Liberia @ 171: Times Have Changed But Things Pretty Much Remaining The Same


Dear Readers:

For as long as I can remember, Liberia has always been a nation of contradictions. Sad but true. We cried, wailed and pouted when the True Whig Party(formerly the Liberia Whig Party) ruled Liberia for more than a century; we rooted and looted on April 14, 1979 when a band of progressives inspired a rice riots that marked the beginning of our nation’s problems.

By Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

A year later, on April 12, 1980, we took to the streets to cheer and celebrate the fall of the first republic when an unknown soldier Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and a band of misfits ended decades of so-called Americo-Liberian rule. “Country woman Born Soldier, Congau Woman Born Rogue”, became the chant of the day trumpeting the dawn of a new Liberia – or so it seemed at the time.

Until the riots of 1979 and the coup a year later, Liberia was regarded as one of the most peaceful and progressive African nations riding on the wings of its status as Africa’s oldest republic.

For much of the mid 1970s, the country was on a high in the eyes of the world ranking second to Japan in income and growth. Ironically, today, the country is ranked by the World Bank as among the very poorest. Domestically, many were becoming impatient with the one-party system and dictatorial tendencies of the leaders of the day which gave rise to dissenting voices.

International stakeholders and partners have been consistent in their belief that the post-war nation must maintain peace and stability to ensure the protection of human rights for its citizens and a better way of life for those repeatedly finding themselves languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder.

From Tubman to Now: Things Still the Same

Challenges have been enormous amid declining world prices for key exports like iron ore and natural rubber appears to be resurrecting tales of the 1960s when many endured economic hardships.

A brutal and deadly civil war that claimed the lives of thousands, sent scores into exile was preceded by a period of grave disenchantment and dissatisfaction with the way things were.

The reign of William V.S. Tubman who ruled for twenty seven unbroken years is remembered for attracting foreign investment to modernize the economy and infrastructure. His national unification policy established in a bid to reduce the social and political differences between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous Liberians was commendable but often criticized over its lack of implementation.

Tubman trumpeted a policy in which he expressed a commitment to the concept of a free enterprise system, democracy, and a pragmatic search for solutions to problems of multinational existence. “We envisage a synthesis composed of individual states retaining their own way of life, but united by mutual exchanges of peoples, goods and ideas, by pacts of non-aggression, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and of perpetual peace.”

In reality, the cigar-smoking, yacht owner’s reign was marred by numerous complication and contradictions. Journalists were arrested, jailed and sent to prison for publishing editorials against the President and his True Whig Party.

My late uncle, Albert Porte, in one of his famous letters to the President boldly told Tubman on August 25, 1951 that the citizens Tubman ruled did not feel free to express themselves upon vital questions affecting them, but sit by and grumble “the people don’t mean anything”. “I am afraid that even in the Legislature there is a great reluctance if not the absence of the free expression of thoughts and opinion, especially where the President is concerned. To tell the truth, it has required a huge effort on my part to have expressed my thought here. So I have no justification in condemning the reluctance in others. This only brings to face to face with great responsibility weighing so heavily upon the President, which could be lightened if the people felt free to express themselves and their views were taken in the right spirit.”

During the reign of William R. Tolbert who succeeded Tubman following his death in a London clinic on July 1971, his brother Stephen Tolbert, who was minister of finance at the time, came under fire from Porte who accused him of using political office to advance his considerable business interests.

Porte slammed the President’s brother who was a co-founder of the first Liberian-owned multimillion-dollar conglomerate, the Mesurado Group of Companies for using his public office stature to advance his business interests, penning a piece called “Liberianization of Gobbling Business?”

Minister Tolbert filed a libel lawsuit and won a US$250,000 judgment against Porte in a case presided over by Supreme Court Justice James A. A. Pierre, the father-in-law of Minister Tolbert. The resulting public outrage led to the creation of what is considered Liberia’s first civil society organization, Citizens of Liberia in Defense of Albert Porte (COLIDAP).

Tolbert’s reign would come to an end, on April 12, 1980. He was brutally murdered in a violent and bloody coup d’etat.

‘God is Tired’

Dr. Fred P.M. Van Der Kraaij, a Dutch economist, author and historian once recalled the radio broadcast that ushered in the Doe-led coup. ‘God is tired. After 133 years the enlisted men of the Liberian Army led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe have toppled the Government because of rampant corruption and continuous failure to effectively handle the affairs of the Liberian people. No plane is allowed to come in. No plane is allowed to go out.’

