Liberia: The Forgotten Experiment in Nation-Building

Stimson Spotlight

Liberia: The Forgotten Experiment in Nation-Building

After nearly a decade and a half of civil war, Liberia prepares to have its second post-conflict presidential election in 2011.  With billions in foreign investment, Africa's first female President running for re-election, and the UN looking to dramatically reduce its peacekeeping operations, Liberia's fragile security will once again be tested.


By Benjamin Flowers - "I know where the guns are buried," whispered a man as he leaned over to make sure I was getting the full story during a community meeting organized by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in a small village just south of the Sierra Leone border.  Similar sentiments were repeated to us frequently in the back of rooms where the TRC's Ethnic and Religious Subcommittee gathered to discuss the root causes of the country's 14-year civil war.  Whether or not these statements were true, they underscored a deep sense of fear that lay just below the surface.  Such feelings remain prevalent in a country with a nascent government, a fractured sense of national identity, and little institutional capacity.  The question remains as to whether a top-down approach to nation-building can adequately address the needs of a country so dramatically divided between the decision-makers in the capital and the majority indigenous population.  As peace has been maintained in the country for nearly 7 years, and media coverage begins to wane, are new strategies needed to ensure long-term security?    

In many ways, Liberia has been an example of success in post-conflict reconstruction.  The international community has invested billions of dollars there since the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ending the war in 2003.  In 2005, the country held its first free and fair elections since the forced resignation of then President Charles Taylor, who is currently on trial at The Hague for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.  Under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa's first female elected leader, key governance indicators, such as rule of law, human rights, and economic and human development, have significantly improved. 

Johnson-Sirleaf inherited a budget which barely exceeded $120 million and has since increased it to over $369 million for the coming fiscal year.  The Liberian economy grew 7.5% last year, and after achieving the completion point of the enhanced Heavy Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, the IMF and the World Bank awarded Liberia with $4.6 billion in debt relief.  Private foreign investment has also begun to flourish since UN sanctions were lifted. 

While these and other development indicators continue to improve, for the average Liberian, they do not necessarily provide a sense of stability and security.  Rural communities, where the conflict began, are still largely inaccessible and major development projects are almost non-existent.  Unemployment, particularly among ex-combatants and former child soldiers, remains devastatingly high. Little has been done to address inequality, a key source of the conflict and an ongoing tension between those descended from Liberia's tiny "settler" community of freed American slaves, and the majority indigenous population.   

The United Nation's Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has extended its mission through the run-up to the 2011 presidential elections, at which time it will likely turn over most peacekeeping duties to Liberian security forces.  Many believe UNMIL will then depart the country for good.  There have been large investments in reforming Liberia's security sector, but results are uneven at best. Due to significant US involvement, the Liberian military is small, but well-trained, as is the paramilitary Emergency Response Unit (ERU).  The local police, however, are unprepared to protect Liberians, and public confidence is low.  Organized crime in Monrovia has surged, and even the President has criticized the police response. 

More than two years ago, the TRC concluded that Liberia could return to violence unless steps were taken to address land disputes in the country.  Liberia's weak institutions have proved unable to deal with the problems created by the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during the war.  Dispute resolution programs which draw on Liberia's traditional mechanisms are underway in many parts of the country, but violence remains a reality, particularly in remote areas.  For the average Liberian, land disputes are a flashpoint for ethnic tensions, and unless taken seriously, may undermine efforts to build a shared Liberian identity.

This past spring, religious and ethnic violence erupted in Voinjama, Lofa County, in a scene reminiscent of the war.  UN Peacekeepers failed to immediately respond to quell the violence, and subsequently, four were killed and fourteen wounded, churches and mosques burned to the ground, and thousands fled in terror.  Unfortunately, incidents of local violence have largely gone unnoticed by the international media in recent years.   Even with a UN presence of nearly ten thousand ground troops, these major rifts within communities continue be a source of conflict on the local level.   

With elections in 2011, Liberia's fragile peace will again be tested.  President Johnson-Sirleaf recently announced she will seek a second term.  Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who is implicated in the torture and murder of former President Doe, has also announced his candidacy.  Prince Johnson was easily elected Senator of Nimba County in 2005, and while his support may not be widespread, his candidacy, combined with the gradual draw down of UN Peacekeepers, could signal the end of peace to many Liberians.  Fatigue can be overwhelmed by frustration as the memories of war begin to fade.


Photo Credit: Pewee S. Flomoku: The Liberian Women's Peace Movement protests in front of the American Embassy in Monrovia, 2003.