A Brush With A Prickly Rebel Who Wanted To Turn Liberia Into Singapore

Published 11 years ago
A Brush With A Prickly Rebel  Who Wanted To Turn Liberia Into Singapore

Mary Broh stands at a dusty intersection on Tubman Boulevard, squints and surveys the scene with two sets of spectacles balanced on her head, one pair perched on her nose. Broh’s solid black Chevrolet Tahoe, with a number plate reading Mayor 1, waits by the curb as the acting city mayor paces back and forth.

“This is a special project, I need you here!” she snaps into a walkie-talkie.

“Don’t touch the paint!” she tells someone moving near the small green concrete fruit and vegetable kiosk that she is here to launch.


Liberians jammed in vans and beaten-up yellow cabs, or cruising past in SUVs, turn their heads to see what the city’s most controversial public official is up to. Dressed in a gold lapa jacket, with her fine dreadlocks pinned with champagne diamante clips, and a clunky watch strapped to her right wrist, Broh does not look like your typical city mayor; nor does she act like one.

Broh points to a small concrete zinc-roofed building with an X marking its wall.

“Someone find out who this place is for! I’ll demolish it!”


Workers in blue uniforms wielding rakes and cutlasses arrive in the back of a pickup and sweep the area at breakneck speed. Petty traders on a nearby street pack up their goods and flee; a young boy runs holding a plastic chair above his head.

“Liberian people are too dirty!” she exclaims.

After the formalities the mayor jumps into her Tahoe and hares off.

Weeks later Broh was engulfed in a scandal that seemed the stuff of a Hollywood action movie. She had rescued her friend, the Superintendent of Montserrado County Grace Kpahn from the moldy walls of Monrovia’s South Beach prison, after Kpahn was ordered behind bars by the national legislature for failing to implement a legislative mandate concerning misappropriation of the county development fund.


The legislature branded the pair “fugitives” and voted for their arrest and dismissal. Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, suspended both officials indefinitely, but citizens and the legislature were skeptical that Sirleaf would take any serious action against Broh, her longtime friend. After all, Sirleaf pushed through Broh’s appointment in 2009 despite the fact that the Senate twice rejected her nomination for mayor, though Broh could only hold the title of “acting mayor” due to the Senate’s disapproval.

The Ministry of Justice charged Broh with “obstructing government operation and disorderly conduct”; and the legislature ordered the pair to be incarcerated for 30 days, in a separate case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Days later, Broh was met by hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Temple of Justice, who attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. Broh was slapped and kicked by some protestors. The police dispersed the crowd.

When contacted by FORBES AFRICA for comment, Mayor Broh said she had been advised not to give interviews.


This is not the first time Broh has come to blows with the legislature or the public. Broh drew ire when she slapped a prominent senator’s assistant across the face, which led the legislature to pass a vote of no confidence and order her arrest for failing to appear to offer an explanation for her actions. Broh claimed the woman had publicly insulted her. The legislature called her a rebel.

Broh’s critics in the political establishment say she is rude, arrogant and untouchable because of her close relationship with the president, who gave her the nickname ‘the General.’ The two met in New York in the 1990s. Broh has been the president’s special projects coordinator, the director of the passport division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and deputy managing director for administration at the National Port Authority.

Broh, now in her sixties, lived in the United States for 33 years. She worked for a children’s wear manufacturer for 12 years, then for the toy division at Marvel Comics, managing shipping, logistics and distribution, where she kept long hours and shuffled on the subway between Middle Village, Queens and Manhattan in New York.

“If you made one mistake there would be a chain effect… everything had to be synchronized. That’s New York and you know everything is fast and I enjoy it and that’s what I bring here.”


Broh moves through Monrovia as though she is commander-in-chief of a dysfunctional assembly line.

Broh’s supporters view her as an eccentric rebel with a cause. Secretary general of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce Massa R. Lansanah says that Broh’s work has had an enormous impact on the city and made it more attractive to international investors.

“No male or female would be able to do her work. She gets into the gutters, she acts crazy but her impact is positive,” says Lansanah.

But, civil society claims Broh is creating further divisions between the rich and poor.


“She disrupts places and destroys things by instinct and that is very dangerous,” says Abdullai Kamara head of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building.

