Liberia’s president rallies support as opposition mounts over state of the economy
President George Weah gave a rallying televised speech to the Liberian people last week after an opposition group caused a stir with its plans to hold a major protest against the state of the economy on 7 June. Mediators are trying to defuse the ensuing tension that has already resulted in the dismissal of one cabinet minister. Dialog or protest—businesses are buckling up to soak up the political and economic pressure that will likely continue either way.
Liberia is facing its first significant threat of political unrest since UN peacekeepers completed their mission in the country and left in 2018. The Council of Patriots (COP), a newly formed group led by opposition politicians , is gearing up to demonstrate in the capital Monrovia on 7 June with demands for economic reform. The move has some popular backing even though long-term motives of this group are not yet clear.
A number of issues have drawn public support toward this new movement. Inflation, for instance, is 22% compared to 12% in 2017. Food prices have more than doubled in the past year while the Liberian dollar has depreciated by more than a quarter in that time. Stoking the economic pressure, some top government figures have been responding to rising public dissent with divisive comments about the country’s ethnic differences. This month President Weah sacked one deputy minister who had made such comments, after the US embassy in Monrovia urged action.
Meanwhile, President Weah, UN and ECOWAS diplomats have held deadlocked talks with the COP to persuade them to shelve their proposed protest in favor of dialog. Last week President Weah also appealed to the public directly through a televised speech, addressing the right to peaceful demonstration as well as underlying problems, including concerns about the central bank’s monetary policy (e.g. a failed bid to mop up excess Liberian dollar liquidity) and the government’s borrowing from donor funds without due process.
The proposed demonstrations pose a considerable security threat to businesses on the ground given the inexperience of local law enforcement and the history of this country—already the current situation has been likened to a similar event in 1979, which led to rioting. We also point to the deadly election protests of 2011 in which UN peacekeepers struggled to restrain local forces from firing at unarmed protesters. Appreciating that history, COP may defer to mediators and opt for dialog over protest.
In any case, the political and business climate will likely remain tense in the short and medium term, should the prices of Liberia’s key exports (e.g. rubber) remain low in that time and should the Weah administration remain lethargic to reform. While the president admits the need to diversify the economy, thereby reducing exposure to commodity price volatility, and strengthen institutions such as the central bank, he has been slow to act. Or to communicate a clear direction accordingly. This has allowed controversial subordinates such as finance minister Samuel Tweah set the tone, resulting in conflicting actions among government figures and exemplifying governance risks.