"Go in Peace and Sin no More": The High Price of Criticizing Liberian Presidents
By William E. Allen
Posted April 27, 2002
The recent arrest in Liberia of counselor-at-law Tiawon Gongloe, who has become well known for insisting that the Government of President Charles Taylor either bring charges against detainees or release them from prison, is yet another reminder of how intolerant Liberian presidents are to criticisms. Certainly Taylor is not the first Liberian Chief Executive to arbitrarily arrest (sometimes with the full backing of a dishonest and incompetent judiciary) persons who dare to freely express opinions that are critical of him. Since the 1950s Liberian presidents have become increasingly impatient with their critics. In their paranoia, the dictatorial presidents summarily sent critics to prison or death-in either case a clear violation of the constitution. Nearly half a century ago, William Tubman, another president who was notorious for routinely throwing critics in jail, released a Mr. Tuan Wreh from detention. Mr. Wreh, who spent 131 days in jail without a trial by a jury of his peers as prescribed in the constitution, was a Liberian journalist at the time of his incarceration. By the 1970s, Wreh was a highly successful lawyer and went on to become Dean for the prestigious Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia. According to Wreh, when Tubman ordered his release from detention on June 16, 1955, his filthy prison clothes were replaced with an elegant African garment. He was ordered to suit up in the new clothes and then driven to the House of Representatives. Richard A. Henries, Speaker of the House, told the tired and bewildered Wreh he was once again a free man. Henries then sent Tuan Wreh away saying, "Go in peace and sin no more." (Wreh, "The Love of Liberty: The Rule of President William V. S. Tubman in Liberia 1944-1971," 93)
Wreh's "sin" was writing an article in which he openly expressed his opposition to Tubman's intention to run for a third term of office. The article, entitled "Inside Politics: Why you should not vote for Tubman," was quick to draw retribution from the president. But it was the Legislature, which had guaranteed Wreh's right to free speech in the constitution in the first place, that carried out the punishment. He was arrested by the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives and escorted to the "honorable body" for judgement. Wreh's trial lasted for fifteen minutes. He was convicted for "contempt of the Legislature" and given six months in jail. While in confinement, Wreh's chores included emptying and cleaning the toilet buckets in the soldiers' quarters at the official residence of President Tubman. (This was the era before flush toilets were installed in soldiers' barracks.) The soldiers took special joy in taunting him: "you are the Tuan Wreh who know too much book, eh?" (Wreh, 92) On one occasion, the soldiers forced Wreh to put his hands in a pail of feces and urine while bystanders watched. (Wreh, 92) During all this time, Tubman made no public statements about Wreh's ordeal, even though the journalist had personally appealed to the president to end the strenuous and abusive forced labor.
According to one contemporary newspaper, "Boss Tubman peeped from behind his curtains," while Wreh was painfully humiliated. (Wreh, 93-94) Apparently Tubman did intervene because Wreh was released from detention two months before the end of his six-months sentence. Wreh complied with the warning from Speaker Richard Henries and did not "sin" or criticize the president - at least not publicly. He waited until Tubman died in 1971 and sat for six more years before he finally "sinned," by publishing the scathing account of Tubman's repressive twenty-seven rule in his book, "The Love of Liberty." According to Wreh, "The people escheated their freedom of speech, of conscience and of the press to the great dictator - the like of whom, I devoutly hoped, Liberians will never see again." (Wreh, xi) When counselor-at-law Wreh died in the 1980s, Liberians were living under the repressive regime of another dictator, Samuel Doe. The arrest, without charge, of Tiawon Gongloe, the popular Human Rights lawyer (besides many others who have also been detained since Charles Taylor came to power in 1998) is a sad reminder that Tuan Wreh's wish for a dictator-free Liberia is yet to become a reality.
What "sin" did Gongloe commit? What law did he violate? News from Liberia suggests that the Human Rights lawyer was detained shortly after he returned from Guinea, where he had spoken at a conference held from March 27 thru 29. The conference was aimed at finding ways to end the more- than-a-decade regional war that has left thousands dead in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In his remarks (http://www.theperspective.org/gongloemruspeech.html), the usually level-headed and cautious Gongloe denounced violence as a means of "building of a just, human, and stable social order." He called for "political education" so that the people would play a greater role in the democracy, emphasizing that "in a democracy, the people are the source and owners of power." Gongloe's prescription for peace is rather conservative. At the conference, he, like the vast majority of Liberians, renounced violence as a means for the attainment of political power.
So what was Gongloe's sin in the eyes of Taylor? There is no indication in the speech that Gongloe told Liberians not to vote for Taylor in the 2003 election, as Tuan Wreh had boldly enjoined the electorate to do in the case of Tubman. Such an appeal, however, would have been reasonable, because Taylor has done virtually nothing to improve the life of the Liberian people. Taylor instead has unconscionably intensified their misery and suffering, while pilfering the national resource and squandering it to feed his insatiable lust and greed. Gongloe's "sin," like that of Tuan Wreh, was speaking the truth as he saw it. Probably the most "outrageous" truth in Gongloe's speech, which must have been particularly offensive to Taylor since he intends to run for reelection, was the following remark: "Yes indeed, since December 24, 1989, when a group of Liberians launched an attack on Liberia from the Ivory Coast, the Mano River basin has seen no peace and therefore no development, but the intensification of the armed conflict that started on December 24, 1989 in Liberia and the consequent increase in human suffering, death and destruction of the basic infrastructure within the Mano River Basin." How could anyone, who is not responsible for the "death and destruction," possibly be threatened by this remark? Unless of course, that person is incumbent President Charles Taylor, the self-proclaimed leader of the attack of December 24, 1998 who insists on running for a second term of office.
History demonstrates that Liberian presidents are hypersensitive to criticisms. Tuan Wreh was brutalized and humiliated because he told Liberians that President Tubman should not be reelected. One can only guess what hideous acts of barbarity Taylor has instructed his mercenary killers to inflict on Gongloe; there are reports that Gongloe is being treated at a local hospital while soldiers stand guard. Gongloe was arrested because of the remarks he made in Guinea. The Liberian government is convinced that the intelligent and outspoken Gongloe subtly told his audience in Guinea that President Charles Taylor is an incompetent, dishonest and lousy chief executive and if reelected, Taylor would continue to be an incompetent, dishonest and lousy chief executive. President Charles Taylor is not the first Liberian dictator who routinely arrests and allegedly murders his critics. But given the increasing rate at which he preys on the innocent, he may very well be on his way to becoming the most ruthless dictator in the Republic of Liberia's 154-years history.
The "sins" of Tuan Wreh and Tiawon Gongloe are clear. They exercised their right of free speech which is guaranteed under the constitution of Liberia. Therefore, under the law and contrary to Richard Henries' admonition to Tuan Wreh, President Taylor should free Tiawon Gongloe immediately so that the popular lawyer may go in peace and instead, allow to "sin more."