Successive interim governments followed by the reign of Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and now George Manneh Weah have seen and are seeing similarities of old. Refrains of suppression of the press, jailing of students’ activists, censorship of perceived critics and multiple attacks on critics by supporters of the government of the day.

This week, one month to the anniversary of the 1984 order by late President Doe for troops to storm the University of Liberia, the country is witnessing a familiar refrain.

The Student Unification Party(SUP) in a statement this week called on the African Union, ECOWAS, US Embassy, United Nations, European Union, MRU, and all pro-democratic groups to consolidate the gains made so far by dealing with the signs and symptoms of early dictatorship under President Weah.”

The statement follows the arrest of several university students by the Liberia National Police.

The leadership of the student body have pointed accusing fingers at Mr. Jefferson Koijee, Mayor of Monrovia and Patrick Sudue, Inspector General of the LNP, for orchestrating the action against their colleagues.

In August 1984, following a similar incident in which soldiers stripped, raped and flogged students. At the time, Justice Minister Jenkins Z.B. Scott, told a press conference at the Liberian embassy in Washington that police resources were ” limited to a handful of soldiers who are ill-equipped to handle civil uprisings.” The minister said: “Individuals were disrobed. There were some rapes. There were some floggings with whips.”

Today, Africa’s oldest republic remain widely engulfed in a sea of contradictions. Despite the submission by the current President George Manneh Weah of a bill to the National Legislature with modifications, to repeal some sections of the Penal Law of Liberia in an effort to decriminalize free speech and create an unfettered media environment, many of his supporters have taken to social media to issue threats against critics of the government.

Defending Weah with ‘Blood, Sweat, Tears’

Lester Tenny, recently appointed as Vice President for Technical Services at the National Oil Company of Liberia recently took to Facebook against critics of the President, declaring: “Do not take our tolerance to be a sign of weakness. We are capable of striking and striking decisively. We will protect our regime and President. A warning to Yekeh Kolubah.”

Kolubah(Montserrado County District #10)is one of a handful of lawmakers who have been advocating for the President to declare his assets and who has gone on record of declaring that he will boycott this year’s celebrations.

Kolubah has already submitted a letter to the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives, notifying the office of his decision to stay away from official functions presided over by President Weah because he says the President has failed to declare his assets as provided for by law but is instead moving on with multiple private projects, including the demolition and reconstruction of his property on 9th Street in just five months of his Presidency. “Until the President can stop building his houses and establishing other [private] businesses, I will not attend any event he is a part of. In fact if only I get the support, I will stand firm to ensure that he is impeached. He has to be impeached, not an Associate Justice in person of Kabina Ja’neh,” the lawmaker said.

Rep. Koubah is just one of many critics of the current government, Mr. Tenny has directed his rants to in recent weeks. In another recent post, Mr. Tenny wrote: Liberia must rise under President George M. Weah. We waited 12 years for this moment. We will protect it for 12 years with our blood, tears and sweat.”

This week, the ruling party’s chair Mulbah Morlue retirated a theme which has been repeated by the party’s hierarchy including the vice president Jewel Howard Taylor that “Those who will join the CDC will enjoy the party; but those who will not join the CDC, the party will fight you. Even if you are my brother, once you are not a member of this party, you are in the firing line; we will fight you. We will deconstruct your ability every day until you join the CDC,” the chairman warned.

What is apparently evident is that a lot of those around the President lack understanding of the significance of the free speech bill which 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.

President Weah himself sounded a  caveat when he informed members of the national legislature that 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 said.

This week, the journalist watchdog group, Reporters Without Border, in a six-month assessment of the Weah-led government urged to do more to advance press freedom. RSF wrote: “The modifications to the penal code are essential in order to improve the legislative framework for Liberia’s media and journalists,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “But we urge President Weah to go further, above all by systematically condemning all verbal attacks and arbitrary arrests of journalists in his country.”

The RSF cited the first six months of the Weah presidency which have been marked by a series of verbal attacks on journalists. Weah himself attacked BBC correspondent Jonathan Paye-Layleh at a news conference on March 22, accusing the reporter of being “against” him when he, Weah, was fighting for human rights during the civil war.

Additionally, the entire staff of the daily Frontpage Africa were briefly arrested and questioned by a court in connection with an announcement published in the newspaper that had criticized persons close to the ruling party. The Deputy Minister of Information, Eugene Fahngon was on record a few days before that, stating that he hoped “the media in Liberia will remain poor or broke for the next 12 years.”

