Mary Broh is dressed for combat. In open-toed sandals and gray socks, short pants and a tank top, her graying braids tucked under a blue bandana, Monrovia’s Acting City Mayor leads a 200-member volunteer army on a march down the Capitol Bye-Pass.
The 60-year-old recently marked the second year since she instituted the first-Saturday-of-the-month citywide cleanup.
Broh bellows orders to her staff, directs traffic, chastises errant mothers and speeding motorbike drivers. This tough style has led kids to call her “Major One”. But that’s not her only nickname. She’s been called the “Sledgehammer Lady,”
“Mary Break-It,” and “Mary Burn-It.” Fellow high school classmate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who appointed Broh to the seat of acting mayor in 2009, once called out to her “General Broh!”
“I get things done,” says Broh, slapping her hand un-apologetically. “We told all homes to bring their dirt on the streets and the trucks will pick them up. It is difficult because I do not have my equipment, they will be coming later on,” she says as an assistant adjusts the spotless white towel on her shoulder. She quickly resumes her march, ordering her staff to issue fines for unkempt yards, upbraiding the owners and any of the volunteers who are dawdling.
“This place is very dirty, who is the owner of this home? You can smell the dirt? Find the person and take them to court,” the acting mayor orders.
Broh’s mostly-female deputies hurry to keep pace with her, using bullhorns to encourage residents to join the mayor’s campaign. Not even they escape Broh’s scrutiny. “They come on the street as if they are on a promenade. They are not serious,” she says.
In certain communities around Monrovia, Broh says she can always expect a fight. The most notable example happened two months ago at the Bassa Community on the Capitol Bye-Pass. Broh and her team visited the community to destroy makeshift businesses crowding the sidewalks, according to a witness who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the mayor. When one boy protested, he was arrested and dragged to jail. Now community members say they stays behind closed doors until Broh passes by.
“Every first Saturday, we stay indoors until ten o’clock. But then we have to come outside to sell, because we have to feed ourselves and send our children to school,” the witness says.
Still, Broh has made cleaning up the slums the centerpiece of her administration. She says she is empowered by city ordinance number one “to keep Monrovia clean and green.” The ordinance was passed in 1975 under the administration of William R. Tolbert and revised in 1988 under Samuel K. Doe. The World Bank has put in US$18.4 million, to sanitation improvements in Monrovia. Five million of that has been allocated to Broh’s efforts.
But the project has been slow to get off the ground. The acting mayor created a steering committee on the project. But Frank Krah, an impact management specialist in the mayor’s office, describes the committee as “an outstanding issue.”
“It should have started two years ago but we did not have the technician who would drive the work of the committee,” Krah says.
Broh has been a controversial figure since the start of her tenure as acting mayor in 2009. After being nominated by the president she was denied confirmation by the Senate. The president was acting on the constitution which allows the president appoint the mayor herself. The Senate ruled that a conflicting law, the act that created the mayoralty, demanded an election be held for the position. The conflict has never been resolved and Broh has been designated “acting mayor” ever since.
The Ghana-born acting mayor says President Johnson-Sirleaf called her home from America, where she lived for 33 years, to serve in the State Department. Broh says the president appointed her for her experience and qualifications. Critics say the appointment was because of her long friendship with the president with whom she went to high school. FrontPage Africa made repeated requests for a full record of the acting mayor’s employment while she was in the US but our calls were not returned.
In Liberia, Broh was appointed to the passport bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she encouraged female entrepreneurs to apply for ECOWAS passports, and after, to Monrovia’s Freeport, where she came down hard on illegal brokerage fees. The acting mayor is unmarried and has a 35-year daughter named Onike Charles who is currently living in the USA.
From the beginning of her appointment as acting mayor, Broh has received harsh words from people she’s encountered on her marches, in the print media and in court. Even though Broh has been sued many times for destroying structures she considered illegal, she has won the majority of cases.
The presidential task force, of which the acting mayor was once a part, was dismissed when it was alleged that she disrupted the activities of worshippers at the Benson Mosque. The incident led to much criticism from both the Christian and the Islamic communities. Although she’s commended by some for her efforts to clean up the capital, critics say Broh is not working in the interest of the low-income dwellers around Monrovia.
Shelton M. Duo, a recent high school graduate from the People’s Institute, says his LD$3,000 business was destroyed just before he could sit for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) exams.
The young businessman says he sells on the Old Road and he is self-supported but Broh showed no pity. “My sister, I want to go to college, even my high school days, I sell these batteries and lights just to pay my school fees. How such a woman in my absence, I left my market with my friend to go and get a few more goods, will order the MCC workers to destroy my goods? We are suffering and this is what most of us do to earn a living,” Duo says sadly.
Rose Nmah, another marketer on the Old Road, says Broh ordered the MCC workers to destroy her oil business claiming that the area was dirty.
“Even if the place is dirty, is that how to clean the place? By spoiling our businesses? We put these people into power not to abuse us. If Broh wanted to clean Old Road Market, she was supposed to inform us first but not to destroy our markets. We have children and we need to feed them and pay school fees,” she says angrily.
But Bestman D. Toe, president of the Slum Dwellers Association of Liberia, says Mary Broh is not actually an enemy to slum dwellers; she is only trying to keep the environment clean.
He stresses that the work of the major is very innovative. “It is gearing towards the cleaning of Monrovia. The waste is getting out of the communities now since the cleanup started. Some enforcement is what is needed to move this work forward, some communities are not cooperating with the waste management team, and some refused to pay the bills when the team picks up their dirt. Broh should try to enforce community dwellers to subscribe with the waste management company,” Mr. Toe says. “As an association, we told Broh not to destroy homes of where slum communities are.”
But Liberia Democratic Institute program associate Henrietta F. Askie says Broh crosses the line with her unorthodox approach. On a recent Saturday, the mayor ordered a woman – whose child had wandered into the street – to pump tires in front of a big crowd.
“Mary Broh should respect the Liberian populace. The mayor works for the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), not the police or the Justice Ministry. She is there to ensure the city is clean and give the city a facelift.
She should respect the common people. Her utterances are poor and what she is doing has the propensity to stop the president from being re-elected for the next level,” Askie says. “I felt nasty when I saw Broh made a lady pump tires.”
The incident, reported in FrontPage Africa, sparked condemnation from the Liberian Diaspora.“If the silly, not the city, but silly Mayor Broh can do this, what will stop the police from doing the same thing when a motorist makes a wrong turn? Or that a soldier requests a civilian to pump tire for any kind of offense against a soldier.
Where is the public outcry for this kind of humiliation to this mother? This was the kind of justice carried out by soldiers in the civil war. Do you Liberians over there still want to live that way? My God! And may God help poor and weak. Because the rule of law is very, very far from this back country,” wrote one reader from America.
Nevertheless, Broh has her supporters. Alfred Davies, a resident of Benson Street, says the acting mayor is the first person in the government he has seen to have passion for keeping the city clean. “Cleanliness is next to godlessness. So the way she is cleaning the streets, I am satisfied.”
In three to five years Broh wants to make Monrovia the cleanest city in Africa. She hopes that when she finishes her term as mayor, she can extend her work in Monrovia by establishing waste stations in the counties. “I will like to continue with the waste management project and even extend it to the counties,” she says.