Liberia and Ghosts of April: Recurring Themes and Memories Hauntingly Chilling Reminder of Unlearned Lessons
THE MONTH OF APRIL has always been synonymous with unsettled clouds in Liberia.
ON APRIL 14, 1979, in early April 1979, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia called for a peaceful demonstration to protest the proposed price increase after then minister of agriculture, Florence Chenoweth, proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. Chenoweth asserted that the increase would serve as an added inducement for rice farmers to stay on the land and produce rice as both a subsistence crop and a cash crop, instead of abandoning their farms for jobs in the cities or on the rubber plantations. However, political opponents criticized the proposal as self-aggrandizement, pointing out that Chenoweth and the Tolbert family of the president operated large rice farms and would therefore realize a tidy profit from the proposed price increase.
ON APRIL 12, 1980, a band of low-ranked army officers staged a bloody coup d’etat that overthrew the government of Dr. William R. Tolbert and ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule.
ON APRIL 6, 1996, two warlords in the power-sharing transitional government, Charles Taylor (NPFL) and Alhaji Kromah (ULIMO-K), orchestrated the arrest of another warlord, Roosevelt Johnson (ULIOMO-J), causing a flaring up of fighting resulting in the death of many and the displacement of thousands who fled the capital city.
WHENEVER THE MONTH of April comes around, there always seem to be some hidden fears of anxiety – whether artificial or man-made- that perhaps something painful or disheartening is about to unfold.
THIS YEAR, 2017 IS NO EXCEPTION. On Monday, a group under the banner of the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia (PATEL) instructed its members to keep businesses closed in a bid to draw attention to the continuous hiking of the US dollars against the Liberian dollar, high tariff placed on goods being imported by Liberian businesses and the taking of Yanna-boys, petty traders goods by the city police as well as reports that the Liberian National Police without any redress as among the many challenges affecting its members.
PATEL, IN A STATEMENT informed the public and its members that all businesses under its banner, including but not limited to members of the Liberian Business Association, Custom Brokers Union, Truckers Union, used car dealer association, and the National Petty Trader Association amongst others would be closed until issues affecting the business community can be addressed by the government.
MONDAY’S CALL followed a similar one instituted in January, during which the PATEL staged a protest to allow the Legislature address the same issues which prompted its call for a shutdown of businesses Monday.
BUT EVEN BEFORE MONDAY, it was clear that not all businesses were on the same page with PATEL.
LATE FRIDAY, The Executive Council and Members of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce (LCC) distanced itself from PATEL.
THE LCC CHARGED: “Our recent history has shown, that disagreements between Government’s Agencies and the Business Community are not resolved by resort to strike, and other similar activities intended to force the Government’s Authority to take action desired by the business sector. In fact, the results and conditions turn out to be far more severe and damaging. Our economy and peaceful environment for the conduct of business is fragile, as a result of global economic downturns and inadequate domestic infrastructure and capacity.”
WHILE ACKNOWLEDGING that some of the concerns raised by PATEL need attention, the LCC urged the group to take advantage of the mechanisms and systems available for peaceful advocacy and dialogue with the Government, such that in the process, “we do not lose what we have, no matter how small”.
THE LCC WENT ON TO call on its members to refrain from engaging in any demonstration, strike, closure of business, or acts of violence at any time during the coming days, weeks, and months.
THE LCC’S STATEMENT was followed by one from the government warning PATEL against any action that would cause disturbance in the country. “This act by PATEL is in conflict with the laws of Liberia and the Government strongly warns the group to immediately desist,” a statement signed by Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe declared.
THE GOVERNMENT THEN went on to mandate the Liberia National Police to keep a close watch over what it described as an unacceptable development and act appropriately to maintain the peace and stability of the state. “The Police will also enhance ongoing confidence patrols,” the statement said.
THIS WAS evidently clear Monday when the presence of LNP officers was visible throughout the city.
ALTHOUGH MONDAY CAME and went without any major incident, it does speak volumes to Liberia’s own recurring predicament.
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS after the April 14, 1979 rice riots; thirty-six years after the April 12, 1980 coup and eighteen years after the April 6 incident, it appears that Africa’s oldest republic is still bothered by the same unsolved issues that threaten its very existence.
IN 1979, IT WAS disenchantment over the price of rice. In 1980, it was soldiers seizing power because they were fed up with being ignored, fed up with nepotism, greed and rampant corruption, social vices that are still very much within our midst and refusing to go away.
WHILE WE DO NOT endorse any violent action from any groups, we do feel strongly that the government needs to address these nagging issues before we see a repeat of the violent turn of the past flaring up before our eyes in the present-day reality of what continues to be a nagging problem for the leaders of today.
SADLY, MANY of those serving today where activists yesterday. Some were jailed, others killed – all in the struggle to ensure that every one had access to a piece of the country’s pie.
WE APPRECIATE that the government says it is currently engaged in series of discussions with the PATEL leadership and that the group’s initial concerns and contentions regarding the ECOWAS Common External Tariff, Pre-shipment Inspection of Imported Goods, Inspection Procedures at the Free Port of Monrovia and the Payment of Taxes in United States Dollars. However, our leaders must never allow itself to be pushed into a corner before it comes to the aid of its citizens.
THE PATEL CONCERNS are valid. Local businesses are struggling and barely surviving. It doesn’t matter that foreign-own businesses who can afford to pass a buck under the table to some high-up in government, can afford to stay open while local businesses try to make their case.
WHAT MATTERS IS THAT this government cannot afford to appear arrogant in the midst of disenchantment by those who elected them, as was the case of Justice Minister Frederick D. Cherue in an appearance on Truth FM Tuesday when he threatened struggling Liberian business people that the government will make sure their stores are never reopened.
SAID MINISTER CHERUE: “We don’t have problem with PATEL members choosing to close their business houses for the next 20 years. All we are saying is that they should not bother others who would want to open their businesses. PATEL’s motive is politically motivated. Those stores that will be closed today should remain closed forever. We will identify every store that will close today to ensure that they are not reopened.”
AS WE APPROACH the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, it is important for Liberians to think clearly and vote wisely. The good thing about democracy is that one does not have to deal with incompetence and arrogance. The power lies in the voters to decide whether they are happy with the status quo or whether they want to see a change.
THE BALLOT BOX is the perfect place to show your might and vent your frustration and anger. You can use the process wisely by settling for nothing less than what is rightfully yours – or continue having nightmares about the ghosts of April 14, 1979 or April 12, 1980. A Hint to the Wise!