For Liberia’s Other “Iron Lady,” Kudos, Criticism – and Mostly Respect – by Jonathan P. Hicks

Last updated 01/01/2012
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In the course of offering a tour of City Hall to a guest, Mary T. Broh, the mayor of Monrovia, emerged from her office and encountered an information desk that had no one sitting behind it.
“Why is no one behind that desk?” she shouted to a group of aides accompanying her on the tour. Before anyone could answer, the mayor continued, her voice growing ever sterner: “What are we telling people when they come in here and no one is sitting behind this desk? How does this look? Take care of this right away.” With that, the aides scurried to correct the problem, without uttering a word.

It was vintage Mary Broh, the mayor that Liberians have come to know and, well, respect. In little more than a year at the helm of the country’s largest city, Ms. Broh has developed a reputation as a tireless worker committed to scrubbing Monrovia to a point of cleanliness the city has not known since before Liberia’s punishing civil war. She is widely described as a blunt-talking, no-holds-barred administrator who can dish out a barb or a profanity as swiftly as it’s brandished on her.

“And they are right,” Ms. Broh said, when asked if the characterizations hold true. “I have adopted a very unorthodox approach,” she added. “But that’s the way to get the message out. I’m not brutal. I just want people to know that I’m trying to develop Monrovia into a clean, sanitary city. I let people know that if you don’t clean your place, I will fine you. If you keep doing it, I will make sure you go the City Court and you can spend time going through the court system. I say what I mean and I men what I say. I’m Mary Broh – unscripted.”

And while she has rankled some critics who find her style off-putting, she has legions of supporters who describe her as a tough-as-nails administrator at the right time in a tough city. She is credited for having led a highly successful cleanup campaign, enlisting hundreds of workers to help remove debris and trash from Monrovia’s streets. New sidewalks are being built in Monrovia’s downtown, specifically on the historic heart of the city’s downtown, along Broad Street. Meanwhile, Ms. Broh is now undertaking a massive effort to clean Monrovia’s beaches and to develop a pilot program under which portable toilets will soon be introduced.

What’s more, she is being hailed for her urban renewal initiatives that involve the demolition of dilapidated and old buildings, many of them abandoned after Liberia’s 14-year civil war ended in 2003. That has angered many of Liberians who came to Monrovia after the war seeking greater economic opportunity. Many criticize her as being tone deaf to the pain of the poor who are merely seeking a better life.

But Ms. Broh counters by saying that people simply cannot plant their roots wherever they please in Monrovia, irrespective of zoning laws. “We have to have a city of laws that have to be recognized and enforced. And we have to clean our city, all of us, including me.”

She started with City Hall itself, refurbishing some sections of the half-century-old building with new furniture, dusting off and redoing the building’s cavernous theater and polishing it’s large, public hall to a point where is has become a favorite place in Monrovia for everything from state dinners to wedding receptions. She also admits plainly that “the days of workers coming to work at City Hall at 11 and leaving at 3 are over.” She said that if workers are to receive a full days’ pay, “They’d better do a full day’s work.” She herself said that she works long hours, getting into her office near daybreak and continuing into the evening. “I’m not married,” she said. “My one daughter is grown and I’m free as a bird to do work as hard as I like.”

Her work as mayor has clearly won her a number of fans.

“Watching Mary Broh has led me to have faith that things can get done in Liberia,” said Hesta Baker Pearson, chief executive of Baker Pearson Communications, a publishing company in Monrovia. “City Hall itself has been transformed. She gets in the streets herself and helps to do the cleaning. She has managed to do some things that many people thought were impossible. If Liberia had 20 more Mary Brohs, the country would be massively transformed in about one year’s time.”

Sometimes, her methods display an utter lack of subtlety. On one occasion, with bulldozer in tow, Ms. Broh took to the streets of Monrovia,

demolishing illegally built structures, saying they were a haven for criminals and prostitutes.

Ms. Broh, came to government work in Liberia almost by chance. She left the country decades ago and lived in New York City for more than 30 years, working as a collections manager for a Manhattan garment manufacturing company and, later, as shipping and logistics manager for Marvel, the toy company. All the while, she had followed the career of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, she said, and met the future president on a chance encounter on an intersection near the United Nations.

“She gave me her phone number and I started staying in touch with her,” Ms. Broh said. “I never abandoned her. I felt this lady was bound to be great. Every time she was in New York, and even when she was in exile in the Ivory Coast, I was in touch with her. We became friends.”

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as the first woman head of state in all of Africa in 2006, Ms. Broh came from New York for the event. “I had no intention to stay here,” she said. “And the president said that she wanted me to stay and work with her. I nearly fell over,” she said, referring to the woman commonly known as Liberia’s Iron Lady. “And when your friend, the president, asks you to come, you come.”

She came indeed, first serving as special projects coordinator for the president. She went on to become the director of the Passport Bureau and was lauded by the president for working to eliminate corruption and bribery. By 2008, she had become Deputy Director of Liberia’s Port Authority and a year later, the president selected to serve as Monrovia’s mayor.

She said, she has no particular career aspirations other than to assist Liberia thrive in the transition from the aching years of war.

“I just want to be part of nation building,” she said. “Even if the President tells me to leave the city and go to the hinterland to work, I’ll be happy to go, It’s all part of nation building in this post war period. I just want my name to be remembered 50 years from now and for people to say that I helped.”

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