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07.06.2019 Feature Article

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

Author: James Kokulo FasuekoiAuthor: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

The Testing of Democracy

Having a “democracy” in place is one thing and making it work is another. A democracy is not a democracy in the true sense if it hasn’t gone through test. In other words, a true functioning democracy can only be achievable if people with dissenting views to those of the government are accorded room to freely air such views and grievances regarding national matters such as human rights and governance, without hindrances.

So in order for a society to have a flourishing democracy, it takes the opposition political parties and all civil society groupings including the independent press to step out of their comfort zones and make it work for the good of all. This means, all three have to serve as a “watchdog” and making sure the people’s fundamental rights are respected and not violated. This mandate isn’t limited to the media alone viewed as “watchdog” of society-all three entities must defend, protect the democratic process and must do so jealousy.

Under late President Doe, particularly in early 1990, amid near total anarchy, all three entities which included LINSU and the Inter-Faith Mediation Committee stood up to the Doe’s government, working to actualize such goal and safeguard Liberia’s democratic process. This was a very critical period in Liberia’s history when Doe’s regime was overwhelmed by a rebel war. Still, the masses were poised to stage a huge protest to detest Doe’s misrule despite a strong warning against mass gathering in Monrovia.

Pres. Doe Gave In

Pres. Doe’s warning against public gathering sounded logical because, by April or May of 1990, Taylor’s National Patriotic Front rebels were within reach of Monrovia, somewhere in Kakata, about 35 miles north. By this time Gen. Prince Johnson’s INPFL forces too, were believed to be in control of Bong Mines, an old mining town northwest of Kakata. Both warring factions approached the capital from all sides, trying to block all roads to Monrovia to prevent perceived enemies-Doe, members of his army, Krahn, Mandingo, and people of many other ethnic groups, from escape.

But in spite such impending grave danger, protest by the opposition went ahead and the goal was to ask Mr. Doe to resign or surrender power to a “neutral” body, leave Liberia, in order to avert a possible bloodbath in the crowded capital. This created huge predicament for Doe. He rejected an offer from certain foreign embassy to be airlifted. He felt very uncomfortable leaving power without a solid security arrangement in place for the protecting of his officials, ethnic group plus immediate family.

Secondly, the power struggle over who would sit in the Presidential Mansion among the heads of rebel forces and some of their longtime war-financiers like Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had begun to surface, aside their bitter hatred for Doe and his ethnic Krahn which also served as a factor in Doe’s decision to stay in that none of the warring parties to the war, including those who first attended the Banjul, Gambia Peace Meeting in 1990, appeared to press for the security needs of civilians caught in battle.

But somehow, Doe allowed the pro-democracy protest go on while Monrovia was on edge and about to receive its dose of the cruel bloodletting that had shattered life in Liberia’s once beautiful countryside in the name of “liberation” by the INPFL and NPFL and with AFL soldiers accounting for some of the atrocities against civilians, many of whom they accused of allegedly aiding rivals armed groups.

Pres. Doe’s Tolerance

Doe’s decision was hailed by many and proved wrong, many of his skeptics who initially thought he would not back down from his decision. It served an excellent example of a man that had eventually changed from a rigorous military ruler to a tolerant democratic material of some sort. Another of such example can be traced back to November 1987, a time he set up a dialogue style peace talk to “iron out” disagreement between his regime and people of Nimba mainly Gios and Manors.

A bloody 1983 raid staged in Yekepa, by disgruntle former Doe’s rivals, followed by Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa’s failed November 12, 1985 coup, created deep rivalries between people of Nimba and Doe’s home, Grand Gedeh, and often resulted to reprisal attacks, in some cases, murder of Gios and Manors. Thus, he personally set up the “Nimba Peace Conference” to make peace with Nimba and to also solidify relationship among the Krahn and two dominant Nimba-ethnic groups, Gio and Manor.

This writer covered that gathering also dubbed “the Nimba Peace Talk” held in the historic city of Sanniquellie, Nimba around November 27, 1987. Late Jackson F. Doe, a distinguished son of Nimba who headed LAP at the time led the Nimba delegation. Nimbaians were given platform during which they openly expressed misgivings regarding Doe government’s “mistreatments” of their fellow Tribal People. Doe and party, on the other hand, spoke less, perhaps, aware that some of his action had been prompted by “Gio and Manor” hostility toward him or his Tribal group.

