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07.06.2019 Feature Article

Liberia: A Democracy without Freedom of Association is No Democracy Part I

Author: James Kokulo FasuekoiAuthor: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Historical highlight

Man by nature is born free and inherits certain inalienable rights which no man or the government has right to restrain in any form no matter the conditions. One such right is freedom of religion. And in a democratic society such as like Liberia, the constitution even broadens such rights that include the right for people to freely associate and assemble “at all times” for the purpose of discussing grievances that affect their wellbeing and the nation. Hence, citizens are empowered through such exercises to petition their government in any given situation so as to force it to take concrete steps aimed to address crucial national issues that threaten the interests and survival of the state and people.

Before proceeding, let’s look at Article 17 of the 1986 Amended Constitution of Liberia. It reads: “All persons, at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the rights 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 with political parties, trade unions and other organizations.” As one can see, our constitution is very keen on the ingredients of, and what constitutes democracy. Of equal interest is this phrase: “at all times,” meaning, these and others rights, per constitutional mandate, can be exercised by all Liberians without time limitation.

Despite these facts as we know them to be, ruthless rulers of nations, including Liberia, have often breached these laws in their desperate quest to keep the masses and voices of dissent silent, keep power at all cost and amass wealth to themselves to the detriment of the rest of society. In their drive, they cleverly use manipulation to circumvent the law that is supposed to guard society against future chaos. And once the regime succeeds in silencing voices of dissent with little or no resistance, it surely can then easily perpetuate power. This has been the sad case with Liberia over many years and there are now “telltale” signs that the war ravaged country is gradually slipping into a new era even much more dangerous than its past. For the Weah regime appears to be working behind the curtains to take away certain rights citizens are entitled such as freedom of speech, of the press, and association.

However, the good news is that under Article 15 (a), the constitution imposes certain responsibilities upon all parties concerned-both the people and their government during the exercise of these and other rights, as cited in the constitution. Again, let’s read Article 15 (a): “Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoyed by the government…” The constitution makes these points crystal clear and the reason is to avoid any confusion(s) that may arise due to misinterpretations of the laws by either parties involved. Clearly, the law seeks to protect the vulnerable “governed” against excesses of ‘powerful’ totalitarian regimes, while acknowledging the responsibility thereof upon persons, groups, exercising such rights. Similarly, it imposes a binding duty on the regime to create a conducive atmosphere in order for the “governed” to enjoy such rights.

Hence, it becomes absolutely mind-boggling and needless for any Liberian or groups planning to launch mass protest to have to seek a green-light from a “president” or say, the Liberian Justice Ministry as has almost become customary all these years before one can stage a peaceful demonstration. After all, the constitution is cleared as cited earlier regarding the rights of the people to freely and peaceably assemble, meaning, it’s not compulsory to wait for a prompt from the MOJ before going into action. Nonetheless, one may contact the MOJ for security protection where necessary and depending on the nature of the gathering prior to a planned protest. That’s if by any chance such planned demonstration is causing unnecessary fears among people per its “motive.” But this too is simply discretionary mainly to avert acts of any form of disruption contrived by rival elements from within the regime.

But be it known to all that wherever the rampant abuse of power has taken deep root in society, couple with injustices and yet the authorities failed to quickly make amend by yielding to the cries of the people, a popular mass uprising has been bound to take shape in that it becomes the only last option to the oppressed to free themselves from any kind of undignified living conditions, something we have witnessed for in Liberia, particularly under three autocratic governments-Americo-Liberian dynasty, Doe, and Taylor. Theirs is usually a quest to set a new order for society and for a better future. But the question is: do the prevailing conditions in Liberia have to go too far before the Weah regime can make meaningful concessions so as to save the state and people from possible chaos? I don’t think so.

The Bitter Past

In my opinion, Liberia’s bitter historical past could serve as a good lesson for all to learn from; it shows that no one single group or person can suppress another perpetually without being faced with some type of resistance from that group. Nor is it foreseeable for a single group of people to think it can hold monopoly over violence against others and use same to maintain political power. From Americo-Liberian rule that lasted well over 133 years, to Samuel Doe’s government, it’s easy to see how the use of intimidation and violence by a brutal regime bent on perpetuating itself in power can backfire, triggering deadly consequences, especially when the government chooses to arbitrarily operate outside of constitutional laws and denying citizens their unalienable rights as we observed under three past regimes cited supra. Of course, I find it unfathomable how one political party could run Liberia for more than a century almost unchallenged till April 12, 1980.

Imagine all of the elements that prompted the infamous 1979 Rice Riot such as a one party system of governance, the “Who knows you” practices, and rejection of Natives’ employment and participation in government by the TWP regime which eventually culminated into the April 12 coup were ever visibly presence throughout Liberia. Yet, those at the helm of power failed to recognize, let alone address such indecent treatments meted out to a certain group of Liberians. This is where those who became known as “the Progressives” entered the picture under their newly registered Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). PAL’s national leadership led by late Gabriel Baccus Matthews and Oscar Jaryee Quiah demanded for change and wanted it quickly but it seems the Tolbert Administration wasn’t ready to give out or allow more freedoms.

