Liberia: State Security Brutality Mars Early Days of Lockdown

Traders in Monrovia's largest market district of Waterside on the morning the quarantine was lifted off West Point that's nearby.

-Many blame ambiguous messages from government

The enforcement of a new set of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus often begin gently in other parts of the world, with warnings and explanations, but in Liberia, citizens have been greeted with brute force and as things stand, it is just a matter of time before the entire situation escalates into sporadic violent scenes in Montserrado County and other parts of the country.

This means that the breeding tension, therefore, needs quick intervention from central government to help deescalate the current anger that is flaring among residents across Monrovia and its environs.

The new regulations, which were precipitated by a state of emergency declared by the President Weah last week, aimed at keeping citizens inside their homes as much as possible, went into effect at 11:59 PM on Friday, April 10. The restriction starts from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., the President said.

From that time, people are meant to stay at home unless they are going to an approved job, purchasing food or medicine.

But things started on an ugly note as viral social media footage at the onset of the restrictions, early Saturday morning through Monday afternoon, showed cases of joint security brutality against citizens in Monrovia, Paynesville and other parts of the country.

Security forces were seen punishing residents who failed to adhere to the lockdown directive from the President.

After announcing a state of emergency across the country, President Weah on Wednesday, April 8, announced lockdown of four of the fifteen counties as an enhanced measure to prevent increasing community spread having closed down all borders -- air and land.

The brutality meted against residents, at times at their homes, brought a reminder of the time the country was in a total crisis when laws of the land became practically non-existent.

Whips and other brute force tools are being used to enforce social distancing in market places and to discipline citizens caught outside their homes without "valid reason."

"Is it only through violence and humiliation our security officers can deal with the people?" one caller asked on Spoon FM in Monrovia. "It is unacceptable to see such inhuman and degrading treatment against the population," "This is uncalled for and inappropriate. There is no need for torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and no excessive use of force. Why should we be treating our own people like this? Some people are even beaten while in their yard. Are we protecting the virus against the people or we should be protecting the people against the virus?"

The random brutality has left Liberians questioning whether what the President declared is a curfew or a lockdown.

The Montserrado County Senator Abraham Darius Dillon said there is the need for the Executive to clearly define whether there is a curfew or a lockdown.

Dillon: "There is no understanding. The security man can use his discretion whether you can get on your porch or you can leave your yard to go your neighbour for salt or you should stay in your room. A lockdown is to confine you to a certain locality, curfew means don't come outside at all, stay within... As it is, because there is no clear defined measure that we can either modify or revoke, it is left in the hands of the security and sadly we have regime security rather than state security," he told FrontPage Africa in an interview.

Many believe that the government may struggle to keep citizens indoors and the security forces may just retort intimidation tactics.

Ambiguous messages, undefined role of state security

If care is not taken, the fight against COVID might take an ugly trend if messages coming from the government are not synchronized and edited for simplicity and clarity, from what the Daily Observer has observed so far.

Some are blaming President Weah for not being too succinct with his messages during his state of emergency declaration--a situation that has created more confusion.

Many are confused as to who the 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. timeframe is for. Liberians were seen en masse early Saturday and Monday morning with the justification that the President said they can be allowed out of their homes until 3:00 p.m.

The communications arm of the government did not even help the President in simplifying or explaining his message to the people.

"We don't even know who the period outlined by the President is meant for. We see everyone in the streets talking about they are supposed to be home by three. We are confused and we need clarity," Diamon Slanger, a Liberian journalist, said on Monday.

Slanger thinks the messages need more explanation for the understanding of the people. "What I do understand is that the 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. period is for the workers of these essential businesses and government entities that the President talked about, but the way things are going, I'm not sure the people got the message rightly," he said.

Disorganized security sector

Many fear that actions and measures that should propel the nation to defeat the Coronavirus pandemic are absent in the state of emergency proclamation.

Some are baffled that the President is yet to come up with any plan of action, apart from amassing members of the disorganized joint security at checkpoints and market areas to enforce the lockdown proclamation.

The composition of the joint security is still unknown as people complained of motorbike security, Boy Scouts and City Police officers are harassing them.

"If no comprehensive action plan is put in place and if the implementations of agreed measures are not placed in the hands of competent people with the requisite knowledge in fighting infectious diseases, COVID-19 would continue to spread regardless of the barricades erected by the paramilitary against the free movement of Liberians, coupled with the attendant intimidation and harassments," Alex Harrison told the Daily Observer.

The footages brutality also prompted the former LNP Inspector General, Gregory Coleman, to caution the joint security forces against the harassment and intimidation of peaceful citizens. He sent out the warning on his social media page, reminding the security actors about their fundamental duty to serve the communities and protect lives and properties.

"The constitutional rights of citizens to liberty, equality and justice must be respected by all security actors," Coleman cautioned. "As law enforcement officers are given the power and authority to execute such mandate, you should know your fundamental duty is to serve the community, to safeguard lives and properties, to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against abuse or disorder, and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice."

The Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) has already started sounding out a clarion call to state security personnel that they would be held liable for any rights violations during this 21-day State of Emergency.

INCHR Acting Commissioner, Rev. Bartholomew B. Colley, said over the weekend that "law enforcers" should be held liable for any violation of international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Gov't ignoring bread and butter issues

Amidst all of these, for many Liberians, the need to make a living trumps both fears of catching the deadly virus and encountering the police, prompting law enforcement officers to step up their show of force.

Apart from a well-structured security team to enforce the restrictions, stimulus packages for the less fortunate, many believe, would have helped do the magic during this critical period.

But people throughout the country, but especially in Monrovia, are worried that the government did not provide any practical economic plan to assist low-income earners, extremely poor people and people with disabilities.

Against this backdrop, it seems that the risk of being whipped by security officers is doing little to stop citizens across the country from pursuing their daily activities.

Some eminent Liberians, including Senator Dillon and Representative Francis Dopoh, have been calling on the government to make some sacrifices and cater to the needs of the people.

Dillon has called for some interventions such as the temporary restoration of the three days 'free call' promotion; civil servants to be paid for a period of two months and the need for electricity supply to be regular and stable in order to make people comfortable as they stay at home. These are all meant to help ease the economic tension on Liberians during the state of emergency, Dillon advised.

Rep. Dopoh also said there should be incentives to ensure that supplies of staple and essential foods are regionally and sufficiently available for vulnerable communities.

"The Government should ensure that employees of Government receive salary advances, while private companies are encouraged to do whatever they can to give their employees advances," he says. "Small businesses that have loan obligations should have repayment deferred, including tax returns filings."

But such measures are difficult to enact in countries where most people live in poverty and work informally, often in packed urban slums with little access to sanitation.

Many stakeholders are of the view that if the government takes measures which starve everybody, the citizens would end up defying the measures. "This country lacks the means to enforce public confinement," a top government official said.

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