Liberia after the April revolution: now the people expect miracles

It is a sweltering afternoon on Main Street. The Roxy Theater's matinee has just begun. Next to the supermarket on Randall Street, the dollars are flowing fast as the waiters at "Pop In" serve barbequed spare ribs and hot popcorn, hamburgers, and ice cream.

But not far away, across from the West German Embassy, a crowd of hundreds of excited people provides a reminder that this is not an ordinary afternoon in West Africa's outpost of Americana.

Almost daily since the April 12 coup that killed President William Tolbert and subsequently executed many members of his government, there have been reminders that what has happened is, in the words of one diplomat, "a genuine revolution that has destroyed a way of life, and it will never be the same."

The country's severe economic difficulties are expected to persist, however, placing continuing pressures on the 17 young soldiers who make up the ruling People's Redemption Council (PRC).

In recent weeks, private sector workers have been demanding higher pay. Last month the government banned all strikes and work stoppages after labor unrest threatened widespread economic disruption. Officials say that they have no direct control over nongovernment employers, and one has appealed to workers to make national recovery possible by boosting their productivity.

That would be a step toward economic stability that many Liberians expect to hasten the return to civilian rule.

The ruling PRC has declared its intention to step down for a civilian government, but has set no timetable.

Council chairman and head of state M/Sgt. Samuel Doe reportedly favors a stronger role now for the civilian Cabinet, which currently functions primarily as an advisory group. But some council members are said to be resistant, and the prospect of infighting within the PRC cannot be discounted.

Liberia's new rulers seem to recognize they cannot remain popular without producing some results. They moved quickly to increase minimum monthly pay for civil servants (from $100 to $200) and for soldiers (from $100 to $250).

That was necessary, says Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs Togba-Nah Tipoteh, because the poverty line for Monrovia is about $20 to $250 a month.

And the government is preparing to sign a $30 million financial assistance agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a move expected to clear the way for $13 million loan from a New York bank. The funds will be used to help ease the country's serious foreign exchange deficit and to assist with IMF-proposed plans for restructuring the nation's financial system.

Freedom is what Liberians seem to expect to get from a new government that is riding a wave of public jubilation. "The bitterest problem facing us," says Nah-Doe Bropleh, director of the West African Rice Development Association, which is headquartered here, "is that people expect miracles. This is a very poor country. It won't be easy to change that."

Mr. Tipoteh, speaking on behalf of the new government two weeks after the revolution, appealed to Liberians for patience. "We must try hard not to expect too much too soon.

"The limited objective of that statement," Mr. Tipoteh said in an interview, "was to get people to realize the sad, sad state of government finances -- and more than that the terrible state of affairs in respect to the economy as a whole."

Many Liberians apparently feel that the wealth accumulated by the former rulers can be redistributed and improve the lives of the entire citizenry. But Mr. Tipoteh, who as leader of the opposition group MOJA (Movement for Justice in Africa) was a well-known opponent of the former regime, says it isn't that easy; there is not enough wealth to go around. "The past rulers, bent on improving their own personal positions at the expense of the masses of the people, destroyed the economy," he said. "It reached a stage of no growth."

These sharp economic distinctions also help explain why the military rulers decided to execute 13 former officials, whose deaths after only brief trials before a military tribunal provoked international outrage.

Here, however, there are considerable support for the executions.

"No class anywhere has surrendered power willingly," Foreign Minister Bacchus Matthews declared. "I'm happy that an indigenous government could have emerged here with as little shedding of blood, though we regret he shedding of blood. You can almost call it a peaceful revolution."

An American schoolteacher married to a Liberian says he was not surprised by public pressure for the executions. "The average person here makes less than $ 100 a year. To them the trials weren't the kangaroo courts they may have seemed to outsiders. You have to understand the outrage against people who lived so opulently among so much misery.

"Foreigners who knew [former foreign minister] Cecil Dennis were shocked that he could be executed, but to local people he symbolized everything that was wrong here -- he lived high, drove a flashy car, was always at the President's side, and was often caretaker president when Tolbert was away."

Not everyone agrees. An American journalist who was friendly with former Liberian officials groaned at the mention of the Dennis name. "He was a wonderful man, a sweet man," she mourned. "And he died with only $20,000 in the bank. Is that any reason to killm somebody?"

Mr. Matthews says his party is not impatient "as long as we see that change is taking place." But he adds: "We don't think we'll be willing to live in a command society too long. We know the possibilities for power to become absolute."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.