By Wynfred Russell
The dry season is in full swing. But the heat being generated is not coming from the blazing sun above but from the activism around the December 30 demonstration. The Liberia protest movement is not deescalating – nor will it. Having launched on June 7, 2019, this multi-thousand-person the movement has continued to win a groundswell of support from the homeland and from abroad.
This is because of protest organizers, the Council of Patriots believe this is their last chance to “save the state” from a grossly incompetent bunch of corrupt officials and expand the scope of accountable democracy in Liberia.
Yet, despite the enormous, peaceful demonstration in June, along with many smaller spontaneous protests that have shut down parts of the city and engaged in battles with police, President George Weah and his administration have largely remained unmoved.
This dynamic is hard for many of us in elected positions in the West to understand. If these protests were being held in a truly democratic society, considering the potential of it running amok, the government would likely seek to enter into a negotiation with the protesters, knowing that compromise and bargaining are core strategies for deescalating tensions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
However, a dialogue between both sides has not happened in Liberia and may never happen. During multiple public appearances, no government official neither President Weah has engaged the protesters or responded to their key demands, including the dismissal of finance minister Samuel Tweah.
It raises two fundamental questions – why is the December 30 “Step Down Campaign” gaining momentum, and what will Weah, or his administration, eventually do in response?
The movement also appears to be gaining solidarity, despite threats from certain elements in the government to arrest some of the organizers under the pretext that any protest that calls on the president to “step down” is treasonous. I have spoken to a few Liberians who believe the lack of traction on dialogue reflects the extent to which Liberia is run by highly incompetent people. And this, in turn, affirms the need to continue with the “Weah Step Down” mass rally.
The response from the government in Monrovia should not be the intensification of police mobilization against protesters, or God forbid, unleash the army. The demonstration should not be allowed to escalate without a plausible scenario for resolution; the situation on the ground is becoming tense. Neither side seems likely to compromise, and the government may decide it has no option but outright repression. That will be a mistake. Any arrests of organizers or peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly could turn into chaos and aggravate the situation; sadly, some with nefarious motives may see it as an opportunity to create mayhem.
Many say the situation is an eerie echo of the “Rice Riots of 1979,” when the Tolbert administration “overreacted” to a ‘peaceful demonstration’ against the proposed increase in the price of rice which led to scores of deaths and widespread looting. Liberia cannot afford such chaos and destruction now.
No one knows what will happen in Monrovia on December 30 – not Weah, not his government, not the protest organizers. The fluid dynamism of the planned march is worrisome, nevertheless.
The protesters are young, wired, but highly resilient, and motivated to fight for what they believe is the future of their country.
The June protest unmasked the ineptitude and creeping dictatorial flirtations of the Liberian government when it responded by switching off the Internet and curtailing the free movement of protesters. The Weah administration is deeply underestimating the tenacity of the protesters and the enormous levels of support they have across all segments of society. They have vowed to not stop until a pathway for a less corrupt, competent, and a stronger democracy is on the table.
I believe a dialogue to form a coalition government would avoid the December 30 demonstration and is the best way to end the stalemate between the government and the COP. As public officials, sometimes, doing business with repellent advocates may offend our moral sensibilities, but it is often the only way to achieve larger strategic aims.
However, negotiating to go into a coalition with an ‘unpopular’ government has many dangerous traps. The government will have an upper hand; state machinery and the country’s resources are at its disposal. The leaders of the protest will only become junior partners; they may be in the office, but not in power. The trappings of power may corrupt the COP and the whole cause could be lost. Negotiations are not a realistic way to remove a democratically elected government in the absence of powerful opposition. There must be a carrot and a stick approach.
Political defiance and non-violent protests are the best weapons against any corrupt administration. It is the most powerful means available for the marginalized masses to fight for their freedom.