Liberia: An Open Letter On Obtaining A Permit To Protest
There is a prevalent myth that for a protest or an assembly of people to be considered “legal” and “constitutional” in Liberia, the organizers must first seek a permit from the Ministry of Justice or the Liberia National Police. This has been especially preached by those in government so much so that most often Liberians, in every nook and cranny, are beclouded in a noose of fear and insecurity whenever they harbor the thought of participating in or joining a protest. Over decades, this myth has held true. In fact, it has been a driving force behind the inability of most Liberians to stand up against evil and injustice; to defend human rights; to speak against the misdeeds and misdemeanors of those in public offices.
“Before you protest, you must apply for permit and be granted it” has been used by people in high government positions to scare away the people from protesting, from assembling to petition their direct representatives, public officials and the government in its whole. It is a shibboleth that is so familiar with and so often used by the proponents of a dilapidated system whenever the masses – men, women and children – want to rile up against injustices, and bring to the attention of their leaders the harsh economic realities including rising costs of living, declining and delayed wages, skyrocketing inflation and the downward stagnation of the GDP – all due to massive gap in transparency and accountability.
I have been a protester for most part of my life. I was a 9 year old boy, growing up in West Point, when I first heard about the march to demand justice for 13 year old Angel Togba. In 2008, I was among the sprinkling of scores of people, in thousands, who took to the streets of Monrovia especially the grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – home of the Liberian presidency, to insist on the prosecution (impartial and speedy trial) of Angel’s foster parents, who’re believed to be her abusers and murderers. It must be noted here, however, that the Supreme Court of Liberia, on August 15, 2014, dropped all charges against Hans Williams and his fiancée Mardea Paykue under a state of emergency declared by then Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during the Ebola outbreak, while little Angel’s death in Williams’ home remains a mystery, for more than a decade.
Between September – December 2014, I organized and led a series of protest actions to demand government’s culpability and the prosecution of police officers (Liberia National Police) and soldiers (Armed Forces of Liberia) for the shooting of live bullets at unarmed citizens in West Point on Wednesday, 20th August 2014, leading to the death of Shakie Kamara, age 15, and the wounding of several others. On January 12, 2015, while 15 senators were being installed as members of the Liberian Senate, I led a march to call for educational compensation for children who lost one or both parents to the Ebola epidemic and free education across Liberia. Very recently, on July 9, 2019, I organize a protest at the Liberia National Police, again to demand prosecuting the police officers who used firearms (guns) on unarmed, harmless residents of Kingsville, on June 24, who set up roadblocks to seek justice for the disappearance and mysterious death of two children – Thomas Kollie, age 10, and Elijah Porluma, age 9. This police shooting led to the death of Abraham Tumay, 17 years old, and caused serious leg injuries to Saah Saah, 18, and Dave Mombo, 18, who is still hospitalized at the JFK Medical Center.
Even away from Liberia, I have been marcher/protester. On March 24, 2018, I joined hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly young people, in Washington D. C. to demand an end to gun violence and campaign for safe schools and communities across the US.
My reference of these events is not to reveal my understanding and remembrance of moments of injustices in the past. Instead, I intend to show that I have been a protester since I was much younger. I have been organizing and leading protests for more than a decade. For as long as I can recall, I have joined, organized and led more than 50 peaceful protests, nonviolent marches and assemblies of children and youth – the records of which are well recorded and available. All of those didn’t require me and my colleagues to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Justice; for we knew that our causes have been and will always be moral and just – to rid Liberia of vices. Therefore, this qualifies me to speak on the subject.
It is a tactic of an erstwhile establishment to kowtow people into silence and fear by requesting that one must apply for and obtain a permit to protest. This is precisely what they use to keep the hoi polloi in the dark, to quarantine the have-nots in a web of obscurity so that they nurture not the desire or the penchant to stand up for their rights, and to speak out for that which is good and right.
There is no constitutional provision that makes it a mandatory requirement to obtain permit to hold a protest, organize a march or assemble in public space, so long as it is peaceful and nonviolent. Article 17 of the Constitution of Liberia is detailed in explicit terms: “All persons, at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances and to associate fully with others or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions and other organizations.” Throughout the thirteen (13) chapters and ninety-seven (97) articles of the 1986 Constitution, which supersedes and supervises all other laws and legal provisions – whether domestic statutes or international instruments – there is not a single line that supports or calls for one to seek a permit. To protest, march and gather/assemble is a right, not some privilege that can be granted by the government to anyone or group at her will and pleasure.
Prior to the coming into existence of the Liberia National Police Act of 2015, which is An Act to Amend Chapter 22, Subchapter D of the Act Amending the Executive Law of Liberia, there existed no provision or basis or a piece of document in which it was written that one must notify the Ministry of Justice about a special event in the form of a march or protest. In fact, it was a calculated attempt by the then Police Administration to clampdown on citizens, thereby creating a barrier for the free exercise of their right to assemble. Part III, Section 22.86 (A) states: “Any person who desires to hold any special event in the form of demonstration, march, or similar event in any public place shall notify the County Attorney in the county where the event is to take place place of his or her intention not less than seven days before the date of the special event”; (B) states: “Where the special event is to be held in Montserrado County, the notification shall be sent to the Minister [Justice] and consultations require by this section shall be with the Inspector General of Police”.
This is Act, which came into effect on July 12, 2016, is the reliance of the proponents of “go get a permit before you protest”. And all the provisions mentioned above contravene Article 2 (A) and (B) of the Constitution of Liberia: (A) This Constitution is the supreme and fundamental law of Liberia and its provisions shall have binding force and effect on all authorities and persons throughout the Republic.
(B) Any laws, treaties, statutes, decrees, customs and regulations found to be inconsistent with it shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void and of no legal effect. The Supreme Court, pursuant to its power of judicial review, is empowered to declare any inconsistent laws unconstitutional.
To Liberians who want to protest, march or assemble for the purpose of petitioning their government to “redress grievances”, it is your fundamental right do to so. Do not allow anyone to demand that you must get a permit. There is no constitutional provision for it. Legally, it is flawed. It is draconian. Why would the Liberia National Police, not a body of civilians, be the entity to determine what one ought to do to invoke Article 17 of our Constitution as stated in its Act? Is the LNP the right institution to sanction such requirement? The Police, over the years, has shown its pitfalls and disregard for human rights. LNP’s recent history of killing peaceful, unarmed and harmless citizens brings into question its credentials to be the government agency to determine whether a protest or march should go on or not. The Liberia National Police Act of 2015 is to run the affairs of the Police Force and its activities thereof, not to serve as a tool to determine how and when citizens should enjoy their rights.
Abraham M. Keita