By Rodney Sieh
Monrovia – As far back as the 1900s, governments in Liberia have used charges of sedition as a draconian weapon against political figures seen as threat to their rule. The arrest this week of young activist, Vandalark Patrick has resurrected a familiar refrain that threatens to land the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-led government along the ranks of Presidents’ Tubman, Barclay and Doe, who used the charge as political tool against critics and opponents including the current President, at the height of her political sojourn.
Sedition Targets ‘Unpatriotic Citizens’
The sedition law has seen some significant turning points in the politics of Liberia, starting with the era of President Edwin Barclay. In November 1940 a case based on a sedition law passed by the legislature in 1936 and revised three years later to provide for the punishment of persons charged with sedition, treason, conspiracy and attempts on the life of the President proved an embarrassing moment for Barclay. True Whig Party brass had decided to halt further arrests of “disloyal and unpatriotic citizens” accused of making “unjustified attacks” on President Barclay.
Sirleaf was still a firebrand political force when Samuel Doe, who was on the verge of trading his army uniforms for the democratic suit, placed her under house arrest in August 1985. Sirleaf was later sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition as a consequence of a speech in which she was accused of insulting members of the Doe regime. Sirleaf was released after a wave of international condemnation and later pardoned and released by Doe in September. Sirleaf who was a banker at Citibank in America, had returned to Liberia in 1985 to run for Vice President under the late Jackson F. Doe in the disputed elections of 1985. But changed course after her sedition arrest and was removed from the Presidential ticket and instead placed by the Liberian Action Party for a Senate seat in Montserrado County.
Though the elections, which saw Doe and his National Democratic Party win the presidency and large majorities in both houses, were widely condemned as neither free nor fair, Sirleaf was declared the winner of her Senate race but refused to accept the seat in protest of the election fraud. After an attempted coup against the Doe government by Thomas Quiwonkpa November 12, 1985, Sirleaf was arrested and imprisoned again on November 13, 1985 by Doe’s forces. Despite continuing to refuse to accept her seat in the Senate, she was released in July 1986 and secretly fled the country to the United States later that year. Those arrests raised Sirleaf’s profile and marked the birth of her political life. Although she declined to accept the seat, the arrest marked a milestone in her political life. But long before Sirleaf, charges of sedition were used to put critics of government in check.
1900s- Sedition Targets Didho Twe
In 1910, politician Didho Twe, returned to Liberia from neighbouring Sierra Leone, as one of the most educated Liberians and became one of the skilled diplomats during the President Barclay era. Twe was named to the commission tasked with settling the long-standing boundary dispute between Liberia and the British colony of Sierra Leone. But Twe, according to author James Ciment in his book, “Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It”, refused to take the conventional route of the assimilated, civilized native by being content with his position. Ciment wrote: “Twe filled the John the Baptist role typical of early twentieth century African colonialism. Instead of trying to overthrow an oppressive foreign regime, he sought to find a place for himself and those natives like him in the existing order. He spoke often about the need for those Americo regimes to do more to civilize and uplift Liberia’s tribal, and to place them in positions of power.”
It was no coincidence, Ciment wrote that “When invited to deliver a speech commemorating Matilda Newport Day to assemble dignitaries in Monrovia, he (Twe) offered the familiar paeans to pioneer fortitude. He credited the speech with securing him a seat in the national legislature, though later admitted that the sentiments it expressed went against his conviction. His private life followed a similar path. He set himself up as a rubber planter in the hinterland, most likely on lands seized from native farmers, and married a well-connected settle woman. The former Araminta Dent had been, in fact, Tubman’s first wife.”
Twe followed his rants under Tubman, whose government he accused of being inept and corrupt. But Twe’s most poignant criticism of Tubman was his angsts against the long-standing order granting Tubman the right to succeed himself, which according to Ciment, “nearly set off a civil war during the Edmund J Roye’s presidency in the 1870s and again when the grand ole True Whig Party mobilized its forces behind the amendments of 1951 that wrote perpetual succession into the constitution.”
Historians wondered though whether the feud with Twe was necessary. Ciment wrote: “Tubman should not have feared Twe. The postwar boom was already beginning to be felt, making Tubman a popular incumbent. And of course, het True Whig Party had lost an election for nearly seventy-five years.”
Tubman – Used Sedition Against ‘Inept’ Ex-Schoolmate
Ciment wrote that “Tubman was not satisfied and viewed Twe as a threat”.
The TWP, according to Ciment, hired goons, to break up Twe’s Reformation Party meetings, confiscate funds and equipment and arrest party officials. “In public, Tubman cynically bemoaned these acts, ordering his subordinates to let Twe continue to campaign and even offering the beleaguered candidate Twe, Police protection. Tubman was willing to overlook Twe’s appeal to the native constituency, usually a cardinal sin in Liberian politics. What elicited the wrath of the Tubman regime was Twe’s insistence that international observers recovering from the League of Nations inquiry, Twe’s demand was an affront.
