The June 7 Protest in hindsight
One could have felt or sensed that Liberia was practically on the verge of another civil war if threats of war and innuendos of violence emanating from across the country ahead of the June 7 “Save The State” protest were anything to go by.
True, the air was incredibly tense. Protests do not have good history in Liberia — the most typical reference for these insinuations being the infamous 1979 Rice Riot, which led to the injuries and deaths of scores of Liberians at the hands of their government and over three decades of political violence that later ensued in the country.
As was indisputably the case on June 7, Liberians are proving to themselves and the world that they have learned enough from the ugly past, daring no repeat. But this was not the first, and hopefully will not be the last, but the lingering question is what was the wrong then?
Prelude to June 7
In late September 2018, a group calling itself the Coalition of Citizens United to Bring Our Money Back (COCUBOMB) staged a peaceful protest, calling on the George Weah Administration, and the international community (US, EU, AU, ECOWAS and UN) to investigate the alleged missing consignment of L$16 billion Liberian dollars that was ordered, printed and brought into the country. The dividends of that protest were two damning investigative reports by the U.S. based Kroll Associates and the Presidential Investigation Team (PIT) of Liberia’s Financial Intelligence Unit.
Among the findings from the Kroll and PIT reports, both had identical perspectives on one key issue — the US$25 million mop-up exercise the president commissioned Technical Economic Management Team conducted, led by Samuel D. Tweah, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning. Both reports said that the mop-up exercise needed thorough investigation, because from the look of it, it created opportunities for money laundering.
From these reports and perhaps other findings, another group known as the Council of Patriots (CoP) raised concern about the wave of broad-day lack of accountability in government, beginning with the refusal of President Weah to publicly declare his assets according to law and explain how he could afford to travel via private jet, and develop ‘multiple personal properties of his own, in Monrovia and Paynesville when, by his own earlier admission, the country was “broke”.
Protesters say they have short-term and long-term demands. Organizers have said that their short term demands include the immediate dismissal and prosecution of the Minister of Finance, Samuel Tweah, and Central Bank Executive Governor, Nathaniel Patray, for their handling of the controversial US$25 million mop up exercise. They also want the President to make his assets declaration public.
However, mid-way through the protest, the President decided to reinstate his biggest praise-singer, Deputy Minister of Information, Eugene Fahngon. The president’s decision was announced on the Executive Mansion website in the middle of afternoon, as the massive “Save The State” protest was in progress at the Capitol.
President Weah on May 6, 2019, after the United States Embassy in Monrovia in a statement called out.
Fahngon had become known for his video postings on Facebook in defense of the president. However, when the June 7 “Save The State” protest was announced, Fahngon responded by referring to the protest organizers with what was described as divisive speech that had the potential to spark violence.
Lifting the suspension, the president warned Fahngon, and all officials to take their work “very seriously and operate within the confines of their respective duties.)
Of all days, President Weah chose to lift Fahngon’s suspension on June 7 — the day of the Save The State protest. At the precise time when, among other demands, protesters were calling for the immediate dismissal and prosecution of Tweah and Patray, who are believed to be exacerbating the downward trend of the economy, some critics see the reinstatement of Fahngon as a sign that the President intends to fight to protect those he considers “most valuable players” in his administration.
In another instance, Vice President Jewel H. Taylor, who has been scolded by the president in several instances, was designated to receive the petition from the protesters. The decision was derived after President Weah had reportedly accused his VP of supporting the protesters.
But the VP’s decision not to show up at the protest angered both the protesters and members of the Weah administration.
It had never been a smooth ride for the President and his VP since their ascendency to power. He had chided her on a number of issues, including her frequent travels. Administratively, she was stripped of her oversight roles concerning the Group of 77 and the National Lottery. The President is said to have also felt disrespected that, in her home county of Bong, the traditional leaders gave her the title, “Dakpannah”, which was held by her ex-husband, ex-President Charles Taylor. In the days leading up to the protest, the VP was accused of being a supporter fo the Council of Patriots, the protest planners, and unconfirmed reports suggest that she was on the verge of stepping down from the VP post.
Now being directed by the President to receive the petition of the protesters. Then she claimed sick at the eleventh hour.
On the day of the protest, it became widely known that the government’s attempt to restrict access to social media was routed by the phenomenal technology of Virtual Private Networks (VPN). However, in a facetious twist of classic Liberian humor, protesters took the initials to connote: “Vice President’s Network“.
The issue of selective justice is also raising the ire of many Liberians who feel the CDC-led government is provoking more resentment from the public when some are given preferential treatments while others are treated unkindly on very similar issues. The latest case involves Montserrado County Representatives (District 10 and 8), Yekeh Kolubah and Moses Acarous Gray, respectively.
Two days before the June 7 protest, the Liberia National Police arrived at the residence of Rep. Kolubah with a calvary of armed police officers based on allegations that the lawmaker had ordered the flogging and torturing of a resident of his district. Police say six suspects were picked up on June 5, 2019, following a distress call from a victim who Police respondents met lying under a market table opposite Rep. Kolubah’s house naked, handcuffed, with wounds on his head and bruises on his body. The victim claimed to have been tortured and flogged allegedly by Rep. Kolubah’s personal bodyguards.
Ironically, Rep. Gray was invited by the police last week for his alleged involvement in the near-fatal attack of Joe Boye Cooper, a businessman in Rep. Gray’s constituency, Electoral District #8, after a confrontation between the two. Cooper alleged that with the approval of Rep. Gray, a young man stabbed him (Cooper) with a sharp object and pursued him further, allegedly to inflict greater injury. According to Cooper, police officers during the investigation have refused to press charges against Rep. Gray and they (police) have relegated the the bloody attack on Cooper to “simple assault”.
Essentially, Yekeh Kolubah is facing charges of what the government calls alleged terroristic threat and criminal facilitation, while Representative Acarous Moses Gray, accused of a similar act, appears to be getting away less than a slap on the wrist.
In his address to the nation via radio, before flying off to Abuja to join the celebration of the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration and their National Democracy Day activities, President Weah’s words were noticeably few. Moreover, the radio address was a far cry from his remarks a week earlier, in which he promised to “deal with” anyone caught insulting the President. Yet, on June 7, protesters spoke their minds and called the President a “rogue”. And yet, still, in his June 11 address he commended them for conducting themselves in a peaceful manner.
Meanwhile, the famous song by the Hip-Co King, Takun J, “They Lie To Us“, was the resounding anthem in the protesting crowd that day, even though the artist himself publicly opposed the protest. Oh, the vicissitudes of political music!
If Liberians might agree on anything as regards the June 7 protest, the days immediately before and after the protest have been filled with parallels and paradoxes which could be an allegory Liberia’s journey toward a better democracy. Might President Weah, the Council of Patriots and all that both represent, take heed?