Liberia was once a country that received considerable media attention. This was especially true in the early 1990’s, during the rise of Charles Taylor and the first Liberian civil war, and again during the second civil war sparked by Taylor’s hotly contested 1997 election to the presidency. However in recent times, the country has fallen into obscurity.
Liberia has always been, and continues to be, a country of paradoxes. As one of only two countries without roots in the European colonization of Africa, Liberia has stood apart since the early days of its founding in the 1820s. It was colonized by freed slaves from the United States whom had emigrated there to seek freedom and equality – only to themselves become the oppressive ruling elite of the native aborigines in this “land of the free”. The former slave descendants, known as the Amero-Liberians, ruled the country for almost 150 years until the 1980s when Samuel Doe rose to power. Doe, an indigenous Liberian, was in opposition to Amero-Liberian rule, and began installing people from his own ethnic group into government – an event which marginalized the country de novo, and led to the first Liberian civil war. Internal conflict between ethnic factions backed by violent rebel militia has been a powerful and lasting trend in Liberia’s historical and political landscape ever since.
Fast-forward to the 2000s –almost 12 years of unrelenting civil war has led to the loss of over 250,000 Liberian lives, and the displacement of 500,000 more into refugee camps in neighboring countries. This is a shocking proportion given a population of only 3.7 million. The grim memories of war are all too fresh in the minds of Liberians, the majority of whom have witnessed first-hand (or have themselves been the victims) of deplorable war crimes including but not limited to rape, mass ritual killing, and even cannibalism (1). Ten years after the end of the civil war, Liberia still lives with the ghosts of its violent past. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had this to say about the difficulties her government faced when it came into office in 2005: “Speaking about post-war reconstruction is difficult in Liberia’s case because it involved everything: the economy, security, basic services, governance, national status and national healing. What we faced was almost total destruction, and therefore the need for total reconstruction, of both state and society.” (2)
Great strides, however, have been made in consolidating peace and stability in the country since the end of the war. These have been largely catalyzed by the intervention of the UN peacekeeping force UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) in 2003, whose presence in Liberia has acted as a decisive factor in guaranteeing the safety of civilians by providing them with 10,000 peacekeeping soldiers, installed at a time when Liberia had been considered a U.S. “danger post” and a UN “hardship duty station.” The 2005 elections also saw the rise of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of State in Africa. Since her election in 2005, and again in 2011, Sirleaf has succeeded in taking the first steps towards the successful post-war reconstruction of Liberia and the path to lasting stability by focusing on the development of a national army, the reduction of Liberia’s external debt, the strengthening of financial management, and the rebuilding of infrastructure. “We started with a $4.5 billion external debt in 2005, a national budget of $80 million, and a per capita GDP of $160. Since 2005, we’ve raised the national budget to $368 million. We have attracted over $16 billion in foreign direct investment. Our GDP has averaged 6.5 percent. Today, Liberia is projected to be one of the world’s 20 fastest growing economies.” she stated during a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, London. (2)
In 2007, however, the atmosphere of optimism changed after the U.N Security Council decided that it would scale down its UNMIL troops to about 8,000, with a view to gradually reduce this number to 3,750 by July 2015. For the international audience, this was seen as an indicator of the country’s ability to uphold its own security responsibilities, and a clear sign of progress. However, for the people of Liberia, it was a flashback to a time permeated with fear and chaos, when the presence of the UN peacekeeping forces was not there to protect them from their own. Even though progress has been made, the people are not yet ready to trust the national army, which is current only 2,000 strong and still largely corrupt. “I’m very afraid. I don’t trust the Liberian army. We need a U.N. committee. Liberia is just from war and we a need presence of army. This news is very sad. “I’m afraid of the future of Liberia. If U.N. military leaves, something needs to be done now.” a businessman from the Foya District’s Lofa County stated (3).
So while in recent times the international media has turned a blind eye to Liberia, the pretenses of war are still lurking just behind the scenes. It’s difficult to say what will happen next in this country of paradoxes; but with the news of UNMIL’s withdrawal from Liberia, which for the past ten years has acted as the only lifeline between Liberians and lasting peace, the people are afraid that without the country’s military autonomy adequately in place, the gangs will once again take control, sparking a new era of violence and instability. The withdrawal of U.N troops from Liberia must thus be carefully and patiently assessed if lasting peace is to be attained, and the security, as well as the historical injustices felt by all Liberians, can be appropriately addressed.
2. Speech by H.E. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)
(Featured photo:United Nations Photo, Creative Commons, Flickr)