MONROVIA, Liberia – Thousands of Liberians gathered throughout their country to protest what most described as “misrule, bad governance, widespread organized corruption, gross violation of the Liberian Constitution, and a creeping dictatorship”
The protest organized by grassroots communities, various student organizations and activists, and widely supported by the country various political opposition groups including the Unity Party, Liberty Party, the Alternative National Congress and the All Liberian Party frowned on the excessive corruption and economic mismanagement that have bedeviled President George Manneh Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) led administration one year into his six-year term.
The protest in the country was intense and larger in the capital Monrovia on Friday as well as in the U.S. capital Washington, DC where diaspora Liberians marched to the Liberian Embassy and to the White House to registered their disapproval of the deteriorating conditions in their native country.
The Liberian government’s response to the citizens’ concerns: blocking internet and social media outlets.
According to the monitoring platform NetBlocks, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Google’s Gmail service and the website of The Associated Press were among the sites affected. A move widely condemned and termed as dictatorial by several political commentators in the United States, including some analysts and Congressional staffers on Capitol Hills.
The social media shutdown was established by assessing user capacities in the Liberian capital and in collaboration with the digital advocacy Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa. The country’s Minister of Information Eugene Nagbe confirmed that social media platforms were shutdown, temporarily because of “security concerns.”
“We have restored some of them,” he said. “We are not saying that the protesters were carrying out things detrimental to the nation, but the national security apparatus said there were threats to the country and the services were temporarily disrupted and have been restored,” said Minister Nagbe.
Reliable sources say instead of the government paying attention and addressing the economic meltdown as well as the breakdown of law and order, social media sites were blocked to quell the protests in an effort to prevent the international community from picturing the gravity of the problems in the country.
Labeled “Save The State,” the anti-government protests nationwide and in Liberian communities abroad come just over a year after former international soccer star George Manneh Weah was inaugurated into office in what some described as Liberia’s first peaceful democratic transition from one surviving former president to a newly elected president.
Weah, the former world best soccer player, campaigned on a promise to tackle corruption, cronyism, waste and mismanagement, and to deliver essential services such as improved healthcare, education, food security, and infrastructure as well as respecting the Liberian Constitutions and ensuring transparency and accountability in government.
Less than two years in power, student groups, activists and opposition political institutions in the country and in the diaspora say the president and the government have not just deliberately violated several provisions of the Liberian Constitution, the lack of transparency and accountability has also skyrocketed disproportionally at all levels of the government, facilitating hardship, excruciating poverty, misrule and economic collapse.
This all began against the backdrop when a few months into office, the Liberian government admitted that $104 million of freshly-minted currency had gone missing in a shipping container at the Freeport of Monrovia. After an unprecedented uproar led mainly by university students, officials recoiled insisting that the money was never lost even though most of it could not be accounted for properly. The administration’s Economic Management Team led by embattled Finance and Development Planning Minister Samuel Tweh allegedly ordered an economic revival plan. An additional $25 million, withdrawn from the country’s reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York meant to be injected into the economy to reduce inflation also disappeared with officials providing mixed and unreliable accounts of events surrounding how the fund was disbursed without using the country banking system. Both Kroll, a U.S. based firm and the Liberia’s General Auditing Commission’s reports confirmed these discrepancies and financial specialists described as “theft.”
Although the Liberian government has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, the purported organized theft and financial mismanagement are concerning to many Liberians who feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, especially with the Liberian dollar dropping by a third against the US dollar since Weah took office.
Inflation is also soaring as high as 28%, investors’ confidence is completely dismal and unemployment is the highest of all neighboring states – Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast – within the Mano River Union.
In addition to calling for the return of the missing millions, protestors are also requesting for the establishment of a war crimes court to begin international legal proceedings against those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during Liberia’s civil war.
Some economists and policy specialists believe the protest has added to Liberia’s ongoing dismal economic woes. Potential investors would consider the country as unsafe for business. Existing businesses and investors in the country are scaling down and back their investments and business expansion activities, and government’s revenue collection is expected to reduce drastically in the coming years. Several financial institutions in the country are also scaling down and Liberia is now placed under serious scrutiny for money laundering based several news reports regarding dubious financial inflow and outflow activities in the country.
The protest which is spearheaded by a group called the Council of Patriots, a collection of ordinary citizens, civil society activists, student groups, unemployed youths and major political parties including few lawmakers, is expected to continue if the government refuses to effect recommended changes, and honor the demands of the Liberian people, according to several people connected to council.
In a related development, there is rumor that an international travel ban to the United States and Europe could be imposed on some members of the Liberian government who are said to be linked to corruption, misrule and the abuse of power such as the targeting of civilians in the country. According to a credible source, the sanction could also affect immediate family members of designated officials living in the United States. Most Liberian officials have the immediate family members – especially wives and children – living in the United States, Canada and Europe. These include families of lawmakers and members of the President’s cabinet.
Some political commentators in the United States blamed former Liberia’s president Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for the country’s ongoing problems, especially the economic meltdown and her meddling in the country’s 2017’s presidential election aimed at protecting she and her family’s financial and other interests at the detriment of the state and its 4.7 million plus population.
Note: Dave Okonjie in Monrovia, Liberia and Ben Mabande in Washington, D.C. contributed to this story.