Liberia: Weah Leaves Liberians’ Concerns Unanswered While Declaring State of Emergency to ‘Fight’ COVID-19


Monrovia – President George Weah’s declaration of the pending State of Emergency has sparked a mixture of reactions although a significant number of Liberians have reckoned that it is a bittersweet move to win the war against the invisible enemy – COVID-19.

Analysis by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]

However, the Liberian leader is still receiving some backlashes for not mentioning measures to address the “bread and butter” issues that might affect thousands of Liberians ahead of a 14-day lockdown.

Wednesday’s speech was the Liberian leader’s second since March 16 when the first case of the virus was confirmed in the country.

In that speech, the President sounded optimistic when he admonished Liberians to abide by the preventative measures while also announcing several steps including cancelling flights from countries with over 200 cases of the novel Coronavirus.

Twenty-three days later, it seemed those measures are futile in stopping the virus from ravaging a nation with an already broken health system. And as the President prepared his speech on Wednesday, rumors whirled that the country’s COVID-19 cases had more than doubled – jumping from 14 to 31 in less than two days.  

Then the President opted for a more robust measure, announcing a State of Emergency (SoE) to begin on Friday, 10 April.

“Under this State of Emergency, all 15 counties in the Republic of Liberia are hereby quarantined from 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 10, 2020, until further notice.  Movements between counties are strictly prohibited,” President Weah said.

“No person shall be permitted to enter or leave or in any way cross the borders of any county into any other county, except for Montserrado County and Margibi County which are quarantined as a single unit.”

Additionally, there will be restrictions on the movements between counties, with the President stressing that “all Liberians and residents within the borders of Montserrado County, Margibi County, Nimba County, and Grand Kru County are to stay home for the next 14 days”.

“We should all learn from the experience of Ebola. We all will have to give up certain freedoms for the time-being, until we can get through this. That is why we have found it necessary to declare this State of Emergency,” he added.

What is State of Emergency? 

Article 86 of the Liberian Constitution gives the President “Emergency Powers” including declaring state of emergency when “There is a threat or outbreak of war or where there is civil unrest affecting the existence, security and or well-being of the Republic amounting to a clear and present danger”.

Legally, during State of Emergencies “certain rights, freedoms and guarantees” of people as provided by the Constitution can be limited by the Executive. This is meant to “take care of the emergency” but should be done within the perimeters of the Constitution.  

For example, the Constitution specifically warns against suspending a citizen’s right to Habeas Corpus – a legal procedure to have a person brought before a court to enquire the lawfulness of that person’s detention – during a State of Emergency.

Meanwhile, beginning Friday, the President will have to count for seven days while lobbying with the legislature to approve his action. If the lawmakers reject the State of Emergency, it will automatically be squashed, as provided by Article 88 of the Constitution.

Technically, once the President is unable to convince the legislature about his action and how he intends to implement said move, they can either “revoke the State of Emergency or to modify the measures taken” by a two third majority vote of the joint session.  

According to Article 88, the President will then be compelled to “act accordingly and immediately carry out the decision of the Legislature”. Simply put, for the State of Emergency to last beyond seven days the Legislature must approve it.

Looming Hardship?

With the lockdown expected to restrict movements with preference to only limited “essential journeys for reasons of health and food”, some Liberians are already concerned that the situation may further exacerbate the existing hardship in shanty towns and slum communities –where people have no savings and live below a dollar per day.

President Weah has urged people to be “restricted to your local community only, and be limited to a single person per household for a maximum of one hour” to be outdoor to make essential purchase during the lockdown.  

Although the President provided scanty details, he said he has been working to “explore ways and means to help ease some of the economic challenges that this virus will cause to our country and people”.

He then remarked that the Ministry of Internal Affairs will lead engagements with marketing associations “to make satisfactory arrangements about the operation of markets” during the lockdown.

However, this only suggests a procedural process but not a move to provide incentives for marketers who are already being hit hard by the economic shock of the outbreak.

Some Liberians taking to social media following the speech blasted the President for not proffering a plan that would address the socioeconomic issues of the lockdown.

Others frowned on Mr. Weah for not stressing the urgency of salary payments to both the government and the private sector. This, some say, will allow people procure essential items to ensure they adhere to the “stay home” mandate and stop the spread of the contagion. 

Critics have often argued that enforcing an SoE without incentives to vulnerable communities would undercut public health efforts to curb the spread of the virus and at the same agitates social problems. The incident of West Point during the Ebola outbreak is precedential – when the community outrageously rejected quarantine.

Also, the recent demolition of market stalls at the Waterside Market downtown Monrovia and the dispersing of hawkers in the commercial district of Red Light in Paynesville as a means of enforcing the social distancing measures have already sparked outrage amongst marketers.

Now, with the 14 days lockdown expected to severely impact four of the 15 counties including the country’s commercial hub — Monrovia — this means economic activities across the country will be gravely strained.

Will the Legislature Answer the ‘Bread & Butter’ Question?

Meanwhile, Thursday, 9 April, will be a pretty busy day of politics at the Capitol. A joint session will review the President’s justification for the State of Emergency in accordance with Article 88 of the Constitution.

Already, some lawmakers have become hinting at a thorough review of the Chief Executive’s Constitutional request.

“State of Emergency — first step [is] done! Now, let’s take the lead in the Legislature to present plans for economic initiatives our people should not suffer,” wrote Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence of Grand Bassa County, who is the political leader of the opposition Liberty Party.

Considering the Constitutional provision as enshrined in Article 88, the Legislature now bears the greatest responsibility to consider or postulate any plan that would allay the apprehensions and anxieties of Liberians.

However, some observers predict that with the country already experiencing a shrinking economy, providing incentives for the population is far-fetched.

COVID-19 ‘Enters New Phase’

Meanwhile, as the pandemic poses renewed threat to Liberia evinced by the challenges sophisticated nations are already enduring, averting the spread of the virus has been touted as the best public health measures.

Liberia recorded its fourth death from the virus on Wednesday as the number of confirmed cases reached 31 with 24 active and there are also 10 suspected. Experts say Liberia’s health system risks being overwhelmed by the pandemic as the number grows.

President Weah, who told Liberians that he had “personally presided over many strategy and operational meetings”, has to be more meticulous in leading the response effort in the coming weeks.

“Although our health teams are working assiduously to complete the testing of scores of contacts, we have to recognize that the COVID-19 virus has now entered a new phase in our country, as we move from protection to containment,” said President Weah.

“The dynamics of our management of the disease have been significantly changed, and will require much stronger additional measures to delay the spreading of this highly infectious virus, and keep our public safe”.

However, as Mr. Weah and his team rallying the support of the nation to effectuate the new measures in order to cutoff the outbreak, observers say ignoring the lingering socioeconomic concerns of many Liberians would be detrimental to the fightinh against an unseen enemy.