Is April Liberia’s Ember Month?

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As I lay on back in my family-size bed exhausted and almost zooming into deep slumber this dark midnight evening, a stormy cold breeze blew through the window straight into my face. The breeze forced me to bubble out like a fish from the deep and to roll on my belly and lie prostrate. Dazed between sleep and awake, I felt a sharp sting on my upper left thigh. It took just little effort to spot a tiny mosquito busy pressing its proboscis into my outer skin and sucking an ounce of warm blood with gusto as if it was enjoying an April Fool’s meal.

Seized by incandescent rage, I reached out aiming a slap at the offending insect. Unfortunately, I missed my target. In any case, I was fired by half determination and half disappointment to kill the little scavenger. And so, I kept a firm gaze at the mosquito as it flew straight to the wall and landed on a calendar which hung and swung leisurely to the breeze. In the process my eye caught the date – April 1 – it was April Fool’s Day.

Reluctantly, I sprang up from the bed and in split seconds I abandoned the chase. Instead my attention was drawn to the transistor radio which was blaring and relaying a midnight program. It was a repeat of Reverend Emmanuel Bowier’s weekly monologue which as usual dwelled on a wide-range of secular topical issues.

This morning, the politician turned a preacher [without a church or bishop] was putting into perspective the brouhaha that surrounded the standoff between the Honorable House of Representatives and Acting Monrovia City Mayor Mary Broh. She had been accused of obstructing justice by whisking away a friend from the Central Prison.

Rev. Bowier seemed to have discerned a correlation between this incident that was threatening to turn into a national crisis and other fractures that had taken place in the month of April in the torturous history of Liberia. No doubt, Rev. Bowier was aware that April is etched in the psychology of Liberians as a month in which mishaps are common. For the purpose of his program this morning, he wove the monologue around a theory: From President William V. S. Tubman’s administration (1943-1971) to the democratic era of the democratically elected government of Charles G. Taylor, April and the seventh year of each presidency had featured as an ember month or year laden with events which disrupted the status quo.

In his expose, Rev. Bowier recalled that in 1951, the seventh year of President Tubman’s reign, the political canvas erupted into a jolting crisis following the election that gave Tubman a second term. That election was contested by a splinter unit of the True Whig Party, the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP) led by D. Tweh. ITWP rejected the election result saying that it was rigged in favor of Tubman. In the cascade  of dissent that followed, David Coleman and other stalwarts of the opposition were accused of treason and sedition arising from an alleged attempt to assassinate President Tubman while he was watching a movie at the executive Pavilion.

A man-haunt for Coleman who either conceptualized the alleged plot or allegedly pulled the trigger of the gun aimed at Tubman ensued. Coleman and his son were subsequently killed a week later in the vicinity of B.F. Goodrich Rubber Plantation in Bomi Territory. Other opposition members including D. Tweh fled into exile in the United States, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

Thereafter, President Tubman consolidated his grips on power and extended his rule to 27 years. During this period, Liberia was enveloped in an eerie quietude under the Americo-Liberian hegemony that suppressed political opposition and muzzled freedom of speech. And then, there was only one towering politician on the stage (Tubman), and one political party in Liberia, the grand old True Whig Party.

Tubman died in office in 1971 in a London clinic where he had undergone a prostate cancer surgery. Mind you, there other conspiracy theories or accounts as to how the man died. His Vice President, William R. Tolbert ascended the presidency to complete Tubman’s term in keeping with the constitution. A gentle wind of freedom began to blow. Riding on the new lease of freedom, a political analyst Alhaj G.V. Kromah wrote in Africa magazine published in London describing Tolbert as “an old brass band designed to play old family tunes.”

However, to the utter surprise of pundits, President Tolbert proved to be progressively different from his predecessor. In many instances, Tolbert furnished Liberia with surprises. In 1972, he released all political prisoners including H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Billy Horace and Nete-Sie Brownell, who had spent over two decades in jail under Tubman rule.

