Liberia: The Challenges of Post-Conflict Reconstruction
By Beverlee Bruce
The Social Science Research Council
September 1, 2004
Aid agencies are fielding staff in large numbers in Liberia, where a population worn out by years of civil war are hopeful that the country's peace process will stay on track. An international donors' conference held in February 2004 has added further momentum towards peace and prosperity. The window of opportunity for successful post-conflict reconstruction is clearly open. However, real challenges, ranging from security to the successful reintegration of ex-combatants, remain to test the commitment of Liberians and humanitarians alike.
The modern period in Liberian history began in the early 19th century with the founding, in 1816, of the Washington, DC-based American Colonization Society. Some of the society's founders, an eclectic group of upper-class white males, believed that racism in the US would keep blacks from realizing their potential and that returning to Africa would accord them greater opportunities. Others wished to see blacks removed from the US to prevent them from supporting the anti-slavery movement. While both positions were valid, free blacks opposed colonization on the grounds that enslaved blacks had the right to emancipation and to citizenship. Initially, local Liberian chiefs welcomed the settlers, and in 1822 provided agents of the colonization society with access to land, in exchange for what they assumed would be the benefits of Western modernity. However, in time, relations soured and warfare between the settlers and members of indigenous populations ensued, setting the stage for an uneasy truce that unraveled, finally, in 1980 with a military coup.
Americo-Liberian hegemony was established, primarily, on the basis of insidious distinctions between "civilized" settlers and "uncivilized" Africans. It was secured by superior weaponry and US intervention, and institutionalized when Liberia declared its independence in 1847. In time, assimilation occurred when Native Liberians took on attributes of "civilization," a process facilitated by President William V.S. Tubman's Integration and Unification Policy in the 1940s. During this period, indigenous participation in all aspects of Liberian life increased, but not sufficiently to break the continued political, economic, social, and cultural dominance enjoyed by the ruling Americo-Liberian elite.
In the 1960s, such groups as the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) and the People's Progressive Party (PPP) challenged the one-party state, but resistance from the conservative wing of the True Whig Party (TWP) set in motion events leading to the 1980 assassination of Tubman's successor, his vice president for 19 years, President William R. Tolbert, Jr. and the execution of 13 cabinet members which followed.
The coup and the subsequent government of the Peoples' Redemption Council (PRC) were well-received by a majority of the Liberian population, because for the first time in the 133 years since independence the government was led by members of the indigenous majority. However, it was not long before the excesses of the regime were widely self-evident, prompting an invasion from the Ivory Coast in late 1989 by Charles Taylor, a civilian and former government official in the previous regime. The war raged on with a proliferation of warring factions and two governments, one in Gbarnga, the other in Monrovia. Finally, in July 1997, with all the benefits of an incumbent running for office, Taylor won the presidency. When challenged by two insurgent groups, first Liberians United for Reconstruction and Development (LURD) in 2001 and later by the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003.
Obstacles to Post-Conflict Reconstruction
Unfortunately, more unarmed Liberian civilians than armed members of warring factions have been impacted by the war. As a consequence, more than 700,000 Liberians became refugees in neighboring countries: Guinea (325,000), Ivory Coast (270,000), Sierra Leone (125,000), Ghana (8,000), and Nigeria (1,700), while as many as 500,000 were internally displaced in the capital, Monrovia. In the process, most suffered or witnessed atrocities unimagined before the war, while negotiating multiple displacements during the conflict's ebb and flow and in response to rebel insurgencies. At present, some 350,000 refugees and 500,000 internally displaced persons are awaiting repatriation to their rural villages and towns.
Villagers who have returned, when spoken with in July 2004, drew comparisons with their lives before the war, when daily transport was available and there was a mission school, guest house, town hall, palaver hut, as well as latrines, functioning hand pumps and wells, money and credit for business, and household gardens. They remember that during the war, they were without rights, everything was damaged, looting occurred, they were subjected to beatings and displacement, and at the same time humanitarian assistance was not freely available. Now they have freedom of movement and there is NGO access to the village, but health facilities are poor and they are without medicines, toilets, and building materials. They have one working hand pump for 300 houses. There is no money to pay a teacher's salary because their Susu groups (whose members, both male and female, are taxed and contribute monies for the common good of a given community) are smaller than before the war. But the greatest hardship is a lack of transportation, which is available once a week but only after a five-hour walk to the transit point. They list among the needs of the village micro-credit, road rehabilitation, water and sanitation improvements (wells and latrines), childcare, a radio station for improved communication in Kpelle and Bassa, school renovations, and a hospital to replace their clinic. Clearly, a major concern among them is security. While an ex-combatant has yet to ask to return to the village, they know that "many of them are still holding the gun."
