Liberia: Time for much-delayed reconciliation and reform
Despite marked improvements, numerous grievances that plunged Liberia into bloody wars from 1989 until President Charles Taylor left in August 2003 (originally for exile in Nigeria) remain evident: a polarised society and political system; corruption, nepotism and impunity; a dishevelled security sector; youth unemployment; and gaps and inconsistencies in the electoral law. The November 2011 election was the country’s second successful post-war voting exercise but exposed its deep fault lines. The re-elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, needs to use her relatively weak mandate to focus on reconciling a divided nation.
Inflammatory comments by politicians and sporadic violence in the months leading up to that election showed that democracy remains fragile; after the vote, the main opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), threatened the peace, insisting it had been cheated. Historical enmities also persist, such as those between the residents of Nimba (north central) and of Grand Gedeh (east), home of former President Samuel Doe, over the reprisals Doe took against the former after his 1980 coup. Young people, some of whom fought in the successive conflicts, evidence growing resentment at the enrichment of former leaders in those conflicts and their own lack of economic opportunities.
Taylor’s conviction on 26 April 2012 and sentencing on 30 May for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone’s civil war raise questions about the fate of others like him in Liberia who have not been prosecuted, nationally or internationally. Some Liberians told Crisis Group they feel uneasy, even unsafe, knowing that those responsible for extreme violence during the civil war remain free. There is little prospect for implementation of the recommendations the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) made in its 2009 report, including to hold perpetrators to account. The government needs to clarify the relationship between the TRC and Johnson Sirleaf’s national peace and reconciliation initiative, led by the women’s rights activist, Leymah Gbowee, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with the president.
Before the country votes again (in 2017), the electoral law must be revised so as to give the National Elections Commission (NEC) more power to regulate party financing and set stronger criteria for political party registration. The NEC’s failure to penalise the use of state resources by the ruling Unity Party (UP) in the recent campaign reinforced opposition perceptions of bias.
The inability of the Liberian National Police (LNP ) – built from scratch in 2004 – to control violent protests at CDC headquarters on 7 November did nothing to dispel increasingly negative feelings about their performance. They were heavily criticised by the Special Independent Commission of Inquiry set up by the president that month to look into the violence. The brutal response to what began as a peaceful protest calls into question the quality of the security sector reform. These concerns led the UN Secretary-General to recommend that while the military component of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) should be drawn down gradually between 2012 and 2015, the police component should be kept at strength and even reinforced in the same period. Stronger state security presence on both sides of Liberia’s border with Côte d’Ivoire is imperative after a cross-border attack on 8 June in which seven UN peacekeepers died.
The president’s 150-day action plan, announced on 28 February 2012, prioritises youth unemployment and reconciliation, both critical to sustainable recovery. But Crisis Group’s wide-ranging 2011 recommendations aimed at peacebuilding and conflict-prevention challenges remain relevant. The government and NEC, as well as civil society and international partners, should focus on short- and medium-term priorities to address deep divisions in the country. In particular:
To bring about an effective process of national reconciliation, including appropriate accountability measures
- the government should clarify the relationship between the TRC report, especially its recommendations, and the national peace and reconciliation initiative, so as to ensure full national participation and dialogue on the way forward;
- it should also publish the second report of the Special Independent Commission of Inquiry and adopt its recommendation to pass a law enabling prosecution of private and public persons and organisations that commit or incite hate crimes;
- civil society should encourage the national peace and reconciliation initiative to urge the government to lead a national dialogue on the TRC report and its recommendations, as well as to act on the important recommendations made by the Special Independent Commission of Inquiry; and
- civil society and donors should invest in building media capacity and professionalism, including by working with the Liberia Media Centre and the mass communications department of the University of Liberia to establish a training centre and by encouraging exchanges with countries that have more established media.
To strengthen national development equitably throughout the country
- the government should fulfil the promise in the president’s inaugural speech and reflected in the 150-day action plan to create sustainable economic opportunities for young people as a disincentive to violence and thuggery; and
- focus development efforts in neglected areas such as Westpoint (in the capital, Monrovia) and volatile areas such as Grand Gedeh near the border with Côte d’Ivoire.
To improve democratic processes and electoral oversight in accordance with best practice
- the new legislature should debate and amend the elections law, aiming at extending and strengthening the NEC’s powers to regulate political parties, including, inter alia, possible incorporation of criteria for parties such as internal democracy, financial transparency and significant representation in all regions; and introducing incentives to gradually strengthen parties’ legitimacy and capacity through the collection and distribution of monies from a special fund for party reform;
- the NEC should work with civil society organisations to address the shortcomings reported by local and international observers during the 2011 elections, especially inadequate voter education and polling staff unfamiliarity with counting and tallying procedures; and
- the government should consider creating an independent body like Ghana’s National Commission for Civic Education, including civil society contributors.
To make progress toward an accountable, professional law enforcement service
- the government should urgently seek funding for further police training and material support for essential equipment, including from friendly governments and through budgetary allocations.
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