— But gov’t regrets EPS officers’ public display of partisanship, says it won’t be repeated
The ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) might have hosted a successful rally that saw President George Weah re-nominated to seek a second term bid for the presidency, but the sight at the rally that infuriated both neutrals and people of opposition alignment was that of officers of the elites state security guards, the Executive Protective Services (EPS), donning CDC paraphernalia (T-shirts, caps and others).
During the course of the February 4, 2023 CDC rally, Liberians became shocked when photos emerged that captured several individuals in the crowd at the event wielding AK-47s and other automatic rifles, attired in CDC t-shirts. It was later confirmed by the government that those individuals were officers of the EPS.
The government has since condemned the action of the EPS officers, describing it as embarrassing. But that comes after President George Weah, who those officers were protecting, and the ruling CDC, have long been accused of factionalizing and politicizing the state security sector.
Many still recall the vicious attack against representative candidate Telia Urey, whose vehicle was destroyed by youth pledging loyalty to CDC candidate Abu Bana Kamara, during the by-election for the representative seat of Montserrado County District #15 in August of 2019. After her vehicle was destroyed, the attackers turned on the building in which she sought safety and they threatened to set it ablaze with her inside. Social media video footage showed armed officers of the Liberia National Police at the scene, dressed in full riot gear — adequately equipped to rescue the female political candidate — but they stood there, did nothing, but watched the attackers have their way. It took the intervention of a platoon of soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia to rescue Urey from that near-death experience.
In response to the February 4, 2023 sighting, the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) described the EPS officers as rifle-toting CDC militias, while calling international attention to what it termed as the lawlessness and dangerous display and brandishing of assault rifles by suspected CDC militias.
"These gangster-looking individuals wore CDC insignias and political paraphernalia including T-Shirts, which made them indistinguishable between CDC militias and state security."
The CPP said it is deeply disturbed by these developments, and are signs of dangerous things to come.
"If these rifle-carrying individuals were CDC militias, the CPP demands an explanation and independent investigation on how they got such weaponry in a political gathering, and why were they allowed to exhibit assault rifles in such threatening public manner," CPP said.
"The CDC cannot and will not be permitting any acts of intimidation and threats of peaceful Liberian citizens in such belligerent and hostile manner. Party militias must never be permitted to act as and with the authority of state securities," the statement cautioned.
This shocking episode comes amidst reports about the formation of a militia group by the CDC in Lofa County and at the Police Academy in Paynsville, Montserrado County.
The sight of armed men at a political event has raised fears of a return to the country’s past of armed factions and sparked outrage on social media. Many Liberians are calling for the Liberia National Police (LNP), the Executive Protection Service (EPS), and other security forces to ensure a safe and secure election in October without the involvement of armed individuals.
This has also sparked debates about the roles of state security officers in the political processes of the country and the need for a peaceful election.
The government, in a statement on Monday, described the EPS officers’ behavior as embarrassing, which it attributes to over-exuberance and lack of knowledge of the standard operating procedures of the service. It noted that such unprofessional acts on the part of the EPS will not be repeated.
“The government takes due cognizance of concerns coming from local and international quarters of the donning of CDC paraphernalia by some members of the EPS during the party’s “One Million Men Rally” for the nomination of President Weah for a second term bid,” the statement, signed by Information Minister, Ledgerhood Rennie, said.
“The Chairman of the Joint-Security of Liberia, Justice Minister Counselor Frank Musah Dean Jr., has mandated the head of the EPS Director, Trokon Nathaniel Roberts, to ensure that henceforth such unprofessional display by any member of the EPS does not recur.”
However, the government recommitted itself to conduct free, fair, transparent, democratic elections in an environment that is secure and open to all stakeholders and participants regardless of political affiliation.
But pundits suggest that the damage has already been done. "While the EPS officers may get off with a warning, the message has already gotten across to the public that state security actors are once again beholden to the interests of the ruling party," said a retired security professional who asked not to be named.
The government insists it will not allow Saturday’s regrettable action on the part of some members of the EPS to put a dent in the "enviable record of the Weah-led Administration" of successfully conducting several elections in the country.
Weah Been Lawless since 2018
The CPP has noted that over the past five years Liberia continues to see breakdown of law and order, and public display of false impressions that the President and his officials are above the law.
The CPP said public officials' refusal to obey the law, as well as the breakdown of professionalism in, and public trust of, state security institutions, as was the case, “when the carrier of a state weapon is encouraged to wear partisan t-shirt of a political group, such individual undermines the neutrality of the state security forces in political competition and discourses.”
“These acts of blatant disregard of the law endangers and undermines the nation’s peace, security, and democracy,” the CPP said. "For six years, state security forces have morphed into a hostile partisan force against peaceful citizens and critics of the government, the leading opposition group observed.
The statement said while the CPP condemns these and other lawless activities, as Liberians move to elections to end President Weah's six years of misrule, it calls on the international community to condemn such lawless behaviors which are signals of a weak and increasingly unpopular President, and an attempt to undermine national security, the rule of law, and risk the peaceful transfer of power in Liberia.
"If the rifle-toting persons are state security officers," the CPP noted, "they should be suspended immediately, investigated, and prosecuted. State security personnel should not be allowed to wear political attire while carrying out their national security duties. This is totally unacceptable to turn state security into personal militias to the President, city mayor, or the ruling party."
Meanwhile, political observers believe that President Weah’s popularity has considerably dropped since his ascendency due to failed promises, harsh economic conditions in the country as well as the high level of insecurity which has led to the mysterious deaths of several prominent Liberians.
Amid drop in popularity and prestige of the President, many believe that the ruling party is bent on doing anything and everything possible to secure a victory at the polls come October — and as such, the intimidating tactics on display at the rally is just a tip of what is to come, especially during the campaign period.
Some Liberians have since started calling on the international community, especially the government of the United States, the European Union, ECOWAS and others to keep a close watch on developments so that Liberia does not descend into chaos again as a result of dissatisfaction from the electoral process.