The actions since January clearly contradicts the President’s inaugural address in which he offered hope of a new era for the media by promising to reinforce freedom of expression. This is why RSF has urged the President to keep the promises of the election campaign and guarantee press freedom, and media pluralism so as to allow for balanced news coverage on public interest issues. The watchdog group is also urging the President to condemn every verbal threats, acts of intimidation and groundless accusations toward journalists, especially from political officials as it seriously undermines the environment in which journalists are working.

As Liberia turn 171, many are hopeful that better days are ahead and while many of those supporting the current government have taken to social media and talk radio to profess their love of God and praying that he will ensure that success, it appears many, including President Weah are unwilling or probably not ready to do what is required to succeed.

Energy Sector in Jeopardy

Just last week, several of the country’s key international partners, led by US ambassador Christine Elder, co-signed by the Ambassadors of Norway, United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, European Union and the Country Director of World Bank in Liberia, penned a letter to the administration raising concerns about the government’s new energy proposal with the Turkish company, Karpower which could plunge the country’s emerging energy sector into jeopardy.

FrontPageAfrica had previously reported that Karpower operates a floating power plant, which according to the deal with Liberia would sell electricity to Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) for onward distribution to customers. Under the proposed controversial plan with a 10-year contract stipulation, Liberia would be buying power from Karpower even though it already has an absorptive capacity of only 24 percent of current installed capacity at Bushrod Island and Mt. Coffee Hydro facility.

International partners have invested more than US$825 million in the country’s electricity sector to support the government’s efforts at the Mt. Coffee Hydropower Plant, in transmission and distribution of power, training at the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), sound administration of the utility, and the completion of the CLSG network.

The stakeholders wrote: “In light of the stakes, we note with great concern that LEC faces substantial financial and managerial challenges which risk the sustainability of the Mt. Coffee Hydropower Plant, as well as the success of other initiatives and opportunities in the energy sector.”

The stakeholders are concerned that the failure of the Government of Liberia (LEC’s largest customer) to settle its utility bills much needed to fund LEC’s basic operations, such as connecting customers and servicing; high commercial losses for LEC that nullify rewards of lower cost energy generated by Mt. Coffee.

Similarly, the government has ignored numerous calls about its push for two controversial loan deals with a lot of red flags and question marks.

Liberia has come a long way and still has a lot more ways to go. But somehow it appears that the current leadership is convince beyond all reasonable doubt that there those who criticize are against its interest and do not want it to succeed.

This was evident last Sunday when  the President spoke at the Centennial Pavilion during the Thanksgiving and Intercessory Service in observance of the 171st Independence.

President Weah declared that Liberia, irrespective of the varying level of pessimisms harbor by some Liberians, will not fail with God being in control of its destiny. The President went on to urged Liberians “To have faith, trust and believe God and stop being negative about the country: adding it is the only responsibility required of Liberians during this time of national celebration of the 171st independence.

President Weah wondered why Liberians would profess to trust God but yet confess doubt and negativity about the direction of the country. “Let’s be optimistic; you cannot say you trust God and still have doubt. Let’s have faith and believe that everything will be okay,” the President said.

The Liberia leader said he strongly believes that it was high time Liberians bind their faith together because “together the nation cannot fail.”

Clergy Labels Critics as Unpatriotic

Sadly, some members of the clergy agree with the President that some Liberians are against the government succeeding. One of those, Archbishop Isaac Winker of the Dominion Church urged Liberians to develop passion for nation building and come together because it was time to build the country, going as far as to suggest that those critical of the government are not “patriots”.  “There is no prosperity without patriotism,” he emphasized and noted that Liberians do not show patriotism for the country.

Sheik Rashid A. Sheriff who delivered the sermon and called on Liberians to unite, give the government a chance, and also desist from negative criticisms.

The truth of the matter is that the very things President Weah and those members of the clergy are now calling ‘negative’ criticisms’ were highlighted in previous governments by some very powerful members of the clergy including the late Rev. Dr. Walter Richards, Archbishop Michael K. Francis. Rev. E. Tumu Reeves and Mother Wilhemina Dukuly who spoke truth to power when a nation needed them the most.

The sermons of Rev. Richards, former pastor of Brewerville’s Salem Baptist Church and Clay Ashland’s First Baptist Church often incurred the wrath of the Samuel Doe government. When soldiers loyal to Doe entered the Richards family’s native Clay Ashland one afternoon in June, 1990, they went looking for Rev. Walter Richards, but mistook his brother, the eminent Liberian sculptor R. Vanjah Richards for Pastor Richards. The soldiers arrested R. Vanjah, beheaded him and threw his body into the Po River on the Bomi Hills highway.

