How the impasse between judicial workers and their bosses degenerated to one man setting himself ablaze in protest
The Monday morning, November 2 episode of Liberian judicial workers protesting against their bosses and the government for the cutting of their wages, took a turn for the worse when Leroy Archie Ponpon, the ring leader of Judicial Workers, lit himself on fire in defiance of an alleged threat by the Chief Justice to dismiss the protesting workers.
The aggrieved workers had been protesting at the Temple of Justice for several weeks on claims that the Judiciary owes them 12 months of the Liberian dollars component of their salaries. With tensions already flying high between the workers and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Francis Korpor, the situation escalated based on an allegation that the Chief Justice had threatened the dismissal of the aggrieved workers who had been using derogatory terms against the Justices of the Supreme Court.
In addition to the threat of dismissal came an order for Ponpon to be turned over to the Justice Ministry for prosecution after heading a number of protests in which he and his fellow protestors referred to the Chief Justice as “criminals and rogues”. Judicial official, Elizabeth Nelson, had communicated with Montserrado County Attorney, Cllr. Edwin Martins, to order the arrest of Ponpon and others on Monday, November 2, and have them appear in court.
It was in defiance of the arrest order that was to be executed by Cllr. Martins on Monday morning, November 2, that Ponpon staged his ultimate protest. “Ehn you want arrest me?” Ponpon said as he pulled out a 1-liter bottle of gasoline he had hidden under his garments. He then laid himself on the floor outside the entrance to the office of the Chief Justice. Putting the writ of arrest aside, he emptied the bottle of gasoline on his chest that was already covered in several layers of clothing.
Some of the aggrieved workers were seen advising him not to do while others were encouraging him to light the fire. When an elderly woman tried to approach him to talk to him, Ponpon lit himself up.
The blaze on his body went on for at least 35 seconds before colleagues at the Temple of Justice were able to fully quench it. By then Ponpon had sustained serious burns to this hands and face.
He was later rushed to the John F Kennedy Memorial Hospital where he is undergoing treatment.
Shortly after Ponpon was rushed to the hospital, officers of the Liberian National Police barricaded the entire courtyard in an attempt to prevent further destruction by the aggrieved workers.
Ponpon had earlier claimed that he approached several lawyers to defend him against the accusation of Chief Justice Francis Korkpor and the associate justices. In his quest for justice against what he terms as “illegal intimidation and threat,” he alleged that lawyers refused to come to his defense for fear of reprisal by the Supreme Court Justices.
A ranking official of the Liberia National Bar Association, who did not want to be named, confirmed receiving a verbal request from Ponpon for legal representation but said he (Ponpon) has not submitted any written request cataloging his complaints against the Chief Justice, as he was instructed to do.
Another lawyer, who did not want to be unnamed, admitted on Monday that Ponpon had met the Liberian National Bar Association for legal representation. “We told him to catalog his defense against the Justice Korkpor,” the lawyer said, “but he has not done so.”
Another lawyer, who also asked not to be named, blamed some of the aggrieved workers, especially those who, the lawyer said, refused to support Ponpon when he came to find himself in trouble with the Supreme Court Justices.
“The aggrieved workers, especially those who work directly with the Justices, have to be blamed for the incident. They contributed to Ponpon burning himself,” the lawyer claimed. “They should have boycotted their jobs to join their colleagues who were in the interest of everyone for their just benefits.”
Before the incident, Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull, who is believed to be the only lawyer coming in defense of Ponpon, was seen making a frantic effort to prevent Ponpon from setting himself ablaze, but the lawyer’s effort proved unsuccessful, leaving her in tears.
The incident came weeks after Finance and Development Planning Minister, Samuel Tweah, had assured the aggrieved workers about the government’s willingness to settle their salary arrears that have led the numerous protests against the Justices of the Supreme Court.
During one of those earlier protests, Ponpon held on to a placard bearing a message to Chief Justice Korkpor, declaring November 8, 2020 as the date he (Ponpon) would set himself ablaze, in response to Korkpor’s alleged threat to dismiss the protesting judicial workers.
In Liberian social media chatrooms, the action by Archie Ponpon is being likened to the situation that caused the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia, North Africa in 2010, in which Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor, protested his treatment by local officials.
The revolution, dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution,” actually began when Bouazizi set himself ablaze, sparking the rise of citizens in protest in Tunisia. President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was forced to step down to flee to Saudi Arabia. After Ben Ali was dethroned, the revolution extended to Egypt in 2011, which led to President Hosni Mubarak, who had stayed in power for a protracted number of years, to step down.
The revolution subsequently extended to Libya and led to the killing of Mummar Ghadafi, as it spread to Yemen, and Syria. With the exception of Tunisia and Egypt where peace was restored, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are still in deep crises that appear far from ending.