Hotels and guesthouses were closed, and foreign nationals were advised to stay away from Monrovia for a few days or to return to their country until further notice. For some days, the whole nation of Liberia had been preparing—and worrying about—the enormous demonstration planned for June 7, entitled “Save the State” by its organizers.
The protest expressed the anger of an exhausted and impoverished nation, directed against the local symbols of inefficiency: the corruption and the existing power system, both political and economic, which is non-functional and stifling.
Meanwhile, President George Manneh Weah, a former soccer player who became wealthy thanks to both his talent and his entourage, sat in the ivory tower of the Executive Mansion—which is undergoing opulent renovations. He represents a myth that many Liberians, including many of the protesters, still believe in.
“We love George. He is one of us,” Robert, who drives the three-wheeled “kekeh” taxis, told us while navigating the maddening traffic in Liberia’s capital. “He is our example, our hope. The problem is that the system is all rotten. He is not a professional politician: the people he has surrounded himself with are ripping him off.” We heard similar words from everyone, in markets and restaurants, in bars and on the streets: “We believe in Weah, but he must wake up and chase away the corrupt people, and rebuild the system,” Annette, the owner of a small hotel, told us with anger in her voice.
The detonator for the social unrest was ultimately the scandal of the shipping container full of money which disappeared from the Freeport of Monrovia sometime before September 2018, which contained currency worth about $104 million (20% of the annual government budget), and which simply vanished into thin air. It is not even clear if the robbery happened at one time or during different phases between 2016 and 2018. What is certain is that two sons of former president and Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both former executives of the country’s central bank, are currently on trial for embezzlement in the Liberian courts.
Corruption is an endemic problem in Liberia: it could be seen during the Ebola outbreak, when some hospitals refused to admit those patients who couldn’t afford to “grease the wheels” of the health system, and it is still there today. In a country where most work for the state and there is little (and only informal) free enterprise, “corruption” effectively means never having any guarantee that one will be able to earn enough money to feed one’s family, to buy medicine for the elderly or school books and supplies for one’s children. This underlying problem lay at the core of the outburst of rage over the vanished millions.
However, many people were scared at the prospect of the June 7 demonstration. Despite organizers’ assurances that the protest would use only peaceful and non-violent methods, the specter of another civil war weighed heavily. The country survived no less than two civil wars in the ‘90s and early 2000s, among the bloodiest and most devastating in African history. The African Union, ECOWAS, and international partners like the United States had asked Liberians repeatedly over the previous weeks to demonstrate peacefully, to calm the prevailing tone and reduce the tensions.
On Wednesday, June 5, tensions reached a fever pitch in the city, as a demonstration by a group of students at the University of Liberia, who were protesting against the arrest of Carlos T. Edison, president of the Student Unification Party, was dispersed by the police using tear gas, and the authorities set up a rapid response unit at the campus in view of the demonstration set to take place two days later.
Thankfully, there was no systematic violence by the authorities as there was under Samuel Doe in 1984, when there were mass beatings and rapes. This time there was only arrests and tear gas. But fears persisted that someone might cross the line during the protest, or that some policeman would open fire: “If someone shoots, it will be a bloodbath,” we heard someone say at the Elite Bar—but others contradicted him: “No, it will be a peaceful protest. We are tired of violence.” The fears are understandable, given the history of the country, where civil war is such a recent memory.
On June 7, the government adopted extreme security measures. According to the NGO Netblocks, which monitors state interference with the internet worldwide, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp were blocked on both of the major mobile networks in Liberia, and access was only restored in fits and starts—all for “security reasons,” as the Information Minister explained to CNN.
This did not prevent an enormous crowd from gathering in front of the Presidential Palace. There was a long sit-in, lasting four to five hours in Monrovia’s damp heat, which ended at sunset without the presentation of a formal set of demands by the Council of Patriots, the organizing committee, even after several members of the government sought dialogue and urged the presentation of demands.
As an initial condition for talks, the organizers asked for the release of those arrested at the university campus. They had been held for over 48 hours for no apparent reason. Even though no common ground could ultimately be found on this issue, the positive news was that the protest took place entirely peacefully. No one went to the hospital and no one ended up at the morgue, an outcome which was certainly not a given.
“The people won. Liberia won,” said George Wisner, a former director of the Investment Commission, who publicly thanked the organizers of the protest.
In conclusion, the glass can be seen as half full: both the new generation of Liberians and the current public safety authorities have shown self-control and strong nerves, and all remained strong in the face of intimidation, threats and, especially, fear.
The proverbial ball is now in the court of the former soccer star and current president, George Weah. While it’s true that he has not been given a list of clear demands by the protesters, it’s equally true that he can no longer afford to bury his head in the sand.