On Dec. 17, 2010, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor in Sidi Bouazid, Tunisia, doused himself with paint thinner in front of the provincial government building and set himself on fire. He suffered burns to over 90% of his body and died in a hospital 14 days later. Bouazizi’s remarkable act of bravery, sacrifice, and protest sparked a revolution in Tunisia, that quickly spread throughout the Arab world and became the Arab Spring. In Bouazizi’s own country, Tunisia, his sacrifice led to protests that forced his country’s tyrant who had ruled for 23 years, to flee for his life.
Mohamed Boauzizi’s action was a protest against poverty and oppression, on behalf of himself and the many young people without job opportunities, and whose livelihoods and dreams were being crushed by corruption and greed. By setting himself ablaze, Bouazizi’s action sparked the flames of change that are today sweeping across the Arab world.
But, by all accounts, the street fruit vendor didn’t set out believing, even in his wildest of dreams, that his action would change Tunisia and the world in such remarkable ways. He certainly did not set out to become a hero, or a mytyre or the legend that he has become throughout Tunisia and the Arab world. Instead, his was an act of desperation, of frustration and hopelessness; he was tired, he was fed up not just with his government’s failure to provide him and other young people with economic opportunities, but also the persistent harassment meted out to him and others who were simply trying to eek out an honest living for themselves and their families. Bouazizi had set out to carve out a living for himself by selling fruits in the street from a wheelbarrow. His plan, according to his aunt, was to save up enough money to buy a pickup truck to expand his fruit business. But daily harassment from the police, in many cases in search of bribes, forced Boauzizi to take the extraordinary action that caused his life.
On the fateful day of December 17, 2010, Bouazizi’s livelihood and dream were threatened, yet again. His vegetable cart was confiscated by the police. They wanted a bribe, (a fine they say, for selling in the street without a license). They would not accept the US$7.00 (10- dinar fine that Bouazizi agreed to pay- they wanted more. When he went to the provincial authorities to complain, they refused to even listen to him.
His government would not create job opportunities for him, yet the very government was continuing to harass and extort him; worst, the authorities would not even listen to his complaint. He was dying slowly, with a thousand stabs, they would say; and so he did what for many of us, is the unthinkable, but the only thing he felt he could do- set himself on fire. Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011. On January 14, 10 days after Bouazizi died, the 23-year rule of President Zine Ben Ali came to an end under the pressure of the people. Now, you may ask, what has this got to do with Liberia?
Mohamed Bouazizi and Archie Ponpon
On November 2, 2020, Archie Ponpon, an LGBT rights advocate and an employee of the Liberian Judiciary set himself ablaze, in demand for wages and benefits due him and others by the government. Archie Ponpon is no Mohamed Bouazizi. Unlike Bouazizi, Archie is a known political activist and people have already begun ascribing motives to his action, something they could not do with Bouazizi. Additionally, as others say, Liberia is different; Liberians have not been known historically, to have the staying power to sustain a protest.
But Bouazizi’s action must teach us something- a tired, desperate, and hopeless people, can do extraordinary things- anything. Judicial workers, of whom Archie Ponpon is a part, have been protesting for some time now for their pay and benefits, and may be growing hopeless and desperate. Few months ago, the country’s healthcare workers, also demanding pay and benefits, and the right to organize, were all “fired” by the President. Legislative workers have also been protesting for wage arrears and benefits.
Non- payment or delay in wage payment
Wages have a direct and tangible effect on the everyday life of workers and their families. Wages are necessary for the maintenance of workers and their families, they rely on their wages to buy food, to provide shelter, medicines, pay tuition, etc., for themselves and their families. None payment or delays in wage payment undercut the ability of workers to perform their basic functions and pushes workers into poverty and debt. Workers who have not gotten paid on time but must provide for their families are forced into loans with prohibitive interests.
Young people have no jobs
In Liberia, where young people constitute 65 percent of the country’s 4.1 million people, population, youth unemployment stands at a staggering 85%, according to the United Nations. For a country still emerging from the ravages of war, this is a dangerous place to be, it is a powder keg, waiting to be triggered.
The leaders must tune down the noise
That is why the noise and growing frustration and hopelessness are worrisome. Even when the notably humble, quiet, apolitical Mohamed Bouazizi was pushed to the edge, he took desperate action. Governments are organized to represent the interests, dreams and aspirations of the people- provide them security, to provide opportunities for them to get jobs, to make it easier for them to feed their families and to send their children to school. And to listen to the people — ALL THE PEOPLE. The posture by some government officials that any and everything that is critical, or that comes from certain quarters is wrong and must be challenged, or downplayed, can be detrimental.
Alphonso Nyenuh is a Liberian human rights and social justice activist and a social policy analyst. He holds a Masters’ Degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.