It is often said rights are like the muscles; they are stronger once they are regularly exercised. Liberians are getting used to the exercise of their rights as guaranteed by the country’s Constitution, and it seems they are becoming addictive and the space is opening for them. And the citizens’ new orientation, their growing civic attitude, is met amiably by an extremely tolerant regime—all this providing adequate fertility to the growth and maturity of the country’s democracy. As The Analyst reports, the last two successive mass people’s protests under President George Manneh Weah in less than a year testify to a new governance trajectory afar from the dark past characterized by political violence and tyranny.
“Don’t mind all the loud lamentations about ‘corruption and creeping dictatorship’ heard during the June 7 protests, and which is unfortunately copied by the international press that is unfamiliar with Liberia’s growing democratic culture,” said one political pundit who does not want to be named in print because of his role during the protest.
“It was all political gymnastics meant to increase the optics in demand of greater freedom, greater political leverage and greater democratic space. We should have rather said, ‘receding dictatorship’ because, after all, a dictatorship does not allow nearly 5,000 citizens to gather in protest and to cause the shutdown of business as we did it on June 7.”
He said further: “Dictatorship is not creeping. It is rather phasing out. Those of us who are older enough or educated and read our history know this clearly. No president in Liberia’s over 170 year experience allowed himself or herself to be insulted publicly, threatened with overthrow and reduced to public ridicule in slogans and battle cries and allowed it come to pass without venomous reprisal.”
Before this point, the pundit who campaigned for the protest and squarely participated said most Liberians had feared participation in political and economic issues, let alone to avail themselves to protests. Most Liberians were used to saying issues of politics and the economy were the “people’s things”—meaning they politics and the economy were things only politicians and economists were to be concerned about.
Progressive Evolutionary Context
And over the years, that belief was further entrenched by the uncouth and merciless crackdowns by successive governments upon citizens who tried to exercise their social, political and economic rights.
The “people’s thing” mentality had lived with Liberians for more than 13 decades, imbuing into the populace pervasive civic apathy which in turn sharpened the swords of powerful Chief Executives of the country. It gave the populace a false sense of inferiority and the political leaders a false sense of superiority or supremacy.
While it is true political consciousness had come a long mighty way, it is not true it was widespread. It took a few persons here and there–daring journalists, civil society actors and politicians–to challenge the status quo over the years.
Most of the agitators acted from within; they were either a part of the government of the day or were former government officials aiming to make a comeback in government or to take political job or make a political replacement of the system.
In the 1970s, the advent of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) in the Liberian political mosaic shifted the trajectory and triggered the flames of political consciousness amongst reasonable number of citizens, particularly students and other educated elites.
The limited scope the MOJA-PAL coverage was understandable since the populace was pervasively psyched by civic lethargy for a long time. That’s why the leaders of the two mass-based movements were easily demonized and easily whisked off from the political theater by the status quo, whether it was the True Whig Party or the military junta. Political consciousness was in short supply.
The rise of military banditry, be it the 1980 junta revolution or the 1989 so-called popular people’s uprising, cannot be mistaken for civic consciousness and the consolidation of Liberia’s democracy. They were clear banditry that circumvented the progressive evolution of a constructive democratic space that would lead to increased civic consciousness and the exercise of that consciousness.
Spurred Post-Conflict Democratic Space
Since the end of the civil war in 2003, the Liberian democratic space has got markedly ventilated and the populace, knowingly or unknowingly, has got cooled off from the flames of despotic tendencies and pervasive civic apathy of the past.
Factors that underpinned the increased space, according to some pundits, had to do with the inundation of the country by the international community and its over 15,000 stabilization force that landed in 2004 and provided not only security services but also help build critical national institutions.
The overwhelming presence of the international community and its armed wing, UNMIL, gave Liberians shield and almost a carte blanche to resist fears of reprisal to participate in national affairs, particularly on issues that border on politics and governance.
Another factor has got to do with the coincidental advent of media pluralism backed firmly by communication technology explosion. The explosion jettisoned the status quo from acting otherwise since the world is made a digitized global village.
Even during the transitional period—2003 to 2006—the first fruits of the evolving liberal space expressed itself in the massive post-conflict demonstrations.