Thereafter, Tolbert embarked on massive political and socio-economic reforms. He opened the lid of suppression and allowed opposition parties to be formed. He deliberately repealed the dictatorship of one-party state. His critics say by this singular act, he pressed the alert button that unleashed the downfall of the Americo-Liberia hegemony. No doubt, the losing class has not forgiven him.

Of course, President Tolbert was not totally malleable. Yes, he believed in multiparty democracy and social reforms. However, he could not hold back the tide of the changing times. Above all, he could not wean himself from the suffocating embrace of the conservative politicians who formed the bulwarks of the True Whig Party. Even more difficult for him was the task of orienting the conservatives to recognize the winds of change and/or to refrain from egregious abuse of power.

And so, in the seventh year of his administration, hell broke loose. Riding on the wings of the media siege, opposition snippets emerged. They seized on every ounce of the government’s policy and subjected it to incisive scrutiny. President Tolbert’s “From Mat to Mattress” and the “Green Revolution” were placed under tangential flood lights. In spite of the good intention of the “Green Revolution” which was to make Liberia self-sufficient by subsidizing rice growing farmers, the opposition lampooned and tore apart this policy.

The worst happened when the government announced an increase in the price of rice from $9 to $13 per 100 pound bag. The opposition Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), led by the illusive politician Gabriel Baccus Matthews, vehemently opposed the price hike and called for a street protest on April 14, 1979. In an attempt to stop the demonstration, the government announced that it would take stern measures against the protesters. This tirade fell on the deaf ears of the radicalized opposition. On April 14, thousands of people wielding placards and singing battle cry songs thronged the streets of Monrovia to press their demand for a decrease in the costs of rice and other commodities. The government called out the army and other security apparatus to halt the protest.  By midday, sporadic shooting began throughout Monrovia. By dusk, the protest turned sour, with protesters and the security forces going on a looting spree. Shops, stores and business centers were sacked. Government buildings were ransacked and vehicles of all sorts were burned on site. In a matter of hours, the streets were littered with debris.

The next day, the government announced that 48 people were killed in the Rice Riot. Other sources put the casualties at 150. The organizers of the demonstration were arrested and threatened with trials. A desperate crisis management and damage control ensued. Traditional chiefs and opinion leaders were summoned to meetings in Monrovia. President Tolbert took to the airwaves and made nationwide broadcasts that lamented the crisis as well promised to deal with the perpetrators.

Exactly one year later on April 12, 1980, 17 non-commissioned officers (NOCOS) of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) named and styled the People’s Redemption Council staged a bloody coup d’etat. President Tolbert was assassinated in his sixth floor bedroom at the Executive Mansion. Several ex-government officials were arrested and charged with rampant corruption and abuse of power. 13 ex-officials, mainly former cabinet members, were put on trial before a military tribunal. They were all found guilty and executed by a firing squad in the blazing dry season sun.

Although the coup was popular at home, it cost Liberia dearly. The international community was appalled at the gross human rights violation that followed the coup. Several countries including the United Sates imposed punitive sanctions on Liberia. However, with the aid of savvy politicians in the cabinet, African countries recognized CIC Samuel K. Doe’s military government. However, the stability of the government was threatened by infighting among members of the ruling PRC. Within seven months, the ruling Council was besieged by rumors of coups. The trend came to a head in February 1981 when PRC Co-Chairman Thomas Weh Syen and five other members of the ruling body were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The accused men were subsequently executed. 

Under international pressure, the PRC began preparations to return to civilian rule. A 27-man constitution drafting committee was appointed and given a two-year mandate to write a new constitution. In the main, CIC Doe remained Head of State.

Presidential and legislative elections were in 1985. CIC Doe entered the race as a civilian on the ticket of the National Democratic Party of Liberia. He was subsequently proclaimed the winner and he began his reign in earnest in 1986. The opposition cried foul and the international community concurred that the elections were marred by vote rigging. There was a surge of protest against the elections which culminated into a violent protest on the University of Liberia campus in April 1987. In 1988, an attempted coup was staged, this time, by President Doe’s one time second in command Nicholas Podier. The ill-fated coup occurred in the seventh year of Doe’s regime.