Equally, late Archbishop Francis was fearless in trumpeting gross disregard for human rights under both Doe and Taylor governments. During the height of the civil war, he questioned the delay in response of the US in helping to stop the bloodshed in Liberia, and took the US to task for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses by Doe.

Bishop Francis defied threats and voiced Liberian citizens’ longings for peace and for greater respect of human rights. Under his watch, the Catholic Church also organized a nationwide reporting system on abuses and broadcast findings via a church radio station until it was destroyed.

Liberia is today at a major crossroad. Following the completion of its transition from war to peace and a successful transfer of power, many remain unsure about the direction the country is heading.

What appears to be evident is that those surrounding the presidency are taking a page from Liberia’s ugly past in a bid to tread the sycophancy line that has been the key ingredient for the downfall of many leaders before.

Not a week goes by these day without something being named after President Weah. From Weah for Clean City to Weah for Road Safety, to a Weah Park and a stamp being named in his honor.

Yesterday, those around the likes of Doe, Taylor, Tubman and Tolbert were pushing similar lines, neglecting the core truth that these are the early signs that breed dictatorships.

Today, we live in an era where lawmakers are being celebrated for joining the ruling party, just as it was done yesterday and everyone around the emperor afraid to tell him he has no clothes. We live in an era where each and every Liberian owe it to its past to correct the present and save the future.

The guns of war have been silent and replace by a period of peace.

Contrary to what President Weah and those around him believe, no one wants to see the government fail because its failure means we all have failed.

Are Liberians ‘Better Off’?

This is why each and every one of us must work toward pointing out the wrongs against the people and the ills of yesterday which is popping up again.

In April this year, Dr. Van Der Kraaij asked: “Are Liberians nowadays better off than in the 1970s? Thirty-four years after the military coup that shocked the world – remember the Monrovia South Beach execution of 13 Americo-Liberian ‘big shots’ as important people are called in Liberia: former ministers of the slain President Tolbert and top officials of the once powerful True Whig Party – 34 years after that historic day of April 12, 1980, I still struggle with that question.”

Like Dr. Van Der Kraaij, many Liberians are wondering the same.

After all, this is a nation of contradictions. The nation that celebrated when President Edward James Roye became President in 1870 but turn on him when he was deposed the following year in the first coup d’état and died a mysterious death in Monrovia in early 1872.

This is the same nation that celebrated on April 12, 1980 when Doe and his peers overthrew Tolbert and killed thirteen members of his government under the guise of cleansing Liberian of rampant corruption.

This is also the same nation that five years later on November 12, 1985, celebrated when General Thomas Quiwonkpa led an invasion to oust Liberia of Samuel Doe but quickly retreated their joys when Quiwonkpa was captured and killed.

This is also the same nation that celebrated on the Christmas Eve of December 1989 when Charles Taylor and his rebels invaded Liberia and cheered him on even though scores of their people were being slaughtered along the way to rid Liberia of Doe.

This is sadly, the same nation that turned on one of its finest sons, the football legend George Manneh Weah when he was in striking distance of leading his country to its first world cup only to see it slip away. Weah would endure insults to his mother and eventually quit the national team. “I would not like anybody to insult my mother,’ Weah said. ‘For that reason, I will never be part of the Liberian team. I am going to leave Liberia and go to the (United) States and live my life,’ he said.

After 171 years of independence, Liberia is sadly, still classified among the undeveloped countries of the world. Are we better off since 1847? Are we better off since April 14, 1979? Since April 12, 1980? Since December 1989? Are we better off since January 2006? Are we ever going to be? This is the question I hope our generation can find the time to answer and the courage to tackle. But first we must all discourage the sycophancy curse that is hurting our country, we must desire the best not just for our leaders but for those lingering in abject poverty with no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel. We must desire the best for our country and allow all to express themselves freely without fear or favor. After all, too many died for the peace we enjoyed today. Too many lost their lives for free speech, for human rights and human dignity. Having a different opinion from our leaders is not a sin, and never was. Times they are a changing and will continue to change. It is how we reinvent the wheels that will determine our destiny and the future of generations yet unborn.

Let’s Make the 26 a Happy Independence in spite of the odds, the lingering clouds of uncertainty and recurring circle of impunity hoovering over our country.

The Editor