But the peace talk did very little to bring a genuine reconciliation among people of Nimba and Grand Gedeh in part because, the Nimba side engaged in total deception. For while they preached peace, they were preparing to bring war and reportedly holding “secret” meetings in the bushes as Chief Jerry ‘Ghonyon’ of Nimba would revealed, with their exiled relatives who lived in the Ivory Coast. Apparently, they wanted to avenge the hurts they had endured due the bad policy of Doe’s regime. It barely took two years when the NPFL struck and seized Botuo.

Going back to our topic, Doe, in 1990, sought wisdom, thereby backing down in the final hours to let opposition and the masses stage a protest. Doe didn’t resort to any form of tactic such as trying to push his supporters to carry out a counter-protest; or have some “political thugs” attacking his opponents as one can see happening in Liberia today.

CDC’s Black Monday Protest

Former Pres. Sirleaf, another dictator like Doe and Taylor, appeared very reluctant at first to let true democracy reign after taking power. Old in politics, Ms. Sirleaf didn’t want to gamble giving out too much freedom-aware the more one gives, the more demands. Hence, she used “recycled politicians” who through the Justice Ministry worked and ratified anti-democratic “Acts” created by her predecessors, limiting political rallies and requiring people to obtain so called “Permits for Public Marches” before staging a protest.

However, Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) wasn’t ready to let such game put in place by a regime that was seemingly fast becoming known as another “criminal enterprise” after that of Taylor’s. The party’s relentlessness efforts at pressing Sirleaf and her government to account for human rights abuses and financial malpractices as well as give an okay for creation of a war crimes court in the country soon made it a power to reckon with. Sirleaf government had no choice but to let the people exercise their fundamental rights per Liberia’s constitution.

The CDC party held back-to-back rallies throughout Liberia, the biggest of which were hosted in Monrovia. Statesman Winston Tubman who previously served as CDC’s standard bearer, and with Mr. Weah as the CDC then vice president before his Weah’s re-emergence the party’s main political leader never missed any of those political rallies which went through unhindered. Acarous Gray and Mulbah Morlu were said to have led many protests against the regime for various reasons, some with good ground.

Perhaps, one of the most memorable protests took place between October-November 2011, when Liberian Police shot and killed at least two (a third death still unconfirmed) CDC partisans during party’s protest of a fraud October 2011 presidential elections that year. A U.S. States Department website later described the situation ‘Thursday, 03 May 2012’, as “the government that succeeded itself either by twist or hook through diplomatic undue influence.” Such statement by a credible diplomatic mission confirms elections fraud took place during that election.

After the Police killings of the CDC partisans on November 7, which became dubbed “Black Monday,” the party’s leadership on November 20, 2011, hosted a gigantic wake-keeping ceremony in the form of a Brazilian style carnival that lasted all night through the morning. This was the party’s way of denouncing the brutal killings and honoring the dead as heroes. The burial took place November 21, which turned into another public demonstration during which thousands CDCians marched through major streets of the capital.

Partisans transported mocked coffins on top of vehicles and sometimes partisans carried such mocked caskets on their heads amid heavy condemnation of the Sirleaf regime and all through the Police provided them security protection and remained calm despite some instances of partisans’ provocation of Police.

Calls to Cut Off June 7 Protest

While Mr. Tubman, George Weah, Gray, Morlu, and thousands others yesterday enjoyed such privilege plus many more such as “freedom of movement”, they are now the first to detest any act of staging a peaceful protest, and terming same “illegal” even in the face of glaring widespread corruption and misapplication of the constitution among many other despicable acts by the present government. But why try to stop the people from protesting? Are there not more than “reasons” enough to compel the masses to take action and safeguard our nation from a possible collapse and bloodshed?

Perhaps, uncertain about how he would deal with the situation, Weah, at first gave a knee-jerk reaction to news regarding the protest. Weah had told the press he had no plans of meeting COP’s leaders and thought by merely dismissing the matter-it would naturally go away. This exposed his weakness as a president and CID and raises question about his reliability in terms of decision-making regarding the country’s national interests. But soon, he sought out COP’s leaders-Rep. Yekeh Y. Kolubah, Mr. AB. Darius Dillon, Sen. Sando Johnson and Talk Show host, Henry P. Costa but no settlement was reached.

Representative of COP had and still contend that the Weah-led regime provide convincing explanation regarding a stolen 16bn LD in addition to 25m USD of taxpayers’ monies still missing. Weah’s best friend and Minister of Finance as well as officials of National Bank were the ones who handled and moved the monies around.

