The Students’ Protest And The President’s Decision: Is There Any Lesson From Last Thursday’s protest?

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

Whenever there are major issues that make headlines or are of great public interest and concern, I always try to look at the other side or a side of importance that may not be of great news value to the media. The side, usually known as the ‘sidebar’ always reflects an angle that may be of interest also to the reading public. It may not be the hard news, but can generate public interest or recognition, perhaps for the way and manner that issue took place or how some individuals were able to play a role that either exacerbate or lessen the situation.

As rightly reported with all kinds of headlines, normal traffic in parts of the city of Monrovia, mainly the Capitol Hill came to a standstill for hours as students staged a protest against recent policies of the Education Ministry to regularize the school calendar after the devastating Ebola caused a stoppage in academic activities.

Recently, the government of Liberia through the Ministry of Education announced that schools will close by the end of this month and that there will be no promotion of ninth and 12th graders. The Ministry said the schools will now revert to the usual academic month of September. It said only students from first grade to eight grades and those from 10th and 11th grades would be promoted.

It was in the wake of these policies that the students last Thursday staged the protest action, obstructing normal traffic in the Capitol Hill. The situation led to President Sirleaf who was returning from the Monrovia City Hall in honor of Dr. Amos sawyer to disembark from her vehicle that was blocked or barricaded by the students, some of whom lay in the streets.

A portion of the story as published by this paper said, ‘”Group of students in Monrovia yesterday stopped President Sirleaf’s convoy and forced her to walk to office after they had refused to leave the main road on which the President was traveling. The President was returning from a state function at the Monrovia City Hall when the students stopped her convoy.”

It was further reported that while the Liberian leader was returning from a ceremony at the Monrovia City Hall, hundreds of students drawn from various schools in Monrovia and its environs staged a peaceful protest by standing in front of the President’s convoy with anti-government slogans.

The students insisted that President Sirleaf would not leave until circumstances surrounding the closure of schools on July 31, 2015 are adequately addressed. The students took over the main road from the Monrovia City Hall to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the President is temporarily displaced.

“We want to go to school; government must be consistent; give our money back or continue the school year,” were some of the anti-government slogans sung by the aggrieved protesting students. They told President Sirleaf that her convoy would not leave until she made official statement on the ongoing fracas on the closure of schools in the country.

The situation forced the Liberian leader to disembark her Presidential vehicle to walk with the group of protesting students who were later joined by others to give their action more weight. Madam Sirleaf walked with the group at her Foreign Ministry office.

As the protesters grew in numbers, a reinforcement of the Police Support Unit (PSU) of the Liberia National Police were immediately deployed to assist the Executive Protective Service (EPS) contain the situation. The situation which lasted for nearly an hour was brought under control later with the arrival of the PSU officers and also when President Sirleaf invited the leadership of the group of students to meet her at her office.

As I earlier stated, the story or events have been reported with the major focus of the protest, and a little on the role played by the President. It is this role played by the President that I have decided to highlight as the side bar of Thursday’s protest action by the students.

Let me begin by saying that I detest the way and manner in which the students composed themselves by obstructing the normal flow of traffic. While it is true that the Constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to petition their leaders, the very Constitution sets condition in exercising this right. It speaks of such being done in a peaceful and orderly manner and not in a rumpus manner that violates the rights of others.

To this the Constitution states in Article 17 that, “all persons at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances and to associate fully with others or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions and other organizations.

And so the students’ action to block the road was completely diametrical to the intent and purpose of that constitutional provision, as it is said that, “where one rights ends, another person’s rights begins.”

The role played by the President by disembarking from her vehicle was what was responsible to calm the storm. That personal touch or personal interaction with the students made them to feel psychologically respected and not ignored by the President. The President could have ordered the security to disperse or break up the protesting students who had blocked not only her convoy, but the entire traffic in the area. Rather she decided to walk to meet them. That was a good sign of leadership during crisis, as one cannot put off fire with fire.

In all farness, had the President done otherwise, that would have prompted certain behavior and attitude considering the volatility of the situation on that day. That could have resulted to stone-throwing that is usually done in such a situation. But the fact that she condescendingly accepted to disembark to walk and interact with the students saved the day.

In a conflict situation, it is also prudent to interact by hearing what others have to say and later appeal to them, or assure them of doing something about their concerns.

I recall that one time during the administration of the late Samuel K. Doe there was a protest action at the University of Liberia that later turned sour. At that timer the late Doe ordered then Defense Minister Gen. Gray D. Allison to ‘move or be removed,’ meaning that he should disperse the students or stand to lose his position.

With that, the late Allison, fearing not to be considered a “weak General,” moved and the result was devastating. That event, which took place August 22, 1984 on the campus of the University of Liberia, has been recorded as one of the major human rights violations during the Doe regime.

In that situation, if the late Doe, no matter the derogatory comments or utterances, had gone to meet the protesting students, this could have helped to calm the storm. One thing I know from experience, as the President did is that interaction always softens tension and lower temper.

There may be many lessons in last Thursday’s role of the President; one thing I got from there is that leaders should always learn to condescend or ‘come down’ and not rely on status or position to show strength. Had the President decided to act otherwise, Monrovia would have experienced a sad day. There might have been people under the canopy of students who could use such ill-advised action to exploit it for selfish reason.

One thing we must be aware of is that in such a situation, there are people always “IN THE CROWD” for different reasons, and not necessarily for the intent and purpose of the organizers. Experience has shown that in such a situation, misguided individuals are with different motives.

This is why I hail the President for swallowing the bitter pills and also for stooping, not necessarily as a sign of weakness, but to avoid unnecessary commotion and confrontation to the detriment of the society.

Again, hats off! to President Sirleaf for saving the day.

And so the lesson learned from last Thursday’s protest action by students and the President’s action to discuss with them, despite their unruly behavior, is that at times realize that it is prudent and sagacious to stooge low, exercise restraint, patience and tolerance to avert or prevent a situation with far-reaching consequences,