Lawrence’s death: Liberian government must be blamed

A truck abandoned on the RIA Road
Photo: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Under Ex-President Ellen Sirleaf’s regime, the suspicious deaths of two prominent figures, a lawyer and an opposition politician, by ‘drowning’ in the Atlantic Ocean, stood out. Now in just a little over one year into the new George Weah’s regime, it too, is fast gaining a reputation for itself in the wake of sudden deaths of prominent people, via motor accidents. And like its predecessor, these ‘car crash victims’ were engulfed in highly sensitive controversial state matters and slated to face investigation prior to their deaths. Journalist James Kokulo Fasuekoi examines circumstances surrounding Rep. Lawrence’s recent car crash.  

The hazardous motor-road situation in Liberia which has reportedly led to countless deaths in recent weeks has hit public crisis level. The latest came sometime ago, resulting to the tragic deaths of Montserrado District #15 Representative Adolph Lawrence, a female, and wounded several passengers when a disabled truck collided with their car. The sad news hit hard, a nation still divided by war and recovering from the recent death of a senator, Geraldine Doe, who lost a fight with cancer. Mr. Lawrence’s widow, Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence, a senator for Grand Bassa, together with families and friends, have been shattered by grief due to the loss, and are struggling with the painful question, why?  

The latest is among scores of such tragic road motor disasters during the past few years along the Roberts International Airport Road, which many refer to as “RIA”, or “Robertsfield Highway,” although it doesn’t measure to the standard of a modern highway. The accident has enraged people in the West African nation and has continued to be noised abroad, with citizens blaming the police and their government and contending that the latest mishap plus many similar past accidents could have been avoided if the transport ministry and Liberian National Police authorities had been serious about maintaining safety standards, curbing excessive “police” bribery (which remains a major impediment), and rigorously enforcing proper traffic laws.

A chaotic evening traffic scene in Monrovia Photo: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Whatever the case, Senator Nyonblee Lawrence is perhaps, one of the most hardest hit by such tragedy in recent times resulting apparently from what many now view as glaring but outright neglect and failure by two main government institutions to render better services to the masses. For those who may not know, in 2016, Senator Lawrence also lost a son, Cyril Allen Jr. on the same Robertsfield Road. This writer has been informed by a family member that late Allen Jr.’s death was also caused by a defective car left abandoned on the main road. And now comes the case with Nyonblee’s husband, Adolph Lawrence, whose death also was similarly caused by a disabled freight truck on the same route.

Unless those in authority feel numb to present-day realities in Liberia, it’s completely needless to say this situation has reached a serious crisis level that requires immediate intervention nationally. For now, this question persists: how many more Liberians and international visitors would have to die on Robertsfield “highway” and other accident-prone roads particularly around Monrovia before the Weah-led Government’s attention is claimed by this epidemic?   

Tragedy, a huge Loss to Liberia

The accident divvied out a major blow to the government, parliament, and all spheres of Liberian society including the youths. For it took the life of one of the finest and outstanding parliamentarians, described by many as a philanthropist. A big blow because, the late Lawrence was among a few that kept pressing for fairness and accountability in a society where so many have been compromised in many ways. And finally, the accident shattered lives of a cream of new generation leaders for Liberia who had celebrated Mr. Lawrence’s natal day with him in Buchanan and were traveling back to the capital with him when tragedy erupted.

A heavy yellow left on GSA Road for weeks in 2011. Photo: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Rep. Lawrence made substantial contributions to the country’s political landscape which shall be recorded in our history for the benefit of other generations to come. He stood up to power thereby, serving the public interest above all else. He was one determined to seek justice for the dead and voiceless and would have been very much useful in the establishment of a war and economic crimes court that his dear country so desires.  

Perhaps, what seems more adorable about the man, for which so many will miss, is the kind of “down-to-earth” lifestyle he embraced, according to some who met him; such a humble lifestyle that has become too hard to see in the “New Liberia,” especially among the new group of “bourgeois” that runs state affairs, from the executive to the parliament. Sure, Lawrence had to have come from a humble background and with plain heart in order to be with CDC while his darling wife remains a leading stalwart in the rival Liberty Party in such male-dominated society as Liberia, used to silencing or dictating to women.

