ZUBAH TOWN, PAYNESVILLE – Miatta Flomo has more time to sell her evening-hour cooked bowl on the street in Zubah Town, Paynesville, since the coronavirus curfew has been relaxed by three hours. However, Flomo still stays home because she does not have money to buy ingredients anymore. Her husband, Benjamin Flomo, a carpenter, did not get a contract during lockdown, so she became the sole breadwinner for the family, she says.
President George Weah did not extend the state of emergency when it ended on June 9. The President has pushed back the curfew from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for counties that have recorded coronavirus cases and has suspended it for counties that have not had any. To continue to contain the outbreak, travel restriction has now been limited to the few counties that have not recorded a case of COVID-19 so far.
“I was planning to start by next week, but the way things looking, I will not be able to start selling,” Flomo tells FrontPageAfrica. “The money I was having here finished. We were using it to buy food. My son was sick; we [bought] medicine. The house was leaking all in the rooms, so we changed some of the zincs.”
The government of Liberia’s food support program is aimed to assist marketers like Flomo. However, the mother of four is doubtful her family will be served.
“All this food-sharing business they are talking will only be for their family and friends,” laments Flomo. “The ordinary people like us will not even see it before I say smell it.”
Flomo is one of many street sellers who were thrown out of business as the government of Liberia announced crowd restrictions and other measures to control the spread of coronavirus back in April. Having used their funds to sustain their families for the last two months of lockdown, sellers are in need of support. With the controversies that have marred the distribution of the food package, many street peddlers fear they will be left out as the country slowly returns to normalcy.
“This whole lockdown thing was good, but it not be good for some of us that have to sell before we can eat,” says Eunice Stevens, who sells kanyan, a dessert made from farina, peanuts and sugar, in the Red Light market. “Even when the lockdown is finished, plenty things will still be hard for us who sell these small, small things. So the government needs to try for us.”
“They need to bring this food they have been talking about,” says Peterlyn George, a clothes dealer also in the Red Light area.
Petty traders see no immediate end to their plight. Coronavirus cases continue to rise in Liberia: 34 people have died from a total of 626 cases as of June 21.
President George Weah in April announced the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP) to assist people through the lockdown and help pay off the microfinance loans of marketers and petty peddlers. This US$30 million aid package comprises US$25 million of funds redirected from the government’s 2019/2020 fiscal budget and US$5 million donated by the World Bank.
Ten orphanages and vulnerable communities have already been served, according to Minister of Commerce Wilson Tarpeh, who heads the National Steering Committee that oversees distribution. The food package—rice, beans and oil—is meant for 2.5 million people, he adds. That is one in two Liberians. Distribution is expected to take some 60 to 75 days to be completed.
But the program has been unpopular.
The opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) withdrew its membership from the steering committee a day before distribution began, slamming the COHFSP for lack of presidential leadership, planning and accountability.
“The CPP cannot lend its name, character, resources and expertise to be stamped upon an obvious failure in presidential leadership at this time of a serious national crisis,” Benoni Urey, former CPP chairman, stated at the time in a communication to President Weah.
There has been a public outcry over the relief items, which are only intended for half of the population. 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.
“We need to know who are those the government considers as vulnerable people, how many persons they are going to be reaching out to, the targeted community,” says Margaret Nigba, a human rights advocate with Her Voice Liberia.
“They can’t be making fun of us. First, they said the package would be for everyone. Now they are saying vulnerable people. Who are vulnerable people?” says James Harris, who sells slippers in Red Light. “We are all vulnerable right now. It should not be a pick and drop thing. Let the government show responsibility and take care of all citizens.”
The distribution has also been criticized for being slow and even a farce.
Activist Martin Kollie, based in Ethiopia, has blasted the government in several Facebook posts over the lockdown package. “The US$25 million food distribution started on May 23 and ended in one hour on the same day,” he quips in one. “The masses cannot breathe amid a lockdown in Liberia. Tell President George Weah to remove his knee from their neck. Stimulus Package is a fiasco,” he writes in another.
Tarpeh blames the delay on logistical difficulties, waiting on the Legislature to approve the funds, and a lengthy procurement process for the items. He tells FrontPage Africa that the distributions on May 23 in Margibi and Montserrado were trials, and that the main process is set to start soon.
“This whole lockdown thing was good, but it not be good for some of us that have to sell before we can eat,” says Eunice Stevens, who sells kanyan, a dessert made from farina, peanuts and sugar, in the Red Light market. “Even when the lockdown is finished, plenty things will still be hard for us who sell these small, small things. So the government needs to try for us.”Miatta Flomo, Cooked Food Seller, Zubah Town, Paynesville
“Currently the purchasing and procurement of the needed items have started, and the full schedules will be released,” Tarpeh says. “[Street sellers’] concerns are valid, but the process being flawed will not be possible. And as a matter of fact, we are using the people in the community to do the distribution. So once the petty traders are in the community, we will use them.”
Tarpeh’s committee is collaborating with the World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance branch of the United Nations, on the distribution during this coronavirus emergency. But controversy has been growing over how much of the secured funding will actually be spent on the distribution.
Over the last week, there have been concerns from the Legislature after Tarpeh told the Senate that, of the combined US$30 million package, US$21 million will go to food costs while USD$9 million will go toward operational costs. There were grumblings that the WFP is charging the Liberian government a staggering administrative cost for their help in distribution.
But the communications officer for WFP, James Belgrave, told FrontPage Africa via email that the information is inaccurate.
“WFP is not charging US$9 million to the Government of Liberia,” wrote Belgrave. “Any suggestions to the contrary are totally unfounded. The government-led COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP) has a total budget of US$30 million. This comprises the cost of the food basket (rice, beans and vegetable oil) as well as the costs of storing, transporting and delivering the assistance to vulnerable households targeted under the program. A very small percentage of the budget (around 6 percent or US$1.8 million) goes towards meeting essential minimum costs for WFP to deliver its life-saving assistance. This is standard across all the countries where WFP works and is in line with international standards of aid delivery.”
With all the controversies surrounding the food distribution, Liberians are growing impatient.
People can wait no longer, Nigba asserts. “Citizens have exercised enough patience,” she says. “What the people need now is action from the government. We need to see the food for the citizens to say they have benefited from the food distribution.”
Flomo, the cooked-bowl seller in Zubah Town, wants the curfew lifted even more than a food handout from the government. “I used to start selling around 6 p.m. and leave the road by 10 p.m., sometimes 11 p.m.,” she says. “But now look at the time we supposed to be inside.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project