Liberia: The Ghost of April 14, 1979 Laid to Rest With Non-Violent Save-the-State Protest
Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Monrovia – In the days leading to the much-anticipated Save-the-State Protest in the Liberian capital, there were a lot of concerns regarding Liberia’s painful past, in particular, the riots of April 14, 1979, that pretty much marked the beginning of much of what Liberia is going through today.
The United Nations, the African Union and the regional West African body, ECOWAS all took turns urging Liberians to be peaceful, calm and not engage in any form of violence that could derail the gains made over the past decade.
Then on the eve of the protest, Liberia’s international partners made a strong appeal to both the government and the Council of Patriots to reduce tensions and maintain focus on addressing the development goals of the nation. “We also encourage protesters and security forces to exercise utmost restraint and avoid any form of violence to ensure a peaceful assembly. We underscore the need to the ensure accountability for any violations that may occur during the event,” the group of 13 international partners stated in joint statement.
Jitters & Nerves on Protest’s Eve
Going down to the wire, the government itself did not make things easy. Last Wednesday, an early morning assault on the home of Rep. Yekeh Korlubah over suspicions that his guards had beaten up an intruder was followed by strong presence of security forces in the city and the setting up of checkpoints in various parts of the city.
The University of Liberia, the nation’s highest institution of learning was also the scene of intense presence of officer of the Emergency Rescue Unit of the Liberia National Police(ERU), who besieged the student community where supporters of Carlos T. Edison, Chairman of the Student Unification Party (SUP) were protesting his arrest.
Police sprayed teargas in a bit to deter protesting students who set up road blocks against news about the arrest of the Edison.
Not since September 1984, when Liberian soldiers under the command of then dictator Samuel Doe, stripped, raped and flogged students while breaking up a protest at the university, has Liberia witnessed such presence of brute force although this time there were no rapes, floggings with whips but only teargas and arrests.
In vintage fashion, then Minister Jenkins K.Z.B. Scott charged: “The road to democracy is a rocky road” and that his country cannot establish a democracy “if the people are not prepared to be civil.”
That was before Doe traded his military attire for the civilian suit.
Thus, the similarities echoing in the background of the build-up to June 7 offered what Mr. Benoni Urey, head of the alliance of opposition party, described as a doomsday scenario. “This is the doomsday scenario that this government wants, we must not play into their hands. They want to create a scenario where people will get confused again and they will not come out for this protest,” said the opposition leader.
For a moment, it appeared Liberia was heading down a familiar road once more, one often traveled when issues of dissent arises in a nation that has been victimized, bruised and bloodied by corruption, greed, multiple coup d’etat and a brutal civil war that forced a generation of Liberians into exile while countless went to their unexpected deaths as a result of a senseless casualty of war.
Riots and the Ghost
One such journey which still evokes painful memory was the rice riots of April 14, 1979. Until that moment in Liberia’s history, the oldest country in Africa was riding a high, seeing its economy growing an astronomical level from an annual rate of about 2 percent in 1961 to its highest rate of 7.3 percent in 1966 due to the rapid rate of economic expansion in Liberia during 1950s and 1960s.
How will the government proceed from here? How far are the COP and the protesters willing to go? The way forward could test the resolve and tolerance levels for both in the backdrop that Liberia’s rugged history has come full circle, minus the ricocheting violent-tune of the ghostly April stigma, still stroking the fears of the unknown.
Dr. Louis P. Beleky, a Fulbright Professor of Economics at the College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Liberia and a former member of the Economics Faculty of the C.W. Post Center of Long Island University in New York, wrote of Liberia in 1971: “Unlike many other African countries, Liberia is endowed with an impressive capacity for rapid economic development. Not only are her natural resources rich enough to finance this, but in relation to her population they are indeed, capable of ensuring unimpeded growth in her output per capita.”
Then came the riots of April 1979.
Then Minister Florence Chenoweth had proposed an increase in the subsidized price of rice from $22 per 100-pound bag to $26. At the time, the agriculture minister 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.
