The “Bring Back Our Money” Protest: Who Won or Lost?

by Varney Anasters Teah

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South Dakota, USA- Over the years, Liberian democracy has been in a fragile state; from years of civil war, to re-initiation of democratic practices. During the war years, rights of Liberians were abused at a large scale, while although Liberia has had three successful elections since the end of the civil war, democratic rights of the post war years have sometimes been met with challenges and upheavals. The Publisher, Senior Editor and Chief Executive Officer of The Liberian Billboard reflects on the September 24, 2018 “Bring Back Our Money” protest and pens an analysis below:

A fortnight ago, Liberia was shaken by the news of missing banknotes in the amount of L$16 billion, an equivalent of US$104-106 million depending on the exchange rate. This news did not only make local headlines, but international media institutions rode on it like a bandwagon. At every corner in Liberia, discussions about the missing banknotes have been prevalent, while social media has seen claims and counterclaims from all sides of Liberia’s political space.

With officials of the current and former Liberian governments giving conflicting accounts of the missing money, suspicion among citizens rose to a higher scale, thereby initiating calls to protest. Opposition political parties saw a loop-hole, and with some civil society organizations, organized a protest under the umbrella of Concerned Citizen United to Bring Back Our Money. The much widely publicized protests brought thousands of Liberians to the Streets of Monrovia on Monday, September 24, 2018, despite heavy downpour of rain.

It was an astonishing, at the same time time, a somehow resilient scene, seeing thousands of people defying mother nature to voice their concerns. Meanwhile, significant questions about the whole protest are, what were the takeaways? Was the protest successful? Did protesters make their case heard? Was the government image damaged? Who won?

Protesters of the “Bring Back Our Money” Protest in Monrovia on Monday, September 24, 2018

The Takeaways:

Firstly, the unhindered spirits of the protesters must be recognized; despite the heavy downpour of rain, (which at most times causes disruption in these kind of circumstances), protesters still turned out in their numbers. The turnout by protesters in these circumstances added significance and value to their concerns, and also sent a message of importance of the issue for which they were protesting. Secondly, the organized manner and level of coordination by protest organizers must be applauded. This proved that they had one goal, and one goal only: To voice their concerns. Lastly, and as planned previously, protesters were able to present their petitions to the three foreign missions in Monrovia: The United States Embassy, The European Union and The United Nations Missions in Liberia. The reading and presentation of those petitions put the icing-on-the-cake as it relate to the protest. And one would say, “Mission Accomplished”.

In the meantime, the part the Government of Liberia had to play in the success of the protest cannot be ignore. In fact, the success of the protest depended largely on the response of the government. In time past, many protests in Liberia have been met with iron fist; beginning as far back as the 1979 rice riot, which in essence, was the foundation of the Liberian Civil War.

I might be wrong, but this was the first of its kind in Liberian history, for security agencies of a Liberian government to sit and negotiate protest routes and protection with protest organizers. Whether past protest organizers and governments have refused to sit with each other in this manner, cannot be ratified, however, this sit-down between both parties on Sunday, September 23, 2018 was unprecedented. Although the discussion sparked tension at intervals, however, both the protest organizers and the government came to a logical conclusion, which paved the way for a successful protest on Monday.

The Liberian Government played its part very well. I also want to inject, that this is the first time in Liberian history that a major protest was held without armed police or security officers present; not even batons were seen with any member of a security agency. Despite being unarmed, the Liberian National Police and other security apparatuses were able to protect and guide protesters on their various routes, without any incident; again, the first of its kind for any major protest in Liberian history.

Winners and Losers:

Overall, both the protesters and government won, but higher accolades must be given to the Government of Liberia.

As an ardent advocate of social and political issues in Liberia, I base my advocacy strictly on objectivity. Although I was in support of the protest and as a patriotic Liberian desperately want to see these missing billions found, however, it is important to point out the realities of issues void of sentiments.

At the end of the Monday protest, I immediately took to social media to condemn a point in the petition presented to foreign missions in Monrovia; the withholding of both financial and material aid by foreign partners to Liberia. That point in my view, had a heavy political taint, and most Liberians including me, supported the protest based on a holistic, not political effect. Besides that, I think all the other points inscribed in the petition were valid, and on the overall, the protest was successful. The point of the protest was to get international attention to the issue of the missing billions, and presentation of petitions to various foreign missions was a win for the protesters. In addition, the organized manner and conduct of protesters points to Liberians graduating to more matured and responsible ways of exercising their democratic rights.

For the Government of Liberia part, their level of professionalism was way over-the-top. I have been a critic of the Police Director, Patrick Sudue on many safety issues, however, he, along with the Security Advisor to the President and other heads of security agencies need pats of the back for the way they handled the protest on Monday.

Liberia Police Director, Patrick Sudue

Most times, bad protests in Liberia resulted from provocation by security agencies. Going back a little, the April 14, 1979 rice riot in part, was provoked by the police. On August 22, 1984, President Samuel K. Doe ordered soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia on the main campus of the University of Liberia, after students were protesting the detention of then then Professor Amos K. Sawyer by the Doe administration for what they termed as “a Socialist Plot” by Mr. Sawyer to overthrow the government. The results of the AFL actions were very catastrophic, as students were brutalized, killed and raped. Again, during the Taylor regime, students of the University of Liberia were heckled and flogged, after officers of the feared SOD unit of police led by Deputy Police Director for Operations Saah Gbollie, stormed the campus of the University. Fast forward to the regime of President Sirleaf, CDCians were brutalized, and some partisans wounded and killed when partisans of the Congress for Democratic Change protested the results of the 2011 elections. Unprovoked, police entered the compound of the party, and manhandled members of the party who are members of the now ruling coalition.

Officials of the current ruling party also need to be applauded. The Chair of the Youth Wing Jefferson Koijee and Chairman of the Party Mulbah Morlu, held simultaneous press conferences urging their supporters to stay off the street during the protest which included many faces of the current opposition. It is no secret that both Koijee and Morlu are two of the most influential voices in the party, as partisans of the CDC which are made up of mostly young people heeded their warning.

President George Weah is currently attending the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York

While the protest was largely successful, the Government of Liberia though under pressure to account for the missing banknotes, score a major political victory. Their conduct during these protests vacated the beliefs that peaceful assembly in Liberia has always been threatened. A ruling party that have always been aligned to hooligans and bad elements of society, the CDC-led government was able to portray an ambiance of tolerance, which cemented earlier statements by party officials that they will allow protesters enjoy the democracy they fought for during the regime of President Sirleaf. If you would have asked me, I was a bit afraid for protesters, giving the historical outcomes of these kinds of protests. However, the George Weah led administration scored a big one on Liberians: He respects the constitution, and will protect Liberia’s democracy.

Amazingly, the missing L$16 billion is still an issue hanging over the head of this administration.