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Aftermath of the June 7 protest in Liberia

13 June 2019 at 17:39 | 1133 views

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Aftermath of the June 7 protest in Liberia

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, June 7, 2019, was a fine day. The rain stopped in the early morning and the rest of the day was beautiful. At about 10 in the morning Liberian time, the protest’s point of an assembly was about packed. The crowd came in groups. Hours later all the key organizers and political supporters of the protest were present. They made speeches; spoke of bad governance, corruption, and economic hardship under the Weah led government.

As the Council of Patriots (COP) and the government had agreed earlier, COP was to present its demands at 3 O’clock noon to the government, so everyone, who was listening to and monitoring the event, was looking forward to 3 PM for the petition. 3 PM passed and no presentation. Henry Costa, the main founder of COP, said in an interview that the VP, who was expected to receive the demands, had refused to receive the petition. But he said also that the group would present the petition to any high deputized government official. It was however reported that the VP was ill and therefore could not attend.

People waited until minutes after 4. Foreign Minister Gbehzohngar Findley, Justice Minister Musa Dean, Representative Edward Snowe, Police Inspector General Patrick Sudue, and ECOWAS Ambassador Babatunde Ajisomo and others came out of the Capitol Building to meet the crowd to receive the demands. The petition was divided into two parts as announced by Wilmot Paye, Chairman of the Unity Party. Costa was to read the first and the other by another person.

But just when the petition was to be read, Paye said he had a question for Minister Dean. He asked about the release of the members arrested and jailed during the Yekeh Koluba incident. As the minister was speaking on the matter, the crowd interrupted shouting, yelling, and demanding the immediate release of the jailed colleagues before reading of the petition. "No release, no deal, no release, no deal", the crowd cried out.

The crowd shouting was too loud. It looked that COP leadership could not control the crowd. The government officials with the ECOWAS Ambassador apparently did not know what to do and left. The crowd stayed and continued shouting and chanting. They too left shortly after a COP leader told them to. They were to return next Monday June 10. Before the government officials came out, the crowd had demanded that Weah should come to receive the petition. The protesters shouted, “Weah, Weah, Weah!”

FrontPage Africa reporter described the condition when the government delegation and the ambassador came to meet the crowd.
“But this came with some embarrassment to the government officials. Not only did they have to squeeze themselves through the stubborn crowd, but they were also booed at as protestors chanted “Rogue! Rogue! Y’all stole our US$25 million”.

Some observers said the officials left to consult with the president whose office is within a walking distance. But FrontPage reported that they and the ambassador left to go to the prison compound where the protesters’ colleagues were detained. It was announced later that COP will give a press statement on Monday and will meet with the government the same day. Everything was going fine; the protest was peaceful and the police did an excellent job before the interruption.

Some people commented that COP should have controlled the crowd and let the petition be presented, that the issue of the jailed members was secondary, and that it was not an area of discussion at that time. They said COP must obey the law; that the jailed colleagues must go through the legal process before release. They also indicated that if the release of the jailed comrades was so important, it should have been in the petition and that the purpose of the protest was to present concerned demands to the government for action. Others commented that the government missed an opportunity to hear the demands and that Weah should have come to receive the petition. They also stated that at the next demonstration, COP should ask for Weah’s resignation.

Everyone congratulated the police for the matured way it handled the protest. Some observers indicated that with the tension at the end, it was best that Weah did not come to receive the demands for security reason. The crowd was loud and it would have booed, insulted, and embarrassed him just as it did to the officials and the ECOWAS Ambassador.

At a press conference the following day, the ambassador expressed his disappointment with the outcome of the protest.
“It is disappointing to note that, with all the elaborate mediation efforts and arrangements made by the Government, Local and International Stakeholders, the petition that was to be delivered to the Government, could not take place.”
Abraham Dillon, the spokesperson of COP, responded that the government should be blamed.

Judging the crowd size, though it was large, it was not as big as the people expected based on the publicity and the talk about the protest in Monrovia. As others observed, the crowd was far less than the crowd that UP had at its final launch in 2017. Statistically, the crowd was approximately less than 1% of the 2017 electorates for the Liberian Election that year. This estimate would be within the figure given in my analysis before the protest. The approximation includes non-protesters entailing observers, UL students watching, civil servants and other spectators. Interestingly, moreover, the protest was supported and promoted over two months ago by the four collaborating political parties; UP, LP, ANC, and ALP. With this force, the turnout should have been greater. Mo Ali, a key member of COP and Secretary-General of UP, had advised his colleagues of the importance of a large turnout on June 7.
The Weah government could see the “disappointing turnout” as a victory, while supporters of COP and the protest could see the demonstration as an exercise of constitutional rights to bring to national and international attention of the hardship of the Liberian people under what they call the incompetent leadership of poor governance of the Weah administration.