The Progressive Alliance of Liberia(PAL) at the time called for a peaceful demonstration to protest the proposed price increase and on April 14 about some 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.
The day was marred by widespread looting of retail stores and rice warehouses ensued with damage to private property estimated to have exceeded $40 million. The government called in troops to reinforce police units in the capital, who were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the rioters. In 12 hours of violence in the city’s streets, at least 40 civilians were killed, and more than 500 were injured. Hundreds more were arrested.
Tolbert’s Unforgettable Stain
President Tolbert never recovered after that. In fact, his credibility was severely damaged.
A month after the riots, the former President, characterizing the leaders of the demonstration as “wicked, evil and satanic men” who wanted “to bring chaos and disorder in the country with the eventual objective of overthrowing the Government,” told the New York Times in May 1980 in an interview, that the rice issue was merely an alibi, put forth by men “whose principal idea is to change our system of government” and leaving the regime no alternative but to assert its authority.
It was the first time, according to the Times that President Tolbert acknowledged that he had authorized the security forces to fire into the crowds.
In fact, Peter Naigow, who was Deputy Minister of Information at the time, was quoted by the Times as saying that “April 14” triggered a period of national soul‐searching, debate and discussion. “It’s a free‐for‐all. It really opened things up. You can say anything now.”
Exactly one year later, Tolbert’s reign came to an end, He was killed on the night of April 12, 1980 in a bloody coup and eleven days later, thirteen members of his Cabinet were executed in cold blood after being tried by a Kangaroo military court.
The fears surrounding the June 7, 2019 Save-the-State protest, were to some extent understandable. Echoes of violence and memories of war put many of today’s younger generation of leaders on edge. The tide had now turned for the current ruling party which came under fire for lacking tolerance and failing to allow those with dissenting ideas to express them in the same vein they did in the past decade against former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
In the build-up to June 7, many were unsure what to expect. A sense of insecurity on the part of the government resulted into some extreme measures, some say kept some Liberians away from participating in the protest. Some areas reported incidents where those on their way to the protest were being asked for identification cards while many others were subjected to traffic stops manned by armed police and security officers.
A Mom, a Daughter & the Deadlock
At the Vamoma Junction Checkpoint in Sinkor, Marie Worjloh was escorting her mother Martha to the gathering of the protesters when they were asked to get out of the car as officers checked the back of the mini transportation bus that had picked them up from the busy Red-Light District.
“My mother and I sell frozen chicken and fish in the market to support our family, Martha told FrontPageAfrica. Forcing her to get down from the back of the bus is not good but it will not stop us… we are going to make our voices heard.”
Martha laments business these days are hard. With the US exchange rate close to 200-1 now, she says, they cannot even afford to buy goods to sell. “The importers asking us to buy in US, we have to use our LD to buy – and it is killing us. This is why I am hoping that the President can hear us today.”
For Martha and scores of other Liberians who braved the challenges to show up, June 7 should have marked a turning point – and while it did generate local and international attention, the uncertainty over the climax may have prolonged their suffering as the day to save the state ended in a deadlock.
Despite a presidential warning a day earlier that the day was not a holiday and everyone should stay home, Monrovia was a ghost town Friday, schools were closed, most businesses on the principal streets of downtown Monrovia were closed. Not in defiance of President Weah, but for those who were around on April 14, 1979 can recalled the mass looting and chaos which went on forty years ago when the riots took place. No one wanted to lose this time around and did their best not to throw caution to the wind.
Social Media Clampdown
Netblocks, an independent and non-partisan civil society group working at the intersection of digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance, striving for an open and inclusive digital future for all, confirmed a FrontPageAfrica report early in the day that the government had blocked social media activity. “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and messaging app WhatsApp have been blocked by internet providers in Liberia as of Friday 7 June 2019, according to real-time network measurement data from the NetBlocks internet observatory,” the organization reported. Both networks, Lonestar cell and Orange were cited.