Bestman Toe, president of The Slum Dwellers Association of Liberia says that while the city must be developed, the Monrovia City Corporation and the Ministry of Public Works, headed by Minister Samuel Kofi Woods, has failed the urban poor. Toe claims that 70% of the 1.5 million people living in Monrovia, many of who migrated during the war, live in slums.

Back at headquarters, the acting mayor sits behind an iPad at the end of an oval table in her dark, wood-paneled office. She is meeting with World Bank consultants who have been hired to help rebuild the capital city.

“We have urban growth we cannot contain and we don’t want more slums; we want to create a productive, resilient and inclusive city,” she says.

The consultants leave and Broh frantically prepares for a radio show. Three young women flit around the room searching for documents. Broh complains about her office assistants being sluggish and tells me to report on it.

She walks with swift steps down the marble corridors of city hall, her leopard print slingbacks clacking. She pulls open office doors and tells a few departments that their work has to be up to scratch because there is a journalist in the house.

“I want a clean, green city, but the people are against me!” she says as we shuffle down the back staircase.

Outside, men and women from the General Services Department sit with half-annoyed half-puzzled looks on their faces.

“I shut them down because they are inefficient,” she says.

We drive through the streets of Monrovia, past the executive mansion that is under repair, and down Camp Johnson Road. Broh’s eyes dart as she points to imperfections in the urban landscape that rolls past: rubbish on the street, buildings with faded paint and moldy exteriors, petty traders and people cooking fried plantain and kala on the footpath.

“When I don’t come on the street there is a lot of nonsense going on,” says Broh.

As the Mayor walks up to the studio of Radio Monrovia, she points to clothes drying on the ground of a construction site and market stands that she says must go. People stand outside the front of the store and begin to shuffle things off the street. Broh calls for a team to come in and clean up the area and walks up to the studio.

On air, she addresses criticism of the demolitions undertaken before the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda that was held in Monrovia in February, she says: “They were selling their coal, they were bringing their children to bathe there, they had their slop buckets all lined up, they were brushing their teeth, bathing upfront… on the main street. Can you imagine that? Where did you ever see this?”

As Broh leaves the radio station she orders her staff to open a grubby garage, where marketers have hidden their tables and stools. A heavy man piles them together and kicks them in. She orders them to smash down a rusty roof that juts from a wall. A stout elderly woman splashes water on the ground and haggard old man runs back and forth with a small broom.

“All of these people here are illegal aliens,” she says.

A crowd gatherers around her.

“If you clean your community, I’ll respect you. Certain people can’t live in the city. You have the right to be in a city, but you can’t turn this place into a ghetto,” she says

A few days later, I asked Broh about a particular book among those lined up on her immaculate desk, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story written by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. She opens the book to a photograph of Yew sweeping the streets of Singapore in his early days as a politician. Broh says she doesn’t have political aspirations, but the picture illustrates how public officials ought to behave: they should get their hands dirty.

“I find myself playing the role of janitor-in-chief,” she says.

While Broh was once lauded for her efforts to clean the city, public opinion has turned against her.

Kaifala Losene Sayon, a 34-year-old university student who has worked in Waterside market for the past 10 years acknowledges the impact of Broh’s work.

“[T]here was dirty water, no garbage collection, and no one painted their shops, Mary Broh has made 80 percent of central Monrovia clean,” he says.

But even Sayon says Broh must go.

“She don’t respect nobody’s rights. People close their shops when they see her. I will be happy if she is dismissed,” he says.

At the conclusion of writing this article a press release from the executive mansion stated Broh had turned in her resignation. Sirleaf, in a carefully-worded nationwide address, acknowledged Broh’s contribution to Monrovia and announced that Broh would be leading a project to create a market complex for women with a playground and school in the neighboring city of Paynesville.

“Mary’s methods may not have pleased everyone but there can be very little argument that she got the job done,” says Sirleaf.

I thought about how quickly Broh’s fortunes had turned.

“Nobody will dislodge me. They will not make it, I am here to stay,” she had said defiantly on the radio.

While Broh’s legacy will be contested on the city streets for months, perhaps even years to come, she is an acting city mayor the citizens of Monrovia will never forget.