Liberia: Reframing the June 7 Protest - Why I Believe the Protest Lacks an Organic Character

ECOWAS House Abuja

In a previous edition of the Voice of a Patriot (my syndicated articles), I situated the growing appetite for protest in Liberia in the context of a growing protest movement in Africa against bad governance and in demand for social services.

In that piece, I called for a dialogue between the Government of Liberia given the rising tension between the different political forces. In this piece, I reframe the planned June 7 protest in the context of Liberia's shaky and unreliable alliances amongst the political elites, the competition for power among them. I further make the case that the fact that the protest is not organized by the disaffected citizenry in various civil society, trade union, and community organizations, it leaves much to be desired in terms of character, trust and credibility.

There is no gainsaying that the Liberian economy is under severe strains, thereby making life difficult for the ordinary Liberian; there is neither a denial of the fact that recent reports on financial transactions question the credibility of the fight against corruption as promised by the President. The recent rapid decline in purchasing power caused by rising inflation and depreciation of the local currency and the perennial problem of mass unemployment are all conditions that spark genuine protests - mostly organized by disaffected citizens. Street protests in all history, is among the last instruments of political action by those without power; those who have no other means to communicate with political authority; and those who have no authority to influence the change that they so desire in their society.

In Liberia today, the much-publicized 'Save the State' protest against the government set to commence on June 7 is organized under a completely different situation, and this in all essence gives us reasons to reflect deeply given the history, character and affiliations of those behind the mobilization. Furthermore, despite numerous high-level meetings, besides asking for their right to protest, the protest leaders are yet to present to the President their immediate concerns which perhaps could lead to some reforms in the immediate if they were issues solely within the authority of the President. This even leaves open more questions on the general motives of the protest: Is there an ultimate (or unspoken) objective beyond the stated ones for economic reforms and good governance? The jury is out there to decide. However, a much deeper reflection on Liberia's political elites and their interactions that continue to reproduce poverty for the citizens, yet recycle them (elites) in power leads us to the following argument given the current protest environment and its organizers.

First, the protest by far lacks an organic character. A protest is organic when it originates from the disaffected masses who have no means of engaging with their government and have no power to change their own lots. With the structure of the leadership behind the June 7 protest, it is easy to suggest that it is a denouement of a fallout from the various alliances that are formed to advance the interest of different groups among the Liberian political elites. Liberian political leaders, at least in recent memory are makers of unthinkable alliances which they form at different points to advance their political and business interests. These shaky alliances were more obvious during the administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. These alliances, rather than firm beliefs in constitutional principles or ideological commitments to questions of service delivery, governance and distribution of the national wealth - have been the defining factors that shape the actions of Liberian politicians. Those that speak out normally are those short-changed in the distribution of the political or material dividends of the alliances.

President Sirleaf (an adroit Machiavellian politician) worked her way out through these alliances very successfully to keep her government stable and afloat: she broke into the main opposition parties and recruited their most outspoken cadres, and as expected, some of them condemned their former parties in favour of their new allies; she successfully weakened potential opposition parties and merged them into her Unity Party ahead of the 2011 election when she ran for a second term. She kept senior leaders of perceived radical opposition parties on regular allowances and included them on major government delegations abroad. And as we were informed lately, she drew in the wartime 'generals' and shared with them largess to buy discrete loyalty.

Evidence abound that those organizing the much publicized June 7 protest today were at some point allies of the current President and the ruling party, or have made efforts to form some forms of alliance with the current ruling party but were perhaps short-changed or completely resented. Also George Weah and his handlers, might have been cherry-picking or perhaps not forming the appropriate alliances; hence the fallout.

Moving forward, Weah will be left with two choices: either to succeed as a regular Liberian politician or to succeed as a great Liberian President. To be a 'successful' Liberian politician he must take some leaves from Sirleaf's Machiavellian playbook by keeping the political elites in his patronage network/alliance. In this sense, 'success' in Liberian politics is defined by one's ability to manipulate the political elites, embezzle public resources, and live extravagantly without facing any form of accountability or mass protest.

To be a great Liberian President, Weah must muster the courage and abandon the misguided populist activities and inflammatory rhetoric within his party, and tackle the core issues of poverty, underdevelopment and corruption by mobilizing a cadre of competent, capable and trustworthy Liberians. Ironically, Weah's party has no shortage of competent, capable and trustworthy cadres. Weah must look deeply within his party and bring on board those with the competency to help him deliver on his grand promises and keep the masses on his side.

Second, the leadership structure and the alliances surrounding the protest makes it convenient to frame it in the context of the competition for Executive authority (the Presidency and the cabinet) in Liberia. It is difficult to dissociate the 'Council of Patriots' (the protest organizers) from the collaboration of the four leading opposition parties that are collaborating to support a single presidential candidate in the 2023 presidential election. As a start, the four parties now back a single candidate in every legislative by-election since their political fling started. The faces representing the Council are the key public faces of the collaborating parties. Besides, most of those leading the protest, were people who raucously campaigned and deployed resources to win the 2017 Presidential election but failed against the current ruling party. Their mobilization of the citizens now around the obvious issues of economic hardship can only be framed as an extension of their expressed opposition, and as a show of strength in preparation for future elections.

Finally, those organizing the protest are not powerless. The organizers are leaders of political parties who have been endorsed by their own parties and other parties to carry out the protest action. Among the organizers are legislators with the constitutional authority to make laws, and to demand accountability through oversight powers, and to facilitate enforcement of accountability mechanisms through empowering state institutions with resources. And as I mentioned in my previous article, among them (opposition parties supporting the protest), they have the highest number of legislators, enough to initiate - and see through the legislative process - some of the much needed reforms required to transform the economy and strengthen governance and the public service. However, there is no evidence that they have submitted any bill regarding specific reforms in any sector of the economy which the President had vetoed; there is no evidence that they have done the required budgetary appropriations for the anti-corruption commission and other pro-integrity agencies and the President had vetoed same. This now begs the following question: what step has been taken to address these issues by these parties in the legislature before resorting to street protest?

President Weah has no short-term solution to Liberia's perennial problems of underdevelopment and inequality. While he might have inherited an economy already set on the cliff edge and a corrupt public service, as admitted by his predecessor, his own policy decisions largely spurred by misguided populist exuberance might have exacerbated the problems. Some can be reversed using executive authority.

But the problems are structural: they border on the need for a rethink of our mode of economic production and distribution; the unsettled questions around justice for war victims and perpetrators, and reconciliation; constitutional issues regarding citizenship, decentralization of power, and tenure of public officials, and a firm constitutional security for anti-corruption agencies. Real and sustainable transformation will have to address these core problems, and one would expect parties in and out of the Legislature to mobilize and engage the current government on these issues. Their failure to bring them forth and the government's own silence on these questions is a collective failure of the political leadership.

Therefore, instead of the political parties organizing a protest against President Weah, they must rather join President Weah to begin substantive conversations and debates on these structural problems, lest they all be held accountable for any fallout that may naturally result from the self-mobilization of the people for a leaderless mass protest. And given the rapid decline in the living standards of the ordinary citizens, and the apparent loss of faith in the collective of political leadership (ruling and opposition parties), such mobilization of the organic organizations representing the people in the communities, trade unions, and civil society seems imminent.

In the cause of democracy and social justice, the pen shall never run dry

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