By Gabriel I.H. Williams
During the course of recent weeks, Liberia has made many international headlines. The country is being featured in international news reports amid growing fears of the eruption of violence, which could degenerate into death and destruction.
Liberia is in a state of chaos because of a standoff between the government of President George M. Weah and a group called the Council of Patriots (COP), which accused the Weah government of uncontrollable corruption and bad governance. The COP, a young people-driven movement, has noted that President Weah is incapable of running the affairs of the country, as evidenced by the rapidly deteriorating economic and security conditions.
According to the COP, as a result of the nonperformance of the Weah government, civil servants, including public school teachers and medical practitioners across the country, are owed salary arrears. Medical facilities across Liberia are unable to provide treatment to the sick because of lack of drugs and other resources. In December 2019, public schools were closed as civil service workers unions instituted strike actions to demand salary arrears.
The COP said they have called their protest to demand answers from the Weah government regarding the need for full accountability of Liberia’s resources in light of tens of millions of dollars that have gone missing, as well as to demand for adherence to the tenets of good governance.
However, President Weah has yet to see the need to engage the aggrieved Liberians who are members of the COP, hear their grievances and establish a path for dialogue on the issues of contention. It does not seem to dawn on him that as the leader of a democratic nation, he is obligated to listen to the grievances of his people, as well as to inform Liberians regarding how he would lead the country out of the present economic meltdown and promote the tenets of good governance.
Whatever may be the criticisms of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf related to her leadership of Liberia, it is difficult to recall a situation where a group of aggrieved Liberians decided to get in the streets and protest against the government, and Madam President refused to engage the aggrieved citizens and listen to their grievances or sent the police to brutalize them. Even when a crowd of protesting students once encircled her motorcade, she did not let the presidential security teargas the students to scatter them. She got out of her vehicle, against the advice of her security, and engaged the young people right there. After speaking to them, the crowd of young people dispersed singing, somewhat appeased that the President took time to listen to their grievances. It was that type of seasoned and wise leadership that diffused tensions like what Liberia is currently experiencing.
Recovering from nearly 15 years of a very brutal and devastating civil war, Liberia is currently like a ticking time bomb that could explode any moment. The fragile country could easily relapse into a state of anarchy if the international community fails to act swiftly.
In order to forestall the possibility of Liberia sliding back into another state of violence, this urgent appeal is being made for a robust international intervention. This is an appeal on behalf of war-wary Liberians for the United States, United Nations, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union (AU) to expeditiously consider a plan of action with the purpose of reestablishing a strong international presence in Liberia. Meanwhile, Liberians welcome the mediatory role being undertaken by Liberia’s international partners to contain the possibility of violence in the country.
Given Liberia’s prevailing state of affairs under the government of President Weah, it is apparent that the country is not yet fully prepared for self-governance. Accordingly, there is a very urgent need for Liberia’s international partners to intervene and constructively engage the Liberian government to stabilize the security and the economy of the country.
We plead with the Chairman of ECOWAS to convene an emergency summit of the leaders of ECOWAS so as to consider how ECOWAS could take the lead in the proposed international intervention to prevent Liberia from slipping back into the dark days of civil upheaval, which undermined the security of the West African sub-region.
The international intervention could focus on ensuring that Liberia is put back on the course of peace and progress, and to build upon the post-war democratic gains, which are eroding under the Weah government. The international community has invested billions of dollars to end the civil war, and to ensure protection for human rights and democratic governance in Liberia, as well as to rebuild the war-ravaged country.
It is our prayer and hope that the international community would be more actively engaged to ensure that progress made toward the rule of law and democratic governance are not reversed in Liberia. The people of Liberia also want the international community to be fully engaged to ensure that those who are culpable of human rights violations, including officials and supporters of the government who bear the greatest responsibilities, are sanctioned and prosecuted under international law.
In my recently-published book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, there is a call to the international community to lend full support, if Liberians, in their collective, “call for the establishment of war and economic crimes courts, as a measure to help end the culture of impunity in Liberia, which has emboldened war and economic criminals.”
This is why many peace-loving Liberians have applauded US Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Africa and co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, who issued a statement on December 23, 2019, in which he expressed serious concern regarding worsening political conditions in Liberia.
