Silence and Impunity in Liberia

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I normally would prefer to avoid commenting on issues involving corruption and government’s brazen use of state power to incarcerate and intimidate dissenters. But then, as a civil society, we owe it both to future generations and the brave advocates of social justice who came before us, to raise our voices for what is right, we have learned from the lessons of history that governments come and go, but that legacy remains, and that those who support the principles of democracy must persevere in the face of dictatorship.

Government is supposed to be on the side of the people, it is supposed to be the protector of their rights, and the people are supposed to feel braver and more confident to express themselves in public spaces concerning the affairs of their State.

But unfortunately, both the current and past Liberian governments are guilty of acting in such manners that ignored the harsh economic realities endured by the people, and this unfortunate pattern dates back to several decades, for instance after assassinating President Tolbert and taking power in 1980, the PRC government of President Doe was itself accused of several cold-blooded murders, tribalism, as well as various forms of corruption and economic crimes.

Interestingly, Charles Taylor came along with a civil war that completely devasted Liberia and set it back many years, and as we all remember, a break-away faction of Mr. Taylor’s military junta assassinated President Doe and further complicated the Liberian civil war. Yet somehow with the help of the international community, Liberia held an election that brought Mr. Taylor to power, and this was the beginning of a ruthless dictatorship that eventually ended with the Liberian leader (Mr. Taylor) being prosecuted at the United Nations Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone, and is currently serving a sixty seven (67) year sentence in the United Kingdom.

The story of how President Taylor conducted himself in office, including the relentless efforts by his security officers to harass opposition leaders and amass wealth for themselves are all well documented, and it tells a substantial part of the stories of Liberia’s cultures of silence and impunity, and how the nation’s governments have politicized public institutions for so long.

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former victim of political prosecution and government sponsored witch-hunt, won the presidential election in 2005, many Liberians, myself included, were quite optimistic that considering the path she had sojourned, her age, experience, and genius, she would be the right person to heal the scars of wars and steer the nation to a new era of peace and tranquility.

Mrs. Sirleaf knew what it meant to be a political prisoner, she knew what it meant for a person to be denied their basic human rights for opposing the views of the government, henceforth, when she campaigned before the 2005 elections on the promise to reunite the country and bring about political reforms, her message resonated quite well with the people.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Sirleaf’s campaign promises and pledge to reunite the country were not completely genuine as factual evidence showed that corruption, nepotism, and political imprisonment continued relentlessly under her watch.

Also under President Sirleaf’s watch, the cultures of silence and impunity persisted, for Liberia to attain its rightful place in the community of nations, the principles of democracy, which demands that government tolerates opposing views, must be embraced.

Fellow Liberians, freedom of expression is an entitlement of every member of the human family, protected by international law, and we must not allow the government to take it away.

Dr. Martin Luther King said it best, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. So, in Liberia, the media and the human rights community must continue to work exceedingly hard to confront the cultures of silence and impunity and advance the cause of justice and equal rights.

And this brings me to my final point, that while there are certain areas in which the current Liberian government have done so well, its overall records with respect to social justice, economic empowerment, and corruption, remains unflattering. The opportunity is still there for this administration to act with integrity, dignity, pride, and sense of patriotism, and the Foundation for Human Rights Defense (FOHRD) urge the government of President Weah to live up to its obligation under local and international laws, including abolishing the cultures of silence and impunity and embracing the voices of dissent.

Tee Wonokay / Executive Director Foundation for Human Rights Defense / [email protected]

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