Also, there’s the issue of the illegal removal of an associate justice which many saw as a breach of the constitution; refusal to declare assets, the sudden rise of Pres. Weah’s new estates, plus a “give-away” new mansion for use by members of the Association of Female Journalists of Liberia are issues still begging for clarity. Enough reasons!

It is therefore altogether intriguing how there have been massive calls of late urging people to boycott the COP protest with no clear reasons beyond vague explanations. Pastors, market women, union drivers, government politicians, a journalist, pro-government youth group (FLY), including some of our personal friends caught in this frenzy, have all denounced the pending protest, with some making it to appear like a “Congo vs. Native” matter.

Unfortunately, some “anti-protest” campaigners have refused to acknowledge some of the gross injustices and blatant misuse of political power by the regime and members of Weah’s inner circle. Anti-protesters don’t see anything wrong when certain officials engage in perpetrating violence against peaceful citizens, i.e., the unprovoked attacks and disruption of a political rally in Gardnerville a while ago by City Mayor Jeff Koijee along with his battle-ready MCC police militias, an incident that prompted good citizens in that community to rescue Sen. Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence, a fair target. Of course, they would clap at the unwarranted disruption of Rep. Kolubah’s Children’s party, not to cite the firing of gun shots into Kolubah’s home by Weah’s supporters.

Moreover, it seems also those opposed to the pending protest are not alarm either per their conspicuous silence, in the wake of latest Weah-government orchestrated brutal police attacks on peaceful students of University of Liberia as well as other attacks on followers of Rep. Kolubah by the CDC partisans. And I don’t think either that the sudden re-emergence of “suspected war criminals” now posing as “Ex-rebel Generals” and networking with the regime to crackdown on people who hold opposing views, stir their curiosity.

Calls from Unlikely Places

Ex-president Sirleaf is among people calling for restraint and possibly a “dialogue” between all “stakeholders” as far as the COP mass protest is concerned. Though she acknowledges the people’s right to a peaceful protest as cited in the constitution, she’s herself guilty as those now amassing wealth while perpetrating violence against civilians because, she of her refusal to enforce the TRC recommendations seen as the best solution to the post-war country’s woes. She initially pledged to rid corrupt and nepotistic and cut down on financial waste but Ms. Sirleaf soon found herself doing those very things she had detested.

News of the pending June 7 Save the State protest is causing “fever” in leaders of countries in the sub-region and this prompted ECOWAS to send its representative to Monrovia to help preach peace and remind politicians, protesters, the regime regarding their respective responsibilities to maintain Liberia’s current stability. Guinea government in the same manner reacted by sending troops to man its borders with Liberia. The ECOWAS representative, like Sirleaf, recognized the right for people to assemble and petition their leaders where necessary.

Again, the question that arises is how come everyone is talking and showing deep concern about the referenced COP protest? Where were all the campaigners for “peace and stability” during all those years when Mr. Tubman, Weah, Morlu, Gray and others CDC supporters stage multiple streets protests?

Conclusion

It is very unfortunate to see Ms. Sirleaf, ECOWAS, together with an array of Liberians at home and abroad raising “red flag” over a single political march that is about to happen due to so many compelling reasons. Under the circumstances, one would think that the anti-protesters would be demanding strong police protection for demonstrators during the expected Friday march, the same protection accorded CDC leaders and their many partisans in the past. On the other hand, only UL distinguished Professor, Alaric Tokpa, Dr. Chris Nyan, (Liberia’s foremost international scientist), Pastor Blamoh, and former LAP official, Dusty Wolokollie, have voiced their support for the protest for they’ve recognized there’s a cause to the protest.

The Elders of Lofa would say: “Touch the blind man so he can know you are dancing with him.” Needless to add there are overwhelming causes making the rallies, a necessity and all that is required of Weah’s regime is: Let the June 7 protest go ahead and without any hindrance for any attempt to stop same could lead to a serious backlash from pro-democracy groups, especially in an age of instant information dissemination.

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is an award-winning journalist, a documentary writer and news photographer who, for a decade, covered civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the Associated Press. He became a Bush Foundation Scholar twice in 2017. He lives in Minnesota and is also head of the Midwest chapter of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas.

By James Kokulo Fasuekoi in Minneapolis, Minnesota

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is an award-winning journalist, a documentary writer and news photographer who, for a decade, covered civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone for the Associated Press. He became a Bush Foundation Scholar twice in 2017. He lives in Minnesota and is also head of the Midwest chapter of the Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas.

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James Kokulo Fasuekoi
James Kokulo Fasuekoi, © 2019

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

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