Benoni Urey held no punches last week, when he slammed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for what he described as abandoning the nation for an overseas adventure in the midst of a major health epidemic.
At a gathering of supporters at the Lomax Compound in the Zubah Town community, Urey, who has not hidden his interests in contesting the 2017 presidential elections, called on President Sirleaf to cut short her current trip and return home in order to lead the efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak in the country. He also questioned the benefits to the country of the President's traveling spree, suggesting that the president needs to spend more time at home and focus on the serious matters confronting the country and people rather than trotting around the world.
Urey's remarks sent the Sirleaf administration's spin doctors into overdrive, drawing strong statements from Internal Affairs Minister Morris Dukuly who is acting President: "Ebola is not a political issue, Ebola is life and death, when people are trying to contain it and to eliminate it, don't politicize it," Dukuly proclaimed during a presentation of anti-Ebola gears by the World Health Organization at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare last Friday.
Then late Saturday evening, the Executive Mansion posted on its website, a statement from President Sirleaf explaining that the President's trip was to Europe was planned "well before the Ebola situation evolved."
Said Sirleaf: "Before I left, I had proper consultations with the Minister of Health and his team. The situation was assessed. We felt that it was well under control; that the health team would continue to brief the nation and be very straight forward on what the situation was."
The President went on to state that since she left the country, she has been briefed everyday by the Minister of Health and his team. "I have received information through the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Dr. Edward McClain and through the United States Embassy whom we have contacted to send representatives from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. I received a message from Ambassador [Deborah] Malac that the team should be in Monrovia shortly."
'No Need for Panic', President Says
The President played down the impact of the deadly virus on Liberia when she said: "We believe that while it is a concern, there is no need for panic. The situation has been managed very well by the Ministry of Health working with some of our international partners and we do not believe that one needs to do anything more than take precaution, follow the instructions and advice of the Ministry of Health team."
Then turning to the aura of chatter in the air regarding Mr. Urey's statement, said: "This is not a thing for politicians. This is why, although the Senate had taken some actions relating to the border, we're glad that the House of Representatives decided that that action was not necessary.As far as we're concerned the situation is being contained and well controlled. We ask the media, we ask politicians and we ask everybody not to create panic in the country. By talking things when you don't have the details, you simply make people afraid and that's not good.We call on everybody to remain calm, listen to the daily briefings of the Ministry of Health to follow whatever their advice is. Be assured that I'm on top of it; I'm getting briefings; I'm in control of it; and I feel that the situation is being well managed."
Piah Says Urey a Political nobody
Presidential Press Secretary Jerolinmek Piah weighed in on the matter with a pointed attack on Urey, suggesting that Urey was a political nobody and a man who does not understand the intricacies of the President, advising him to leave politics and make his farms and sell scratch cards.
Said Piah "We have followed the lots of loose comments made by Mr. Benoni Urey, specifically targeted at the presidency. My initial thoughts are in honest; Mr. Urey comments reflect a serious governance and political ineptitude and naivety on the part of a political nobody who has allowed his quest for the presidency to render him mischievous and disingenuous. Mr. Urey argues that President Sirleaf has no interest in Liberia and its people simply due to the fact that she departed the country to participate in the EU- Africa summit at the time an outbreak of Ebola was reported in the country. If this statement came from just anybody we would not have been surprise at all. But coming from a man who says he has the desire for the presidency, we are not only surprise but ashamed for his person. As a person who currently works at the presidency, and is intoned with presidential activities, duties and functions let me use this time to provide a little education to Mr. Urey about the presidency".
According to Piah, the Presidency is a multitasking office and Mr. Urey needs to understand that even while in the country or outside, President Sirleaf still performs her functions as required of her office.
Piah continued: "The presidency, not just of Liberia but all other countries is a multitask office of government that is not and cannot be a one-stop shop set of functions. Iin fact, a president must deal with multiple issues at the same time and does not shut down all other activities of government because of one situation. A President, he or she remains president no matter where he or she is, whether in Guinea, in Sierra Leone, Brussels or in other parts of the very country. It can never be considered that a president has abandoned the country simply due to her absence from the country. Mr. Urey needs to know that when the president of a country is out on international assignments he or she mobilizes and directs the government to perform in fact at such occasions; Presidents are always engaged bilaterally, most times to the benefit of the country".
The Presidential Press Secretary also said while away President Sirleaf's discussions have been focused on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.
"Let me quickly state to Mr. Urey that many of the bilateral engagements that President Sirleaf have had on her current visit abroad has been dominated by issues surrounding the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia. The simple reason is this, for a disease like Ebola which if blown to a bigger magnitude will not only require activities and intervention of the government of Liberia but all of Liberia's partners to ensure that it is crushed, that is exactly the reason why in her bilateral discussions while away, President Sirleaf is briefing other heads of government and international organizations who are now on alert to assist Liberia should we find it difficult to control the current outbreak", Piah explained.
Urey does not Understand Simple Issues
The Presidential Press Secretary also indicated that Mr. Urey does not understand the workings of the presidency.
"Another issue is that if a person who desires the Presidency of Liberia does not understand these simple, elementary principles of the presidency, such person we advise better should remain selling their scratch cards and making their farms other than having the naked desire for the presidency when he or she does not understand. Mr. Urey as reflected clearly from his utterance, he has gross limitations in understanding the intricacies of the presidency, a fault he has exposed as a result of his loose comments.
'President for Murderers and Criminals?'
