Each year since 1883, Liberian presidents past and present have issued proclamations declaring the Second Friday of April of each year as Fast and Prayer Day, a National Holiday. The date which falls on a Friday this year, coincides with a planned demonstration organizers hope will draw the world's attention to what they say are a series of issues including nepotism, corruption that are among the many ills plaguing the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led government.
Two civil society group's, Campaigners for Change and the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia plan to stage a protest march in Monrovia on April 12, in their bid to see a change in the state's governance system.
But historians say organizers may have miscalculated and were perhaps unaware that the day falls on a holiday this year making it highly unlikely that the demonstration may not get the desired impact, organizers hope to achieve.
'Not an ordinary holiday'
"It is not an ordinary holiday but one which has a sense of history," says Rev. Emmanuel Z. Bowier, host of the Emmanuel Bowier Exprerience on Radio Monrovia, 92.1 and a former Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism. "They (April 12 Demonstration organizers) may not have checked the calendar. It is not a Christian holiday or a Muslim holiday but a day for all who live in Liberia. It is also a day on which both Muslims and Christians go to pray. Would the demonstrators want to go out that day and disturb the fasting and praying of their people? Will 128 years of special prayers in grateful appreciation to God for blessing Liberia be pushed aside for a demonstration? Time will tell."
The Proclamation usually calls upon Prelates, Elders, Priests, Deacons and Imams as well as all residents within Liberia, regardless of religious creed, to gather in their respective places of worship to fast, pray and intercede for the nation and its people.
In previous years and most likely this year, presidents have directed and ordered all public offices, business houses as well as market places within the Republic to remain closed beginning at 8'O clock AM , while citizens and foreign residents are urged to cease their usual daily occupations in recognition of God's love and guidance for the nation. The proclamation is in consonance with the 1883 Act of the National Legislature which declares the Second Friday of April of each year as a National Holiday.
Sticking with Tradition, Foreign Minister Says
Usually, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a proclamation saying that the observance will be characterized by supplication, prayer, fasting and meditation so that the blessings of God will rest upon the nation and for the country's efforts to be crowned with great achievements to the common cause of the State and it's people.
Foreign Minister Augustine Ngafuan says Liberians can expect the holiday tradition to continue and nothing will change this year. "It will be the same old thing. On the second Friday in April, we will issue a proclamation. It wouldn't be any different," the Minister told FrontPageAfrica Wednesday.
Gunboat Diplomacy: Birth of a Holiday
According to C. Abayomi Cassell's Liberia: History of the First African Republic and other historical materials, the Fast and Prayer we celebrate in Liberia is not something that was born out of imagination. It was something that was born out of a historic reality when God saved Liberia. On March 20, 1882, four British gunboats from the then British colony of Sierra Leone appeared in the harbor of Cape Mesurado, officers came ashore led by Sir Arthur Havelock, Governor of Sierra Leone and Consul General of Great Britain to Liberia. Sir Havelock and several ranking naval officers landed without any formal notification and proceeded to the Executive Mansion in Monrovia. At the time, it was the current law library on Ashmun Street where Governor Havelock in a very hostile manner laid down an ultimatum to the Government of Liberia that it should consent immediately to a boundary line which would bring the British protectorate of Sierra Leone up to the River Mafa and the vicinity of current day Grand Cape Mount County. Havelock demanded immediate payment of an "indemnity" of $40, 800 claimed on behalf of a British merchant, Harris and others for losses alleged to have been sustained by them in the war which ensued from Harris' own contrivance in 1871. This indemnity had in fact already been paid by President Roberts during his last term in office.
President Gardiner and his government sensing the danger posed by the four gunboats and the harsh demands of the British governor from Sierra Leone, was compelled to accept this agreement after which the British returned to Sierra Leone.
An extraordinary session of the Legislature was called to consider the matter. Public opinion in the country at the time was aroused to a fever pitch against the decision of President Gardiner. The entire Liberian Senate refused to ratify an agreement made at gunpoint. The Senate and other responsible Liberians suggested that the situation be submitted to arbitration. Liberia's case was clear: The disputed territory had been acquired by lawful deeds of cessation and treaties voluntary entered into by the kings and chiefs of the areas. Liberian laws had been arrogantly violated by the British government in Sierra Leone.
1882 Senate Refused to bow to Threat
Harris and other traders had instigated the conflict between his mercenaries and the Vai tribe, leading to the destruction of a single factory which upon arbitration by Commander Shufeldt, was determined to be worth $US1, 400.00 which had already been paid.
The Liberian government and people claimed that between the years 1849 and 1852 they did, in a peaceful manner and by purchases at different dates, acquired from different dates, the rights of eminent domain to the area along the coast as far to a point named Sheeba, some forty miles off the coastline northwest of the Mano River; and this region was conveyed to the Liberian government by successive formal grant or deeds from the authorities of the tribes having the aboriginal possession of the sections in question.
Based on this the Senate refused to bow to the gunboat diplomacy of the British government in Sierra Leone.
The case seemed to have been settled with the refusal of the Liberian Senate to ratify the agreement in March. It was then that Governor Havelock returned with the same four gunboats on Sept. 7, 1882 to demand immediate ratification of his demands. President Anthony W. Gardiner proposed arbitration which was rejected by Havelock. Knowing that the British government in Sierra Leone could not sustain their argument before a court of justice, Gardiner put the argument to Governor Havelock: If the contested territory were British, why did Britain claim from Liberia an indemnity for acts of violence by the indigenous people there?
If Liberia however acknowledge her responsibility as she had done, and agreed to pay an indemnity, why should she also be deprived of territory for whose law and order she was admittedly responsible?
