When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled

It’s easy to generalise about politics in Africa from a European perspective. So we’re not going to do that here. Instead, we’d like to take the hard way and present some impressions of the situation in Liberia and its neighbour Ivory Coast as we’ve witnessed them this month.

The last day of our stay with CJPS in Ganta was taken up with a trip to the Upper Nimba region, a short walk from the Ivorian border, to meet refugees and observe the beginning of the work that CJPS are hoping to do with them. 

We passed through towns with names that seemed to have been made up by someone playing Scrabble who has been dealt only G, B, L and A. Gblala followed Blala and probably Glala, and the CJPS staff singled out Tom to memorise them all.

We arrived a bit nervous. The sudden presence of white people tends to make expectations rise, and CJPS had been keen throughout our stay that we would interact with anyone we met. We feared this would make us look like rich Western benefactors, so we discussed with CJPS how we could be presented as being there to witness their work, and grateful for the added chance to talk to the refugees as well as we’d seen something of their plight on TV back home.

 The Ivorians were gathered under a tree with a handwritten sign pinned to it in French saying Refugee Registration Centre.

We tried some of our school Franglais, but the conversation quickly switched to Gio, the local language that spans both sides of the border. Through CJPS translation, we got their story.

The dispute centres on two presidential candidates – the previous president and his challenger.  According to the West African states and the rest of the international community the challenger has won. But the sitting president refused to give up power. Factions are fighting for control and our friends have been threatened unfairly for supposed opposition to the outgoing President. 

They’ve been through similar problems before recently and knew immediately they had to flee, as the refugees’ ‘chief’ told us: “When you have been hit by a bull once, you’ll always run, even if it’s just a termite hill you see.” OK, you’ve got to appreciate the looming bulk of a termite mound in the dusk in the West African bush to get that one, but another great aphorism summed up their plight: “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”

CJPS are expecting to work as mediators of conflicts between the refugees themselves, between them and their new hosts and between the frazzled Liberian authorities and the wave of incomers.

If you want to find out more information about CAFOD’s appeal for Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, see:


Meanwhile, Liberia is this month encouraging voters to register for their October 2011 Presidential Elections.

As well as getting the right to vote – which some may be too disillusioned to exercise – those registering also get an ID Card, which allows them to travel and work throughout West Africa and obtain various rights for which bureaucracy demands proof of identity.

We’ve seen huge enthusiasm for registration and but we’re aware there were might be flaws in the process: so much of the authority is down to the individual registrar as to decide whether the person is genuine or not. Potential registering voters will be judged on accent, name and general deportment, and even a fair-minded registrar could misread some of those signs. (Even though Ged’s been told he’s a Liberian, most people we’ve talked to reckon he wouldn’t be able to register!) Worse still, a registrar with a grudge could make it difficult for any individual or group he decided not to favour. And we’ve heard of people trying to sell their Voters Registration card or register more than once

We wait to see what happens, with hope…

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