Why the Liberian government must negotiate with the June 7 protest leaders


In March 2019 Liberian traditional and social media pages were pulsating with news of a planned protest by opposition figures and concerned citizens against the government of President George Weah. For weeks there was no clarity on the specific concerns with some activists calling for the President’s resignation. News of the planned protests followed the release of two damning reports – by the US Government and the Liberian Government – into allegations of the disappearance  of 16 Billion Liberian dollars (about USD 105 Million) from the Central Bank of Liberia and the alleged misapplication of about US 25 million dollars intended to stabilize exchange rate and control inflation by withdrawing excess Liberian dollars from the economy. 

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, [email protected], Contributing Writer

On Tuesday April 30, the organizers of the protest, including sitting members of the legislature and senior officials of the main opposition parties, announced that their goal is “to demand meaningful reforms that will lead to the improvement of the living standards of Liberians.” The resignation/removal of the President, at least for now, is not part of the demands as announced by the protest leaders.  Instead they surround basic questions of economic management, accountability and social service delivery.  

What’s driving protests on the continent

The protest, now planned to commence on June 7 in Monrovia, must be understood in the context of a growing wave of protest movements across Africa as citizens demand more services and accountability from their governments. Furthermore, the opening of the political space has emboldened citizens to take advantage of bill of rights provisions to petition their government, criticize and protest against ill-fated policies and governance maladies, and seek the removal of underperforming governments through constitutional means.  

In addition, urbanization, majority youth population and poor economies and greater access to technology (social media) are driving heightened competition between governments and citizens over the nature of democratic governance according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Another recent research suggests that corruption is the main driver of protests in African countries. Unfortunately, most African citizens perceive their governments to be corrupt according to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of 2018. In the 2018 CPI Liberia scored 32 out of 100 and ranked 120 out of 180 countries. Overall, the score means that majority of Liberians perceive their government to be corrupt. It is therefore no surprise that the Liberian protest leaders emphasized government corruption as a major concern of their movement. 

The rate of protest has surged across Africa many thanks to factors mentioned above, and perhaps because governments are increasingly opening up the space for citizens to engage, notwithstanding cases of brutal crackdowns in some countries like Togo, Burundi, Algeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Overall, 3, 791 protests were recorded across Africa by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) in 2018. However, Liberia recorded very low levels of political violence and protests compared to the continent at large. When they have occurred they  have focused on electoral issues, cost of living and government corruption according to ACLED.  

Liberia’s polarized polity

The right to protest is a fundamental element of a democracy. In Liberia, it is guaranteed under the provisions of Fundamental Rights (Chapter 3; Article 17) in the 1986 Constitution. However, the need for dialogue to address the immediate concerns around which the June 7 protest is being organized cannot be overemphasized given the ongoing tension in the country. 

Liberia has become deeply polarized along political lines in the last few months. Violent incidents between opposing forces at the state funeral of a deceased politician, electoral violence in Montserrado District 13 in November 2018, threats by ex-combatants (wartime ‘Generals’) to arrest a critic of the president, and growing tension between opposition figures and the government are deeply concerning. The tension has been further intensified by threats from ruling party activists and a presidential spokesman to arrest protest leaders; while the opposition activists remain defiant with their plans. Liberian stakeholders must seek to engage in political dialogues to avoid street protests that can sometimes end up in confrontations with security forces. 

The need for dialogue 

However, the recent announcement of the planned protest now provides opportunity for dialogue. It would be indeed, in the interest of the Liberian government to initiate dialogues with the protest leaders with the aim of understanding the specific concerns and determining the reasonable and lawful actions required in addressing them. Protest leaders must also see an olive branch from the government as an opportunity to present their petitions long before June 7 and support the government in identifying alternative ways of looking into the issues raised in the petition. President Weah must rein in officials of government issuing vile and unprovoked threats (mostly on social media), to allow for a climate of progressive discussions. 

At Liberia’s advantage at the moment are two former leaders with significant local and international following and gravitas. Working with the Inter-religious Council, Professor Amos Sawyer and Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf can offer a lot in stabilizing the current tension between the government and the opposition. Government must leverage their connection and skills. Importantly, opposition leaders must make themselves available for these dialogues and leverage the availability of these two leaders as mediators in engaging with the government. The history of all protest has shown that ultimately, the key answers to petitions are identified and negotiated at consultative dialogues. This therefore must begin the process, instead of coming at the end after so much resources and productive energy have been expended. 

Therefore, rather than trying to demonstrate that it has the ability to mobilize huge crowds in the streets of Monrovia, the protest leaders who derive their legitimacy from organized opposition parties, must demonstrate that they have the ability to provide alternative leadership by promoting alternative policy proposals in dealing with the current state of affairs. To their advantage, legislators from parties other than the ruling party occupy the commanding majority of seats in both the Senate and the House. The recently announced Collaboration of the four main opposition parties has 12 Senate seats (nearly half of the 30 seats) and 26 House Seats (out of 73). There is also an apparently progressive Independent Legislative Caucus that has shown early signs of promoting credible reforms. Given Liberia’s system of checks and balances in taxation, budgetary appropriation, and law-making, opposition parties with large numbers in the Legislature should have equal answers to the vexing national questions around which the protest is being organized as much as the ruling party in the Executive does. The opposition must therefore leverage this advantage to push through needed reforms that address the growing demand for accountability and service delivery in Liberia. 

Also, rather than demonstrating that it has the sole monopoly over the use of force – obviously weak governments mainly across Africa no longer enjoys this privilege – the government must demonstrate that it is in charge by mustering the high courage to engage and dialogue with citizens that peacefully organize themselves with the intention to petition their government.  Furthermore, the government must demonstrate leadership by committing to programs in line with the popular manifesto for change and the general constitutional promises of the state. 

In the cause of democracy and social justice the pen shall never run dry.