MONROVIA, Liberia – As Liberians cross off the final days of April, many still fear the April hoodoo or “misfortunes” could soon return. With recent demonstrations over economic inequality and former warlords causing chaos earlier this month, some fear the hoodoo could be working its juju.
Liberia’s recent history has been marked by deadly events that have fallen during the month of April, leading many to think the month is cursed. Several of the country’s major conflicts occurred during April. The most notable were the 1979 Rice Riots, a mass demonstration sparked by the government’s recommendations to increase the price of imported rice that fell of April 14. A year later, in 1980 there was a bloody coup on April 12, an event that paved the way for the civil war a decade later. Then there was the April 6 war in 1996, when, former President Charles Taylor sent his soldiers to arrest the forces of the late rebel leader Roosevelt Johnson, headed by the notorious General Butt Naked.
“A stray bullet hit my cousin and she dropped”
Oretha Flomo, a 60-year-old charcoal seller, who lives in Mamba Point, vividly remembers the day of the Rice Riots. Her young cousin was shot dead, along with 41 others who were killed by army and police forces, according to news reports.
“I was 20 years old by then, when my cousin and I joined the protesters,” recounted Flomo. Her late cousin Sianneh was then 18.
At the time Flomo, originally from Lofa, was living with a distant uncle who was working as security officer and cleaner at the Ministry of Education and his wife.
“By the time we reached on Capitol Hill, the police blocked us, so we came down to Camp Johnson Road, then a man shouted and asked if we knew the meaning of April 14, and when we said no, he said it meant looting. The soldiers were on our side so they shot the locks of the stores, and the first place we entered, was the A-Z supermarket,” she said.
“I will not lie-oo. I looted a stereo set and my cousin took a TV and we were running under the heavy shooting between the army and the police so a stray bullet, hit my cousin and she dropped. But it was no time to pick her up, because bullets were flying and I was also running for my life. This was how I escaped with my looted goods and I lost my cousin who was among those hit by the bullets,” said Flomo.
In the aftermath of the deadly riots, the then President William R. Tolbert ordered a commission into the root causes of the demonstrations. Former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a member of the 33-person commission headed by Counselor Nete Sie Brownell. Brownell also worked alongside other high-level officials, including Bishop George D. Brown, General Benyan Kesselly, Cllr. Robert Azango, Elizabeth Collins, David Farhat, Lavonia Ash-Thompson, George Flamah Sherman and others.
The report dated June 12, 1979 and delivered to President Tolbert, claimed marginalization, injustice, inequality and nepotism sparked the riots.
Historians and analysts have suggested the riots paved the way for the bloody 1980 coup, and gave way to 14-year civil war, ten years later. Yet, despite the fact that 15 years have passed since the end of the civil conflict, many Liberians believe that nothing has changed in the last four decades and the nation still faces the same challenges.
“The same things are still happening today”
“[W]e saw marginalization and injustices then, but now the same things are still happening today. There is a steady decline in the welfare of the people; more and more people are falling into poverty. We see a few people riding high and enjoying wealth, while majority of the people are waking up and do not have food to eat and their kids are being thrown out of schools, and no money to pay hospital bills for their children,” said former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, John Stewart, who was also a member of the Movement for Justice in Africa, a group that participated in the demonstrations.
“I would say I see a creeping danger of the return to dictatorship, I see arising disrespect of the rule of law, starting from the legislators to the president, who has not declared his assets,” said Stewart. (Weah declared his assets to the General Auditing Commission six months late and these declarations are not made public).
“I see a wave of creeping violence; all these are signs of trouble. Government officials, who are stealing, are rallying and beating up people who dare speak against them. They are threatened because such privilege they now enjoy would be taken from them, so when one speaks against it, they call you are opposition. But these are the same people who were toeing caskets in the streets yesterday in support of their rights,” said Stewart.
A government insider remembers
Rev. J. Emmanuel Bowier, who was Assistant Minister and Special Assistant, to Former Information Minister, J. Jenkins Peal, at the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism at the time, said the rice riots were triggered by a recommendation by former Agriculture Minister Florence Chenoweth, to increase the price of imported rice, in order to give the local farmers the incentive to grow more rice. The Progressive Alliance of Liberia, (PAL) the leading opposition group at the time, used the recommendation as a basis for gathering people to demonstrate.
“PAL declared that because some members of the Tolbert family and other high government officials were involved in the importation of rice, which was why they were increasing the price of rice,” said Bowier.
In a recent interview with Front Page Africa, Bowier recounted the day of the Rice Riots. He saw the group of demonstrators assembled at the intersection of Camp Johnson Road and UN Drive. Bowier said when he walked from his office at the Ministry of Information, to Buzzy Quarter, the police were using force and tear gas to prevent the crowd from reaching the Executive Mansion.
“When the soldiers saw the police maltreating the demonstrators, they turned on the police in defense of the demonstrators and pushed them away from the crowd,” said Bowier. “This was what I was trying to explain to Minister Peal, that during an uprising, the public usually side with the underdog or the weaker force. And at that time, the demonstrators were the weaker force, while the government was the stronger force, because they had arms.”
Signs of the April Hoodoo
As the month comes to an end, Liberians like Flomo are concerned that the hoodoo could be returning. On April 6 of this year, citizens gathered for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court. They held placards in scripted with messages calling for an establishment of both a war and economic crimes court, as they marched in numbers down the principal streets of Monrovia.
On April 17, tensions in Monrovia rose when ex- generals from the rebel movements such as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) held a press conference in Monrovia calling on Montserrado County District 10, Representative Yekeh Kolubah to turn himself over to their command or face a forceful arrest. The actions of the Ex rebel generals, compelled sympathizers of Kolubah, a notorious former police chief who served in the government of Charles Taylor, to gather before his house to prevent his arrest.
The incident caused alarm across the city, with many residents heading home early. While the Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia (SEWACCOL) said the incident points to a deteriorating lack of respect for the law and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that marked an end to the war in 2003.
“In 2009, Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its final report and named warlords and perpetrators who committed some of the most unspeakable acts of terror. Three of the Ex Generals who convened the Press Conference are listed in the report under the category of the Most Notorious Perpetrators,” SEWACCOL said in a statement.
More protests planned
With protests scheduled for June 7, Flomo, remains concerned about another riot and is reminded of the time she lost a loved one. She is still haunted by the April hoodoo.
“If only the younger generation knew how deadly a riot can become, they won’t want to stage a riot, because all kinds of people with bad intentions can get involve to carry out their wicked act,” said Flomo.
This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.