The Price of Peace Is Inexpensive, But Failure to Pay Can Be Costly

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“Let the people march—it is their constitutional right,” Albert Porte told President William R. Tolbert Jr. in Bensonville on April 13, 1979. “And keep the security in the background.”

“That,” added the aging pamphleteer “would be a good compromise.”

But Tolbert, emboldened by his wealthy and psychologically rigid Attorney General, Counselor Oliver Bright, would have none of that.

Bright should have known better, because he was a good lawyer, well acquainted with the Liberian Constitution. But being a rich, ultra-conservative young man, there was a disconnect—“a great gulf”— between him and the ordinary, poor, idle, hungry young masses that passionately followed

Bacchus Matthews, the brave and determined young fellow who led them through his Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL).

“The government will not compromise,” President Tolbert barked back at Mr. Porte, who nonetheless continued to plead with, even beg, the President to reconsider.

For his part, Attorney General Oliver Bright got on state radio, ELBC, and demanded that the march NOT take place, “otherwise we will shoot.”

That was enough to provoke the defiant Matthews, great, great grandson of James Spriggs Payne, Liberia’s second President, and his eager and waiting followers.

But there was more. Oliver Bright sent his police to PAL’s Gurley Street office, behind which stands the Gender Ministry, where they stormed PAL’s office, breaking up furniture and confiscating documents.

By the time the word reached Carey and Broad Streets, the young people, many of whom did not belong to PAL, but had heard and were just waiting to join any trouble, started breaking into and looting shops, overturning vehicles and burning tires. Oliver Bright’s violence against PAL had quickly turned the peaceful march into a full scale riot!

By the time the march reached the Information Ministry on Camp Johnson Road toward the Mansion, Police Director Varney Dempster pulled out his Magnum revolver. He later insisted he didn’t open fire, but shots were heard and three people were killed on the spot. The pandemonium escalated, leading to hundreds of deaths and the near destruction of Monrovia, costing US$100 million in damages, which the Liberian government later had to pay!

Most government officials, including Oliver Bright, immediately went into hiding as President Tolbert remained besieged in the Executive Mansion. If the 1970s progressives had had a serious plan, they could have taken over the government on that day. But they had none, and many of them, including Matthews, ended up in jail.

What is the point of this lengthy historical narrative?

Its aim is to appeal to, urge, cajole, even beg, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her Attorney General, Benedict Sannoh and Police Director Chris Massaquoi NOT to repeat history. Remember that from the 1960s (Togo), just as the Independence Movement had begun, and throughout that decade and the 1970s, there occurred successive coups d’état throughout Africa. But Liberians, enjoying their citadel of peace and stability, always said, “It can never happen here.”

In this Editorial, we are NOT asking for another April 14 and its bloody, tragic aftermath. No! We are saying that history is staring us in the face with its “symbols,” which Edwin Barclay is hoping we will not “misread” (See Barclay’s poem, “Human Greatness” published in today’s edition).

We do not think that Vandalark Patricks, despite his loud mouth, means any harm. He was only saying what most everyone is rightly or wrongly perceiving. We pray GOL will give a liberal interpretation to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and deal leniently with him.

This is an inexpensive approach to peace. GOL should not choose the more costly option.

One last, IMPORTANT thing: President Sirleaf received great international and local acclaim for signing, on July 21, 2012, the Table Mountain Declaration. This Declaration challenges all African governments to commit themselves to repeal all draconian laws on their books against freedom of speech and of the press. Ellen was the second African leader to sign it—an act which was immensely appreciated.

Unfortunately, the Liberian media, including the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), and Civil Society, have failed to follow through and ensure that these draconian laws are repealed by the Liberian legislature. True, the President should have made good her pledge by engaging her Legal Advisor and
Justice Minister to research these laws and prepare bills to the Legislature for their repeal. The media and Civil Society should have pressed the Executive Mansion to do the follow-up work. We must all now act quickly to ensure that this is done expeditiously.

Meanwhile, we pray that the President will remember her Table Mountain commitment and find a way to caution her Justice Minister to refrain from prosecuting Patricks using these same laws. This is a matter of sacred commitment and honor, for which we immensely thank her.

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