Daniel Flynn / Reuters

Ebola spotlights Liberians' distrust of their political leaders

President Johnson Sirleaf's request for emergency powers amounts to an authoritarian power grab

October 14, 2014 6:00AM ET

The worst Ebola epidemic on record has also become a political crisis in Liberia. On Oct. 1, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf requested a suspension of seven key articles of the constitution as part of the emergency powers meant to further the government’s campaign to contain the virus, which has killed more than 2,000 Liberians and more than 4,000 people so far in this outbreak. She called for, among other measures, the suspension of provisions that stipulate regular and timely elections, protect civil liberties and guard against the appropriation of private property and even one that forbids slavery.

On Oct. 10, the Liberian House of Representatives rejected her request by a vote of 59 to 1, a repudiation of what one lawmaker described as using the Ebola crisis as a cover for a “police state creeping in.” In a joint resolution, the Liberian House and Senate voted unanimously to reject Johnson Sirleaf’s request for indefinite suspension of the midterm senatorial elections scheduled for Oct. 14, insisting that elections be held no later than Dec. 20.

The decision to deny her request for extraconstitutional powers is being widely praised in Liberia.The president’s desire to suspend the constitution is at best bad public health policy and at worst a threat to democracy in Liberia and a cover-up of her administration’s corruption. By framing citizens as a population that needs to be controlled rather than people deserving of care, she is creating more distrust in the country at a time when cooperation is needed most.

In August, when the president declared a state of emergency giving her extraconstitutional powers, the Liberian army quarantined West Point, a part of central Monrovia that is home to tens of thousands of the city’s poor, cutting them off from their livelihoods and loved ones. This led to a series of clashes between Liberian armed forces and residents as people attempted to flee the quarantine zone. The confrontation left a 15-year-old boy dead and exacerbated residents’ deep distrust for the government’s handling of the Ebola crisis. It also revealed major fissures in Liberian society and an elected government that is willing to resort to authoritarian measures that recall the excesses of Liberia’s civil war.

“We’re not claiming to be experts on Ebola,” Liberia’s Minister of Information Lewis Brown told The New York Times in August in an interview explaining the government’s logic. “We’ve never had to deal with this kind of thing, but we’ve always had to deal with our people. We understand our people more than we understand this disease.”

His statements confirm a common belief among Liberian officials that the best way to control Ebola is to control its potential victims. To be sure, Liberia needs strong executive action to prevent the disease’s spread and further devastation. But taking away the basic rights of Liberians would only further inflame the situation, creating another West Point and hindering an effective and humane Ebola response. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that in a worst-case scenario, as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by January.

Liberians have come out strongly to protect their constitutional rights, rejecting the premise of the state of emergency and reinforcing their identities as full citizens even in the midst of one of the worst disasters on record.

Liberians are keenly aware of the full effects of authoritarianism. In two decades of violent civil war, Liberia lost a quarter-million lives and many more people to exile. The postwar period and Johnson Sirleaf’s rise was seen as a new era of constitutional rule and democracy.

It is therefore unsurprising that members of Liberia’s press and civil society organizations, many of whom bore the brunt of previous regimes’ oppression, vocally opposed her request for expansive powers. Rodney Sieh, publisher of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa newspaper and an advocate for press freedom in Liberia, says her latest move is reminiscent of the authoritarian era of Presidents Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, two brutal dictators who severely curtailed the rights of Liberians, including burning down newspapers and targeting opposition groups. Sieh worries that the proposed measures would take away from what is really needed to combat Ebola: openness, cooperation and trust.

“Liberia needs more beds and the ability to do proper contact tracing,” he said in an email. “It's a shameless attempt to prevent voices like us from speaking truth to power. The president is flirting with dictatorship and toying with a looming revolution in the midst of a major health epidemic.”

In a letter to the speaker of the House that was read during deliberations on Oct. 8, a coalition of Liberian civil society organizations urged the legislature to halt Johnson Sirleaf’s efforts to suspend the constitution and to take away the extraconstitutional powers given to her during the state of emergency:

[To remove] the constitutional power and dominion over governance from the people and place it in the hands of an individual is an unacceptable butchery of the constitution which should not be allowed to stand.

This successful challenge should not be read in isolation. On Oct. 6, Liberia’s Justice Minister Christina Tah resigned, alleging interference from Johnson Sirleaf into an investigation of fraud in the country’s National Security Agency, which is headed by Johnson Sirleaf’s son Fumba Sirleaf. The resignation came after years of allegations of corruption and nepotism in her government. Another of her sons, Charles Sirleaf, remains deputy governor of the central bank despite being suspended in 2012 for refusing to declare his assets to the Anti-Corruption Commission. Her son Robert Sirleaf, a longtime presidential adviser rumored to be a future presidential contender, resigned as chairman of the National Oil Co. of Liberia last year after intense pressure.

The political turmoil also comes amid an influx of U.S. troops to the region. On Oct. 7 the Secretary of Defense approved U.S. President Barack Obama’s request to send 4,000 U.S. troops to Liberia. The arrival of U.S. forces would expand foreign military forces to about 10,000, including the nearly 6,000 uniformed United Nations personnel already in the country. While they are ostensibly there to bolster the humanitarian and medical response to the outbreak, foreign forces act as a convenient buffer against any civil unrest that might occur, as well as a signal of international support for Johnson Sirleaf’s administration.

For now, Johnson Sirleaf’s efforts to suspend the constitution have been squashed in the legislature. But many members of Liberian civil society organizations are already planning for the next step. Working in conjunction with lawmakers, activists are lobbying for the repeal of the initial state of emergency powers, claiming that the Ebola virus does not meet the legal criteria for declaring a state of emergency.

Wary Liberians have come out strongly to protect their constitutional rights, rejecting the premise of the state of emergency and reinforcing their identities as full citizens even in the midst of one of the worst disasters on record. The United States and other donor countries should support, not undermine, their democratic aspirations.

Aaron Leaf is a freelance journalist and a researcher at the New School in New York City. He previously worked for Journalists for Human Rights in Liberia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Africa, Liberia

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