Liberia: Pres. Weah Attack on Critics Dents Possibility of Decriminalizing Speech
Monrovia – Shortly after completing his transformation from a military ruler to a ‘democratically-elected’ leader, President Samuel Kanyon Doe surprisingly survived a rebel invasion led by Major General Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former colleague with whom he had, only five years earlier, on April 12, 1980 collaborated with, in the toppling of the regime of President William R. Tolbert.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Doe, in the aftermath of the November 12, 1985 invasion faced the turbulent task of convincing Washington and other international stakeholders who had been generous with millions of dollars in aid that he was willing to forgive those who had tried to overthrow his government in a bid to continue to path along the road to democracy.
‘New Doe’ Sought to Reconciled ‘Enemies’
For Doe, the pitch was simple: Assure Washington that he was willing to forgive his political “enemies” or stare down “the risk of further economic depression, dislocation and possible collapse.”
The Washington Post wrote: “The “new” Doe — whose titles since 1980 include Master Sergeant Doe, General Doe, Commander-in-Chief Dr. Doe, and now His Excellency the President Dr. Doe — has admitted that his policy failures have pushed Liberia into a precarious economic position.”
Doe, according to the Post acknowledged in a self-critical speech that year, that a “major source of our problems” is that Liberia’s government spends more than it earns and that “financial discipline continues to elude us.”
The Post reported: “The speech acknowledged that Doe’s government routinely had spent money without accounting for where it went, and that his ministries had subsidized their profligacy by dipping into the earnings of public corporations. He asked the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Community to send money managers to Liberia to supervise tax collection and government spending.”
‘Enemies’ Permeated Tubman, Tolbert Reigns
Liberia which enjoys the enviable recognition as Africa’s oldest republic has always been plagued with leaders obsessed with what used to be imaginary “enemies”, interpreted these days as critics of government usually labeled as personas with axes to grind.
President William V.S. Tubman who led Liberia for 27 years was loved by many and equally hated by others. Some of his critics saw him as oppressive at times while others took him to task amid accusations that he was often entangled in deals that put the country at the mercy of foreigners.
Veteran journalists and critics of the day, Albert Porte, Tuan Wreh, Robert W. Clower and Gus J. Liebenow did not hold back in taking Tubman to task over what many agreed were some bad policies and practices at the time.
In March 1980, Tolbert who succeeded Tubman after his death in a London hospital; would leave a legacy of jailing critics and protesters of his government’s policies on rice leading to the April 14, 1980 rice riots. Tolbert ordered the banning of the Progressive Alliance of Liberia(PAL); and had Gabriel Bacchus Matthews and the rest of the organization’s leadership arrested on charges of treason.
The progressives who had been critical of Tolbert took the administration of the day to task 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. 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.
Criticisms of governments have long been a major part of Liberia’s history. Historians and political observers agree that while those labeled “enemies” have been instrumental in holding governments’ feet to the fire, they have also forced the likes of Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, Sirleaf – and now Weah – to face the realities of the day. A New Threat Could Derail Passage of Bill Submitted to the National Legislature
PAL called for a peaceful demonstration in Monrovia to protest the proposed price increase and on April 14 about 2,000 activists began what was planned as a peaceful march on the Executive Mansion. The protest march swelled dramatically when the protesters were joined en route by more than 10,000 “back street boys,” causing the march to quickly degenerate into a disorderly mob of riot and destruction.
What followed was widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million.
A year later, Tolbert fell prey to a bloody coup led by Doe. Thirteen members of his government were tied to light poles and shot to death.
By the time Doe came around, the iron fist of a military dictatorship instilled so much fear that it laid the premise of an ugly period of coup attempts climaxing with a brutal civil war that would force Liberia into unchartered territory – the killing of thousands and flight of scores of others into exile.
Even in the aftermath of Doe and the arrival of Charles Taylor, Liberia struggled to find peace. A period of uncertainty and the emergence of another dictator in Taylor continued a trend where critics were viewed as “enemies” and often locked up without due process of the law.
EJS’s ‘Enemies’: ‘Noisy Minority’
When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf came on the scene in January 2006, she was quick to assure Liberians that her administration would commit itself to the creation of a democracy in which the constitutional and civil liberties and rights of all people would be respected.
Sirleaf would kick off her second term with renewed hope of ensuring that her administration acted swiftly to get the laws that prohibit free expression and free speech amended, emphasizing that free press and free expression in any society promotes democracy.
On July 20, 2017, Sirleaf submitted a bill to parliament to decriminalize press offenses, in particular, libel.
The bill entitled “An Act to Amend the Liberian Codes Revised, Penal Law of 1978”, was expected to be passed before last October general elections after a strong realization for Sirleaf that: “These sections of the law have been bottlenecks to the practice of journalism and free speech in the country over the years. Public officials have taken advantage of these sections to threaten people involved in free speech”.
The elections of 2017 with the national legislature failing to legalize the bill.
Last week, Sirleaf’s successor, President George Manneh Weah, resubmitted the bill to the National Legislature with modifications to be named the Kamara Abdullai Kamara Act of Press Freedom, in honor of the late former Press Union of Liberia President, to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered media environment.
The Bill submitted May 31, 2018 seeks to amend Chapter 11 of Penal Law of 1978, repealing Sections 11.11 on criminal libel against the President; 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on criminal malevolence.