Mr. Lenn Eugene Nagbe, Minister of Information confirmed to CNN that social media platforms were shut down temporarily because of “security concerns.” “We have restored some of them,” he said. “We are not saying that the protesters were carrying out things detrimental to the nation, but the national security apparatus said there were threats to the country and the services were temporarily disrupted and have been restored.”
At the end of day Friday, no petition was presented to the President or a member of his government as the day ended on an uncertain note.
The Council of Patriot(COP), organizers of the protest had hoped to present their concerns to President Weah to climaxed the day. On the eve of the day however, the administration in a bid to dismiss reports that the President did not tell the visiting ECOWAS delegation President Jean Claude Kassi Brou that his Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor was quietly supporting the protest announced through Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe, that the second in command would be receiving the petition.
On Friday however, the VP was nowhere to be found. Some reports said she was ill while others said she did not feel comfortable to receive a petition after being accused of behind the protest, fearing that some of the President’s supporters may misinterpret her presence there and draw sinister conclusions about her motives.
So, after flirting with the idea of embattled Speaker Bhophal Chambers and Senate Pro Temp Albert Chie- both rejected by COP and the thousands in the square of protesters, Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean, Foreign Affairs Minister Gbehzhongar M. Findley, Minister of State without Portfolio, Trokon A. Kpui, Representative Edwin Snowe, who is also an ECOWAS Parliamentarian and the ECOWAS Ambassador to Liberia, Amb. Babatunde Ajisomo, and the President’s legal advisor Archibald F. Bernard showed up to receive the petition.
In the end, it all came back to the issue of students and the University of Liberia. Organizers demanded the release from police detention, their compatriots who arrested last week for their alleged involvement in a riot on the UL campus. The protesters contended that their compatriots had been in police detention for more than 48 hours and must therefore, be released before the petition can be presented.
The delegation dispatched by the President and COP failed to find common ground on the issue, ending the day in a deadlock.
Police, Protesters Hold Nerves
Forty Years after the riots of ’79, Liberians are taking solace in the fact that not a single blood was shed, no rocks were thrown and no one ended in the hospital or the morgue. “Today the people won and once again they demonstrated, as they did during the “bring back our money ” campaign that civility is possible,” says George Gyude Wisner, a former Executive Director of the National Investment Commission, who hailed the COP for holding their nerves. “I hope those naysayers who thought that the sky would have fallen because citizens wanted to petition their government can learn some valuable lessons.”
Koiwu Alexander Ballah Zubayea, writing in the Punch FM chatroom Friday agreed: “Today, we were a part of history-making. The perceptions of the parochial vermin in the ruling party establishment and all of our naysayers were not fruitful. They anticipated us to return to the broken legs or skins peeled but however, their diabolical and evils were not achieved. Posterity will judge us tomorrow.”
What’s next? Uncertainty Lingers
Just as posterity and historians are still judging the progressives and the security apparatus at the time, over how the riot of April 1979 was handled, historians may no doubt look back tomorrow at how a new generation of protesters and the current security apparatus held their nerves. Protesters resisted intimidation, threats and a cloud of suspicions while the officers of the Liberia National Police held their end of the bargain, to pull off what many say was the largest gathering of protesters since the end of the civil war.
Deadlock aside, the June 7, Save-the-State protest may have laid to rest the fears and the lingering ghosts of April 14, 1979, a routinely reminder of an ugly past whenever Liberians prepare to take to the streets and make their voices heard. It also signals that a new selfie generation have finally elevated to new levels of political maturity. But with President Weah and his government yet to officially receive the laundry list of demands from the Council of Patriots, uncertainty surrounding the what next could prove pivotal. How will the government proceed from here? How far are the COP and the protesters willing to go? The way forward could test the resolve and tolerance levels for both in the backdrop that Liberia’s rugged history has come full circle, minus the ricocheting violent-tune of the ghostly April stigma, still stroking the fears of the unknown.