Public demonstrations banned, security stepped up as election date nears

The Liberian government has banned all public demonstrations and UN peacekeepers have stepped up security as the West African nation prepares for October polls designed to return it to democracy after 14 years of civil war.

"The decision to ban public demonstration is intended to ensure that the national security of the state is stable and guarantee an election free of violence," Justice Minister Kabineh Janneh said on Monday, adding that the ban was indefinite.

The government’s action came after some supporters of George Weah, one of 27 presidential aspirants, called for a mass street demonstration on Monday.

The Yana Boys Association said they wanted to protest against a bid to dismiss Weah’s candidacy that has been lodged with Liberia’s electoral officials.

They urged people "to march to the headquarters of the National Elections Commission and resist to the death, any attempt to exclude him from the presidential race."

The group was reacting to a complaint filed by a coalition representing 18 political parties that want Weah disqualified from the presidential election on the grounds that he has dual nationality.

"Weah holds both French and Liberian nationalities which automatically renders him ineligible to run for the Liberian presidency that is intended for only Liberian citizens," the coalition said.

Weah, wildly popular among many of Liberia’s youth and former combatants, played football in France from 1989 to 1999 and was the first African to win the prestigious World Footballer of the Year in 1995.

Weah has now swapped the football stadium for the political arena and the former captain and coach of Liberia’s national soccer team is adamant that his Liberian citizenship is not in doubt.

"It is known fact that I am a natural born Liberian citizen. Nobody can disprove it," the 38-year-old told reporters on Monday evening. "I am still in the presidential race."

The National Elections commission has yet to rule on the complaint against Weah, but it is due to publish the list of accepted candidates for the 11 October poll next week.

"A scrutiny committee will review the applications and verify all documentations," the commission said in a statement. "(It) will decide the fate of candidates, whether to accept or reject, on August 15… by publishing the final list of qualified candidates."

The electoral body said 27 people had been put forward as presidential candidates by the time nominations closed on Saturday.

There were 25 nominees for vice-president, 206 to contest the 30 seats in the upper chamber Senate and 521 vying for the 64 seats in the lower chamber House of Representatives.

The International Contact Group on Liberia (ICGL), which brings together Liberia’s regional and international partners, said in a statement on Monday that it had learnt of a letter sent to the electoral commission "containing what appear to be threats to disrupt the electoral process over the issue of approval of candidates."

"At the request of the National Transitional Government of Liberia and the National Elections Commission, UNMIL has taken measures to ensure protection of the NEC premises," it added.

Justice Minister Janneh warned anyone who disagreed with the electoral commission’s final list to take action through the courts and not on the streets.

"If you cause trouble, we will keep you behind bars. Nothing will stop this election," he said.

Residents meanwhile reported that the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) had stepped up security in Monrovia, with more peacekeepers on the streets, more searches at checkpoints and more armoured tanks deployed at key crossroads in the capital.

No-one at UNMIL was immediately available to comment.

Liberia's civil war began on Christmas Day 1989 and continued until president Charles Taylor flew into exile in Nigeria in August 2003. A transitional government, including members of all the warring factions, then took over and was charged with shepherding the country to fresh elections.