In Monrovia’s relatively upscale Sinkor neighborhood a ragged rope stretched across a side street late one recent night. A 20-something man, in scrappy shirt and shorts sidled up to a car. “Cold water, my man,” he said using the local euphemism for a bribe. “Let me drink.”
He was easily brushed off this time but checkpoints like this are a sign of this country’s descent into hunger, desperation and uncertainty not seen for more than a decade. Just over a year into the administration of George Weah, former world soccer superstar-turned president, the economy is in a spiral.
Staggering mismanagement and corruption have scared off foreign investors. Frustrated donors are withholding funds. The Liberian dollar has dropped by a third against the US dollar since Weah took office. Inflation has soared as high as 28%.
For Liberians the checkpoints are a reminder of the dark days of Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended with the exile of president Charles Taylor in 2003. Fighters, sometimes as young as 8, ruled over check points like this—meting out life, torture and death with a terrifying capriciousness. More than 250,000 people were killed, 90% of the economy was obliterated.
The country is on edge in the runup to major protests on June 7 called “Save the State” in Monrovia and in Washington D.C. With hunger rising and a growing number of vigilantes taking justice into their own hands, there is a fear that June 7 could ignite bloodshed. Parties are in feverish negotiations to ensure peace but Liberians are stocking up on food and radios. Many say they will stay away but others, often those who voted for Weah, are determined to go.
Leroy Weatoe, tire repairer in Monrovia, has his placard ready: “Mr. President, please listen to us.”
“We want for the president to hear our views so that he can know what is hurting our feelings in this country, the struggle, the hardship,” he said. “We are not there for violence.”
Partisan and ill-disciplined government officials have fueled the tension. An army soldier took to social media threatening to kill protesters. The president was forced to suspend a minister who attacked protest leaders by invoking old tensions between the Americo-Liberian elite, descendants of the freed African American slaves who settled here two centuries ago, and the indigenous population. It was that same rhetoric that sparked the country’s last slide into chaos.
Many see the same clouds gathering again, this time between the haves at the top and the seething mass of Liberians who still live in extreme poverty.
There has been little sign that Weah is equipped to arrest the slide. The president has not spoken publicly for weeks. He muzzled his cabinet too, insisting all public statements be cleared. The silence has driven anxiety.
“President Weah… is not willing to learn, is not willing to change course, and has around him bad people, incompetent people… whom he is unwilling to drop let go because of party loyalty,” wrote commentator Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh in a post in the Liberian Dialogue blog.
International donors, on whom the government depends for more than two thirds of its expenditure, are alarmed. In a joint letter leaked to social media nine diplomats from major donor countries warned the government to stop diverting donor funds from bank accounts set aside for agreed purposes.
Most ominously for the shaky Weah regime, the IMF and World Bank have warned future support will only come with deep cost cutting, especially to public service wages which account for two thirds of government expenditure.
There’s a lot of fat to give. The legislators alone earn $120,000 a year before entitlements, more than most of their European counterparts, despite Liberia being one of the world’s poorest countries. The outlandish salaries permeate down several layers of government.
The IMF/World Bank demand presents a big dilemma for Weah. His position depends on patronage from thousands of lucrative government appointments he makes. A corps of bureaucrats who had spent 12 years learning their portfolios under the administration of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have been ejected to make way for supporters from Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party. By cutting wages, he may risk that support, and, eventually, impeachment. Sirleaf refused to make that gamble. But without IMF/World Bank support it is hard to see how the economy avoids calamity.
“Government needs to understand that many other countries are competing for donor funds, and donors would only give their money to countries that comply with international standards,” warned Dr. Nathaniel Barnes, a former finance minister. “Every time Liberia goes out for assistance money, they must understand that Sierra Leone is next to us, Nigeria, Ghana, Afghanistan.”
Chief among June 7 protestors’ complaints is the president’s refusal to address justice for war time atrocities. Several of those accused of the worst brutalities are public officials. Advocates say that fuels mistrust in government and a culture of impunity.
Weah, like Sirleaf before him, claims a court would risk stability. In truth both leaders counted on the support of Prince Johnson, the former warlord, to hold power. Now the senator for vote-rich Nimba County, Johnson would be the first to face a court. He has threatened to fight if indicted.
The UN Human Rights Committee has given the government until July next year to address war time justice. A bill for a court is being drawn up and advocates say legislators have shown a commitment to pass it. Weah would have to use a veto to stop it.
“Your refusal to support a war crimes court will be your Achilles heel,” Massa Washington, a leading justice campaigner warned Weah in a Facebook post. “How do you say you are President of all Liberians yet you refuse to hear us, work with us, protect us, care? We want justice. We want the end to impunity and the looting of the national treasury.”
As the economy slides Weah’s options are narrowing. A war crimes court, with its influx of donor dollars and jobs, may be the economic injection and political distraction the president needs.
The International Women in Media Foundation funded reporting for this story.
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