Congressman Smith said: “Human Rights advocates are increasingly alarmed by the deterioration of civil and political rights and corruption that is occurring in Liberia under President George Weah. I am especially concerned by allegations surrounding Monrovia City Mayor Jefferson Koijee and the thuggish behavior of the Congress for Democratic Change Security Force he heads. Credible allegations of human and civil rights violations – including attempted murder, rape, unlawful arrest, detention and torture – have been attributed to Mayor Koijee by the International Justice Group, a US-based non-governmental organization.”
Congressman Smith’s statement concludes as follows: “Especially in light of our historical ties to Liberia, the United States Congress will be closely monitoring the mass public demonstration that is scheduled on December 30 in Monrovia, and I call upon the government of Liberia to respect the free speech and assembly rights of Liberian citizens. Anyone who suppresses these fundamental rights, or engages in ongoing corrupt acts, may very well become subject to targeted Global Magnitsky sanctions.” The Global Magnitsky Act was passed into law in 2016 by the US Congress to apply sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt officials across the globe.
In its reaction, published by the Daily Observer online on December 27, 2019, the Liberian government branded Representative Smith’s statement on worsening political situation in Liberia as “untrue and a hearsay.” Information Minister Eugene Nagbe said the Congressman’s position does not reflect the true picture of the state of democracy and governance in Liberia.
Also, in his reaction, published by Frontpage Africa online on December 27, 2019, Mayor Koijee debunked Congressman Smith’s allegations against him. “ … I have never at any point in my life participated in acts of violence,” Mayor Koijee maintained.
As an example of the growing human rights abuses occurring in Liberia under the Weah government, there were media reports in early October that one Jestina Taylor, a former member of the ruling Congress for Democratic Change and an ex-combatant, had levied serious allegations against Mayor Koijee in a Facebook interview in Monrovia, in which she accused Koijee of murder and arms trafficking. After she made the allegations, Ms. Taylor reportedly went missing. According to a December 3, 2019 report by Frontpage Africa online, Ms. Taylor alleged that she was abducted, drugged, raped and dumped on the Robertsfield Highway by unknown men. When discovered, she was rushed to the St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, where she was treated under heavy police presence.
As the overwhelming majority of Liberians endure bitter economic hardship, Monrovia was the scene of growing anti-government protests in 2019. During one of such protests in October, thousands of public school students took to the streets in Monrovia to demonstrate in favor of their teachers, who had staged a work stoppage action, to demand for payment of salary arrears. The students called on the government to pay their teachers to prevent their educational process from disruption. The government responded by sending police, who teargassed and beat the students, wounding many. There are videos and photo images online of students in uniform who were taken to the hospital bloodied with cut wounds on their heads and other parts of the body. There are also images of children in uniform who were taken for medical treatment gasping for air due to teargas. The front page of many of the newspapers in Monrovia were covered with the images of school children who were bleeding as a result of the attacks by the police on the peaceful student protest.
Mr. Koijee was also featured prominently in media reports during a by-election in Montserrado District #13 in November 2018, when he led a group of ruling party thugs who disrupted activities of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), wounding some supporters of the CPP.
There are also media reports that on December 19, 2019, police stood by while a pro-government thuggish group called the “Sabu Unit” attacked popular talk-show host Henry P. Costa and his supporters who had turned out to welcome the head of the COP back to Liberia from the United States. Instead of arresting the attackers, the police reportedly teargassed Costa and his followers to disperse the huge crowd that had gathered to welcome him.
The increasingly partisan role of the police is a very serious cause for concern. It is a very serious setback to the progress Liberia has made, with the strong support of its international partners, to reform the Liberia National Police with the aim that the LNP will be able to protect the people and not harm them.
This is why, under the security sector reforms undertaken by the Liberian government and its international partners, respect for human rights was the guiding principle, which was the foundation for the reorganization of the LNP, as well as for the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and other state paramilitary forces.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that Liberia appears to be slipping back into the dark days reminiscent of the eras of brutal dictators Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, respectively. As was the case during the two despotic regimes, it appears that the police and other state security apparatus are being used as instruments of state terror to suppress dissent and stifle democratic governance.
Against this background, it is imperative that the international community engage the Liberian government and stakeholders to prevent another bloodbath in Liberia, as well as to put the country back on a course of peace and progress.
About the Author: Gabriel I.H. Williams has served in the government of Liberia as a diplomat in the United States and Deputy Minister of Information. He is the author of the recently-published book, “Corruption is Destroying Africa: The case of Liberia,” which is available online. He can be reached at [email protected].