The crowd made its way up the slope towards the United States Embassy’s compound, shouting: “Bring back our money! Bring back our money! Rogue! Rogue! Rogue!”
It was September 2018. Word had gone out that money printed to replace old and worn Liberian dollar banknotes had been stolen by government. Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, so the story went, had endorsed the printing of about five billion dollars. But some government officials, acting on their own, had gone against the president’s mandate and printed additional ten billion dollars. This money, printed in Sweden and perhaps also covertly in Lebanon, had been brought in containers into the country and deposited at the Freeport of Monrovia. And then it had disappeared. That such robbery had been done by our own government, especially in a starving, small country like Liberia, came to many of us like the end of the world. It meant that the government was the reason why many of us went to bed hungry, why there were no jobs, why we could not afford to pay school fees, why there was neither adequate electricity nor pipe-borne water available for about 80 percent of the country’s population, not to mention the armed robbers that kept us awake at night.
As the multitude headed towards the Embassy’s compound on Mamba Point to demand that America, the mother of all countries, hold our leaders accountable and perhaps bring back the money stolen, my mind went back to what I had heard about the April 14, 1979 rice riots. The riots had led to the overthrow of the Tolbert administration and the public execution of thirteen government officials, triggering a fourteen-year civil war which would leave the country almost destroyed, with some estimates putting the death toll at about 250,000. Although no one had come armed with weapons and the fact that it had been agreed that the protest would be peaceful, the crowd looked too restless not to imagine the worse. At the time, I was a university student and must have been one of the many peaceful citizens who thought we could hold a peaceful protest. Even so, I felt a passionate hatred about what had happened and was not altogether sure that if fighting broke out I would stand by and do nothing.
Eventually, we reached the Embassy and found hundreds of Liberia National Police officers waiting for us. Beyond the police Liberian private security guards working at the Embassy watched the crowd without any emotion, reassured by the presence of the LNP. At the sight of the LNP the crowd went wild. People started shouting, their words full of every obscene language you can think of. Others, who seemed close to a physical confrontation with the police, booed. I ducked when a stone flew over my head, past the line of police officers, and fell into the empty parking lot in front of the American Embassy.
As the protest had been planned for many weeks earlier and the fact that everybody knew it would take place, the leaders of the protest comprising university students and civil society organizations, counseled us not to confront the police. Rather, they told us to wait until Embassy officials came outside to speak with us.
And so I stood and waited with the crowd, my clothes soaked wet by the rain which had been falling all day but by mid-afternoon had ceased to a drizzle. I decided to chat with some of the people round me – as a way to kill time – and turned to a tall man standing opposite.
“Even if the money was stolen,” I said, “there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m not sure if the Americans can either.”
“Wuh you mean we can’t do nathin bout it?” the man said, turning to look at me with eyes which, I thought, showed all the anger he was trying to suppress. “No, my friend, we will do sometin.”
“You will see.”
“I can’t see anything happening beyond this protest.”
“Then you blind.”
“Maybe you’re talking about a civil war?”
“We na need any civil war. In fac, we na even need gun. Jes bring matches an gasoline, an you will see what will happen.”
Someone in front of the crowd – it could have been one of the leaders of the protest – was speaking at the top of his voice. Immediately several voices broke out so that it was impossible to understand what he was saying. But word went round that Embassy officials were there to speak with us. I tried to get a glimpse of the American officials. But I could see nothing beyond the heads of the people in front of me, many of them pushing and shoving one another and trying to get as close to the officials as possible.
The Americans must have been there for about an hour. But I could tell immediately after they left that the protest had come to an end.
“Wuhtin they say?” the man with whom I had been chatting wanted to know.
“De say,” said a woman standing opposite, “De will look into de matter an invesgate.”
“Wuhtin there to invesgate?” the man said. “Everybode know de govment stole our money.”
“My friend, let’s go,” I said, and put a hand on his shoulder in order to calm him, because already the crowd had started to walk away from the Embassy.
“De peopo da plan this protest,” the man said, “not serious. Wif all da money de govment stole, to come here jes to listen to Americans say de will invesgate na enough.”
“But it was meant to be a peaceful protest,” I said, “not to start looting and burning the country.”
“My friend,” the man said, “if you play with fire, fire will burn you, and de govment been playin with fire.”
“Yes,” I said. “But if fighting breaks out, like what happened during the rice riots of 1979, the police will start shooting and people will get killed. And how sure are you that the money will be brought back? The country could even lose more money by the time all the violence is over.”
The man was silent for a long time. And then he heaved a sigh, shook his head and said finally, “I wuh thinkin we wuh goin to teach de govment a lesson.”
“Let’s leave it to the investigation that will be done by the Americans,” I said, “but violence will only breed more violence.”
The man nodded his head.
Together we joined the crowd heading back down the hill, soaked wet by the rain, tired from having taken part in the protest all day long and only too eager to be home.