And I must hasten to add that unlike many new “bourgeois” of Liberia, Lawrence was a very hardworking man; one said to have owned wealth before entering the Liberian Parliament. Hence, the action taken earlier by his widow to snub burial funds offered by the CDC-led government didn’t come as a surprise, especially in wake of the increased political hostilities the deceased faced weeks and days before his death, at the hands of loyalists of the CDC party, the same party he fought so hard to bring to power.  

How “Power” didn’t Change Him

In a country that has become consumed in utter selfishness and wickedness, much of what has come to the full glare of public view lately mainly on social media, dubbed by some media experts as “citizen journalism,” wake of Lawrence’s untimely demise, one finds it absolutely necessary and prudent to examine some personal testimonies that people who knew Rep. Lawrence are giving about an accomplished life they say he had. The experience seems necessary to share so that others might learn what it take for one to live a humble life as Lawrence did.  

Days after the deadly car crash, one of Rep. Lawrence’s own teenagers from his household, Milky Trice Karnga, was among thousands who took to social media and punched in a couple of commentaries regarding the life of their deceased father. He described him to be someone who “was just an extraordinary person, so down to earth.” “He could do anything to make other happy while he be sad. He was just different!!!” he said.

An old cargo truck carrying a forty-foot container spotted in the heart of Monrovia on McDonald Street. Photo: James Kokulo Fasuekoi.

In another post, the teen indicated that the acquisition of political power didn’t in any way dictate their father’s life, less alone did “power” change the way Lawrence treated people even in their home and in the community. This can’t be said of many in today’s Liberia where title and power matter so much; an example being the recent dismissal of two officials for conferring the ‘highest traditional title,’ ‘Dakpanah’ upon another official rather than Pres. Weah.

However, what even struck Milky most is the day he said, they (teens in the home) were about to go and hang out but unfortunately, he stated, “all the cars were down, there was only one in the yard and we didn’t know he[Lawrence] was getting ready to go out too and wanted to use that particular car.”

The boy continued: “We went out [to] the front together and he [Lawrence] asked: “Oh your going out and using the car??” Our reply was yes, but we’ll cancel our appointment and you can carry the car. Moreover, you’re our father, lawmaker and the owner of the car.”

What Rep. Lawrence said next, according Milky, had all the teens shock. He explained that their father told them to use the car and that his own “appointment” for that day wasn’t more important than theirs. Besides, as narrated by the boy, Mr. Lawrence had indicated he was heading to Logan Town, Bushrod Island, which is just about a half-way journey to central Monrovia, where the teens were attending an event.    

But that’s not all. Milky said, they, boys, [having excused him, Mr. Lawrence], “laughed about it thinking that he’ll just stay home for a while and call one of the drivers to come and pick him up” and take the representative to Logan Town. That turned out to be a miscalculation on the teens’ part as their father caught a bike ride (the most common form of transportation in the Liberia nowadays) to get to his appointment.

“But to my outmost surprise while we were in traffic at St. Paul Bridge, we saw him passing on bike and waving at us,” Milky said.   

In a recent conversation with this writer, one of Lawrence in laws, Mrs. Mary Karnga Dahn, a resident of Jacksonville, Florida, also spoke highly of the deceased, tearfully noting: “I say, “He [Lawrence] would come to our door soon morning, asking who’ve got cloths to press?” Mrs. Dahn was referencing her stay at the couple’s Virginia, Liberia home during a 2016 Worldwide Mission Church conference she attended.  

A commercial car on Buchanan Highway carries passengers in its trunk March 2018. Photo: James Kokulo Fasuekoi

Also for Minnesota resident, Martha, who was among delegates from the U.S. that lodged at the couple’s home during the church’s conference, the loss of Mr. Lawrence seems unbearable. “He won’t sit and let the housemaids do the work alone,” says Martha. “He will ask have you eaten breakfast or do you want me fix your breakfast?”

And if it was after noon, she said, Mr. Lawrence would ask “Do you want to eat fufu?”  knowing that she’s Bassa and would love fufu which can be produced from cassava.

