Liberia has made unprecedented democratic progress under President Sirleaf’s watch. This progress is the end result of decades of struggles by all Liberians, who stood against tyranny under its many forms to reach this stage of freedom. So much so, that whenever a social incident occurs, which reminds us of the past, we construe it as retrogression of the democratic progress made so far. Liberians want nothing less than the hope that the ugly past is completely behind us. Nonetheless, I am uncertain that some Liberians truly understand the depth of the contrast between the tyrannical past and the democratic present. They feel free to pursue their democratic dreams in a politically tolerant environment without wanting the burden of responsibility for their actions.
Citizens have the right to demonstrate against government’s actions and policies. Government also has the right to hold accountable those activists who may be reckless and violate the rights of others in the pursuit of their dissent. The difficulties arise when these two rights are in conflict as they are now in the battle between demonstrators and the government. Accusations that were allegedly made by Vandalark Patricks against the President and the Government of Liberia might be tantamount to yelling fire in a crowded public space when there is no fire. Additionally, that his supporters, the demonstrators, allegedly restricted the freedoms of other citizens in this process fundamentally violates the law. Lawlessness and activism are very different. Sitting in the middle of the busiest street, blocking traffic are not the equivalentof political dissent and free expression. A post-war society steep in impunity should have no room for irresponsible behavior that stokes communal violence, no matter who the perpetrators are. The Government is being provoked (caught between hardliners in government and those in the streets), reminiscent of the Tolbert era, into street fights, aimed at tarnishing her democratic record, which it will not win, and thus must avoid.
Unfortunately, many known “experienced” rights advocates have stood by silently and not chastised the demonstrators for their actions. Instead, they have blamed the government when all it has done is to protect the freedoms of other citizens whose rights – free movement, amongst others - were [supposedly] violated by the demonstrators. These “experienced” rights advocates might be afraid to give ammunition to the government, never wanting to appear disloyal to their own camp of advocates or demonstrators. Their visceral dislike for the President and so-called call for “moral scolding” of the President is out of step with true democratic tradition. There may be other things on which the government might need course correction like increasing preemptory public awareness on its decisions to counter negative news and buff up its image, but on this one, it is right. It is important to note that the vast rural population remains unreached by the government’s public relations machinery and therefore the vacuum created can be filled by rumors and even predatory politics. This sort of selective public engagement strategy does not augur well for the government, and more importantly for Liberia.
There is a limit to this view of democracy – the wrongheaded idea that some demonstrators can carry out their actions, making baseless accusations without accountability or prevent other citizens from exercising their freedoms without consequences. This view of politics undermines the democratic process in our society from maturing.Some frame the standoff solely as a matter of the rule of law. The demonstrators cannot pick and choose which rules it will obey. If government allowsthe demonstrators’ actions to go unpunished, it would be inviting anarchy. The demonstrators have the right to support their colleague(s) by providing him/her the requisite requirements for bond and legal representation. If they fail at a lower court, they have the right to appeal at the highest court in the land. They might be worried that the courts are rigged to protect the government, but testing this assumption can only make our democracy stronger and more vibrant.
The real question we must all deal with is whether or not these confrontations will take the nation back to civil war, the threat or pathetic fear aroused by some observers - and for this reason the the Interfaith Council, which is one of the he pillars of the peace process should intervene. I do not think Liberia would roll back into armed conflict because of these incidents. I think that we are witnessing the baptism by fire of our new democracy – the testing of its limits, its resilience and capacity to tolerate disagreement, while at the same time, forcing citizens to be responsible in the enactment of their freedoms. Where one person’s freedom ends, another person’s freedom begins.
Democracy and dissent are knotted together. Both begin with the assurances of freedom and end with ensuring that such freedoms are exercised responsibly. Dissent and the government’s response tell us the temperature of our democracy. Demonstrations are physical manifestations of freedom of speech. Without it, you can never know if the democracy has the capacity to withstand the expression of difference. What the current event has done for us is to free our political imaginations from the romantic image of democracy as a provider of freedoms without limits.
For much of our national history, we have struggled mightily in our quest for democracy. The evil of ethnic discrimination and tyranny shadowed the birth of this country. Precious ideas like “all men are created equal” were congenitally deformed by the idea that some men and women are valued less than others because of their ethnicity, class, and gender. The value gap was baked into one of the foundational principles of democracy, which this nation was created to fulfill. That struggle, at least since 1847 (when the nation turned its back on the possibility of a multiethnic democracy) has been part of who we are as a nation. We wrestle, with the lived contradiction – not between beliefs and practices, but within beliefs themselves.
The social activists cannot aspire to be a moral conscience of the nation, while at the same time wanting special treatment when they violate the laws of the nation. Our democratic principles do not exist in a space that provides special exemptions for law breakers just because they are advocating on behalf of a person whose rights they deem has been infringed upon. In a democratic society rights and responsibilities are bound tightly together sharing bone and tissue. Indeed, something profound has to happen if our democracy is to mature. A radical democratic awakening may be our country’s only hope of sustaining the democracy that we enjoy today. The current times are not as dark as some observers paint it. The issues are clear. We either accept that within a democracy each person’s actions come with a responsibility or we invite lawlessness upon ourselves and go back to the dark ages of tyranny.