A positive response to all of their needs hinges, in part, on the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration of armed combatants, as well as the deployment of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) forces to secure parts of the country still under the control of the warring factions loyal to the exiled president, LURD, and MODEL. While UNMIL has been deployed in the county in which the village referred to is located, the fact that an ex-combatant has yet to ask to return is telling. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ex-combatants have not been provided transportation to their home villages nor provided the skills training or schooling required for their transition to civilian life. This is on top of the belief that all of the guns are not being turned in as required.
Meeting the Challenges Ahead
There appears to be a shared commitment to the peace process by all parties, including displaced Liberians, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), national and international NGOs, UN agencies, bilateral and multilateral donors, religious groups, women's organizations, and youth. Pragmatically, achieving post-conflict reconstruction is easier said than done; in part, because each participant category has its own self-interest that may contradict or even conflict with that of others.
For example, a donor may expect evidence of monies well-spent before a national or international NGO has determined the capacity for a rural community to take on and complete a development project. Another example occurs when an international NGO is funded to implement a project on a topic undertaken previously by local actors working with local NGOs, but has not a clue that the idea has an important history in the Liberian context. Still another is the sting of resentment when Liberians are seen as no more than the unfortunate citizens of a failed state.
During the International Donors’ Conference for Liberian Reconstruction at UN Headquarters in New York, which took place in February 2004, Gyude Bryant, chairman of the NTGL, pledged to “demonstrate prudence and accountability,” which means expectations are high for a stellar performance by his government. At the same time, the international community is tasked with following through on the commitments it made at this conference, while ensuring that its representatives on the ground are respectful of Liberian history and culture as they assist Liberians in developing individual and institutional capacity. Concomitantly, members of Liberia's civil society have a responsibility to represent the best interests of their respective constituencies in a spirit of cooperation with those on the ground assigned to assist in the massive reconstruction efforts ahead.
At this juncture, the roles ex-combatants, displaced members of rural communities, and local authorities are required to play for a positive outcome to the peace process are intertwined and crucial. As indicated by criticism from UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy during a recent visit to Liberia, the emphasis of the post-conflict reconstruction process guided by UNMIL is on disarmament and demobilization, to the exclusion of reintegration and rehabilitation. Both of the latter aspects are crucial to the peace process, otherwise there will be no return to normalcy. And given the extension of the disarmament and demobilization process until December 2004 rather than October, security may prove inadequate in the rural communities in southeast and northwest Liberia (MODEL and LURD strongholds) where UNHCR expects to repatriate 350,000 refugees.
For concerned observers, the coming period poses a number of crucial questions. What does the delay in disarming and demobilizing ex-combatants mean for the 500,000 internally displaced inside the country waiting to return to their rural towns and villages? Have local authorities and their staffs reported to their rural assignments? Are they on the government payroll? Is the infrastructure in place for them to perform effectively? The peace process has been under way for a year now and only setting benchmarks to gauge these interrelated contingencies can ensure that the peace process remains on track.
Optimism prevails about the odds for successful post-conflict reconstruction in Liberia. This is partly because of the international community's generally positive response to the challenges ahead, in part because large numbers of qualified Liberians have returned home to participate in the reconstruction process, and partially because they have been joined by many non-Liberians who have worked successfully in Liberia before. But the optimism is primarily because ordinary Liberian citizens, those who have borne the brunt of the seemingly unending crises, express such joy to be back home at last.
For the next steps to go smoothly, then, the rehabilitation of ex-combatants must proceed apace and cantonments (the enclaves the UN has set aside for them) must be kept open as sites to provide substantive skills training and subsequent meaningful job assignments. Perhaps most important is that NGOs funded to work with ex-combatants assist them in making peace with the residents of the towns and villages from whence they came. In the village referred to earlier, the women supported the idea of ex-combatants returning, the men did not. But in any case, both groups provided a scenario for what would be required for such people to return. On the side of pragmatism, then, the return of ex-combatants to their communities based on reconnaissance to determine the best approach must be included in the reintegration process. The sooner this takes place, the more likely the entire reconstruction process will succeed.
Beverlee Bruce has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard University. She is a Program Director at the Social Science Research Council where she manages the Council's Mellon-Mays Fellowship Program and co-directs its project on Forced Migration and Human Rights. As former chair of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, she has participated in Commission delegations in Sub Saharan Africa to assess the situation and needs of refugee and displaced women and children. She has also represented the Commission in Croatia and Sarajevo, and led the Women's Commission delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. At present, she chairs the Program Committee of the International Rescue Committee and is on the Board of the Migration Policy Institute.
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