Liberia: A Lot of Petition Blame to Go Around as Protesters Give President Weah Ultimatum
Monrovia – A lot of blames are floating around in the aftermath of the largest gathering of protesters since the end of Liberia’s brutal civil war. A deadlocked climax has left open – a window of uncertainty – with both the George Weah-led government – with an assist from the ECOWAS Ambassador in Monrovia – and members of the Council of Patriots throwing jabs at each other as to why the petition which was leaked prior to the protest has not been officially handed to the Presidency.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
The stage was set last Friday, June 7 as protesters descended on the center of the three branches of government – The Executive, Judiciary and the Legislative in the heart of the nation’s capital.
In the backdrop of chants and repeated plays of Hipco artist Takun J’s hit, “They Lied to Us’, protesters carried posters and took turns rallying cries of fatigue over the declining state of the economy and disappointment in the government’s ability to deliver on a load of campaign promises.
It didn’t matter that the song was recorded during the previous regime of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf where corruption was equally a matter of major distraction for Sirleaf. For these protesters, it was the sign of the times.
“We came here to send a message to President George Weah and his government,” lamented Cynthia Page, who told FrontPageAfrica that she had trekked from the Vai Town area to make it here. “They were asking people for ID cards and checking the back of cars to intimidate us so we could not be here. My friends and I got tired and decided to join the crowd and walk… . So, we are here,” she said with a smirk suggesting angst at the extra security mounted in the city due to the protest.
By mid-afternoon, speculations which had been in the air for days, came to fruition when it became clear that Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor would not be receiving the petition as the President’s office had promised.
Protest organizers had initially insisted on President Weah receiving the petition but abandoned the issue when the government’s chief spokesperson, Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe that VP Taylor would receive the petition instead.
Mr. Nagbe said upon receipt, the government will review the petition in a positive mindset and if there are portions in the petition that are good for the country, the Government will implement them. The minister averred that President Weah will not be the one to receive the petition from those staging the march as is being demanded but re-echoed that the Government will ensure that the constitutional rights of those expected to form part of the march as well as the rights of all Liberians are guaranteed.
COP countered Sunday, during a news conference that the government reneged on its promise. “The government earlier announced that it had designated Vice President Taylor, an elected official, to receive our petition on behalf of the government even as it was against our earlier demand that our petition was only going to be delivered to the president. We gathered out there as early as 7 am GMT to deliver our petition, waited for 11 hours on the government but they failed to live up to their own decision to send the Vice President to receive the petition.”
Back-and-forth Play with Govt. Delegation
By Mid-afternoon, the Executive branch dispatched what it would later describe as a high-power delegation which comprised the Dean of the Cabinet, Gbehzongar Findley, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Cllr. Musa Dean, Justice Minister, Trokon Kpui, Minister of State without Portfolio, the Security and Legal Advisor, Jefferson Karmoh and Cllr. Archibald F. Bernard.
“We were in the Capitol building yard for more than two hours, back and forth,” Minister Dean would later tell FrontPageAfrica. “Finally, we were told the petition would be presented before the crowd. Upon reaching the float, amid the crowd, we were told that as a precondition to presentation of the petition, the Government should release the students in detention for assaulting and wounding a police officer. The students were taken to court Saturday and are currently at the notorious Monrovia Central Prison.”
Both the government and ECOWAS would later issue separate statements 24 hours after the protest, expressing disappointments over COP’s decision not to deliver the petition.
The government in a statement frowned on the unwillingness of COP to present its petition after requesting the government to appear and receive it, recalling that the snub was the second time the COP had refused to present the same petition to government. “On May 14, 2019, Unification Day, the COP declined to present its petition at a meeting brokered by international partners with President George M. Weah and promised it would have been done June 7.” But Mr. Abraham Darius Dillon, spokesperson for the COP told FrontPageAfrica Saturday that the group was simply unwilling to embrace those designated by the government to receive the petition. “We will not present our petition to appointed officials. We expected the ELECTED President or his Vice President as was designated by him.”
For COP, appointed officials had no mandate from the people and feared that the move was intentional on the part of the government and a clear manifestation of bad faith dealing from the dialogues previously held. “That COP wasn’t even officially informed that the VP will be sent to get the Petition did not go down well. We heard it like everyone else from Minister Nagbe on the radio,” the spokesperson said. “The people deserved to petition their elected officials of the Executive who they gave the mandate to lead and who have the authority to make decisions to effect change as per the demands.”
However, Mr. Babatunde Ajisomo, the Special Representative of the President of the ECOWAS Commission threw jabs at COP. “It is disappointing to note that, with all the elaborate mediation efforts and arrangements made by the Government, Local and International Stakeholders, the petition that was to be delivered to the Government, could not take place. In spite of this, ECOWAS will, however, want the Liberian Government and people to continue to engage in constructive dialogue for sustaining peace and stability with a view to finding an amicable means of addressing genuine concerns in line with the Constitution and the Rule of Law.”
COP Frowns on ECOWAS’s Bias
COP would fire back on Sunday. In a news conference, the protest organizers took exceptions to ECOWAS’s expression of disappointment. While commending international partners, the organizers said they expected that the ECOWAS, instead of throwing subtle blows at COP, would have taken into consideration several issues and concerns, key among which that COP religiously followed all the protocols agreed with the government including, but not limited to, the following: non-use of drones; use of specified routes; use of agreed protest site; and the need for citizens to remain peaceful throughout the protest.