If you have ever been in a society where people accept follies without questioning and cling to tradition without seeking any explanation, it is Liberia. And that our democracy is being challenged and the government is exercising its due response sets a precedent that we have not seen before. Democracies are natural habitats of dissent. Each reinforces the other. Democracies do not prove their strengths when they are not tested in courts. When dissent occurs and the government takes action in response, we should allow the courts to become the final arbiter, even if we have doubts of fair treatment. But the threat of more violence either implicitly or explicitly is not a feasible remedy. A real democracy faces the rigor of the citizens’ rights to exercise their basic freedoms. And in turn, the government tends to respond where necessary with reciprocal legal remedy.
The whole idea of inviting the Interfaith Council to intervene tells me that ours is a democracy still vulnerable to being manipulated by social and cultural sentiments. If the so-called activists feel aggrieved, they and their lawyers should pursue remedies through the court system. The Council of Churches is not a court. Its intervention will only deny us the right from determining the strengths of our democracy and our courts. If the political parties feel aggrieved, let them go to court and hire some of our finest human rights lawyers to plead their case.
Demonstration is only okay in a democratic society when it is peaceful. Demonstrators must respect the rights of non-demonstrators. They must not obstruct the peaceful movement of others who do not want to be party to their actions. Once they maintain the peace and do not obstruct others, they can spend their entire life demonstrating. It is their right. Government too has the right to protect other citizens’ rights just as much as it has the responsibility to protect the rights of the demonstrators. In a democracy, the rebel rousers, trouble makers, disrupters, and heretics actually set the ethos of the society.
Every time events like these happen, we should not attempt to make them into what they are not. Every fierce exchange between activists and the government should not be interpreted as a springboard for a recurrence of the civil war, but rather a test of whether or not our democracy has the wherewithal to withstand challenges to its integrity. If it fails, then we have reasons to ask for recalibration of its various components: the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature as well as the media and other non-governmental organizations. The elasticity of a democracy must always be stretched in order to determine its tolerance levels. And when predators seek to exploit its vulnerability, they must face the full weight of the law. That is why the government too which has exercised restraint for a decade should not allow itself to be lured into giving “political nonentities” some platform for undermining the remarkable success it has attained. Instead, it should use its information machinery to debunk those who make wild and unsubstantiated statements about the government and leave the citizenry to be the judge of their character so that tension is not raised unnecessarily at the peril of the society.
What better time for us to test the long-held assumption that the Sirleaf administration has procured for the nation its first democratic polity? There are those who wish for the ongoing uproar to grow into a war. This should be wishful thinking for those who want Liberia to sink into civil war at every cost. If the Interfaith Council should intervene, it should encourage the demonstrators to let the matter get to court, and the Interfaith Council should be represented in the court every day to follow the proceedings, ensuring transparency. In a democracy, religious entities and other non-governmental organizations provide a platform to civil society to dissent in an informed and reasoned manner. The reason why we favor democracy as our preferred mode of governance is that citizens have the right to dissent without fear of being victimized – as long as such dissent does not lead to unconstitutional action. In our history, we have seen dissent lead to the severest of punishments and do not want to go back there, but equally, when advocates violate the law their actions must be tested through the courts. This government should not be accused of not providing ample platform for the citizens to check its actions. To suggest that it is wrong to take legal actions against one who allegedly casted unwarranted and unproven aspersions on the government means that we are refusing to operationalize our democracy.
If there is to be a fundamental transformation of our democracy, and if a reimagined form of politics is to help move us in that direction, then the narrow and limited vision of what it means to exercise one’s freedom of speech rights within a democracy without responsibility will have to be tossed into the garbage. We would have failed as a people, if we allow the nascent democracy that we have attained to be rolled back into the tyrannical past. I strongly believe that this government has promoted a worldview that has allowed citizens to protest its actions free of retribution at least in most cases. But if we are not careful in these “over the top criticisms” of the government, we might just return to the times when dictators and despots kept us silenced and afraid of reprisals. No other government has safeguarded freedom of speech than the Sirleaf administration at least in my lifetime, despite its many other shortcomings.
Like every other Liberian, I agree that free speech, dissent, and protests are critical to informed and effective political participation. Under the Sirleaf administration, if we are fair, public expression of disagreement with the government has been the norm. We are far from the days when activists and students had to hide to write and read REACT or have to be thrown in jail for speaking out.
We have seen a major eruption of call-in shows and public criticisms by citizens of all stripes against the government with little or no reprisals. On this note, we must all obey our consciences by speaking truth not only to power, but to ourselves as well. We have come a long way in our democratic transition. Realizing this is the only way that our emerging democracy will continue to grow into a stronger and more vibrant form of government and will not be hijacked by political predators.