Unemployment and the attendant deprivation has compelled many in the nation's capital to seek alternative means of survival – sidewalk trading or informal marketing, as economists will like to call it. For sometimes, or intermittently, police and the Monrovia City authority had accorded such citizens' initiative guarded acceptance, regarding it a necessary menace. As vendors increased and the sidewalks became unkempt and rowdy, however, they think it is time to apply the law. But as Nathaniel Walker reports, the attempt to apply the city ordinance did not go well: it sent downtown Monrovia reeling in bedlam, leaving several jailed and properties damaged.
Normal activities on Randall Street came to a standstill, yesterday, when attempts by officers of Liberia National Police (LNP) to clear the area of street vendors met stiff resistance from distraught vendors.
Commuters took to their heels and storeowners closed their doors when angry street vendors stoned police officers as they protested their removal, which they insisted, was unfair.
According to an eyewitness' account, distraught vendors initially hurled stones and other missiles at police during the protest in efforts to ward them off. The missiles, the eyewitness said, landed on vehicles and doors of stores on Randall Street, causing damage to properties.
When the protesters appeared to be having the upper hand, according to the eyewitness, the advance police unit called for a backup squad of the Police Support Unit (PSU) and riot police.
"The PSU and riot police swooped onto the scene, routed the protesters, arrested at least 12 protesters, and charged them with disorderly conduct and disturbing of public peace," the eyewitness said, revealing that those charged are being processed for prosecution.
As the protesters fled and calm returned to the busy downtown commercial hubbub, storeowners returned to assess their properties and count their losses.
"The cost of the damage done to my store is over US $500.00. Who do I go to to claim responsibility? Police officers should be very tactical and professional when executing such operations, because stiff resistance as such could result to bigger lose of lives and properties more than this," said Sam Anadani, owner of Dynamic Sound Store.
Deputy Police Commander for Operation, Abraham Kromah, told this paper yesterday that LNP arrested, detained, and is processing 12 "hooligans" for obstructing police operation.
"Some guys, I do not know who the hell they are. But they have been arrested. Look at what they did. They stoned people vehicles and stores. We got 12 of them. They did this because they were given simple instruction to clear certain portions of the sidewalk. They decided to defy that and to throw rocks at police officers who were enforcing this mandate," the police deputy said.
He said the vendors violated section 12.17 of the Penal Code of Liberia, which forbids street vending.
The vendor however disagreed that they violated any city ordinance, arguing that they had obtained operating rights from the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) to sell their wares.
The chair of Liberia National Street Vendors Association, Madam Comfort T. Doyan, vowed to ensure that the 12 individuals currently in police custody are released unconditionally. She accused police officers of harassing street vendors when all strategies to extort money from them fail.
"I am not happy over the news of the arrest of my members. I heard that 12 of my members were arrested for stoning people vehicles and stores, but since I arrived on the scene there is no evidence to prove the police allegation. Street vending is in all cities around the world," she claimed.
She argued further, "There is no law that forbids street vending. We are going by the city ordinance, which says no eatable items should be sold in the city center, which we are adhering to. I am very disappointed about this; the police should have contacted us."
She refute allegations that the protesting vendors caused the damage to properties, claiming that there was no proof.
Meanwhile, Ms Doyan said the street vendors were considering graduating from selling in the streets to occupying stores and malls currently occupied by foreigners. She did not say how they intended to do that, neither did she say how their advance in business has anything to do with foreigners doing legal business in Liberia.
For a month now, police in Monrovia have allegedly been confiscating goods of street vendors without first warning them to vacate the streets or without recourse to law.
Wednesday's bedlam, observers say, was the result of the apparent decision of street vendors prepared to end police 'harassment' and police prepared for business as usual under the law.