April is the hottest month in Liberia. The temperature easily reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 32 degrees Celsius). The sky often is cloudy. Thunderstorms announce the 7 months rainy season. Air humidity will gradually rise and reach its maximum of 100 per cent in the coastal areas at the end of July. By then the air feels like a hot blanket.
April may also be politically hot. Sometimes steaming hot – like this year.
On April 14, 1979 the ‘Rice Riots’ took the government of then President Tolbert by surprise. In Monrovia, demonstrators protested against the announced increase of rice, the staple food, but the underlying anger had everything to do with the political exclusion of tribal people by the Americo-Liberian elite. The demonstration turned into an orgy of looting after the police fired live ammunition at the demonstrators killing hundreds of them.
Almost exactly a year later, on April 12, 1980, the Americo-Liberian President Tolbert was assassinated in a bloody military coup d’état that brought master-sergeant Samuel Doe to power, a Krahn from the eastern part of the country (Grand Gedeh County). Doe thus became Liberia’s first president of tribal origin since the creation of the republic in 1847. During the coup and for the first time in the nation’s history, Liberians in the streets of Monrovia were halted and asked to speak one of the country’s thirty tribal languages, a move directed at the identification of Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the founders of the republic.
Ten days after the coup – still in April – thirteen men were savagely and publicly executed on a beach in Monrovia, after a mockery trial. The former government officials and True Whig Party leaders were executed in a horrific scene, witnessed by a cheering crowd.
Sixteen years later another April month brought chaos, fear and death. The first civil war (1989-1996) was in its seventh year when on April 6, 1996 two warlords in the power-sharing transitional government, Charles Taylor (NPFL) and Alhaji Kromah (ULIMO-K), orchestrated the arrest of another warlord, Roosevelt Johnson (ULIOMO-J), causing a flaring up of fighting resulting in the death of many and the displacement of thousands who fled the capital city.
In light of the foregoing it is very understandable that when opposition leaders announced an April 12 demonstration against the Sirleaf Administration, the government was not eager to let this happen. 35 civil society groups including the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL) wanted President Sirleaf to resign. The internationally acclaimed President because of her many achievements – notably in the areas of human rights and private sector development – was accused of corruption, nepotism and bad governance. Also reports that the police wanted to demonstrate on April 12 because of payment arrears contributed to a serious and tense situation.
Early April a leaked confidential document suggested that the April 12 demonstration was an attempt to topple the Sirleaf government. Financed by the Liberian diaspora in the United States 400 ex-combatants – mainly from the MODEL warring faction, allegedly Grand Gedeans - were to carry out the operation. According to the document published by the Monrovia-based Heritage newspaper the alleged coup organizers accused the Sirleaf government of being mainly composed of sons and daughters from the regime of the deposed President Tolbert. Moreover, they accused the Sirleaf Administration of a vendetta campaign against Grand Gedeans (read: Krahn people). Grand Gedeans in the USA were quick to reject the Heritage newspaper article that quoted the unspecified security report and reaffirmed their commitment to peace in Liberia.
The existence of the leaked confidential document has never been proven but what is more important is that thus a tribal element was introduced in the politics surrounding the planned April 12 demonstration. Besides, President Sirleaf has never been popular in Grand Gedeh County where she lost two presidential elections to her main rival, George Weah, leader of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Last year President Sirleaf nominated George Weah as her peace ambassador, a nomination he accepted.
Three days before the planned demonstration Archie Sannoh, leader of the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia (COTOL), called off the planned protest, causing a split in the opposition. Archiebego Doe of the GLN, Grassroot Leadership Network, immediately announced that the protest stood as planned. He accused the Coalition leaders of taking bribes. Later, the government confirmed that planners of the demonstration received money to call off the planned protest.
And the CDC – the main opposition party – and George Weah, what was their position?
Initially the CDC favored the protest against President Sirleaf but the party later withdrew its support. Also George Weah backed off. He said he was not willing to discuss any demonstration and he gave a very good reason for it: he was mourning his late mother who had died in Ghana. In an interview with Liberian journalists a few days later, he pleaded for peaceful protests and emphasized that ‘we have to sit on the table and always negotiate’.
So after all, in the end, April in Monrovia was not so hot as feared. The only victim of the cancelled April 12 demonstration might be Defense Minister Brownie Samukai. A few days before the planned demonstration he stated that he would resort to the use of lethal force to quell or disperse the protest and that government would employ all means available, including the deployment of units of the Armed Forces of Liberia to quell the protest. His statement was a reason for the Liberia Human Rights Campaign (LHRC), a Diaspora-based organization, to request President Sirleaf to release him from his post. It considered his threat not compatible with the democratic principles propagated by her Administration.
So President Sirleaf’s problems are far from over. Was her decision to introduce a moratorium on the exportation of unprocessed natural rubber on April 18 (‘Executive Order No. 50’) already planned months before or a strategic decision aimed to arouse more domestic support for her Administration’s economic policies? And what about her admitting that serious mistakes had been made in the Golden Veroleum Oil Palm Concession in Sinoe County – what she did on April 28? Does it show us a human president, willing to bow her head and to listen to the affected farmers and residents of Sinoe County, or a clever politician?
On top of all this came very serious criticism from the US State Department. It recently published its 2012 Human Rights report on Liberia that was embarrassing even devastating for the Sirleaf Administration. Government officials engage in corrupt practices with impunity, the report averred, and judges, magistrates and jurors were found subject to corruption and influence.
More on this report later.