahimian, Hip Co organizer. This post was originally published by ONE.

“If we don’t speak up against the ills in society, who will?” asks Takun J, Liberia’s Hip Co King, in front of thousands of screaming fans at a concert in Monrovia. He then launches into “Police Man” a song about police corruption, which several years ago had the artist arrested and beaten by the authorities.

Hip Co – which emerged in the 1980s – blends hip hop with Liberian English.  Born in the streets, the music has always been inherently political, making it especially popular with young people who can relate to both its catchy beats and African rhythms and its messages of struggle and change. The annual Hip Co Festival recently attracted over 20,000 Liberians for two days of concerts in different parts of Monrovia; and artists like Takun J and Nasseman are national celebrities within the growing music industry.

Accountability Lab has teamed up with 12 of the most prominent Hip Co artists, producers, DJs and radio personalities (including Takun JNassemanJD DonzoShining Man and JB of the group Soul FreshLil BishopDr. CSantosBlackest 305Uncle ShaqPicardor, and Pochano) to form the Hip Co Accountability Network.

“The people, they listen to us.  And we, as musicians, we have a responsibility to talk about these things, the corruption, rape, poverty… all the things that are wrong in our country.  So we knew we had to come together to strengthen our voice and make ourselves heard, to better impact our society,” Takun J explained.

The Lab is supporting creative, low-cost tools to make decision-makers more responsible and build accountability in Libera, with an emphasis on concrete actions and movement away from tired, expensive, aid driven approaches.

Many of these artists already have a history of working on accountability issues.  Many have written songs against corruption and have been vocal about the changes they’d like to see in their country.  Rather than replicating their work, the Network is working on the core accountability issues that impact the music industry the artists are part of. These include strengthening and enforcing copyright laws to protect their music, establishing minimum play laws to ensure local music does not get overlooked, and mobilizing artists to create effective mechanisms to represent their interests.

Events like the Hip Co Festival help establish an infrastructure for the growing music industry while also giving artists a platform to spread their message.  In addition to radio and television appearances and, increasingly, social media, concerts are the main mode of communication between hip co artist and their fans.

The Lab has been helping the artists to think about and discuss experiences from other countries that might be relevant, such as the Y’En A Marre movement in Senegal’s music industry. The network now meets weekly to discuss the issues, strategise and plan next steps.

There is a long way to go, but the network has created a real sense of positive movement. As Pochano points out “We can’t wait for the government to do everything. We have a voice and we need to lead change in our society.”

Listen to more of the Hip Co Accountability Network’s music on their Soundcloud page; and see photos on the Lab’s Facebook page. Follow Blair at @accountlab and Nora at @norarahimian.

Also checkout the article, Battle Hymns, on HIPCO and the festival in The Economist.

The Diffusion of Justice by Morgana Wingard

Everett Rogers defined the first theory of change in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. His acclaimed communication book describes the process by which a society adopts new, transformative behaviors. It divides the process into four main elements that spread the new idea: the innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system. One of his key findings reported in the book is that the primary communication channel for the diffusion of innovations is interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, communication between individuals -- conversations over coffee, barbershop talk, a beer at the bar where thoughts and experiences are shared -- multiplies into a critical mass of people adopting a new behavior that revolutionizes an innovation from rare to common. When the innovation is widely adopted, then it becomes self-sustainable. 

Liberia at the end of 2013 is considered to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International. This begs the question, "How do you develop a culture of justice that passes out bribes like New Yorkers drink coffee?" According to Everett -- one person at a time. It starts with innovators (typically 2.5% of the population) who lead the early adopters (13.5%) who multiply to the early majority (34%), then the late majority (34%) and finally the laggards (16%).  

Thomas Tweh is one of those innovators. 

For many Liberians living in the low-income, high-density neighborhoods of Monrovia, life is a daily struggle. Land disputes, drug problems, domestic abuse, and a lack of basic services, among other issues, are pervasive.

When citizens face legal challenges, the lack of legitimacy, affordability, accessibility and timeliness of the formal justice system often prevents any feasible recourse. Extensive bureaucratic red tape coupled with transportation and legal costs, lawyer fees, and opportunity costs of foregone work make the justice system not only physically but also financially unavailable to many.

The judiciary and police were recently ranked as the most corrupt set of institutions in the country by the government itself – which not only undermines any sense that wrong-doing will be punished but has hollowed out trust in public processes more broadly. As one citizen pointed out to us recently: “There is simply no justice for the poor.”

Thomas Tweh, a community leader in the West Point neighborhood, had an innovative idea to resolve these justice issues at the local level. His plan was not to avoid or override the formal justice system, but to collaborate with the police and commissioner’s office to refer cases downwards from the courts to a community dispute resolution mechanism run by volunteer mediators.

“The key to this is that the disputes are resolved in accountable and sustainable ways,” Thomas told us. The outcome was to be a process that merged formal and informal tools for accountability and justice in a way that was seen to be fair and equitable by the community, and which saved time, money and effort.

With the Accountability Lab’s backing – in the form of accountability and rule of law training, management support, minimal seed funding and networking opportunities – Thomas and his project co-leader John Kamma developed a Community Justice Team of 8 volunteer mediators. The team has now worked with hundreds of citizens and sustainably resolved over 60 cases, ranging from domestic violence to land disputes – each with carefully written records taken by a trained notary and with the full cooperation of local authorities. Beyond the thousands of dollars and weeks of time saved, the Community Justice Team has started to build a sense of accountability, cooperation, and trust in the community. We are now talking to both the Ministry of the Interior and the Justice Ministry in Liberia about next steps.




Monrovia's Got Talent: Take 1 by Morgana Wingard

UN security monitors, container shippers, and civil servant mentors by day, Monrovia's expats breakout their musical genius by night. Vince, a member of the US Army embedded with the UN Mission in Liberia, and Dara, a program manager at IREX started jam sessions for the musically inclined residents of Monrovia. It has become a weekly addiction which lately adopted a new twist. After a shoot a few weeks ago, I swung by Fuzion -- one of our favorite local bars -- for one such jam session and plopped by oversized camera on the table. Vince immediately spotted the opportunity. The next week we married his mic to my camera and started recording the diverse musical talents of our community. It's become a weekly inspirational soup of creativity. Enjoy.  

  • Writer: Vincent Yznaga
  • Song: "Our Song"
  • Lead Singer: Vincent Yznaga
  • Guitar: Lisa Fouladesh
  • Eggs & Harmony: David Levy