Thousands of Liberians predominantly marketers took to the streets on Thursday December 15, to protest the rapid tax increases on import goods and services which has led to sky rocket prices here on the local market.
The protest brought normal business activities in the heavily congested commercial district of Waterside and Bushrod Island to a shutdown on the aggrieved business people, including importers and retailers vehemently protested recent tax increase by government on basic goods and services.
Most of the protesters have their goods brought in from Asia and other countries stockpiled at the port due to what they have described as outrageous taxes impose by the government.
The protest which comes barely a week to the Christmas festival is expected to continue for a week, according to protesters. The government, through the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) had proposed sweeping increase of taxes on goods and services, including communication thru a Tax Amendment Bill, much to the dislike of the already struggling population
At an extraordinary session of the 53rd Legislature last Tuesday, some lawmakers argued that the US$0.01 (one U.S. cent) charged per minute on all phone calls was not in the interest of Liberians, which led them to vote with 32 for, 21 against, and 5 abstaining from the process.
The Liberian dollar has badly depreciated by 100LRD to US$1.00, the highest in many years.
The House of Representatives recently passed the bill into law after a one-day joint legislative retreat with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the Capitol Building, pending concurrence by the Liberian Senate. The increment has seriously affected taxes on imports and exports, posing serious setback to smooth business activities. Tons of containers are stockpiled at the Freeport of Monrovia due to inability of claimers to release them because of high taxes being required by the LRA.
Thursday’s protest led the authorities here to hurriedly deploy the elite Emergency Response Unit or ERU, a riot squad of the Liberia National Police to contain the angry crowd, who demanded the government to immediately repeal the increment on taxes.
Lebanese and Indian merchants in the commercial district shutdown businesses in what some said was in solidarity with the protesters. Several business people interviewed by this paper complained that the LRA was imposing unnecessary taxes on goods and services in the face of a deteriorating economy.
The entrepreneurs, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said unless government reconsiders the taxes, they would continue to protest. According to them, the action by the government has made it very difficult for them to clear goods from the port and import new consignments.
The protest, which also affected the operations of several government revenue generating entities, caused vehicle owners to take their vehicles off the streets to avoid any damage.
Activities at the Rally Time and Waterside General Markets also came to standstill as marketers parked their goods and joined their colleagues in the streets to pressurize government to reduce taxes.
Up to press time Thursday, police heavily deployed in strategy areas of the city were still posted. A used vehicle importer on Capitol Hill, Broad Street accused LRA agents of issuing documents containing two different taxes for the same goods or materials.
The dealer explained that he imported five used vehicles and was to pay taxes totaling US$3,400, but received another payment slip from the LRA, increasing the amount to US$5,380.00 without any justification.
When this paper visited the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for comment, Public Relations Officer Mitchell Jones, said as far as the ministry was concerned, business people have not presented any formal complaint to government, but added that the Ministry of Information is the appropriate ministry to speak on the matter.
However, the Chairman of the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia or PATEL, Mr. Presley Tenwah claimed officers of the Police Support Unit (PSU) violently arrested five of his colleagues, bundled them in the back of a police pickup and took them to the National Police Headquarters.
According to him, Thursday’s protest was generally peaceful until the police arrived and forcefully dispersed the crowd, using teargas.
He narrated that while the leadership of PATEL was negotiating for a smooth protest, a senior police officer with alcoholic bottles in his back pocket, ordered his men to move on the crowd, leaving protesters vulnerable in the hands of people believed to be criminals. According to him, the police fired sufficient teargas that led some protesters wounded, while others fainted.
The PATEL leader further told this paper seven persons are currently seeking medication at the government-owned John F. Kennedy Medical Center in the Monrovia suburb of Sinkor. This paper could not independently verify his claim up to press time. But Tenwah said he has hired lawyers to represent them at ongoing preliminary investigation with the police.
He vowed that the protest will continue till the matter is peacefully resolved, and all parties are satisfied. Police spokesman Sam Collins said the police went on the scene to maintain law and order. He confirmed the use of teargas, saying it was intended to disperse the crowd. Collins defended that usage of teargas is part of police training to restore law and order where protesters go amok.
Tax authorities here promised to issue a statement but this paper was unable to receive a copy if their statement as at press time.
By Emmanuel Mondaye& E. J. Nathaniel Daygbor-Editing by Jonathan Browne