Liberia: Death of Democracy or Dalliance with Dictatorship?

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March 20, 2016; Voice of America and GNN Liberia

The arrest of Liberian activist Vandalark Patricks might have gone unnoticed had local civil society not organized public protests to demand his release later that week. Police responded to the protests with teargas and stones.

According to news reports, Patricks was arrested on February 23, 2016, and charged with sedition and criminal libel after he read a statement on behalf of a civil society group on February 21sturging civil society to take part in a march to call for justice and accountability for the killings of several human rights defenders and activists.”

One account states that Patricks alleged “government involvement in a series of high-profile deaths over several years.” Most recent and notable among these deaths and most is that in early February of businessman-politician Harry Greaves, former head of the Liberian Petroleum Refining Company and confidant-turned-critic of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Greaves has since been buried under controversial circumstances, but his death and the government’s handling of it appear to have been the trigger for public calls for justice.

Released on bail since March 1st, Patricks’ health is said to be deteriorating as a result of an alleged injection with an unknown substance by the police during his arrest and detention. He has had his passport seized and has been prevented from leaving the country to seek medical attention, instead being forced to remain in a country with sparse healthcare facilities.

The case raises a number of issues and questions. The obvious transgressions against Patricks’ human rights and the continuing threat to his life if he is not allowed access to adequate medical care are of paramount concern. Also important—and the subject of some in-depth analyses—are queries about the preparedness of Liberia’s security institutions to assume full responsibility for national security without the backing of the once-robust UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission in Liberia, which has guaranteed security since 2003. The police response to an apparently peaceful protest seems to suggest some heavy-handedness to perceived threats to public safety. Third, and the focus of this article, is what the case portends for Liberia’s democracy.

The rising incidence of protests and public demands for justice and accountability stands side-by-side with a patent global crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression. Governments from North Africa to the Far East have become increasingly creative about curtailing constitutionally guaranteed rights to speech and the freedom of expression and association. There are very few saints in what one publication termed a “backlash against democracy.”

Liberia, like many African countries, has a long history of using laws on sedition or public order to target political dissidents. In this sense, Patricks’ travails are nothing new. However, if the oddly-termed “Arab Spring” revolutionary wind sweeping across Africa has taught us anything, it is that Africa’s societies are no longer as tolerant or unquestioning as they have been in the past and are thus more likely to take to task governments that violate their rights. In the interest of continued national and regional stability, the government of Liberia would do well to handle Patricks’ case with the delicacy that it demands.—Titilope Ajayi