Throngs of civil society actors and students campaigned against the transitional regime of Chairman Gyude Bryant over allegations of corruption. The campaign led to the coming of the Governance Economic Management Program (GEMAP) and ECOWAS auditors.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Half Dotted Space
Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was ideally suited to uphold the democratic space to its totality but, as some commentators opined, she left behind many gray areas.
She is credited for acceding to the Table Mountain Declaration, one of few countries to do that in Africa and even beyond the Continent. Under her rule Liberia witnessed unprecedented proliferation of media organs, most of which were unusually aggressive.
Those efforts did not find expression in genuine freedom of the media because national and international media watchdog groups documented, under the regime, countless incidents of attacks on media organizations and media personnel.
A couple of media houses were stormed or ransacked; some were closed down and countless media personnel sued, indicted or imprisoned in line with their journalistic duties.
Most public protests during the regime were bullied into submission, leaving in some instances bloodshed, deep injuries and even deaths. Some went into self-censorship.
Democratic Space Maturing under Weah
As civic consciousness increases and citizens become nearly addictive of their rights under the Constitution, it seems this growing new attitude is interlocked with the suitable political temperament that would continue to fertilize it in the coming years.
Over the last 18 months of the incumbency of President George Weah, Liberia’s has witnessed the starkest exercise of rights. The mass media have edged on unfettered reportages; some call it the extremity of media ego in writing and talking about the current political administration.
Social media and radio talk shows have particularly gone below the belt and the prime target has been the current President and his government.
Despite the clear abuse of media and free speech rights, something the international community felt compelled to condemn and warn against recently, there has not been a single prisoner of conscience.
No lawsuit. No closed down order. No ransacking of media homes. No harassment of civil society actor.
Meanwhile, there has also been the issue of the two successive mass protests in 12 months targeting the Weah administration. Pundits are nearly reaching the conclusion that the protests drew the largest anti-government crowds in Liberian history.
The protesters were evidently vulgar and derogatory against the President and government. And despite the fact the assemblies were organized, funded and prosecuted by the President’s political opponents, they all came to pass without incident.
What is most notable about the protests is that they were handled wholly by Government security forces, unlike in recent past when there was a strong force of international army which had primary security responsibility in the country.
Critics have contended that President Weah government’s shutdown of the Internet, mainly social media platform, contradicted his professed commitment to pluralistic democracy and free speech.
According to the critics, many of them organizers or participants of the recent June 7 protest, the disruption of segments of the Internet violated the people’s right to information which is fundamental constitutional rights.
However, Government supporters contend that it was a responsible and strategic decision to temporarily hold up the social media platforms for which Liberians are on record to fragrantly misusing, abusing and exploiting to the detriment of the country’s peace, harmony and stability.
Some pundits argue that it was better to have a few hours without social media platforms than to expose the war-weary citizenry and peace-hungry country to danger cleverly planned by vicious propagandists poised to fan conflict that could have consumed the country for a long time.
According to the government’s supporters, there were plans by mischief makers to use the social media to create fear, cause pandemonium and misrepresent situations on the ground in order to trigger chaos that could have been uncontrollable.
Edging on Firm Democratic Maturity
The June 7 protests which many had perceived to have been a trigger to recurrence to conflict and war came to pass without incident—by the peaceful conduct of the protesters and extreme tolerance of the Government.
What both the “Bring Back our Money” and “Save the State” Protests have done so far is, they accentuated the maturing nature of the country’s evolving culture, and this is harnessed by the political temperament of the government in charge.
Peaceful demonstrations by citizens and tolerant reaction of government will be the cornerstone of Liberia’s sustainable peace and democratic consolidation. They have no substitute. And it is good that there is a president who seemingly understands this and always willing to tolerate it.
Besides, the President has got no alternative because Liberians are becoming unusually obsessed with the exercise of their rights, and no one can stop them for being so, even if it means to go into the streets to protest, as a way to contributing their quotas to the national governance process.
When the country’s democracy is matured in that way, even future street demonstrations may not be perceived as apocalypse and the political and economic costs which previous ones had caused the country in the past will be avoided because they will turn out be always be peaceful.
Protests will be a major centerpiece or new normal of our democracy.