But in a radio broadcast to the nation Tubman, according to Ciment, was apoplectic, accusing Tweh and his running mate, Thorgues Sie, whom Tubman called his “inept ex-school-mate” of treachery and sedition. “When Mr. Tweh and Mr. Thorgues Sie and their few followers, undertook to invite international intervention in the domestic affairs of this nation,” the President said,” they became violators of the Criminal Stautues of this Republic and had in reason and conscience to be made to answer for their own crimes.”
Sie, a Kru, educated in the United States had left his family behind and returned to Liberia to help Twe’s Presidential campaign in the 1951 elections. Twe and his supporters had formed the United People Party to contest the elections but they were denied registration and probate of their party. The election commissioner was said and made to have left Monrovia in order not to enable registration of the party. As the registration deadline expired, the government further charged key members of the party with sedition. The government maintained that the party wrote President Tubman, the United Nations, and respective government of United States and Great Britain and thus invited foreign entities into Liberia domestic affairs.
At the last minute, according to Ciment, Tubman and the TWP had Twe’s name removed from the ballot on a technicality: The Reformation Party was allegedly late in registering candidates. “Charges of sedition were then brought against Twe and eight six of his followers. Twe fled into the bush and, with the help of Kru Oarsmen, across the Mano River into Sierra Leone exile once again. He did not return to Liberia until 1960, when Tubman pardon the paralyzed octogenarian and allowed him to die in Monrovia the following year.”
Today, young Patricks who was declared by his lawyer, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe as a political prisoner in 2013 is in jail on similar sedition charges. On Wednesday, Patricks was formally charged by the government with sedition and criminal libel against President Sirleaf. Patricks was reportedly picked up at a local Haiti center downtown Monrovia at 4pm on Tuesday by officers wearing mufti and whisked off to the Headquarters of the Liberia National Police (LNP). The following day Patricks was taken to the Temple of Justice where he was handed a copy of the indictment.
His lawyer, Cllr. Gongloe has been unable to secure bail. Court record in the possession of FrontPageAfrica states that the political activist was charged based on a press statement where he allegedly accused the President Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of being behind the lethal political violence against her political opponents in order to attain state power. Patricks was also detained in 2012 when as head of the Intellectual Discourse Association, he spent three days in National Security Agency cells for threatening to mobilize 100 persons with placards, to demonstrate during the High Level Panel Summit meant to discuss post-2015 Millennium Development challenges.
Doe Years No Exception
In 1985, Cllr. Tuan Wreh, Baccus Matthews, Dr. Edward B. Kesselly and the late Harry A. Greaves were arrested and imprisoned by former President Samuel Kanyon Doe based on a confession from Col. Moses Flanzamaton, the deputy commander of the Presidential guard who had implicated them in a plot to kill Doe. The four freed men were Gabriel Baccus Matthews of the United People’s Party, Counselor Tuan Wreh, a renowned journalist of his time, and Harry A. Greaves Sr. of the Liberian Action Party and Dr. Edward B. Kesselly of the Unity Party. Doe later said his joint security forces found insufficient evidence to “confirm the implication of these four individuals and others in the Flanzamaton plot.”
Wreh had gain prominence in the 1955s when he was sentenced by the legislature to six months of imprisonment for legislative contempt and punished by making him to collect the feces of other inmates with his bare hands, mash them with his bare hands and made to walk in the streets of Monrovia naked, with his face splattered with feces for writing an article with the title, “Inside Politics: Why you should not vote for Tubman” in the Independent, a newspaper owned by the Independent True Whig Party in 1955.
Cllr. Gongloe, now representing Patrick weighed in on the issue of freedom of speech and sedition during the September 2012 program marking the second Anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act And the Commemoration of the International Right to Know Day as he called for the decriminalization of speech by repealing criminal laws which include Sedition, criminal libel against the President and Criminal Malevolence. “President Sirleaf’s government has shown extreme tolerance even with the existence of these gag laws. However, to be sure that no future government of Liberia will behave in a manner that is different from this government by relying on these gag laws to reverse the gains made; let’s do everything, legally possible to persuade the National Legislature to repeal these gag laws,” Gongloe said. For now, many Liberians remain divided in the court of public opinion over the issue of speech, freedom and how far a critic of a sitting government can go and which line they are not allowed to cross.
Supporters, Critics Divided on EJS
Supporters of the Sirleaf administration have been trumpeting the refrain that freedom comes with responsibility but its critics say the government whose leader rode on the backs of others to attain the feat she enjoys today also owes it to those who supported her to allow freedom of speech to flourish particularly because it has brought her some international laurels.
Writing on his popular Facebook blog Thursday, Mr. Darius Dillon, one of the President’s key critics called for the revocation of the Table Mountain award from Liberia in the wake of the arrest of Patrick. “It Has Been Desecrated!!! This AWARD was received with the commitment to decriminalise the issue of free speech. That does not mean that no one would be held accountable for what they express, but that no one would be jailed for expressing a view or thought. At first, it was the closure of the National Chronicle Newspaper. And now that Vandalark Patricks has spent two nights in jail already for his expression, we have failed the intent and objective of the Table Mountain AWARD. It’s time to REVOKE and WITHDRAW it from Liberia. We no longer merit it.” source fpa