Liberians protest living costs as Weah returns from 48-day trip
Analysts warn of more protests ahead of the 2023 elections despite President Weah’s popularity in parts of Liberia.
Monrovia, Liberia – Hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday at the outer section of the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia to protest against soaring costs of living, a day before President George Weah’s return from a 48-day trip abroad.
The protest was organised by the Coalition of Collaborating Parties – an opposition alliance in the West African country – but reports of internal scuffles kept only the Alternative National Congress (ANC) in the fold.
From as early as 9am, protesters gathered at various locations around the city, including the party headquarters of the two opposition parties, chanting protest songs as they walked to the stadium, Liberia’s largest. “We tiyah [are tired of] suffering”, some of their banners read.
ANC supporters also wore shirts with the face of their candidate Alexander Cummings, one of Weah’s two challengers for the presidency in the 2023 election.
“I am protesting because the country is hard,” Simon, a commercial motorcyclist told Al Jazeera. “Rice is expensive, everything is expensive, there are no jobs and the government is not doing anything about it.”
Since early December, the price of rice – Liberia’s staple food – increased from $15 to $17.50 for each 25kg bag. This increase came off the heels of a commodity shortage that has led to long queues and inflated prices of rice and other items, partly due to disruption of global supply as Russia’s war continues in Ukraine.
According to the World Food Programme, an estimated 64 percent of people in Liberia – one of the world’s poorest countries – live below the poverty line and 1.3 million of those live in extreme poverty.
A 2019 government payroll harmonisation process made things worse, as it effectively reduced the salary of government workers since then.
The protests were held a day before Weah’s return on Sunday from his trip, which included a visit to Qatar to watch his son play for the USA football team in the FIFA World Cup.
The president, whose 1995 win of the Ballon d’Or – the annual award for the world’s best player – remains the only time an African has done so, also made stops in Morocco, Egypt and France.
While the presidency has said the trip was an official one and government officials have claimed that the trip has produced dividends for the country, opposition figures say it was a waste of scarce resources.
Lewis Brown, formerly Liberia’s permanent representative to the United Nations and one of the protest organisers, said the demonstrations were necessary because living conditions are on a daily decline.
“People suffering is the reality of the country, and while people are suffering, there is a high level of wastage in government,” he said.
Ahead of 2023
The protest went on without any disruptions but the build-up was far from smooth.
On December 5, Brown was attacked by thugs after an appearance at a radio station to speak about the planned protests.
In a move that further exacerbated tensions, Liberian army chief Major-General Prince C Johnson III issued a caveat prior to the protest, urging “whosoever may feel or is disenchanted as we approach the 2023 elections” to seek redress in court.
He promised that the security agencies would execute their constitutional duties “if they can’t control your actions and/or is overwhelmed”, regardless of the status or affiliation of protesters.
While the defence ministry has supported his statement, it drew criticism from senior opposition leaders and civil society.
In a December 8 news conference, the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) – the country’s largest civil society coalition for election observation – said the army statement was inappropriate and “an example of the military meddling in civil affairs by intimidating and instilling fear in the hearts of people who wanted to exercise their constitutional right to assemble”.
The December 17 protests were the second in recent times after an Independence Day demonstration by students against the government on July 26 was attacked by pro-government supporters hosting a counterrally nearby.
Political observers say there are likely to be more demonstrations ahead of the general elections in October 2023.
But they may not be enough to dislodge the electoral base of Weah, who remains a popular figure in Liberia, said Ibrahim Nyei, an analyst at the Monrovia-based Ducor Institute for Social and Economic Research.
“While they have the right to protest, a more effective strategy would be for the opposition to rally their support base to turn out during elections,” he told Al Jazeera.
Still, protesters believe that now is just as important as the future. For Simon, this protest is an opportunity to air a stack of grievances against the current state of governance in the country.
“We will protest now,” he told Al Jazeera. “I am protesting to tell the government that they have failed me and I am tired of the suffering.”