PAL’s political ideologies and its method of effecting change peacefully were soon embraced by thousands throughout the country. And unlike many so-called “political” advocacies nowadays in post-war Liberia, laden with noises and outright vulgarism to the “president,” PAL’s constitutional arm in those days, researched the constitution extensively and used same to challenge every attempt by Pres. Tolbert to place restraint on certain fundamental rights of Liberians, including Native majority. These included demand for the regime to institute a multiparty democracy, adopt a policy of “equal opportunity for work and employment” for all Liberians (as provided under our law) regarded of “sex, creed, religion, ethnic background, place of origin or political affiliation.”

On the other hand, the regime showed very little interest at bringing change but PAL’s leadership in Monrovia and her ever increasing supporters throughout the country kept mounting pressure on the government. Just as Tolbert contemplated how best he would handle the situation that was nearing “out of control”, PAL set out for big rally in early 1979 at its headquarters then situated between Gurley and Randall Streets along the stinky “Sonniwen” River in Monrovia that runs into the Atlantic Ocean. At that mass rally I stood at a distance and watched Mr. Oscar Jaryee Quiah himself cried out onto a roaring crowd as he enumerated countless injustices and human rights abuses as well as the misuse of public office he said, the TWP was involved. Next, Mr. Quiah, without fear, demanded total “freedom” for all Liberians under the law and insisted that “Tolbert must step down” on that fateful day amid a tense atmosphere.

Instead use wisdom to address the situation Tolbert at first sent in truckloads of soldiers to disperse the mass gathering. He appeared to have underestimated the brewing crisis at hand. With “agitators” for change active and mobilizing supporters everywhere, PAL succeeded putting thousands into the streets to protest attempt by Tolbert to increase the price of the country’s staple food, rice. PAL’s action, though deliberate, was a case of total misunderstanding for many in that Mr. Tolbert, more than any past Liberian head of state, recognized Liberia’s urgent need to remain self-reliance in food production as an independent nation. Liberians in general learn by example and he himself led the exercise, making large farms. He intended to encourage home-grown food production and scale down massive importation of rice from abroad including the U.S. and Asia.

But the heroes of change appeared to have taken the idea out of context, heavily politicizing the whole issue and making it to look like Tolbert’s goal was to enrich himself and his family by trying to sell their farm products to poor Liberians, having allegedly used taxpayers’ funding to make large farms. With such news hanging in the air, Pres. Tolbert’s grave mistake was bringing in Guinean soldiers to help crush the April 14, Rice Riot as soon it began. The action signaled to the national army that Tolbert no long trusted it and that turned AFL soldiers disgruntled. Another of Tolbert’s error was the arrests and subsequent detention of Matthews and his comrades, including Quiah, and this inevitably made way for the coup by Mst/Stgt. Doe and sixteen others.

In any case, the event of that fateful day during which Oscar Quiah made the declaration pricked my heart and had me awfully horrified in that we had never witnessed such happenings in this part of Africa since the years when Dio Tweh reportedly waged his political battle against Americo-Liberian dynasty. This event left in me an awkward feelings that something of a greater magnitude was about to happen. I could sense trouble lurking along the horizon as the nation inexorably headed toward upheaval. What exactly it would be I couldn’t tell. Neither did I know I would become a journalist and custodian of contemporary Liberian political history, leading to two separate but brutal civil wars, 1989-2003 that resulted to an estimated 300,000 death of our countrymen and women plus, foreign nationals.

Samuel Doe ruled the country five years before transforming it to a multiparty democratic nation succeeding himself following what was seemingly a fraud presidential election 1985 that attracted several other independent political parties in the country. But in spite this bad experience, Liberia has since continued to enjoy multiparty democracy till this day which scores believe could not have been possible had the PAL, together with sixteen enlisted men not risen to challenge the TWP oligarchy. Credits to PAL and others who brave the storm in desperate search for justice, equality and fairness for good of all Liberians.

Nonetheless, my disappointment since the April 12, 1980 coup is that some historians and writers have tend to give much credits of this most single significant event of April 14, 1979 Rice Riot to mainly two persons: Baccus Matthews and Prof. Amos C. Sawyer, (arguably, the “faces to the revolution”), while discounting the pivotal role one like Oscar Jaryee Quiah played to bring about change. Whatever the argument the question that has dogged me since is whether Liberian political rulers including president have learned any lesson from our horrific past? And if they do, are they using such terrible past as example and taking precautionary measures to avert similar “upheavals” in the future? The answer, arguably, is a big No!

Author’s Note: Part 2 of this series will be accompanied by a documentary photo series on CDC partisans, how they freely exercised their rights to free speech as well as freedom of association including frequent street protests and “sit-ins”, almost uninterrupted during Ms. Sirleaf’s twelve years rule but now ‘classifies’ such rights as “illegal” under their watch and intend to restrict same.

James Kokulo Fasuekoi
James Kokulo Fasuekoi, © 2019

This author has authored 5 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: JamesKokuloFasuekoi

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