However, as some Liberians commented earlier, the protesters did not achieve the main purpose of the protest; that is to read and present their petition to the world and the government so they would know their concerns. I think they missed that opportunity on June 7. Another planned protest either on Monday, June 10 would not get the attention which June 7 had. And the turnout could be lesser.

COP may have realized this possibility. The group changed its Monday’s plan and called a press conference on Sunday, the 9th at ALP Headquarters, where the longed awaiting petition was read. The document covered a wide range of issues, including complaint for the removal of former Associate Justice Kabineh Jan’eh from the Supreme Court bench, the lack of justice, the lack of freedom of speech and press, the absence of accountability, and the existence of corruption and poor governance. COP hence made over 24 demands, including the following:
• Immediately commission an independent investigation into the hasty impeachment of Associate Justice Kabineh Jan’eh, |
• Demonstrate respect for human rights, human dignity, and Press Freedom through the comprehensive review of our laws that restrain the exercise of basic freedoms especially the media freedoms;
• Immediately establish a Task Force with clear mandate to implement the Recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), particularly the recommendation for establishment of a war and an economic crimes court in Liberia without delay (The Government of Liberia should make a request to the United Nations for such a court before July 26, 2019);
• Immediately implement the comprehensive audit of all government ministries, agencies and parastatals of the period of this Administration and legally address past audits;
• Conduct a comprehensive audit of all and any of the dozens of personal infrastructure and/or building projects undertaken by President Weah at several locations in Montserrado County since he assumed office including the purchase of private jet and yacht;
• Immediately suspend all negotiations for loans and any new concessions with unrecognized lending organizations until at such time when integrity institutions and systems are restored to operate without interference and within the limits of the law;
• Immediately launch an audit of all infrastructural and ongoing road projects;
• President George Weah and his officials should immediately make public (publish) “assets” they are reported to have “declared” to the General Auditing Commission (GAC) and Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and ensure that they are verified;
• Immediately stop funding activities of the First Lady. There is no such office legally created under our Constitution;
• Immediately conduct a comprehensive audit of the National Legislature;
• Develop, design and implement an economic reform plan to revive our declining economy;
• Immediately cease any and all actions, intentions, desire and attempts to reduce civil servants’ salaries at any time in the short-, medium- and long terms;
• Develop and implement a comprehensive program to properly fund the Education, Health, and Agriculture Sectors as a matter of priority.
Many of these demands are good. For instance, the call for the implementation of the TRC recommendations, particularly the establishment of war and economic crime court in Liberia is a popular request and should get support. It shows that COP takes guts to make the demand because its implementation could affect some of the group political and financial backers. Many allegedly financed or participated in the war. As a candidate, Weah called for the establishment of the court, now as president, he is dodging the issue. He must standup to his promise; he must not be allowed to promote the culture of impunity.

But other demands seem not to be practical and would be difficult to carry out. I have listed the following few.

First, Associate Justice Jan’eh was accused mainly for abusing his judiciary position and power for personal and political interest. The House of Representatives impeached him. He was given due process. The Senates trialed him and voted to remove him. He is said to be a member of the opposition Liberty Party.
But the opposition members in the Senates could have stopped the other Senators from having the required two-thirds vote to save him; instead, they divided their votes and caused his removal. The opposition complained that the removal was unconstitutional and accused President Weah of influencing the opposition Senators who voted against Jan’eh. But what they failed to accept was that an impeachment proceeding, including voting in the Senates, is political though the process must be constitutional and legal. Even in the US, the Republican-controlled House impeached Bill Clinton in 1998, but the Senates saved him because the Republican-controlled Senates did not have a two-thirds vote. All the Democratic Senators voted against the impeachment. That was not the case with Jan’eh.
I do not know if an investigation, as demanded by COP, would work in their favor. Even if it does, I do not think it would bring him back to the bench. The Senates have confirmed Weah’s choice for the position.

Second, an immediate suspension of loan negotiations, and the halt of ongoing infrastructural projects for investigative auditing would not be in the best interest of the country. Liberia needs good and reasonable loans and infrastructural projects such as road connectivity to enhance agriculture development.

