The recent International Criminal Court conviction of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor closed a dark chapter in Liberia’s recent history. But the country’s politics remain combustible, writes Dave Peterson, senior director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Africa program, who recently returned from the West African state. With the legacy of the 14-year armed conflict all too evident in fragile institutions, he found that civil society groups are shouldering much of the burden of defending democratic rights and political space.
Six months after national elections, Liberia may be approaching a fork in the road. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government can reform flawed political institutions and consolidate democracy, providing a stable framework for sustainable economic growth. Or Liberia’s febrile politics could prove to be a time bomb, although the length of the fuse and the likely spark remain matters of speculation.
Democratic and civil society activists are addressing the critical issues that will be decisive in tipping the balance.
In the week before former president Charles Taylor’s conviction for war crimes, it was striking that nearly all the Liberians we encountered hoped he would be convicted but nevertheless confirmed his popularity throughout the country and the disaffection with Sirleaf’s government. Should he be acquitted and return to Liberia, we were told, pandemonium would ensue, but he would certainly win any election, in Monrovia as well as rural areas, perhaps by up to 90 percent in the southeast. A third of current parliamentarians legislators are believed to be Taylor sympathizers even though they belong to various other parties.
The sale of huge swathes of land to foreign investors – up to 50 percent of the country by some estimates – generally through 99-year leases is a major cause of Sirleaf’s unpopularity. Billions of dollars in revenue has disappeared, reportedly into the pockets of well-connected politicians and officials, including the president’s sons. Concessions in the mining, rubber, palm oil and petroleum industries have displaced Liberian communities with meager or no compensation, generating anger and resentment.
But the scandal is also prompting a campaigning counter-offensive by leading civil society groups, including the Committee for Peace and Development Advocacy (COPDA) which promotes good governance and builds citizens’ capacity to advocate for their rights, and the Center for Sustainable Human Development (CESHUD), a civic education group that uses Radio Solidarity to boost awareness of human and civil rights, while the Rural Human Rights Activist Program organizes village meetings, roundtable discussions, and school lectures to convene traditional and religious leaders, government officials and young people for nonviolent conflict resolution.
Outside Monrovia, few seem to have experienced any benefit from the new investment.
The current stability being sold to the international community may prove illusory and reconciliation unattainable as the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been largely ignored and impunity reigns as former warlords and war criminals maintain positions in the government. Mercenaries returning from fighting in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire with no other viable forms of employment are increasing tensions in their home communities, and appear ready to take up arms again for any leader that might rally them.
Conflict between refugees and host communities is being addressed by Human Rights Watch Women and Children (HURWAWCHI), an NGO with experience of organizing traditional “palava hut” reconciliation programs to de-traumatize and reunite former child soldiers with their families and communities.
While civil society and the press are free, government attempts to curb dissent through various forms of soft repression are worrisome and have perhaps been more successful than Taylor’s less subtle efforts. In one case, the Movement of Defenders of the Downtrodden – an NGO with a dubious reputation – was fined the equivalent of $30 million for libel after it accused the Central Bank’s deputy governor of corruption. Despite Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act, the group’s demand for documents that would prove its allegation was denied.
Two newspapers that questioned the appointment of the president’s son to head the national oil company were pressured to apologize. Some civil society activists have been coopted into the government, while impoverished journalists have been paid to report stories friendly to the government. In an effort to improve journalistic standards, the Center for Media Studies and Peace-Building (CEMESP) uses experienced journalists, lawyers, university lecturers, prominent newspaper editors, and radio producers in training programs for reporters in rural areas and for women media professionals. The group is also campaigning to defend press freedom and strengthen the Freedom of Information provisions (see the above video). Increasing the voice of women in the media, as well as encouraging women to participate in politics is also a priority of the Liberia Women Media Action Committee (LIWOMAC).
International donors are facing official pressure not to support groups critical of a government that doesn’t like its image tarnished with negative publicity. But the National Coalition of Civil Society Organizations of Liberia (NACCSOL) is heading a united front of civil society organizations to counter the government’s efforts and advocate for reforms, using its resource center that fosters coordination and collaboration between NGOs.
Reforms in the security sector have improved the reputation of the police and army, but greater civilian oversight would help to consolidate this progress, a campaign being ably pursued by the Liberia National Law Enforcement Association (LINLEA). Despite millions of dollars of international aid to promote rule of law, Liberia’s justice system remains dysfunctional. Judges and magistrates are better paid, but rarely attend court while detainees languish in prisons for years without trial in deplorable conditions, despite admirable work for prisoners’ rights by Rescue Alternatives Liberia (RAL).
Human rights and civil society are particularly neglected in rural Liberia, but in remote Sinoe County, the National Institute for Public Opinion (NIPO – formerly the Movement for Peace and Reconciliation in Liberia – MOPAR) is doing innovative work inculcating human rights values among traditional leaders, increasing respect for women’s and children’s rights, and easing ethnic conflict.
On the labor front, we met with the Firestone Rubber Workers Union, which has made impressive progress in advancing workers’ rights, with assistance from the Solidarity Center. Two new collective bargaining agreements will end the use of child labor and improve working practices. Before the contract, workers had to carry heavy buckets of latex on their shoulders for miles (above). Now the latex will be transported in tractors to the weigh station (below). The government’s support for workers’ rights, particularly former labor minister and NED grantee Kofi Woods, also deserves credit.
Liberians are unhappy with their parliamentary representatives, as they demonstrated when they rejected 70 percent of the former legislature in the elections. Effectively controlled by the executive, the legislature has become increasingly dysfunctional. Major political parties, including the ruling Unity Party and the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, have largely disintegrated since the elections.
Liberians’ understanding of legislators’ role has been enhanced by the Liberian Democratic Initiative (LDI): its legislative report card become the standard for measuring parliamentarians’ performance. Likewise, President Sirleaf has declared that government ministers must meet significant performance goals within 150 days or risk being sacked. The small number of women in the legislature and holding government office has further declined. Women candidates lack financial resources and many of those elected in 2005 were perceived as having under performed. Deplorably high levels of violence against women are the subject of innovative and aggressive campaigning by the Forum for the Rights of Women (FOROW).
The forthcoming municipal elections and decentralization process will be an important step for increasing local accountability and government responsiveness. We met with an impressive group of youth volunteers, excited to have the opportunity to learn and get involved in politics, and the National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections (NAYMOTE) continues to conduct outstanding civic education programs to encourage political participation among youth, including a new “Get on the Bus” project that unfortunately is still going begging for modest funding. Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission lacks credibility and the constitutional review process has stalled.
The civil society groups cited in this report – LDI, LIWOMAC, COPDA, NAYMOTE, PUL, CEMESP, FOROW, RAL, CESHUD, NACCSOL, LINLEA, NIPO, LDW, ACOHD, HURWACHI, RHRAP, WIPNET – are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The Solidarity Center is one of the NED’s core institutes.