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Liberia’s vocal and leading government critic returns home; testing President Weah

PHILADELPHIA, USA— Liberia’s most vocal socio-political critic, leading talk show host, leader of grassroots political opposition group “the Council of Patriots,” and CEO of Roots Communications which owns Roots FM and a recording studio in the Liberian capital Monrovia, Mr. Henry Pedro Costa is once again returning to a long-awaited cheering crowd in the capital’s main airport on Thursday, December 19, 2019, despite the Liberian government threats to arrest him, energizing his supporters in a political showdown with President George Manneh Weah, a former international soccer star who won the 2016 Liberian presidential poll to succeed former Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Henry Pedro Costa en route to the airport in the U.S.

Mr. Costa, who is studying in the United States, boarded a commercial flight yesterday, December 17, 2019, from the Philadelphia Airport for West Africa.  He calmly walked through immigration at the airport, after emerging from hundreds of Diaspora Liberian supporters who chanted, “Yes, we can change Liberia and make it better!” and waved signs of peace and love.

Political analysts say his arrival in Monrovia on Thursday will electrify many Liberians, who see his return as a sign the opposition call on the Liberian government to improve its governance practices has the upper hand against a deeply unpopular administration and a leadership that is massively failing in managing the country’s economy and eliminating or reducing public theft and organized corruption while simultaneously relying on police brutality to maintain power.

Mr. Costa made it clear that he has nothing personal against the current President of Liberia. All he wants “is for the President to do the right thing and to govern the country right so that Liberians can have improved standards of living.”

After threatening to arrest him upon arrival, the Liberian government has become wise by playing down Mr. Costa’s return even though vast state resources are being committed in preparation for his return, mainly in security and counter-protest facilitation against the Council of Patriots’ planned protest to be led by Mr. Costa on December 30, 2019, in Monrovia.

Mr. Costa’s potential, unimpeded arrival—in broad daylight and through the country’s main airport—threatens to make President Weah look weak to the Liberian people as well as to his very few remaining foreign allies if any.

According to reliable sources, the government has planned not to make an arrest even though attempting to make any such arrests would cause far more internal problems and international backlash for the administration and all those associated with it.

This development has “restored momentum to the opposition,” said Peter Daniels, a supporter of Mr. Costa and a Liberian postgraduate student in the United States.

Mr. Costa has been in contact with several top-level western officials with interest in Africa and Liberia in particular.  He has also made contacts and briefed the offices of some senior-level members of the U.S. Congress and the Senate, including the staff of his resident state of Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons office.

Prior to his departure, leading western human rights organizations and private investigation firms specializing in human rights violations and police brutality have dispatched investigators and rapporteurs to observe, document, and report on and about any abuses and violations against Mr. Costa and other Liberians during the planned December 30, 2019’s protest.

It is reported, though unconfirmed by Globe Afrique, that few western administrations have vowed to take swift action against the Liberian government and its officials, including imposing travel ban if anything happens to Mr. Costa or any group of Liberians during the peaceful protest.  Western diplomats, including from France, the UK, Germany, and the U.S., are expected to monitor development in Liberia and report back to their principals.

Supporters of President Weah and the Liberian administration say the President and his administration inherited a very bad economy and a misguided political and economic culture from his predecessor former President Sirleaf, whose administration was fraught with ‘organized corruption’ and ‘influence peddling,’ a charge the former president continues to deny.

However, observers and reports by international organizations say economic mismanagement, institutional incompetence, and rampant corruption under President Weah have sparked hyperinflation and rampant food and medicinal shortages. Consequently, making the country totally dependent on foreign assistance, mainly from the United States government.

Unverified reports from Liberia say President Weah intends reshaping his administration with a possible reshuffle to include better qualified and experienced professionals to help him manage the affairs of the country, including ordering a detailed audit of the past administration and empowering the country’s recently set up asset recovery team.

Some Liberians, including Mr. Costa, doubt if President Weah will change his attitude and reliance on the few people he has surrounding him and providing bad advice.  

People march during a protest to voice discontent towards the presidency of former footballer George Weah, whose policies they see as having failed to curb economic decline and mitigate corruption, in Monrovia, Liberia June 7, 2019.
Thousands joined Mr. Costa in protest

In the first protest led by Mr. Costa, an estimated 20,000 people attended the anti-government protest in Monrovia on June 7, 2019. It was sparked by anger about increasing economic hardship and a feeling that President Weah’s government is not doing enough to tackle rising inflation – currently the fourth highest in Africa.
 
“The current team is incapable of managing the economy,” says Henry Costa, a radio talk show host who played a leading role in organizing the protest. “We believe they should be fired and replaced by people who have a demonstrated track record of competence.”
 
Not everyone at that time turned against Weah, who warned that “our economy is broken [and] our government is broke” in an address to the nation shortly after he took office in January 2018. But now the calculus has changed with everyone not being paid.

Ordinary Liberians are complaining that prices of goods and other things have gone up in the market and the president is doing nothing about that.  Most vowed that they won’t be voting for him again if he even stays in power until 2023.
 
Many Liberians are supporting the demands of the Council of Patriots.  Top of the list, according to Mr. Costa, is a demand for Weah to disclose his assets, which he has so far declined to do in spite of mounting suspicion surrounding private construction projects undertaken since he assumed office.  
 
“We want to know what he had before becoming president, how he is able to build so many properties and acquire new ones in a relatively short period of time when he didn’t do that before coming to power,” says Costa.
 
The Council of Patriots is threatening further protests if the government fails to act on their demands within a month after June 7.
 
President Weah soon reacted after the June 7 incident by calling for a national roundtable to hear the views of the opposition, civil society, and religious leaders on how best to revive the economy. Eugene Nagbe, the Minister for Information, said the dialogue would have been the extent of the government’s response to the protesters.
 
“As Liberians, they have a right to make their views clear,” Nagbe told VOA this year. “But as a government, our response is a nationalistic one, a general one and this is why Mr. President recognized that there are alternative views, and because of the alternative views, he said come to the table so that we can have a discussion.”

Mr. Costa who is seen as the voice of voiceless dismissed the call for dialogue as “a theatrical move.
 
“We don’t need dialogue for the president to publish his assets. What are we going to dialogue about? We want action taken, and we will not rest until we compel him to act.”
 
Dr. Edwin Gbargaye, a lecturer in Economics and Public Administration at the University of Liberia, considers the solution to be clear-cut: “Good governance is the best way out. Minimize corruption and make sure that food and basic necessities are in the homes of Liberians.”
 
“We are not denying that there is a serious economic crisis,” says government spokesman Nagbe, “but we are putting in place the right measures to fix it.

Critics of the Liberian government say since the June 7, 2019 protest, nothing has changed.   

Mr. Costa’s first arrival in Liberia for the June 7, 2019 protest. Costa in white surrounded by supporters.

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Paul Stevens

Paul Stevens is a researcher, media issues analyst and senior contributor with Globe Afrique.
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