Liberia: What Happened? – By Michael Keating

Not many people care about what goes on in Liberia but those that do were probably shocked this week by the images of UN Peacekeepers trying to wrestle guns away from the Liberian National Police who were intent on shooting into a crowd that was rallying in opposition to Tuesday’s Presidential election. The UN has confirmed two deaths and several  wounded and serious questions have to be raised whether the police were acting on their own initiative or whether they had been ordered to use maximum force to intimidate the forces of the opposition. Several international human rights organizations have already announced plans to investigate.

The other shocking fact is that the called-for boycott seems to have worked as voters for the opposition stayed away from the polls giving the incumbent Ellen Sirelaf a clear victory, but not a convincing one. Just weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, her world-wide supporters  are undoubtedly shocked that what was supposed to be a shoe-in election for her second term has turned into a fiasco with not only Monday’s shootings and Tuesday’s boycott to blot her mandate but also the incompetent behavior of the National Election Commission in the months leading up to Tuesday’s polling. On top of that the Administration is also under fire for shutting down opposition media houses and prosecuting a number of station managers and journalists.

So what’s wrong in Liberia? A good place to start is with the Police. They are underfunded, undertrained and over anxious to use their authority. The UN forces have had to rein them in on several occasions because of their predilection for ultra-violence and the people of Monrovia are certainly sick of the harassment and corruption which occur at their hands on a daily basis. Prior to this election, the Sirleaf administration was apparently tempted to bring in troops from other West African nations to deal with election-related violence -probably with the suspicion that Liberia’s own police could not be trusted to keep the lid on themselves or the protesters. Last Monday’s events proved those suspicions correct.

Another place to look is with the entire political culture in Liberia. Like in many impoverished countries with low literacy rates politicians campaign by handing out money from the back of their SUVs. This is retail pork, nothing to be shocked at, but it does make the need for campaigning about issues almost irrelevant. There have been very few concrete statements from any of the opposition candidates about what they would do differently from what Sirleaf is doing but they seem to suggest they could do it better. As for President Sirleaf, her campaign theme seems to have been premised on the notion that she is a wily ‘monkey’ and that her opponents are clueless ‘baboons’. You don’t have to be a primatologist to figure out the implied meaning of this metaphor but it hardly suggest a bold vision for the future.

The third element in Liberia’s current problems is the unresolved issues coming from the Truth and Reconciliation process. After the issuance of the 2009 report that called for the banning of Sirleaf and several others from holding political office the recommendations were largely swept under the rug. It has been suggested that one of the reasons that the former warlord turned presidential candidate Prince Johnson threw his endorsement towards Sirleaf was precisely because of her disregard for the TRC’s recommendations, one of the most bold calling for the prosecution of Johnson as a war criminal. To add to the disgrace of the TRC process, its Commissioner, the lawyer Jerome Verdier, has recently had to send out internet messages to his supporters saying that his life and that of his family have been threatened and that a  house where he was staying  in Monrovia was torched by his political enemies. These are serious allegations and the whole situation needs to be investigated by all the original supporters of the TRC in Liberia including the UN and the transitional justice NGOs who organized the process, not to mention the above mentioned Liberian National Police.

So where does Liberia go from here? There are no constitutional reasons why President Sirleaf cannot claim victory and keep on governing. But as we have seen throughout the continent once the opposition gets to a critical mass they start to demand extra-constitutional power sharing agreements that start to look like spoils-sharing rather than genuine desires to represent the citizenry.  Many in Liberia feel that the actions of Winston Tubman, Sirleaf’s main opponent in Tuesday’s run-off is trying to delegitimize the election so that the international community will step in and call for an interim government that will give power to all the main factions, many of which are still ethnically and regionally biased. To many citizens in Liberia, Sirleaf’s administration is starting to look like the same old Americo-Liberian elite that plundered the country for over a century prior to their violent overthrow in 1980 – the first event in Liberia’s devastating civil war.

In the short term the Sirleaf administration needs to deal with the fallout from the botched election, it needs to find jobs for the  thousands of volatile young people who are marching against her and she needs to take a serious look at Liberia’s constitution which is not at all suited for the country it wants to be.

Michael Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston with a special interest in the Mano River countries of West Africa.

He can be reached at:  michael.keating@umb.edu

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4 thoughts on “Liberia: What Happened? – By Michael Keating

  1. It’s been awhile since I’ve been deeply engaged on Liberia, but I think it’s a misreading to act as if dissatisfaction with Sirleaf is a surprise. There were plenty of people frustrated when she hinted at running again — genuinely annoyed that a president who promised to give her all to one term had turned into a power-grabber like the rest of them, to paraphrase and slightly caricature the thinking. If all one knows of Liberia is its Western-beloved president, and especially if one met that president only via the Nobel announcement, indeed the situation would seem strange. But not any stranger than, to borrow from my own context, the downward spiral of love for Obama from those who know of this country only what they heard when our president, too, got a Nobel.

    Another way of saying that is that, inside Liberia, an EJS administration has looked like the same-old America plutocracy for longer than a few weeks.

    All that aside, I’d be interested to hear more about your thoughts on the weaknesses of Liberia’s constitution, relative to the country’s imagination of itself.

  2. say what you may about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her government, but there is absolutely no dispute about where she took this sorrowful, godforsaken, derelict country from up to this point.

    Yes, Ellen is no angel, but you show me one and I will personally lead Jesus Christ to you by the hands.

  3. ” she took this sorrowful, godforsaken, derelict country from up to this point.” She did not take Liberia anywhere that Liberia was not alredy poised to go. The TRC report needs to be implemented and we need younger and more reform minded leaders. The young people have nothing to believe in and are reduced to begging for food and roaming the streets. The fat cats in Liberia are getting fatter. What she is doing is selling Liberia’s resources in the name of development. The international community may want peace in Liberia, but PEACE AT WHAT PRICE?

  4. Ellen took Liberia nowhere. Liberia was poised and ready for reform and she took it back to the days of the elites and corruption with impunity. We may desire peace but at what price? The whole sale selling of Liberia’s resources so a few of her friends can benefit or the astronomical salaries of those in power or the fact that not ONE single corruption case has ever gone to trial? She caters to the international community and uses Liberia as a transit point on her weekly shopping jaunts to the US. She has failed the Liberian people. if she was truly wanted, how is it that she is the ONLY Liberian President that has never won an election without going to a run -off. That tells you something. The elections should have been postponed. Why is she so eager to be crowned queen in January?

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