The ferment continued until December 24, 1989, when Charles G. Taylor launched what has been invariably described as a people’s uprising. The mission statement of the uprising was bold and simple: To overthrow President Samuel Doe and redress the anomalies that had characterized the military cum civilian regime.

In seven years, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia under Taylor’s command routed the Armed Forces of Liberia and seized most of rural Liberia. But for the intervention of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), Taylor would have taken power through military means. The peacekeeping force cobbled together by West African heads of state enforced the peace. However, sporadic fighting continued among the Liberian warring factions. On April 6, 1996, a full fledged gun battle between the government – Taylor’s NPFL and Roosevelt Johnson’s ULIMO-J took place in Monrovia and endangered the fragile peace that was subsisting.

A frantic effort ensued to restore the peace through numerous peace conferences under the aegis of ECOWAS.  Working in collaboration with the international community, ECOWAS secured a ceasefire and organized an election in 1997. Taylor won the election with 72 percent (still counting).

 Just in seven month after Taylor ascended the presidency, a rebel incursion mounted by remnants of Doe’s supporters from Sierra Leone and Guinea broke out. This incursion by Liberians United for Reconstruction and Democracy (LURD) preoccupied Taylor’s government for six years – until the end of his term of office. Taylor resigned on August 7, 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria. He remained in Nigeria until April 2006, when the Nigerian government turned him over to the Liberian government headed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. In the same month, he was arraigned before the Special Court for Sierra Leone to face trial on charges that he bore the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A period of transition began culminating in the election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2005 as Africa’s first elected head of state. In spite of her outstanding credentials and performance at international concerts that led to the cancellation of Liberia’s foreign debts and her winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, President Johnson-Sirleaf‘s administration has had rough times in dealing with homegrown protests. Among these protests is the spontaneous demonstration for and against the controversial former Monrovia city mayor Mary Broh in 2013.

Next was the heralded but aborted April 12 demonstration called by the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia. Predicated on the phobia Liberians have for the embers of April, the planned demonstration ignited heated debates about its expediency and what it portends for the fragile peace prevailing in the country.

Although President Johnson-Sirleaf seemed unperturbed by the planned demonstration and she acknowledged the rights of individuals to freely assemble and demonstrate within the confines of the law, the official position of the government was unwelcoming at best. The Ministry of Defense and the Liberia National Police issued stern warnings against the protest. However, LNP later modified its position on the planned protest by urging religious leaders to convince the would-be planners to cancel the demonstration.

In the main, the government and several civil society organizations engaged the planners in background negotiations to call off the April 12 demonstration. On April 8, 2013, the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia yielded to wise counseling and announced that the demonstration had been postponed. This announcement certainly defused the mounting tension in the horizon, sparing Liberia an ember this April 2013.

Just when the horizon seemed relatively quiet, a furious wind began to blow again – in April 2014. This time the airwaves were laden with the news of an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. The mainstream media had it that Ebola had struck neighboring Guinea killing 70 people in one week. Misfortune is infectious. On April 1, 2014, the bad news came flowing in. As the story goes a lady afflicted with the wasting disease had allegedly crossed into Liberia and died in the arms of her relatives in Lofa County. Then on the next day, Ministry of Health and social Welfare officials in Monrovia confirmed that there are suspected cases of Ebola in Lofa and Nimba Counties. They tried to quell the panic that gripped Liberians by saying these were suspected cases. But then rumor mills were rolling in full force. Eight people have died in Lofa; three in Nimba, and so forth.

In fact, some people claiming to be acting on good authority said — and the newspapers quoted them — that the ugly face of Ebola with its evil eyes was glowing in Monrovia. A frantic crisis management ensued. The Ministry of Health led the pact. It announced that specimen from seven people suspected of being afflicted with the terrorist Ebola have been flown out for test in an unnamed country.

Subsequent warnings from the Ministry of Health notably said that the populace should report suspected cases, refrain from coming into body contact with suspected Ebola patients, avoid shaking hands; do not have casual sex with strangers etc. These weird precautionary measures heightened fear. Yes, April is indeed Liberia’s ember month!

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