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Liberians protest cost of living as Weah returns from 48-day trip

Monrovia, Liberia – Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Samuel Kanyon Doe sports complex in Monrovia on Saturday to protest the rising cost of living, a day before President George Weah returned from a 48-day trip abroad.

The protest was organized by the Coalition of Collaborative Parties, a grouping of four of the West African country’s opposition parties, but reports of infighting only kept the Alternative National Congress (ANC) in the fold.

From 9 a.m., protesters gathered at various locations across the city, including the party headquarters of the two opposition parties, singing protest songs as they walked towards the stadium, the largest in Liberia. “We tiyah [are tired of] suffering”, read some of their banners.

ANC supporters also wore T-shirts bearing the face of their candidate Alexander Cummings, Weah’s most prominent challenger for the presidency in the 2023 election.

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“I am protesting because the country is tough,” 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 the beginning of December, the price of rice, Liberia’s staple food, has risen from $15 to $17.50 per 25kg bag. This surge came after a shortage of basic goods has led to long lines and inflated prices for rice and other items, partly due to global supply disruption as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues.

According to the World Food Program, approximately 64 percent of people in Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world, live below the poverty line, and 1.3 million of them live in extreme poverty.

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A government payroll harmonization process in 2019 made matters worse, effectively lowering the pay of government workers ever since.

The protests came a day before Weah was due to return Sunday from his trip, which included a visit to Qatar to watch his son play for the US soccer team in the FIFA World Cup.

The president, whose 1995 victory 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.

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While the presidency has said the trip was official and government officials have claimed the trip has paid dividends for the country, opposition figures say it was a waste of scarce resources.

Lewis Brown, Liberia’s former permanent representative to the United Nations and one of the protest organizers, said the demonstrations were necessary because living conditions are declining daily.

“The people who suffer is the reality of the country, and while the people suffer, there is a high level of waste in the government,” he said.

Demonstrators hold a banner as they protest the ongoing economic difficulties and the prolonged absence from the country of President George Weah, in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia.
Demonstrators hold a banner as they protest economic hardship and President Weah’s prolonged absence from the country, in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia, on December 17, 2022. [Carielle Doe/Reuters]

before 2023

The protest continued without interruption, but the preparation was far from smooth.

On December 5, Brown was attacked by thugs after making an appearance on a radio station to discuss the planned protests.

In a move that further exacerbated tensions, Liberia’s army chief, Major General Prince C Johnson III, issued a warning ahead of the protest, urging “anyone who feels or is disappointed as we approach the 2023 elections” to seek redress in the courts.

He promised that security agencies will fulfill their constitutional duties “if they cannot control their actions and/or are overwhelmed,” regardless of the protesters’ status or affiliation.

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While the Defense Ministry supported his statement, it drew criticism from top opposition leaders and civil society.

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At a December 8 press conference, the Election Coordinating Committee (ECC), the country’s largest civil society coalition for election observation, said the military’s statement was inappropriate and “ an example of military meddling in civil affairs by intimidating and striking fear into hearts.” of people who wanted to exercise their constitutional right of assembly”.

The protests on December 17 were the second in recent times after an anti-government student Independence Day demonstration on July 26 was attacked by pro-government supporters who were organizing a counter-demonstration nearby.

Political observers say more demonstrations are likely before the October 2023 general election.

But they may not be enough to displace Weah’s constituency, who remains a popular figure in Liberia, said Ibrahim Nyei, an analyst at the Monrovia-based Ducor Institute for Economic and Social Research.

“While they have the right to protest, a more effective strategy would be for the opposition to rally their support base to participate in the elections,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Still, the protesters believe that now is as important as the future. For Simon, this protest is an opportunity to air a pile of grievances against the current state of government 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 suffering.”

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