Possible demonstrations announced to take place December 30 in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, could turn confrontational and disrupt OSAC constituent operations. Protest leaders from the “Council of Patriots”, or CoP, have demanded government acquiescence to their list of economic reforms and demands to end corruption. There is also at least one group (Independent CoP, or ICoP) exploring a counter-protest to send a message that the December 30 protest is misguided. Some, though not all, of the organizers of a successful June 7 protest and a low-turnout July 30 protest are coordinating the December 30 event. The group originally billed the December demonstration as a vehicle to pressure President George Weah to resign. However, as a result, some key collaborating parties and allies from the June 7 protest have distanced themselves from the December protest which some viewed as an extra-constitutional effort to unseat an elected official. In recent days, some protest organizers seem to be shifting their stated goal more in the direction of expressing displeasure with Weah’s response to the deteriorating economic environment.
On December 24, 26, and 27, the Liberian government and the CoP participated in productive mediation efforts hosted by Liberia’s Inter Religious Council (IRC) and the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC). Although the June protest remained largely peaceful, possible upcoming demonstrations, not yet permitted by the government, could leverage longstanding political grievances exacerbated by the country’s financial crisis. At best, if demonstrations take place, they could lead to citywide traffic disruption; at worst, they could lead to violence.
Security managers should review their security measures and ensure contingency plans are in place in the event the protests turns overly disruptive or violent. The government’s reaction and demonstrators’ orderliness will play a major role in determining scale, duration, and potential escalation of these protests.
Location and Timing
Though the government has not yet approved any locations for the protests, the government quarter in Monrovia has previously been the primary location where demonstrators have gathered, although the potential exists for smaller gatherings to materialize in greater Monrovia. As the protests are likely to be smaller in scale than the June 7 event, it is unlikely that the scale of these demonstrations would overwhelm host nation security capacity. A greater security service presence throughout greater Monrovia is likely prior to and for the duration of the protests. Security forces may deploy less-than-lethal crowd dispersal methods if protests become overly disruptive or violent, to include batons, tear gas and water cannons. Additionally, police are likely to deploy mobile checkpoints along roadways, consistent with actions during the “Save the State” protest.
The ICoP counter-protest group has indicated they could assemble as early as 4 a.m. on December 30, though their location was unstated. If the Liberian government continues to deny the notification of the protesters intent to assemble, it is possible the government could consider any protestor as engaging in an unlawful or unsanctioned act.
Economic Despair Drives Protest
Since June, Liberia’s financial situation has continued to decline, with effects increasingly affecting the local populace. A scarcity of Liberian banknotes for bank withdrawals and salary payments has been a significant economic (and human) concern for several months. President Weah has acknowledged the issues and requested that the Liberian legislature approve the Central Bank of Liberia’s request to infuse LRD $4 billion (roughly $21 million) into the economy. On December 12, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a four-year program for Liberia that would gradually rebuild reserves at the central bank. Despite these measures, which could have a positive medium-term impact, many Liberians currently, are unable to withdraw money from local banks – which could be a key factor influencing protest, especially during the holiday season. In December, the difficulties in withdrawing money also led the Peace Corps to temporarily reduce the number of its volunteers in Liberia. It noted that, while volunteers continue to serve in Bong, Margibi, and Montserrado counties, the Peace Corps temporarily removed Peace Corps volunteers from their host communities in other counties.
In an attempt to assuage public concerns about the performance of his government, on December 20, President Weah conducted his first radio phone-in talk show, during which he sought to assure the public of government efforts to “overcome the country’s economic gloom.” He also took the opportunity to implore Liberians to maintain the peace, a likely reference to the possible December 30 protests.
Protest Leader’s Arrival a Prelude to December 30
On December 19, CoP Chairman Henry Costa returned to Liberia during his semester break for the protest, leaving the airport amid a modest crowd of supporters and restrained response by government security forces. Some government officials had previously threatened his arrest upon arrival, to which Costa responded with his own threat to vandalize the new airport terminal and cause violence if arrested. Days later in a Christmas Eve broadcast from Monrovia, Costa said “if anybody tries me again, somebody will die…my men have been instructed to kill.” Supporters lined key portions of the route from Roberts International Airport to Monrovia and, after a brief scuffle at the Monrovia city limits due to the restriction of his supporters congesting a key junction, Costa arrived at a rally in the capital. Costa’s relatively smooth arrival may be an indicator of relatively restrained security forces and protestor posture; however, any action to arrest Costa while in Monrovia or any further rhetoric from Costa threatening violence, could serve as a flashpoint for additional or more disruptive protests.
Security managers should monitor local information sources and networks for developments and review organizational risk assessments, contingency plans, and mitigation measures in case of outbreaks or sustained unrest. Organizations should consider the criticality of air travel around December 30. Large gatherings and elevated security force presence may impede traffic flow around greater Monrovia.
Given limited or reduced local security and emergency response capabilities, security managers should review their duty of care to foreign and local staff, including understanding what organizational resources they can provide to protect their personnel and operations. Ensure sufficient supplies including food, water, and fuel are available in case of prolonged unrest or disruption of commercial services. Contingency plans should include accountability protocols, shelter-in-place scenarios, use of redundant communications systems, and crowd avoidance techniques. Many in-country private-sector organizations
have bolstered physical security measures to deter crime and are reviewing these in light of potential unrest.
Private-sector personnel in Liberia should expect a visible increase in local security force posture particularly around administrative buildings, key infrastructure including the airport, and major transit arteries. However, heightened security force presence may not mean increased ability to respond to incidents and emergencies. Travelers may encounter checkpoints that are more frequent and should review how to avoid security issues around checkpoints and roadblocks, interact with security forces, and handle shakedowns during times of heightened tensions.
For more on the June 7 “Save the State” Protest, see previous OSAC reporting, Liberia Demonstrations Underscore Grievances & Limited Government Capacity and Liberia Update: Peaceful June 7 Demonstrations Underscore Grievances.
U.S. citizens traveling to Liberia should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.
For additional information on the security environment in Liberia or elsewhere in the region, contact OSAC’s Africa team.