COP added that ECOWAS also failed to mention it is statement that fact that the government failed to honor its own pledge that it would send the Vice President to receive the petition on behalf of the President – a failure that angered the protesters. “The censorship of social media on the day of the protest which undermined additional mobilization efforts; non-mention of the fact that ahead of the protest, there were deliberate attempts by government to send waves of panic through the public.”
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. Armed security men were seen in communities and parading in the streets instilling fear; and, that armed security officers were prohibiting free movement of citizens by making the presentation of ID cards a precondition for participation in the protest.
COP took aim at the Weah administration for putting protesters through a cloud of suspicion, threats, intimidation and arrests in the days leading to the arrest, resulting in the shutdown of social media activity Friday. “The unprovoked actions of Government to undermine our peaceful assembly by even stooping as low as preventing and denying Liberians, business People, international organizations and even their own partisans, of using the Internet and social media representative of actions from repressive regimes in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan and many other countries with autocrats at the helm of power.”
Despite the humiliation, through security checks and patrol, COP said Liberians, were determined to make a statement to the world.
COP went on to accuse the Weah-led government of choosing to perpetuate the bad governance culture of holding political prisoners – a practice in which previous governments indulged. “Currently, about TWENTY (20) peaceful and law-abiding youth and students are being held at the central prison in detention. We call on the government of Liberia to release those peaceful citizens that have been abducted by the state. We also noticed the used of foreign security forces on the day of protest wearing state security uniforms.”
Next Course of Action? One-Month Window
Despite the criticisms from both government and the ECOWAS ambassador in Monrovia, COP insisted Sunday that the petition was not presented because the President simply did not show protesters any respect. “Our Leader, chose to deal with us NOT as his fellow citizens but as his subjects, NOT as his people but as his enemies.”
Finally making a list of demands official, Sunday, COP says it was putting the Weah administration on constructive notice and expect the government to respond to their demands within one month after which we will determine a new course of action.
The organization chronicled a list of deliberate violations of the procurement laws of Liberia such as the granting of contractual rights, for handling services at the Roberts International Airport, awarding of Container Tracking Number (CTN) contract to GTMS without consideration for the PPCC Act, in clear violation of the Budget and PFM Law and the attending security implications and witch hunting of critics and members of the Opposition through wrongful dismissals even from the civil service and denial of opportunities in the private sector.
COP also highlighted the suppression of press freedom and freedom of speech through threats against BBC’s Jonathan Paylayleh, continual molestation and harassment of Roots FM, denial of operational license to Punch FM as well as conversion of the Liberia Broadcasting System-owned and operated ELBC into a Government’s propaganda organ and the issuance of threats against critics by officials and the continuous remobilization of former combatants of the civil war as well as the construction and acquisition of scores of luxury private buildings by the President in the wake of his refusal to declare his assets within six months after assuming office and to make public assets reportedly declared to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) following mounting pressures.
COP went on to accuse the President of shielding the governor of the Central Bank of Liberia Nathaniel Patray and Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel Tweah from prosecution while taking aim at the President’s decision to announce a “retirement” plan for Governor Patray and ignoring any responsibility of the Economic Management Team(TEMT) headed by Minister Tweah.
The group also slammed the unlawful injection of billions of over-printed Liberian banknotes without removing legacy banknotes, and also for the unlawful act carried out in the use of some US$25m withdrawn from Liberia’s foreign reserve for a dubious mop-up exercise while highlighting the failure and lack of capacity to address the rising inflation and exchange rate thus imposing unbearable hardship on the Liberian People.
‘A Lot on the Table’ to Digest
Additionally, the group accused the administration of flagrant disregard for international law and national reconciliation and disinterest in addressing war and economic crimes as documented in the TRC Report, and general disregard for the rule of law and good governance.
It is also calling on the government unconditionally pass the Domestic Violence Bill and increase funding (beginning with the current budget) for Criminal Court E for cases relating to women and other rights issues while prevailing on the administration to review and provide adequate budget support to gender equality in necessary areas of integrating law enforcement, funding systemic programs such as creation of safe homes for victims, provision of counseling programs and the development of specific policies ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights among a host of other demands.
Some close aides to the presidency say the list of demands could take weeks, if not months to decipher and process before any major action could be taken. Others say, the demands, at least some of them, are somewhat unrealistic – to be decided in one month.
Where does COP draw the line? The next few days within the one-month window given the Weah administration could prove pivotal as the organizers of Friday’s protest weigh their options before pondering the next course of action.
For the immediate future, time is of the essence as the clock ticks on the Weah administration to deliver, especially in the wake of the government’s decision to finally agree to go with the program of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In a season of political discontentment, supporters of both the government and COP are still arguing over crowd numbers and legitimacy. Claims and counter claims have dominated discussion boards in the stratosphere of social media. Lost in the who won or who lost debate is the details of the petition and how seriously the government takes the issues raised.
Attorney Lamin Kpargoi put it succinctly in a Facebook Post at the weekend: “The document has a clear list of action points. I don’t agree with everything they have, but I’m sure even the crafters don’t agree on all the points included. If there is going to be a dialogue, they have most certainly put a lot on the table.”
That though may seem unlikely, particularly for some ruling party hardliners like Rep. Acarous Moses Gray (Montserado County, District No. 8), who posted Sunday: “This government that I do and work with will never yield to unnecessary demands by the so-called COP. Wait for you time to govern.”