Of interest to us is the suggestion also made by Mr. Urey that other well-meaning citizens of our country who are providing services to the government are "Americans" and should be according to him voted out of office so that they park their things and return to America. What an agent of divisiveness, is this the Mr. Urey who wants to be president? What kind of president will he be when he has started to his own accord to draw dichotomies amongst our people. He wants to be president for murderers and criminals, let me quickly remind you that Liberia does not need a murderer in chief nor a criminal in chief but a commander in chief who transforms even the murderers and criminals to be productive citizens. If there are people who by their deeds and actions has made others to be murderers and criminals and see themselves as president for those people, than that is a zone of comfort that they could remain in, rather than seeking the presidency which they demonstrated that they have no understandingabout", said Piah.
Piah disclosed that President Sirleaf has been working with the Acting head of the Cabinet on the Ebola issues.
Piah Said: "Let me also say to Mr. Urey that before the president departed the country she was engaged with the Ebola outbreak, three separate meetings were held with the president by the technical committee, who provided technical adequate briefing which enabled her to direct the course of action as was required in handling the Ebola situation. He needs to also know that more than three times a day the president receives briefing from the Acting head of Cabinet in person of Hon. Morris Dukuly which is also enabling her to perform adequately her supervisory responsibility. Mr. Urey also ought to know that in six weeks over 70 died in Guinea from the outbreak, moving to three weeks now, you can see for yourself the mortality rate, this should be a clear demonstration that those who are in charge of this process are performing with efficiency purely based on account of the kind of supervision that is being provided by the president".
Piah cautioned Liberians to not politicize the issue regarding the Ebola, saying "the Executive Mansion will like to strongly advise all Liberians and politicians in particular, to refrain from using this serious health issue for politics as the spread of the disease will know no man. This is a situation that requires all hands and time and not a time for politics".
Piah's rants drew immediate response from Mr. Urey's camp, which hinted that a lawsuit could be filed against the Executive Mansion. "After consulting with his lawyers about the diabolical distortion of his person and character by Press Secretary Jeroylinmek Piah, Mr. Benoni Urey is considering filing a lawsuit so as to seek redress in the courts, "spokesperson for Urey told FrontPageAfrica Sunday.
On another front, Mr. Urey cautioned Liberians against voting for or electing people who are currently part of this administration or associated with it because according to him, they have failed the Liberian people, and should not be allowed to continue to do so beyond this administration. He intimated that because most of the key positions in this government are held by people who came from the diaspora, the Liberian people must not elect them because they have shown not to have love for country. Press Secretary Piah speaks today at 1pm in response to Mr. Urey's statements.
ULSU slams president, too
Despite the rebuke of Urey by the presidency, the University of Liberia Student Union is adding its weight to the controversy, also question why the president chose to be out of the country in the middle of the crisis.
In a statement issued in Monrovia Sunday, the ULSU condemned what it called the perpetual absence of the President on the matter called on the student and youth communities to join the body in demanding the immediate return of Madam Sirleaf back home as she hurriedly did when her personal political and presidential position and interest were threatened by the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia and the Ellen Step Down Campaigners.
"ULSU supports and welcomes the position and statements from national opinion leaders, student and youth leaders and organizations questioning the immediate exit of the President from the Country at a time when the lives of the very Liberians she would claim 'to be working for' are threatened. In the same vein, the student government condemns the statement from the Presidential Press Secretary and other government institutions that are constantly reining insults on credible people in society without regard to constructively analyzing and reasonably engaging the substance of the argument those people are proffering."
The body also took aim at Presidential press secretary Piah: "In the face of this, it is ridiculous to hear the Presidential Press Secretary attacking others who have their undeniable rights to raise their voices on the status of the absence of their president and not Madam Sirleaf as the mother of the Press Secretary. We wish to state that public officials of intimate relationship with and functions of the President as a person and the government as the state institution must conduct their public functions free of personal emotions and political sentiments."
The ULSU hailed the level of information dissemination on the Ebola, health crisis, but recommended that the Minister of Health exerts the greatest concentration in rural Liberia through the dialects of our people. "We call on the United Nations, the general International Community and all partners to the Liberian government to give no dime in fighting this Ebola virus without a very strong, watertight financial Monitoring and Evaluation mechanism to ensure the protection of their financial and material resources to the helpless people of Liberia."
Outbreak havoc in West Africa
The political squabbles in Liberia amid the death of some 86 people who have died so far from Ebola in Guinea and two other confirmed deaths have been reported in neighboring Liberia. Authorities in Mali are also investigating three suspected cases of Ebola, and they have sent samples overseas for testing.
Experts say that Ebola is carried by fruit bats living in West Africa, and that it could have been transmitted to a human who ate a bat or other animal that had been bitten by a bat. Health officials emphasize it can only be spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is infected. But that hasn't stopped fearing and misinformation from spreading.
In Guinea, passengers aboard a crowded bus fled at the sight of an elderly man who vomited, fearing he was ill with Ebola. In Mali, people protested in the neighborhood where the suspected Ebola patients were being isolated, fearing their presence.
An Air France flight from the Guinean capital that landed in Paris on Friday was briefly quarantined after the crew discovered indications that a passenger had been sick in the toilets. After medical checks on board the flight, the 180 passengers and 11 crew members were released, Air France said.
Since the outbreak of the deadly strain of Zaire Ebola in Guinea in February, around 90 people have died as the disease has travelled to neighboring Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali. The outbreak has sent shock waves through communities who know little about the disease or how it is transmitted. The cases in Mali have added to fears that it is spreading through West Africa.
Ebola is one of the world's deadliest viruses, causing a hemorrhagic fever that kills up to 90% of those infected. It spreads in the blood and shuts down the immune system, causing high fever, headache and muscle pain, often accompanied by bleeding. The virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), where one of the first outbreaks occurred in 1976.