Another of Rep. Lawrence’s son, Arsenio Allen who resides in the United States, also described the deceased as a wonderful father and a “perfect fit for us” and added, “We will always love you.”

Rep. Adolph Lawrence no doubt will be missed by so many, including people whom he never met during his life time.

Police, government, to be blamed

Liberia is one of the places worldwide where local traffic police officers devote much of their day towards extorting money from drivers at the expense of safety rather than enforce traffic laws. It’s a habit which continues to compromise traffic safety regulations to the detriment of all who travel those routes in Liberia, particularly, Monrovia area. Despite such reality plus more, authorities like the police and transport ministry have remained indifferent to the plight of the people even in the face of the increasing death toll by motor accident. The sour experience has caused public confidence in the police to dwindle and also cast a dark cloud over its own image.     

Bribery of traffic police, especially in Africa, as we’ve come to know may never stop till the end of time. However, to often carry out extortion and bribery at the expense of people’s lives, contrary to police duties, can be troubling and incomprehensible; worse, when such corrupt practices reach epidemic proportion which seems the case in Liberia now. In the Monrovia area, traffic police officers can be seen abandoning their assigned posts and joining cargo fleets leaving the Freeport and heading to town to offload goods. This is termed as a “special escort” and most do so in order to get some tips. What’s so dangerous about it is that goods are transported on forty-foot containers using dilapidated 24-tired cargo trucks across crowded Monrovia, with minimal public safety rules taken by their police escorts.    

Another frightening sign is the wicked tendency by operators of commercial cars and cargo trucks to abandon their vehicles in middle of roads or streets, and highways without posting a sign whenever they experience a breakdown. Some do walk away without the use of tree branches to alert incoming cars. And there have been cases where operators of disabled vehicles left them occupying the middle of roads or the half, then ran to town to buy gas or spare parts, find a mechanic who would go and work on the vehicle. Repair works are performed on such disabled vehicles in the middle of roads while cars drive around them; all the while, police authorities would cruise by unmoved, and not issue fines.

Another worrying traffic scence in Monrovia
Photo: James Kukolo Fasuekoi

During a couple of my journeys to Liberia in recent years, I came across such road “death traps” (as I would call them) and didn’t hesitate capturing the scenes on camera as shown in photographs. For instance, a convoy I was riding in got caught up in one such dangerous road hazards in late February 2018, in Liberia, just about the Tower Hill area on RIA Road where Rep. Lawrence’s car crashed recently. Fortunately, our convoy had a police escort and we were travelling daytime and that afforded us a clear visibility. I was escorting three bishops who were on their way to the United States. They had travelled with me to Liberia on church mission, broke grounds for a new Bible College and also participated in crusades held by Rev. Dr. Christian Dagadu’s Evangelistic Christian Ministries.  

As our convoy approached the Tower Hill area, we spotted a disabled truck (as seen in photos). The area seems a tact spot apparently after a bridge and like every other road and highway in the country, without shoulders. One car ahead of our convoy stopped. But an oncoming blue jeep (from RIA side) stopped right across the road from the big disabled truck, leaving little room for passage. This in itself indicated Liberian drivers might not be getting proper trainings in “defensive driving” before being licensed or that it could just be a case of recklessness. As it happened, the convoy managed and whizzed by without an incident. In nighttime, it may have perhaps, turned differently.  

Returning to Monrovia, the disabled truck was still seen at the same spot. It probably may have remained there for days or even weeks, like in some other instances before being removed but without police’s issuance of a warning or citation to owner. What had me astonished is that the police bike rider that earlier led us to the RIA failed to stop to make an inquiry regarding this “deadly road trap.” My concern stemmed from the dangers the old truck posed to the general safety of everyone traveling along the RIA route including local officials. Other police patrol cars traveling the same route were similarly unmoved by this situation. Though it seems normal to locals, it’s erring to visitors.  

