By Ansumana Konneh
On June 7, during a mass citizen protest against rising government inefficiency, economic hardship, public mismanagement and incompetence, the government of Liberia blocked social media to control hate speech and prevent the spread of violence. Many, especially the press and civil society organizations, have labelled it as a way of curtailing free speech and muzzling of the press. The government has since and even before the protest, expressed the issue of national security threat and covert plans to unseat the Weah government as a justification. This was following the Council of Patriots (COP), an umbrella organization of collaborating political parties and a host of proxy nationalist groups, planned protest citing government’s delinquency to address corruption, selective judicial system, economic collapse, increase in the price of basic commodities, etc. Though, COP leaders denied claims of a possible coup, there was a general panic in Monrovia in the days leading to the protest. Some businesses opted for a day off, while many stayed home anticipating a violent end. This never happened.
The recent waves of protest and public outcry against the Weah government are signs of massive dissatisfaction and impatience. Just one year into office, it has come under public criticism for siphoning millions of dollars and the arbitrary trespassing in state reserve. The unjustified disbursement of donors’ funds, the untraceable disappearance of printed monies from the Central Bank and lack of accountability in Liberia’s public financial management system fuels into its culture of corruption that has become a burden on the nation, service and the greater good of society— as Liberians have said in newspapers, on social media, and radio talk shows.
The Weah government is held in contempt for the increasing price of basic commodities while it shifts blame on its predecessors for leaving a “freefall economy” and unaudited. While both parties keep blaming the other, Liberians are faced with a disintegrating economy and state fragility the government is proving incapable or unwilling to remedy. It’s hard to pinpoint who’s in control or responsible for Liberia’s current economic collapse, but the economy from all indications is in shambles. Even if one can hypothetically agree to shift blame of the current economic conditions on the past regime, the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) must have understood this before making a bid for the presidency. They must have recognized that the country was a mess yet vouched to fix it with alternative policies and economic measures.
Feelings of Betrayal
Liberians from all walks of life have claimed they voted for President Weah because they believed he was up to the task to deliver rapid economic growth. They believed he would have adopted social and economic policies to improve the livelihood of Liberians. Therefore, his constant complaint of taking over a ruined economy is a sign of his unwillingness and unpreparedness to run the state and engineer an economic revival. “No one comes to public office expecting the path to be rosy and romantic”, said Suakollie, one the of the protesters. Suakollie is one of the many who believed that because Weah grew up in a low-income family, he would understand the Liberian condition more than anyone else. He feels betrayed and let down by a government he was willing to put his life on the line for. “Governance is not honey or bread, it’s a constant struggle and accepting blames, assembling the right team and reaching out for help when required like now” he said to me while wiping tears from his face as result of frustration and heat on the grounds of the protest.
He’s a father of three and, before the Weah presidency, 500 Liberian dollars was enough for a day to meet his family’s needs. “Situations now are different and we are expecting hike in prices by the minutes,” he lamented while chanting traditional protest songs with fellow protesters.
Just like Suakollie, many believe the leadership is locked in a spasm of lack of understanding, contradiction and a media propaganda against progressive forces that are at least attempting to keep the system in check. The arbitrary imprisonment of student activists the day before the protest from the University of Liberia is evident of this.
They have claimed that public institutions, instead of public good, serve at the whims and caprices of the president. Recently appointed government officials are mostly loyalists from the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change. Most of them are believed to be inexperienced with scant understanding of government functions. With the appointment of pawns of the party, based on political patrimony, the sincerity of the Weah government has been called to check for delivering economic growth with a highly unskilled team of loyalists who have developed an early taste for luxury and private properties at the expense of a crippling economy. Just four months in the president’s tenure, 16 billion Liberian dollars allegedly evaporated without trace. In addition to officials craving for early success, the president himself, is reported to be building private properties across Monrovia as if he’s paranoid about life after his presidency.
In spite of the president’s failure to tackle corruption and address the maladies in Liberia’s governance institutions through commitment to his government’s pro-poor policy, his regime has shown early signs of authoritarianism by calling critical voices and progressive forces, enemies of the state. The culture of the system Weah inherited is a complex one based on patrimony and institutionalized corruption that takes more than an individual to address. It requires more than the normal Liberian party allegiance to provide basic social services. Addressing Liberia’s institutional corruption requires concerted effort, skills, and expertise to foster solutions for economic and social development.
Integrity and Corruption Allegations in COP
The Council of Patriots, the leading voice against the president, is already imbued in a leadership crisis. A few days following the protest, leading members have already begun disassociating themselves, raising financial indiscipline and corruption allegations. A senior member in the ranks of the Council, on June 13th publicly distanced himself and accused other members of receiving bribes from the government to reduce protest momentum. Hassan Fadiga has raised integrity issues on COP’s failure to stand up for the rights of the Liberian people as they claimed during the mobilization for the protest. As the Council of Patriots runs into disarray, its soul has been hampered and grossly affected with losing respect in the eyes of the very people that saw them as saviors. Many following the political debate are left wondering if there’s anyone who can be trusted to lead a genuine cause of speaking out against corruption and the declining economic conditions. COP’s integrity is being questioned for a cause driven mostly by politics and fight for national power and preeminence.
Fundamental problems ignored
The real issues that were ignored, that should be at the core of the protest, is capacity development through investment in education and social welfare programs for people from low-income families. COP’s petition vaguely touched on conditions of the appalling health system in Liberia. They made no genuine recommendations of health sector improvement policy and how it fits into the national question of neglect at the nation’s referral hospital. The state of education was no big deal in COP’s petition, but the economy is bad, and unemployment remains high, and the inadequacy of most Liberian graduates due to a ruined school system, contributes to why some of these issues are rampant.
Monrovia is swallowed in a pool of dirt; malaria infested environments and national health programs are barely up to standard. Infrastructure remains abysmal. How people survive with feces in most places, inefficient waste management system, and open septic tanks across the city is a concern for disadvantaged Liberians. These were not major point of contention for COP leaders in the drafting of their petition to the government. And just as the Weah government’s integrity is questioned, so it is for COP and associated organizations.
Aftermath of June 7
on June 11, the President, in a live radio address, invited leaders of civil society organizations and religious groups to discuss a way forward for the nation. It’s highly doubtful that the president is committed to a dialogue that would lead to a change in the issues Liberians are faced with and so eager to address. One could assume that just like his predecessor, he’s opening another episode of House of Card to position himself as genuinely willing to listen and act—when it’s the opposite.
But these are the very issues from the beginning of his presidency that have been problems of national concern, yet he was willing to risk by putting down technocrats experienced to handle the country’s economic woes. Technicians in most government ministries were laid off as enemies and replaced with inexperienced party loyalists as a payback for 12 years of commitment while in opposition.
Considering the president’s actions on governance, people like Suakollie have expressed that “governance is not friendship club, it requires skills and experience is crucial to public service especially if one is committed to delivering desirable results.” It requires a vision for long-term development for country instead of oneself. But the Weah government, as Liberians across the country have expressed is a complete opposite of service or nation building. Instead of calling for a dialogue, the President could, if he likes, even sit from the comfort of his office and reinstate and appoint competent Liberians to handle the country’s economic issues. Calling for national dialogue on the state of the economy is a good step, but how will these dialogues be conducted? Will it consider voices across the country from workers unions or just COP or religious leaders? Will other counties other than Montserrado, normally excluded from major political activities, be involved in the process? What is the organization of the dialogue and what’s the end goal? Is the president willing to implement suggestions for economic development? And What’s his history of paying attention to people who disagree with him?
Just in the process of calling for dialogue, there’s still a general ponder on the president’s shut down of social media that came as a shock. Shutting down social media to silence dissent sends a wrong message for the dialogue the president called for on Tuesday. As we’ve seen in recent history, internet censorship has been a great means of cracking down on dissent by authoritarians and Weah is becoming an embodiment. One can barely disassociate the president from leaders in Sudan, Gabon, and Zimbabwe where internet shutdown has been a major form of controlling public opinion.
How does one trust a president with great distaste for dissent is a decision for the Liberian people to make. It’s their lives that’s at stake. It’s survival of their children they are after. It’s the security of their jobs that they fear, and the tears they share must be the message the president listens to in decisions he makes going forward. They are not the enemies of the state. If anything, they are the reason the state exists. And government, through national commitment for economic development, must fulfil its social contract with the Liberian people through job creation, security, welfare, health and other essential elements of meaningful lives.
Ansumana Konneh studies Global Challenges at the African Leadership University.