In submitting the bill, the President stated: “Honorable Speaker, Chapter 111, Article 15 of the Constitution provides for Freedom of Speech and expression and a caveat of an abuse thereof. Additionally, Liberia is a signatory to the Table Mountain Declaration which demands that African countries abolish insult and criminal defamation law.”
The President also reminded the National Legislature of the legal instruments on press freedom Liberia established, such as the Freedom of Information Law (FOI) and the Independent Information Commission.
CDC Biting ‘Free-Speech’ Hand That Gave Power
According to President Weah, “Liberia, in anticipation of fully adhering to these legal instruments; enacted the Freedom of Information Law and established the Freedom of Information Commission. However, there appears to be challenges in the full implementation of these as Section 11.11: Criminal Libel against the President; Section 11.12: Sedition; and Section 11.14: Criminal Malevolence of the Penal Laws of Liberia tends to impede freedom of speech and expression and acts committed thereof are considered to be criminal.”
President Weah made it clear that the action as a proof of his government’s commitment to uphold the constitution, Table Mountain Declaration and other International Treaties relating to the Press and press-related activities.
The President’s action was a follow-up to his inauguration speech back in January when he declared that his administration owes Liberians clarity on fundamental issues such as the land beneath their feet, freedom of speech, and how national resources and responsibilities are going to shift from this capital to the counties. “The people expect better cooperation and more action from their government. We can do better, together,” he said.
The president was quick to remind Liberians that his government would not have arrived at the presidency without the voices of its partisans being heard loudly. “And all our views, no matter how critical, being freely expressed in an atmosphere void of intimidation and arrest. This was only made possible by the tolerance of my predecessor, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who protected the right to Freedom of Speech as enshrined in our Constitution. Now, in my turn, I will go further to encourage and reinforce not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of political assembly.”
While Liberia is one of the few countries in Africa to have passed the Freedom of Information Act in 2010, passage of a major law to address attack on free speech has been elusive.
The country is signatory to the African Platform on Access to Information in 2011, which reaffirms the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic African Press.
Weah’s ‘Enemies of State’
Less than a week after President Weah received praise for resubmitting the bill, a monkey-wrench has been thrown on the bill that eluded his predecessor.
Speaking in Gbarnga at the weekend, President Weah resurrected the “Enemies of State” label that haunted his predecessors, Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Taylor and Sirleaf.
Sirleaf, who endured numerous criticisms from Weah’s CDC described her enemies as “The Noisy Minority”
Bombarded by criticisms over two loans totaling nearly one billion dollars and clear breach of the country’s code of conduct and conflict of interests – particularly regarding the offering of a road construction contract to a Burkinabe businessman the President describes as a friend whose plane he uses for presidential travel, Mr. Weah offered perhaps the strongest attack on those he views as his enemies, the ones highly critical of the two controversial loans.
‘Freedom Fighters’ Hint at ‘Dictatorship’
Said President Weah: “My people, don’t listen to those criticizing for lobbying for loans,” he told a crowd in Gbarnga at the weekend. “Those doing so are enemies of the country. The loans I am taking will be able to complete the roads in three years. When I am asking partners for loans, any of them who tell me that they want complete the roads in six years, I can say no because I know in the next six years, if I don’t do anything for you, I will not be re-elected”.
The President’s labeling of critics as “enemies of the state” is already rattling the cages of his supporters, some of whom have taken to the social medium Facebook to point out perceived “enemies” of the president for targeting and threats.
One of those bearing the brunt of the targeting is the Economic Freedom Fighters of Liberia.
Emmanuel Gonquoi, the organization’s Commander in Chief, speaking to FrontPageAfrica Tuesday was caught off guard by the President’s labeling of his critics: “That statement represents a statement that comes only from a dictator, because there’s no reason why in a civilized democracy the President would say those who are criticizing him are enemies of the state. People should be able to critique your agenda as to whether it matches the realities of the day. Take it from me, the way in which the country is proceeding, in about six years at the time the loan is matured, we’ll have a government shutdown.”
Criticism of governments have long been a major part of Liberia’s history. Historians and political observers agree that while those labeled “enemies” have been instrumental in holding governments’ feet to the fire, they have also forced the likes of Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Taylor and Sirleaf to face the realities of the day.
Many are beginning to feel that the re-emergence of some controversial figures from the Doe and Taylor eras, particularly Mr. Emmanuel Shaw and Mr. Charles Bright may be having a key factor in President Weah’s pattern of governance so far.
Ironically, Doe’s acknowledgement of an age-old problem – the lack of accountability and transparency remains visible today with many critics unsure about the source of the nearly one billion dollars and the obvious breach of the laws of the land. Criticisms of the Weah administration’s entanglement in what many bystanders believe are a couple of shady loan arrangements – and more expected, bordering money laundering and disregard of integrity institutions could spell problems for the foreseeable future, particularly for so-called ‘enemies’ waiting in the wings to dissect and scrutinize every move.
Doe’s acknowledgement of an age-old problem – the lack of accountability and transparency remains visible today with many critics unsure about the source of the nearly one billion dollars and the obvious breach of the laws of the land. Criticisms of the Weah administration’s entanglement in what many bystanders believe are a couple of shady loan arrangements – and more expected, bordering money laundering and disregard of integrity institutions could spell problems for the foreseeable future, particularly for so-called ‘enemies’ waiting in the wings to dissect and scrutinize every move.