22 Feb Blog: A Sunday night in Moengo: Romeo Bravo meets Mony Hond Bordo
By Wouter Veenendaal
When the sun sets in Moengo’s Ronnie Brunswijk stadium, the man after whom the sports arena is named makes his entrance. Brunswijk is here to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the founding of his political party, ABOP (Algemene Bevrijdings en Ontwikkelings Partij or General Liberation and Development Party), currently the third largest party in Suriname’s parliament, which primarily represents and caters to Maroon voters. His supporters, dressed in the party colours of yellow and black, cheer loudly and wave flags to the rhythm of blaring reggaeton music. While elections are still two years away, it is clear that ABOP is already in full campaign mode.
Bravo and Bordo: A tale of two characters
But Ronnie Brunswijk, known locally under his nom de guerre Romeo Bravo, is not your average party leader. After resigning as the bodyguard of Suriname’s military ruler Desi Bouterse in 1985, he spearheaded an armed insurgency against the military regime as leader of the infamous Jungle Commando. Robbing local banks and distributing the loot among his people, Brunswijk became known as the Robin Hood of Marowijne, his home district. After the end of the guerrilla war in 1992, he made a fortune through his ownership of six gold mines and his gold exploitation company Robruns NV. In addition, Brunswijk is the owner and president of the Inter Moengotapoe (IMT) football club, for which he still regularly turns out, despite being nearly 60 years old and severely overweight. On the field, the former warlord is known for verbally and physically intimidating other players when things in the Brunswijk stadium don’t go his way, and he once aimed a gun at the referee in order to signal his discontent. In 1990, seeking to transform his status as the King of Moengo into political gain, Brunswijk established ABOP, which in 2010 mesmerizingly helped to elect his former arch-nemesis Bouterse to power as president of Suriname. To bolster his Robin Hood status, Bravo doles out significant sums of cash during campaign rallies (sometimes using an air blower), which at least partially explains the excitement of the ABOP crowds.
However, this Sunday evening Brunswijk is not the only celebrity to make an appearance. He is joined on stage by the multi-millionaire rapper Joël Martinus, who goes by the stage name Mony Hond Bordo and has scored hits with ‘Cash & Carry’ and ‘F**karound’. Recently, like Brunswijk, Mony Hond has come to see his wealth and celebrity status as an incentive to enter the political fray, but unlike Brunswijk, Mony Hond wasn’t quite sure which Surinamese party to join. He therefore publicly invited his Facebook fans to guide him in selecting the appropriate political vehicle. In recent weeks, Bordo has had several well-documented meetings with leaders of larger parties, such as the ruling NDP and the main opposition party VHP, all of whom appeared eager to embrace and accommodate the youth idol within their ranks. Yet, much to the appreciation of the ABOP crowd, Mony Hond this evening puts an end to the speculation by declaring that he was born ABOP and will die ABOP, and in fact never had any doubts about his political allegiance.
Patron-client linkages, inequality, and power concentration
In the context of Suriname’s severe economic crisis, the contrast between the extreme wealth of individuals like Brunswijk and Martinus and the economically struggling population of Moengo could not be more profound. Both men are cherished as self-made superstars, blending their economic and social power with political authority. While the smallness of Moengo allows citizens to directly approach and engage with ABOP’s figureheads, this closeness thus paradoxically coincides with intense power concentration, top-down leadership, and economic inequality. Although perhaps an extreme example, the case of ABOP is certainly emblematic for politics in Suriname and the wider Caribbean, in which clientelism, patronage, and vote-buying (re)produce strongly unequal relationships between voters and politicians. As a result of many people’s economic dependence on political leaders, their capacity to critically engage these leaders is highly limited, essentially reducing them to mere cheerleaders for political elites. Seen from this perspective, the jubilant façade presented by Bravo and Bordo’s party in Moengo certainly conceals a grimmer reality, marked by the dynamics of power-play and political domination.
(Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at KITLV and writes this blog as part of his field research in Suriname, where he is studying the effects of smallness on Surinamese politics and democracy.)