The UN peacekeeping operation in Liberia (UNMIL) is being presented as one of the world organization’s success stories, and the country’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, is still well regarded in the international community. However, when we look behind the facade, we find a number of problems and challenges related to security, corruption and continued conflict between representatives of several of the country’s 16 different groups of people.
The standard of living and security of ordinary people has improved since the UN returned to Liberia in the autumn of 2003, but much remains to be done. Within the security sector, reforms have been pursued so quickly that they lack democratic as well as local anchoring. Youth unemployment and underemployment are of enormous magnitude, especially among former combatants. The many unresolved issues related to land and other rights conflicts have been largely ignored.
This is the situation one year before elections in the country will again be held in 2011. Economic growth of 8 percent in 2008 may seem impressive, but most of this is a result of the reconstruction of the capital Monrovia after the war. It is not generated domestically, but is driven by aid.
The old conflicts over land and trade rights still characterize Liberia. So far, neither Johnson Sirleaf nor the international community, including the UN, has done much to address these issues. Nor did the election result make it easy to address these issues. Although Johnson Sirleaf won a superior victory over her opponent in the second round of elections in November 2005, former professional footballer George Weah, who represented the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), did not make her own party, the Unity Party(UP), it especially good. And since she was elected to the presidential office in January 2006, Johnson Sirleaf has not been able to establish a permanent coalition around her and her politics, but has largely ruled on a case-by-case basis. Prior to the 2005 election, Johnson Sirleaf said she would only sit for one term, but that promise has now been withdrawn. Instead, she argues now that there is so much undoing that only she can get done.
In the run-up to the election, it will be exciting to see if Weah and the CDC make another attempt to challenge Johnson Sirleaf. Weah still has a high status in the Liberian population, especially in the youth. If he manages to mobilize the youthful segment of the electorate, he can become a formidable opponent of Johnson Sirleaf.
Youth and work
The youth problem is part of the rights-based conflicts between different groups of people. In the countryside, there have traditionally been older men from ruling lineages who have controlled the two most important factors of production, land and labor. But the Civil War partially turned this down, when young men with guns could suddenly challenge the authority of the elderly.
After the Liberian civil war, over 100,000 former combatants were demobilized. The disarmament and demobilization itself were implemented relatively effectively, but the same did not apply to reintegration and rehabilitation. Most of the former combatants are still unemployed or underemployed, and it should now be made possible for young people, and especially young men, to have access to their own land so that they can produce for both consumption and sale. This is possible, but will mean that the older men still sitting in control of land in the countryside must be willing to let go of the control.
Security sector reform
Security sector reform in Liberia has two main components: the establishment of a new national army and a new national police force. This was part of the Liberian Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2003. The United States, along with other international players, was asked to take responsibility for forming a new Liberian army. However, the US government transferred this responsibility to DynCorp, a private security company. Democratically, this process is very questionable. Neither the legally elected Liberian government, the country’s legislative assembly, nor the civil society have had any influence on the establishment and organization of the new national army. In accordance with the contract, DynCorp is only liable to the US authorities. In fact, the Liberian Ministry of Defense claims that they have not even seen the contract that DynCorp is working on.
Given the history of Liberia, where the military apparatus has rarely or never protected the population, but rather posed a significant security threat, this does not contribute to popular support and legitimacy for an institution to represent the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Should the situation recede in Liberia, it is not difficult to imagine that this could be a major problem.
The degree of democratic control of the establishment of the new police force has been somewhat better, but here too there are a series of challenges. First, it became necessary to lower staff requirements to reach the target of a strength of 3500 men and women. Most of the business has been concentrated on the capital, Monrovia, and in more peripheral parts of the country, people still live in a security vacuum. Little has been done to ensure that the new police officers receive a living wage, and many of them must perform small, corrupt acts to meet their living conditions. The result is that many Liberians believe that the new police force is not much better than the old one.
Again, it seems that the international community’s emphasis on efficiency and rapid solutions means that instead of building something that is qualitatively new and better, it ends up patrolling central community institutions that were totally corrupt when the war ended in 2003..
Anti-corruption has also become an external responsibility. For example: The Director of the Liberian State Bank is required to have all decisions of an operational or financial nature signed by an international expert selected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These types of measures may be effective in the short term, but unless the international community plans to permanently put Liberia under financial administration, other ways of holding accountable Liberian politicians and bureaucrats must be found.
According to Digopaul, Liberia has been relatively peaceful since 2003. The question, however, is what will happen when the UN and the international community really begin to pull out. Will the Liberian state be able to fill the void that arises and create good democratic institutions? Or will the country lurch towards an uncertain future?
Area: 111 369 km2 (39th largest)
Population: 3.8 million
Population density: 34 per km2
Urban population: 60 percent
Largest city: Monrovia – approx. 1 million
GDP per capita: USD 219
Economic growth: 7.1 percent
HDI Position: 169