Over the past few weeks, Liberia’s capital of Monrovia has been embroiled in a political drama of the highest sort. The city’s acting mayor, Mary Broh—considered one of the most powerful women in Liberia and a close friend of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who calls Broh “the General”—went on the lam with a prisoner of the state, throwing the national government into disarray and eventually forcing Broh to resign, to the embarrassment of her allies.
Broh’s ousting was set in motion when she decided to spring her friend Grace Kpaan from jail. Kpaan, the superintendent of Montserrado County had been ordered imprisoned by the House of Representatives for failing to implement a legislative mandate concerning misappropriation of the county development fund. Apparently Broh and others didn’t like the 72-hour sentence and stormed Monrovia’s South Beach prison. According to the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives, as he was escorting Kpaan to jail, Broh and a gang of angry women got into a scuffle with him and snatched the prisoner away, making a getaway in Broh’s pickup truck.
The legislature branded the pair “fugitives” and ordered their arrest and dismissal. Sirleaf suspended both officials indefinitely, but citizens and the legislature were skeptical that Sirleaf would take any serious action against her longtime friend Broh. 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 wanted to make a “citizens arrest,” and some protesters slapped and kicked her. The police dispersed the crowd, but Broh’s lawyer has stated that she must be escorted to and from the court for her own safety while proceedings against her are under way.
After Broh’s resignation—which came on the heels of defiant statements that she would never be “dislodged”—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,” Sirleaf said, “but there can be very little argument that she got the job done.”
Broh’s defenders have slammed the protesters’ attack on the politician as gender-based violence. The U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac, issued a statement saying that she was “concerned that the recent political atmosphere has given rise to unprovoked verbal and physical assaults on women, such as that directed against Mary Broh.” The former mayor’s supporters also point toward her initiatives to revive the war-torn capital to its former glory. “Mary Broh has done extremely well, and the city has taken a positive change,” said Massa R. Lansanah, secretary-general of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce, prior to Broh’s resignation. “No male or female would be able to do her work. She gets into the gutters, she acts crazy but her impact is positive.”
But critics point to Broh’s long record of trouble with the legislature and the law. Last year she 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 action. Broh claimed the woman had publicly insulted her. The legislature described her as a “rebel,” and Sirleaf’s “Benjamin Yeaten,” referring to the notorious leader of former president Charles Taylor’s elite presidential guard. Despite the fact that the Senate twice rejected Broh’s nomination for mayor, Sirleaf pushed through the appointment in 2009, though Broh could hold only the title of “acting mayor” due to the Senate’s disapproval.
Nobel laureate and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, while denouncing the attack on Broh, also called for Liberian women to uphold the rule of law. Muna Youngblood, the youngest female legislator in the House of Representatives, called for action to be taken against Broh. “We must take into consideration that there are so many things that must be looked at,” Youngblood said during an emergency session called by the legislature after the incident. “Simple assault, battery, aiding and abetting, harboring a fugitive, and also obstruction of justice took place.”
A diminutive and eccentric woman in her 60s, Broh met Sirleaf in the 1990s in New York when the latter worked for the United Nations Development Program. Broh later moved back to Liberia after 33 years in the U.S.—where she worked for a children’s-wear manufacturer and then for the toy division at Marvel Comics, where she managed shipping, logistics, and distribution—and campaigned for Sirleaf during her presidential run in 2005. The two women are neighbors and live in the same compound on Tubman Boulevard, Monrovia’s main thoroughfare. Prior to being appointed acting mayor, Broh served as the president’s special projects coordinator, the director of the passport division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then deputy managing director for administration at the National Port Authority.
Broh has always been a controversial figure, but enemies and friends alike agree that she was a hardworking mayor. At the start of her tenure, the former acting mayor was lauded for her efforts to revive Monrovia after 14 years of bruising civil war. But anger toward Broh had been mounting in the lead-up to the U.N. High Level Panel for the post-2015 development agenda in February: when makeshift houses were razed along the city’s main thoroughfares—casting many poor Monrovians into the streets. Broh was blamed for the demolitions, despite the fact that the Ministry of Public Works also played a key role.
After Broh’s apparently forced resignation, Theresa Yoko, a marketer, expresses the ambivalence many residents felt about their former acting mayor. “Some of us are very sad because she was cleaning the city,” Yoko said. “But one of the things she did to the sellers, which was not good, is the manner in which she would throw our markets or goods to the floor, leaving us to sell under the hot sun. But she has done a real good work to the extent that Monrovia has become a very clean place to live.”
Monrovians will debate Broh’s legacy for months, perhaps even years to come, but for the moment the former acting mayor—who always liked to have the last word—says she is unable to comment on the matter.