Monday, 4 April 2011


Comments attributed to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, warning that opposition politician Simeon Freeman will be arrested  and indicted for sedition if he proceeds with a planned demonstration appears to have been an April Fool’s joke, missed by reporters travelling with the President on her Southeastern tour, according to Presidential press secretary Cyrus Wleh Badio.

David B. Kolleh, FPA Staff Writer  (231 631 0032)


World leaders often bear the bulk of April Fool’s Day jokes but very rarely does a joke come from the mouth of a sitting president. That appears to be the case in Liberia amid a stirring controversy over what President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf may or may not have said about an opponent in this year’s presidential race – on of all days, April Fool’s Day.
‘‘The guys didn’t grab it,’’ Presidential press secretary told FrontPageAfrica Monday.
The statements attributed to the President, who completed a tour of the southeast Monday, suggested that plans were in the works to arrest the leader of the Movement for Progressive Change, Simeon Freeman, if he goes ahead with a planned protest against corruption.
The president was quoted as saying that she had received information that Freeman, who is also the Chief Executive Officer of DSTV, was inciting the public for a mass protest action and could have faced arrest and charged for sedition if the protest came to fruition. Sirleaf was reportedly quoted as saying that her administration will not allow anyone to undermine the gains that Liberia has made over the years.
As the comments made the airwaves, the Executive Mansion came out with a swinging denial suggesting that the President was simply making an April Fool’s joke.
April Fool’s Day jokes are not rare in political circles. In 1996, Taco Bell, an American fast-food chain placed a full-page advertisement in the 104-times-Pulitzer-Prize winner The New York Times announcing that they had bought the historic Liberty Bell. Taco Bell said they did this to help reduce America’s debt. Thus they were renaming Liberty Bell “Taco Liberty Bell”. When the White House was asked, then-press secretary Mike McCurry replied affirmatively and pulled another April Fools’ Day prank regarding the Lincoln Memorial. The White House announced the memorial to America’s 16th President sold with the new name Lincoln Mercury Memorial.
The same year, South African president Nelson Mandela was a victim of a prank when a British radio presenter named Nic Tuff pretended to be Prime Minister Tony Blair and called the South African President. Before Tuff literally hanged up, Tuff gave President Mandela a hint of his April Fools’ Day prank by asking President Mandela what he’s planning for April Fools. While leaders and governments have been victims of jokes, it is a rare for a leader to actually pull a joke on April Fool’s Day especially in an election year and on an opponent for the presidency.
April Fool’s Day jokes have become a norm especially for newspapers and media organizations. In 2004, for example, a U.S. publication reported that President Bush had announced that the 2004 presidential election will be canceled due to the war on terrorism and other scheduling conflicts.
The article even quoted a supposed brief statement from the Oval Office in which Bush said, ""A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," adding, "My administration is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."

Following the report of the April Fool’s Joke by the Executive Mansion, it now appears that the decision by the President to make an April Fool’s joke of what they said is a burning national concern, which the arrest orders of Mr. Simeon Freeman contender in this year’s elections, Civil Society leaders and ordinary Liberians have condemned the action by the President.     

 The Executive Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Dan Saryeh described the action of the President to order the arrest of Mr. Simeon Freeman and later retract her decision as a mockery to the office of the President.
“This is….. I don’t even know how to describe it, for the President of Liberia to make a statement on such a sensitive issue that borders on democratic norms and values, especially as it relates to arresting a Politician who had said he will stage peaceful demonstration and then later come back after few hours to say that it was an ‘April Fool’” I mean that’s ridiculous,” Mr. Dan Saryeh of the NDI said.
“The last time this same government was cracking down on someone for using what was considered a disrespectful term on the President’s office.  I am also of the view that the President’s office must be respected and will not support anyone making comments that will disrespect her office, but in the same vein I don’t think that office is for joking and making ‘April Fools’” NDI Executive Director told FPA.
 Saryeh in an FPA interview said that he was baffled at the statement because it puts the Presidency at the mercy of the Public, in that, members of the Liberian public will not take serious the President if she was to make a future statement and expects the public to respect such statement, she could be shocked that people will become skeptical over her statement.
“To be true to anyone, and I can say that anywhere and anytime, we must disengage any action that tend to bring the Presidency to public disrepute, and I feel very strongly that the comments by the President was very, very irresponsible and does not resemble what she represents.” Saryeh said.
 Martin B .M. Kula, a student advocate at the University of Liberia, thinks the action by the President has created too much embarrassment for those of them who admire her.
“Comrade, I must admit we are troubled by the statement calling for Mr. Freeman’s arrest and at the same time retracting the statement. If the President had thought Freeman planned demonstration will create insecurity he must be stopped. But with the pronouncement by the President, it now makes it difficult for the requisite security agencies to enforce an arrest if Mr. Freeman’s action during the demonstration violates the law.”
It was in Camera
During his appearance on the Truth Breakfast show Monday Morning, Information Minister Cletus Sieh justifying the action of the President said, though the President made the comment it was not intended for the public, because according to him it was done in camera and a common joke that should not be taken seriously.    
“The Cabinet retreat was done in camera, the press was banned from covering it, and in fact no journalist was inside. Besides it was just a joke and not meant for the public, instead it was meant to remain inside, I don’t know how it came outside but it did somehow,” Minister Sieh further said of the President comment.
Though maintaining that what the President had said was just a joke, the Information Minister was quick to warn that government will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who tries to violate the laws of the state by getting themselves involved in illegal activities.