AD454: Liberians are unhappy about economic conditions, but wary of public protests

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Oscar Bloh, Aaron Weah, and Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny

Public protests and civic actions have been an integral part of Liberia’s political history. In April 1979, an 18% increase in the price of rice led to violent protests against the government, resulting in the deaths of about 40 protesters (Dash, 1980).

Like the 1979 protest, which the nation continues to reassess (Sieh, 2019), recent protests in Liberia have mostly been linked to complaints about mismanagement of the economy, corruption, poor governance, and lack of accountability. Two recent ones stand out: The June 2019 “Save the State” protest against poor economic conditions, rampant corruption, restrictions on the media, and a perceived lack of commitment to health and education programs, and the January 2020 protest against poor living conditions (Aljazeera, 2020; Maclean & Boley, 2019; Reuters, 2019). The latter, which had earlier been postponed due to concerns raised by the government and international partners (Deccan Herald, 2019; U.S. Embassy in Liberia, 2020), resulted in clashes with the police, and dozens of protesters were hospitalized (Media Foundation for West Africa, 2020).

These events have fueled public discussion on whether citizens must obtain government permission before they can organize protests. Even though Article 17 of the Liberian Constitution (Republic of Liberia, 1986) guarantees citizens’ right to assemble to petition the government, Section 22 of the Liberia National Police Act requires persons or groups wishing to stage protests to first obtain permits from the police and Ministry of Justice (Ministry of Justice, 2016). In the case of the January 2020 protest, while the government, citing security concerns, would not allow mass protests in central parts of the capital on weekdays, the Council of Patriots (the group behind the two recent protests) argued that allowing the government to dictate when protesters could assemble would be giving the government too much power and setting a bad precedent (Dopoe, 2020).

The latest Afrobarometer survey shows that a majority of Liberians endorse requiring citizens to seek permission from the government before organizing public protests. In spite of their gloomy views about the country’s economic conditions and perceived increased level of corruption, citizens are split on whether protests are an effective way to influence political leaders and policies. While a majority blame police and protesters equally for violence during protests, they say protests are too disruptive and should be avoided.