MONROVIA, Montserrado – With three days to the planned June 7 protest in Monrovia, Liberians from various communities in Nimba, Margibi, and Montserrado have expressed an increased feeling of stress and anxiety.
The protest, according to its organizers – the Council of Patriots – is meant to call the 14-month-old George Weah-led government to address a number of issues relative to bad governance and the worsening economy.
Although the organizers of the protest continue to maintain that their gathering will be peaceful, they have failed to indicate when the protest will end, which has drawn concern from members of the international community, including the head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, who expressed concern that Liberia’s security forces might not be well equipped to handle a protest that lasts for multiple days.
Given the country’s history with past protests, especially the infamous Rice Riot of April 14, 1979, there is growing anxiety among citizens that the June 7 event could have a negative outcome.
Adding to the fears is the uncertainty about whether the protest can truly stay peaceful.
As the day draws closer, some Liberians have resolved to make their way to rural villages and other remote parts of the country they deem as safer, while others have stockpiled basic necessities such as food, water, medications, and fuel in their homes.
“It’s a deep feeling of impending doom,” a young student cried out, wishing to remain anonymous.
Philip M. Kollie, the head of programs at the West Africa Network for Peace Building said he is quite sure that people are frightened in Monrovia and other parts of the country because of the track records of past protests and demonstrations.
“The emergence of military coalitions supposedly comprised of former generals of various rebel factions in a democratic dispensation is troubling and must be taken seriously,” Kollie said, referring to rumors that the government had bought the support of former rebel leaders. In April, those former generals had threatened to arrest a sitting lawmaker.
Ahead of the protest on June 7, Kollie said his organization and the Women in Peace Building Network, WIPNET, are extremely concerned about the heightening sentiments expressed through various media outlets that are detrimental to the peace and security of the state.
WIPNET advocates for women to access basic social services in order to guarantee social justice.
The protest has been widely publicized across Liberia and among Liberians in the diaspora. Among the information being spread is the notion that the protest aims to ask the president to step down. Even though the spokesperson for the protest, Darius Dillon, has said there is no plan to do so, there is a perception that protesters will call for the president to leave – and this has further instilled fear and worry in citizens across the country.
It does not help the case of the Council of Patriots that volatile firebrands such as the University of Liberia’s Student Unification Party and Rep. Yekeh Kolubah of Montserrado’s 10th district are now major supporters of the protest.
“There are several emotions which has heightened the security situation in the country,” said Kollie of the West Africa Network for Peace Building. “Some Liberians have begun purchasing food items ahead of the protest because they do not know what is going to happen on June 7.”
Kollie added that there is a likelihood that some public and private schools may not even operate on the day of the protest because parents fear for the safety of their children.
With Liberia coming from 14 years of civil conflict and former combatants not being fully demobilized and rehabilitated, Kollie said there is a possibility those former combatants can be easily manipulated to cause chaos during the protest.
“Such could plunge the country backward,” he noted.
He explained that his organization had issued a press release on April 18 calling on the government to do all in its power to bring the prevailing situation under control to avoid it spilling over into violent conflict. His organization had proposed dialogue as a way forward in addressing the many trending issues.
However, there have already been several mediations aimed at calling on the organizers to call off their planned protest and dialogue with the government, but these have not yielded any fruitful result.
Though there are mixed views about the protest, Kollie said a majority of the citizenry are worried and living in fear.
In fact, the Women in Peace Building Network has begun a week-long period of prayer and fasting, Kollie said.
Kollie said he hopes “that the Economic Community of West African States, African Union, and United Nations will intervene so as to avert or abort any potential conflict.”
Celista Igwe, a resident of Margibi and dealer of used clothing, said she fears that chaos might erupt during the protest and result in people losing their lives.
“I am worried every day as the day of the planned protest draws nearer,” she added.
Though Igwe said she believes the organizers of the protest have good intentions, she feared that some of their followers may be thinking otherwise and the protest may eventually turn into chaos.
“Past protests in Liberia have always never being peaceful,” she reasoned.
Igwe has also expressed concern over the indefinite duration of the protest, as the organizers have not stated when the protest will end after it commences on June 7.
“I am worried about the protest and always have sleepless nights,” she said. “On the day of the protest, I and my two children will stay home and listen to the radio.”
Bendu Kamara, a resident of Nimba and a mother of five, is making a life for her family by selling cooked food. Bendu said she’s worried and afraid of the aftermath of the June 7 protest.
Kamara also recalled that the history of protests in Liberia is troubling and the planned June 7 protest should not take similar trend.
“I am really worried and afraid to the extent that I cannot eat my own food and feel satisfied,” she noted.
Abraham S. Dukuly, a petty trader at the Waterside Market in Monrovia, said he and his family will try to get enough food in their home prior to June 7, because they do not know what the outcome of the protest will be.
“I was due to travel to Nigeria to purchase my goods for the July 26 independence celebration, but I will now have to wait to see what happens after the protest,” Dukuly said. “It is not good to travel out of your country when such a national issue is at hand; it’s better to be here and with your family.”
Like Igwe, Dukuly also believes in the organizers’ intent to have a peaceful protest. However, he harbors fears that would-be criminals may have other motives.
“Some of the criminals will come out that day with the intention to loot people’s businesses,” he said.
Meanwhile, the organizers have remained persistent about their planned protest. Henry P. Costa, the other spokesperson for the Council of Patriots, has said protest leaders would turn over to the police anyone attempting to cause chaos during the protest.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah. Arrington Ballah and Emmanuel Degleh of the Mental Health Reporters’ Network also contributed to this story.