Third, to demand that Minister Tweah be fired and prosecuted of his involvement in the mop-up exercise would be unjust and unfair. The General Auditing Commission has already cleared him of wrongdoing. The president has the constitutional right and power to appoint and should not dismiss an appointee who has been found not guilty of an accused crime.

Four, the government, as known, is in serious economic crisis. It needs a drastic belt-tighten measure, such as austerity. Demanding that civil servants salaries should not in any way be reduced would hijack the administration. The president and his cabinet ministers have cut their salaries. If necessary, civil servants salaries should be cut as a national sacrifice.

Five, a demand which calls for “develop, design, and implement an economic reform plan to revive our declining economy” does not say anything concrete; it is an empty technical jargon good for presentation. In a petition addressing an economic reality, the demand should be concretized. It should say, for example, “that the government must establish large poultry farms in specific counties to help decrease the high dependency on imported foodstuff”. That is objective and specific.

Six, The demand calling for an audit of all private construction projects by the president is unclear and is confusing. You cannot audit a project that is privately owned unless you are saying that the construction is a public owned and was constructed by an individual. Perhaps, COP meant to say: “Conduct a comprehensive investigation of all and any of the dozens of personal infrastructure and/or building projects, including the purchase of a private jet and a yacht by President Weah since he assumed office”. An audit should be replaced by an investigation.

Such an investigation would clarify whether or not the projects are legally owned by the president. Also for fairness, all other Liberians are who current and past government officials, including political candidates, should be investigated regarding their properties. Of course, that would be witch-hunting, but justice demands that if you investigate one person, you should investigate the others.

Seven, the call to stop funding the office or the activities of the first lady is petite. The official activities of a first lady are funded by the government. The practice was done in previous administrations. The first lady is the mother of the nation and she conducts social functions, such as visiting hospitals, orphan homes and representing the country at foreign programs. Should the cost of her functions be paid out of her pocket? Making such a demand seems personal. In other countries, the office of the first lady is fully staffed; and her duties are official.

Finally eight, many of the demands called for the setting up of committees, commissions, taskforce, councils, and courts. That would create an additional bureaucracy and a monetary allocation in a difficult economy.
However, COP gave the government 30 days to reply to the petition. The press conference did not indicate how the government would receive the demands, whether COP will submit the petition directly to the president, vice president, or any other high government official. The government could argue that the petition was not presented to it and could challenge the 30 days deadline. The failure to present the petition on June 7 could hurt COP.

Since the press conference, views on the protest have been mixed, but most favored the government. On many radio stations, some callers expressed that the protesters were peaceful, and it did not matter where and went the petition was given. What counts is that the petition was delivered. They also stated that it was the government that did not follow the protocol but changed the person deputized to receive the petition.

But others differ, indicating that the protesters blew a golden opportunity to tell the government and the world of their concerns, but brought disappointment at the end. They said that COP’s decision to call a press meeting and delivered the petition on social media contradicted COP insistence that Weah or the VP should receive the demands. Moreover, they maintained that COP did not only wasted the time of the protesters and the international observers and community but also harmed the economy as traders closed down their stores and the government lost income.
However, some citizens commented that regardless, Liberians showed to the world that they can be peaceful in demonstrating their constitutional rights, and the government exhibited tolerance and accommodated opposition.

On Tuesday, June 11, two days after the press conference, the president addressed the nation. In the speech, he thanked the Liberian people, those who protested and those who did not, and the police for providing protection for a peaceful exercise of the people constitutional rights. He said that the Liberian people and their government showed tolerance in this process. He thanked the international community for their help and continual support to the Liberian people and government.

The president pointed out that his administration inherited a broken economy and his government is doing its best to address the problem. But Liberians as a collective unit with a spirit of nationalism, and together with the government can find a way to improve the economy. “It will take a collective measure to revise the economy”, he indicated. He called for a roundtable dialogue with the opposition parties, civic groups, religious organizations, the business community, traditional leaders, economists, professors, and other groups to discuss the economy to find a way forward.

Interestingly, in the speech, the president did not mention the petition of the protesters. Instead, he thanked the Liberian people and appealed to their conscience and to their spirit of collectivism to dialogue for a solution to a common problem. The address was very short, about 5 minutes. It was his shortest national speech since he became president. Reactions to the address were generally positive. Some protesters and government supporters praised the speech. Some called it, “short but sweet”; others described it, “one of his best addresses to the nation”.

Liberians await 30 days from June 9 to hear the government’s response to the petition.

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