Gardiner promised to attempt for the second time to secure ratification by the Senate, which was not then in session. Havelock departed with his gunboats for Sierra Leone. The legislature was summoned for a second time and the Senate again refused to ratify the agreement forcibly wrestled from President Gardiner.
After the Senate refused, Gardiner panicked, he decided he could not continue, and resigned on January 20, 1883. His Vice President, Alfred F. Russell, a pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church succeeded him. It was Russell who took his Cabinet to the Providence Baptist Church, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 26, 1847, to fast and pray for God's guidance and protection. At the time, Liberia did not have an army, navy or any military force. At the end of the fasting and praying, the president and his cabinet emerged from the Providence Baptist Church to receive the good news that the four gunboats had left Liberia's shores. History recalls that shortly after that, in1883, the National Legislature declared that the second Friday in April of each year should be observed as Fast and Prayer Day in grateful appreciation of Gods act of deliverance, protection and guidance.
Prez Howard Also Turned to Fast & Prayer
This was not the only time this happen in Liberia's history. During the Second World War, the Americans encouraged Liberia to declare war on Germany and Liberia did. Hitler got angry and sent a gunboat and demanded that Liberia turn over to them all citizens from allied countries to Germany. A German submarine arrived in Liberia to demand that President Daniel E. Howard turns over all citizens from allied countries residing in Liberia at the time. Howard sent a message to the gunboat saying that he would not surrender the citizens, and that the German boat could "bomb" the capital Monrovia "and be damned!"
Howard had in the meantime sent an SOS message to the Americans, but was told that the American boat was too far and there was nothing they could do to help at that point in time. While President Howard and his Cabinet were in Prayers inside the church, the Germans bean to bomb portions of Monrovia, including Slipway, South Beach and the French cable building which is the current site of the National Business Registry on the corner of Ashmun and Sao Boso Streets.
Howard and his people were still in the Providence Baptist Church fasting and praying when a warship came and bombed the German submarine. A British sea captain came ashore and informed President Howard that he had received a copy of the radio gram sent to the Americans, which enabled the British to come to Liberia's aid. It should be recalled that Britain was the first country to recognize Liberia's independence.
The people of Liberia at the time determine that only God could have done that. They also remembered what had happened in the case of President Russell and his Cabinet when they went to the Providence Baptist Church for prayers in a time of national distress. It was based on the Howard experience that the Liberian legislature passed an act designating the first Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day in gratitude to God for saving Liberia.
Despite the day being a holiday, the planned demonstration on this very significant day is generating interests and concerns from various sectors of Liberia.
Human Rights Campaigner Dempster Brown issued a stern warning to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at a news conference Tuesday that President Sirleaf could be removed from office if she does not take the looming demonstration seriously. Says Brown: "Anything to the contrary will cause 'her government' to experience similar popular uprisings that toppled sitting governments in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab regions."
Security personnel are not taking anything for granted. The Liberia National Police, realizing what is at stake, has issued a word of caution to "troublemakers" that the police will remain robust in dealing with any situation that will jeopardize the security of the State.
Similarly, the United Nations has deployed a new Nepalese Formed Police Unit (FPU) comprised of some 120 officers to support peace and stability as a precautionary move to curb any potential sign of a protest getting out of control. The FPUs are an armed component of UNMIL's police personnel, and they conduct joint patrols with the Liberia National Police, providing rapid response capabilities for crowd control and demonstrations, protecting Government facilities and providing security at prisons.
Council of Churches, Muslims Dialogue
Interestingly, this year' Fast and Prayer Day comes at a time of looming tension between Christians and Muslims. Observers of both religions staged separate protests before the national legislature recently. Christians have petitioned the legislature for Chapter III, Article 14 of the 1986 constitution be amended to make Liberia a Christian nation and are also pressing for a referendum on the matter. While Muslims took turns at the Capitol trying to convince lawmakers to keep things the way they are.
On Tuesday, the Liberian Council of Churches held an executive meeting after which it was revealed that representatives from both religion have been meeting to resolve misunderstandings between the two. The LCC went as far as to suggest that it foresees a chaotic situation if Liberia is allowed to return to a Christian State. Bishop Kortu Brown, First Vice President of the LCC says Liberians must work together to sustain the country's fragile peace and emerging democracy rather than going after issues that have the propensity to undermine the gains made in reaching the country this far.
With about a week before the target April 12 demonstration, political observers will no doubt be taking keen interest in how organizers proceed and how government and the security apparatus put in place the mechanism to avoid a demonstration, if it holds, from getting out of hand. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether some Liberians will brave the storm and abandoned houses of worships for the streets in a last ditch effort to get their message to the powers that be.
Political observers say the current administration could take a cue from Howard and Russell, using the day for fasting and praying at that historic church, which twice in Liberian history, has proven God's faithfulness to the nation and people of Liberia.
That church is the first Christian church established in Liberia in 1820. When there was no town hall or pavilion, it hosted the constitutional convention in June and July in 1847, that led to the signing of Liberia's Declaration of Independence.
For Rev. Bowier, It is time for the Sirleaf administration to consider going back to the spiritual cornerstone of the nation, from where Liberia was given birth. "When Liberia was facing a war in 1989, we forgot that we had a shrine- the Providence Baptist Church. Perhaps, who knows what would have happened if the government in 1989 had gone there to fast and pray. Oldman Russell and Oldman Howard led their respective Cabinet to fast and pray, in 1989, a younger generation on both sides relied upon the arm of flesh (weapons/guns). Everyone was shouting "no retreat, no surrender!" We forgot our history, we forgot God's faithfulness toward us, Liberians."