Award-winning Liberian journalist and ZAM network reporter Bettie Johnson-Mbayo and her husband Dr Moses Mbayo were recently assaulted by a group of men working for Marvin Cole, a Representative in the Liberian government. The attack was a punishment for parking their vehicle near his driveway. The couple and four friends had still been inside the car on the roadside at the time, on their way to pay their respects to a local family who had suffered a bereavement.
But rather than take action against the thugs or their boss, the Liberian justice system’s response to the violence was to sentence the Mbayos to jail terms for disorderly conduct and felonious restraint. In this article Bettie Johnson-Mbayo explains how Liberian politicians are permitted to use the law to harm citizens, and states that she won’t let them get away with it.
On 15th January 2022, my husband and I were badly beaten by a group of men working for Marvin Cole, the representative of Bong County District Three in central northern Liberia. We thought this was bad enough, but then on January 17th a police officer informed us that we stood accused of attacking the legislator, and that we would be taken to court if we did not apologise to him.
The beating occurred after we made the mistake of parking our car, with our friends still inside, on the side of a public road close to his driveway. When the lawmaker’s vehicle approached and his driver asked us to move, we agreed even though it seemed odd- after all, where we were parked was not blocking anybody. But before we could move, the Representative emerged from his vehicle, shouting that we should have known “whose fence this was” before parking.
He then ordered his driver to park inside and to return with staff to “discipline” us. The staff arrived and set upon us as their boss shouted encouragement. One of our group, Johnson Kerkula, undid his belt as he tried to defend us and himself but Rep. Cole, by this point in a state of excitement, told his employees not to worry, saying, “beat them- nothing will happen”.
We went to the police to file a report of assault, as any citizen should after suffering an assault, and police officers were dispatched to the scene. Their initial responses were quite clear in understanding what had happened. One of the officers described Rep. Cole’s attempts to blame our group for starting the fight, saying that I had grabbed him and thrown a stone at him. The same police man also remarked that Rep. Cole had said, "if he had had a gun at that moment, he would have shot them in the head”. The officer admitted being puzzled about the stone throwing accusation, because Rep. Cole’s white shirt was spotless. “You are in a white shirt and you are claiming that you were stoned by Ms. Mbayo’, the officer told me later he had asked Rep. Cole. ‘You live in a muddy community but there is no stain on your shirt- how is that possible?’
However, when we later went to the police station to follow up on our complaint we were met with a markedly different tone. Officers were now on the side of the politician, saying that we had no right to raise a case against him and that we instead owed him an apology. We were baffled and decided not to apologise.
The police soon announced that my husband and I were being charged with felonious restraint and disorderly conduct and, in the case of Johnson Kerkula a charge of terroristic threat was filed because he had removed his belt. At the court hearing, witnesses for the prosecution described our vehicle blocking Rep. Cole’s driveway and again repeated the accusation that I had thrown a stone at the MP. When asked who had assaulted us, Rep. Cole told the court that he did not know what might have happened behind his back.
Other witnesses described the driveway being clear and supported our claims that we had not been the aggressors. But despite a weight of evidence in our favour, it soon became clear that the case was not going to be decided on its merits. Statements collected from Rep. Cole’s wife, a security guard and even one of the men who beat us, all of which corroborated our version, were omitted from the evidence in court. The police officers who had gone to the crime scene were also nowhere to be seen, and were replaced by a new official who denied that any investigation of the scene had happened. Meanwhile the defence’s key witness changed her statement under cross-examination, saying that she had not been at the scene from the start of the altercation.
Fourteen days later, Magistrate Marvin Bah found us guilty of two of the three charges against us. The charge of terroristic threat against Johnson Kerkula was thankfully dropped, but my husband and I were sentenced to thirty and ninety days respectively.
It is my belief that Rep. Marvin Cole’s case against us is motivated by more than just a desire to enforce municipal parking regulations. My husband, Dr. Moses Mbayo, is a doctor at the C.B Dunbar Medical Facility, a major healthcare provider and the only specialised maternity hospital in central Liberia, where Rep. Cole’s constituency is located. Rep. Cole has frequently requested campaign donations from doctors at this facility, and my husband and other doctors have consistently refused those requests.
Meanwhile I know Rep. Cole through my work as an investigative reporter. While I have not reported on Rep. Cole in particular, my stories have raised questions about evidence of impunity within the elected body, including an investigation published here in ZAM Magazine, about the ways in which wealthy parliamentarians side-step rules regarding asset declarations that might otherwise force them to answer uncomfortable questions.
I am not accusing Rep. Cole of false asset declarations, but it is reasonable to imagine that such an article might have made him regard me as an enemy. Rep. Cole, for his part, has acknowledged knowing me, even telling a group of my husband’s colleagues that he is ‘not done with me yet.’ On the same occasion he also said that Dr. Mbayo must be included in the case because he is failing to control me, his wife, and ‘allowing me to report any story’.
Fortunately, such statements have little effect on us or our marriage. Instead we are heartened to see both the Liberian Medical Association and the Liberian Association of Journalists have come out to support us. We have appealed the verdict of Magistrate Marvin Bah, and have requesting the circuit court to review the case. If it is overturned it will send a clear signal that no Liberian is above the law.
I refuse to back down over this case- we are law-abiding and productive citizens of the nation, and we elect our lawmakers to serve the good of the nation, not their own interests. This case has large implications for justice and the rule of law, regardless of how it will end. I am grateful to my supporters, colleagues and friends for staying with us as we campaign against impunity and injustice.