First, let me thank President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for the courageous gesture to set up a Special Commission to investigate the events preceding the November 8, 2011 run-off election in Liberia. Hopefully, her government will see it fit to exercise future foresight to prevent the conditions that necessitated the creation of a Special Commission. Given our history of government over-reach and over-reaction, I believe the commission was a necessary first step.
The second step is to take a close look at the Special Commission’s recommendations. Anyone who reads the internet-circulated document will see that the Commission placed blame mainly at the feet of the protesters and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).
The laws of Liberia aside, our children do misbehave from time to time. For that, they may deserve reprimand, even punishment but not harm or death. We do not fire upon our children and citizens because they choose to gather or to express dissent. Now, this Special Commission has said that citizens who dare to challenge government deserve government over-reaction even if that will result in harm or death.
Surely, government over-reaction is always a negative force; and, those who rely on it are seldom blameless. Regrettably, the members of this Special Commission do disagree. They think government over-reaction is a positive force. Like the late William R. Tolbert who blamed the aftermath of the so-called Rice Riots of 1979 on Bacchus Matthews’ Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) and Samuel K. Doe who blamed University of Liberia authorities for the 1984 killings carried out by government forces during the attack on the University of Liberia main campus, this Special Commission is blaming the Congress for Democratic Change for the conduct of the Liberian National Police. Worse still, the Special Commission wants the Liberian legislature to declare the free exercise of political dissent a crime.
In the years following the end of the Liberian civil war, Liberians held out great hope and expectation for meaningful and lasting change. Change came but it seems to be coming too slowly for the youth of the country; thus, generating the heightened sense of despair and betrayal they sought to express on November 7, 2011l.
Opportunities abound in Liberia. But the civil war deprived the present generation of the capacity to take advantage of those opportunities. Still, there is “plenty” to go around for all the people. Yet, that “plenty” is concentrated in the hands of a few. Everywhere, the people can see that there is some prosperity. But, it is out of reach for ordinary folk. It is as if ordinary folk lived in a different Liberia.
So, they cry out to the government but it seems the government does not hear them.
They cry out to the church but it seems the church is too busy to care.
They turn to those who once spoke up for them, but it seems those people have more important things to worry about these days.
And, when they tried to speak up for themselves this past November 7, 2011 the government sent the police to silence them—wounding many and killing at least one in the process.
The Special Commission set up to investigate the events of that woeful day now says those who died and were wounded provoked the outcome they suffered. The Commission is further proposing a ban on the public expression of political dissent in Liberia.
Recall the notorious Proposition 88A? That is the law passed by the People’s Redemption Council under the leadership of Samuel K. Doe to outlaw the public expression of political dissent in Liberia. How the proposed ban on the public expression political dissent would be different from Decree 88A is not clear to me. What is clear is that it may become law knowing how Liberia functions today.
I call on Liberians everywhere to join me in urging President Sirleaf to do much more than set aside the Special Commission’s report. While we applaud the President’s efforts to meet with and be reconciled with the political parties, it is equally important that we urge her to take additional substantive steps to complete the healing process.
I cannot say what those steps will be. What I do know, however, is that by the actions of the Liberian National Police, we re-opened the door to political violence in Liberia. I therefore urge the President to move quickly to restore confidence and trust in her leadership. This must involve healing for the families of the dead and the injured. More importantly, it must involve a thoughtful and sustained effort to close the door that was left open by the shoddy performance of the Liberian National Police.
Let me end by paying homage to a childhood friend, Irene Pupodee Nimpson, and the many others who died in both the Rice Riots of 1979 and the attacks on the University of Liberia in 1984. It was the day before Easter Sunday. Irene had gone to the Waterside to do some shopping when the riots broke out. She never made it back to her dormitory at the University of Liberia where she was a senior. She was killed by a Liberian government soldier. My friend took a bullet from the government that was sworn to protect her.
As people of conscience, we learn that the way to view moral evil and moral goodness is to do so in their relation to human freedom and responsibility. So, when I punish my child, I also know I am in control of what I do because I planned the action. I cannot blame my child if, for instance, I injure him or her in the process. This is so because I view myself not only as a finite center of freedom but also as responsible for my actions. Yet, according to the logic of the Special Commission’s report, the government of Liberia whose police planned and carried out the attack on unarmed civilians is free from blame.
What I know is that the Liberian National Police has a constitutionally sanctioned duty to protect the people—all the people—all of the time. Shooting at protesters—whether authorized by a saint or sinner—is not a constitutionally protected duty of the police and is therefore not only wrong and illegal, but also inconsistent with the functioning of a democratic society. Our inability to say so is worrisome. Even more troubling is the very palpable silence coming especially from civic and religious groups that traditionally spoke up for the people.
To quote the celebrated University of Liberia music professor Agnes Nebo von Ballmoss: Nyon nee wlu-wo; gee non ni klo! Is this what we have come to?
Editor’s Note: Elliott Wreh-Wilson, Ph.D, is Associate Professor and Chair Department of Philosophy, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at EWREHWILSON@edinboro.edu.