Liberia: Lockdown Mounts More Misery On ‘Zogos’

Daniel Johnson, who sleeps on the streets of Monrovia, says he finds it more difficult to survive during this lockdown. FrontPage Africa/Obediah Johnson

MONROVIA – Since the imposition of a state of emergency over the novel coronavirus pandemic, Daniel Johnson, 26, has gone to bed either hungry or half-full.

Report by Obediah Johnson, New Narratives

He is an ex-combatant, a drug user and does not have a home or family. Johnson survives by selling water in containers in Monrovia, but with a lockdown in the city, life is more difficult for him.      

“Only God we depending on to provide for us now,” Johnson cries out. “If we do not come on the streets, especially in the afternoon and evening hours, how will we survive?”

Zogos, like Johnson, are Liberia’s disadvantaged underclass. They are the struggling former soldiers of the country’s 14-year civil war and long-running drug crisis – ragged reminders of the failure of efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate ex-fighters into society. They make a living from things like begging, scavenging, collecting garbage, fetching water and loading passengers in taxis. But zogos are also street criminals; they snatch valuables and rob people.

With President George Weah imposing a lockdown in the capital, they cannot do any of these things to support themselves. And because they have no homes, they cannot stay indoors. 

“Since the lockdown, things are tough,” says Lassana Pokar, 23, who ushers transport vehicles in Monrovia. “We are not loading more [tricycles] to get something to buy food like before because most of the drivers can leave the streets soon. For people to even give us [handouts] is even difficult now. Everywhere you pass, you will see police people embarrassing your hustle for [not] wearing nose mask and for staying in the streets late.”

The lockdown has been very unpopular since it first came into force on April 10. The President has announced he will not extend the state of emergency, which ends of Tuesday. He also announced the lockdown will be pushed from 6 pm to 9 pm for counties that have recorded the coronavirus and calling it off for those that have not.  Disease control experts such as Dr. Dougbeh Christopher Nyan—who invented a diagnostic test that can detect multiple diseases in 10 to 40 minutes—and Tolbert Nyenswah—who led Liberia’s Ebola response in 2014-2016—oppose the stay-at-home order. However, the government is firm that it will help stop the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 30 people out of 334 cases recorded as of June 6.

Zogos have crowded the streets of Monrovia and communities outside of the capital since the imposition of the state of emergency. They can be seen in huge numbers cornering people and making away with their belongings as the dusk-to-dawn curfew approaches. Some even erect “checkpoints” to enforce the curfew. People are afraid. Memories are fresh of a deadly riot in August last year when several zogos were reportedly killed after one of their colleagues allegedly snatched the phone of a man and killed him in Paynesville.

Human rights campaigners and social workers fear the worst for zogos.  

“These are people who pose a serious threat to our national security. So, they need to be catered for under this state of emergency,” says James Koryor, the executive director of Global Action for Sustainable Development, a group that aids and advocates for disadvantaged people. “It is critical and essential that those in authority or stakeholders fighting this coronavirus should also see the need to provide food for these people.”

A psychosocial counseling program helping zogos in the Gobacop market area in Paynesville has low turnout since coronavirus. When the counseling started in April last year, more then 20 drug users and homeless people enrolled at the Socio-Economic Empowerment of Disadvantaged Youths (SEED) project. Now organizers struggle to get a handful.

“Most of them do not come,” says Sando Massaley, who spearheads the project. “They complain that they do not have nose masks and they have to go out to hustle for food. Since the lockdown, the turnout has not been encouraging.”

Human rights lawyer Cllr. Findley Karngar blames President Weah for zogos’ predicament, slamming his “abrupt” pronouncement of the state of emergency. “The state of emergency greatly affects individuals who may not have food, or individuals who depend on their daily interactions with others to survive,” says Findley. “[Zogos] are in the most critical condition right now in terms of their own safety and their ability to access food, shelter and medication.”

Deputy Presidential Press Secretary Smith Toby refutes Karngar’s claims, saying the President has addressed the livelihood challenges of Liberia’s poor with a US$25 million stimulus package and the COVID-19 Household Food Supply Program (COHFSP).  Lawmakers endorsed the President’s request to re-appropriate funds from the fiscal year 2019/20 National Budget for the COHFSP to distribute food to people in need.  

After days of delay, the distribution of food began late last month. Ten orphanages and vulnerable communities have been served, according to Minister of Commerce Wilson Tarpeh, who steers the distribution. The food package—which includes rice, beans and oil—is meant for 2.5 million people, or one in two Liberians, he says. Distribution will take up to 60 to 75 days to be completed.

Some zogos are skeptical that their colleagues will use the food handouts as intended. “Some of us are very good at selling,” points out Comfort Davies, a 27-year-old woman on the street who looks pale and unstable from the drugs in her body. “I know the majority of my colleagues will want to sell the food, if we will get it, for small money to go and sustain their bad habits. Government should mark all the rice and other things that they will be giving out. Security people should be behind them foot-to-foot to make sure that they share the food the way it supposed to be shared.”

Boye Toe and his friend Alphonso Reeves sit before a storefront on Broad Street, Monrovia. FrontPage Africa/Obediah Johnson

The Independent National Human Rights Commission (INHCR) has expressed similar concerns, calling on the distribution process to be indiscriminately executed. “The Legislature should be as vigilant as possible to ensure that whatever we get from our government and international partners targeted for the coronavirus should be able to reach [citizens],” says Atty. Bartholomew Colley, acting INHCR chairperson.

The government’s response to lockdown-related hardship has been marred by controversy. The opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) withdrew its membership from the National Steering Committee that oversees the distribution, slamming the COHFSP for lack of presidential leadership, planning and accountability.

There has been a public outcry over the relief items, which are only intended for half of the population. Yet, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 83.8 percent of people living below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day, according to the nonprofit Action Against Hunger. The pace of the distribution has been slow, too.

Zogos, meanwhile, say they continue to suffer.  

It is late afternoon and Boye Toe, a zogo who spends the night at the old Ministry of Education building in Monrovia, looks distressed. He shifts his eyes from left to right, waiting for a handout. “I used to eat between two to three times a day before, but now only two doughnuts in my stomach,” laments Toe, 46.

“For about two days now, I have not come out to hustle because one plainclothes officer knocked my elbow with baton because I came on the road around three o’clock to find something to put in my stomach,” says Andrew Williams, 34, who says he resides at the Brewerville cemetery.

“In our community, people do not have time for us,” explains Lloyd Bamart, 29, who says he sleeps on the porch of his foster brother in Duala. “No one can give us food or even water to drink. Sometimes, even if you do not steal and you hear people saying ‘rogue, rogue’ in the community, you just have to run…because when they grab you, your own [is] finished.”

Johnson, the zogo in Monrovia, says he has not had the experiences of Bamart and Williams and remains hopeful.

“Even though we have not received anything from government to sustain ourselves, I believe that we will still hustle hard to survive. If the food comes, we will accept it. But if it does not come, we will still make it.”

This story was collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.