But not just cars alone, it’s quite common to see a heavy yellow crane left in the middle of streets in Monrovia despite the abandonment of such equipment on roads in the country may have resulted to alarming human tragedies. In the summer of 2011, for instance, I captured countless images of one such disabled earth-moving machine, said to be owned by the public works ministry. It remained at the Tubman Boulevard and GAS Junction in Paynesville for weeks and was positioned right in the middle of the road as depicted in photographs. Nearby shop owners said such act has become “normal” in Liberia. According to one, “Public Works will not remove it till they can find some spare parts before going ahead to do repair work and move it.”  

And like the RIA “death trap” as referenced earlier, it perplexed me that not a single traffic warning sign was mounted near the yellow machine. It didn’t seem to matter to everyone who drove pass around the heavy equipment day and night and police troopers too, whizzed by the same way daily and heading to the nearby Police Academy but didn’t make a big deal of it.  

Now, the question is raised: Could the death of Rep. Lawrence, others, have been easily avoided? The answer, unquestionably is resounding yes! And that’s if the police and transport ministry authorities had taken their work seriously by enforcing proper traffic guidelines which include doing an annual nationwide vehicles inspection exercise which from all indications, could have kept such worthless trucks that killed Rep. Lawrence, others, off the highways. And can the police and government be held responsible for those tragedies? Answer again is yes. But whether authorities can use the recent road disaster as rallying point to do better by enforcing traffic laws, as well as expanding the RIA Road, from where foreign visitors get their first impression of Liberia, remains to be seen.

Concluding Comments

In Africa today, most leaders and their overzealous supporters barely careless to adhere to democratic principles once they get in power.  For them, democracy can’t be treated as a 50-50 basis like the way the West and others practice it. Their political fanatics and sycophants view democracy a one way: Either for, or against, as people see happening now in Liberia. It has reached to such dangerous level that a mere criticism of the president and or new “dictator”, seems worth being paid with one’s precious life. As a result, well-known campaigners of free speech and press freedom in the country have been often forced to at time get out for their personal safety.  

Photo: James Kukolo Fasuekoi

Frankly, for the war-traumatized population, living in this Negro Republic, which once generously offered asylum to thousands from around the globe, this isn’t the type of life they had expected or hoped for. They certainly had looked forward to some optimism with the ushering in of the new CDC administration, believing such could offer a respite from those nefarious acts under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf where prominent figures like Harry Greaves and Michael Allison mysteriously died by “drowning.” It seems people were wrong! Needless to cite that the sudden deaths Ballah, Innis, and now Lawrence, are concerning. Further, their “deaths” occurred while they were about to perform very important tasks for the republic just as Allison and Greaves, a situation that leaves more to desire.

Of course, even more worrisome in all of the recent car crashes is the way the LNP has managed crimes scenes and witnesses. Yes, the public now know that the CBL’s chief driver Kollie Ballah died in Lofa County by accident and luckily, a second rider with him “survived.” Also CBL’s former executive, Matthew Innis is said to have similarly died near his home in a suburb of Monrovia. The case of Rep. Adolph Lawrence happened recently on Tower Hill. Yet, the police have continue to shield all so-called witnesses, including the “runaway driver” from of a truck (which ran into Lawrence’s) from news media interviews. And then “crime scenes” were quickly cleared by police in all cases which is also universally unprecedented.

So far, only the police plus “individuals” they have identified to be “eyewitnesses” remain the only “witnesses.” Meanwhile, the mass media have not been able, or allowed to independently interview “witnesses” police identified for authenticity though a “police officer” is reported to have been seen around Monrovia sporting victim Innis’ car following his alleged “accident.” If these developments plus many others not cited, aren’t reasons to cause suspicions, pointing to foul play in those deaths, then I can’t tell what else will.   

Under the circumstances, the police and government have got more explanation to give, especially, considering Rep. Lawrence’s persistent quest to press for answers in the death of Matthew Innis alleged to have been caused by a “car accident.” Unless the police can show convincing proofs and tell why it conducted investigations into “accidents” in the manner as presented here, it sure shall continue to be dogged by accusations of foul play and sheer negligence in those events.

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is an award-winning journalist, a documentary writer and news photographer who for a decade, covered civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone for several international news agencies including The Associated Press. He became a Bush Foundation Scholar twice in 2017. He heads the U.S. Midwest chapter of The Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas.