Twelve Years After Taylor’s Removal, Instability Still Plagues Liberia
September 13, 2015
While the lingering effects of the Ebola crisis have dominated coverage of Liberia for over a year, the country is quietly approaching a number of precipices. A convergence of political, religious and international factors on the horizon has the potential to destabilize Liberia, which has seen a tenuous peace since warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor resigned in August 2003, ending 14 years of civil war. A United Nations peacekeeping mission is poised to significantly draw down by June 2016; religious tensions have been stoked by a movement to declare Liberia a Christian state; and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reaches her term limit in 2017.
While presidential elections are perhaps the least imminent challenge, they are the hottest topic in Monrovia’s corridors of power. Buoyed by the recent example of opposition success in Nigeria and a relatively poor showing of Sirleaf’s ruling Unity Party (UP) in Senate elections last December, the opposition has its eyes on securing the executive branch in 2017. The ruling party secured only four of 15 available seats last year, while key independent allies of the president, such as her son, Robert Sirleaf, and President Pro Tempore Gbehzohngar Findley, were soundly defeated.
Benoni Urey, a senior official in Taylor’s government believed to be Liberia’s richest citizen, was the first aspirant to declare his candidacy back in December 2013 after he was removed from a U.N. travel ban. Sirleaf’s deputy, U.S.-educated Vice President Joseph Boakai, has also declared his intention to run. Given his ties to the current administration and his advanced age—he would be nearly 80 by the end of his first term—Boakai’s candidacy is unlikely to be welcomed by young Liberians who derisively call him Sleepy Joe. Sen. Prince Johnson, a warlord who oversaw the deadly torture of former Liberian President Samuel Doe, is also poised to be a destabilizing factor after polling third in the 2011 contest. One prominent local paper has reported that he is angling for a spot on the ruling party’s ticket for 2017.
A trio of American-educated corporate lawyers from the historic Americo-Liberian settler elite, who have all been perennial political contenders since the end of the war, also remain in the mix. Despite being recorded offering a bribe to a journalist, Counsellor Varney Sherman coasted to victory as a senator on the ruling party’s ticket last December. Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party fared better than expected and polled more votes nationwide than UP. Finally, Harvard-trained Winston Tubman, the runner-up in 2011 elections, has announced his decision to come out of retirement and contest the presidency in 2017.
With several incidents of election violence in 2014 and a fatal shooting of opposition supporters during the 2011 elections, an upsurge of unrest during the 2017 elections seems possible, especially with U.N. forces drawing down. None of the contenders represents a significant break with Liberia’s entrenched system of political patronage. Disgruntled youth—about 60 percent of the population is under 25—may violently vent their frustrations with the election of another standard-bearer of the old guard, particularly young Liberians in Monrovia who have seen their idol, soccer star George Weah, twice defeated running for the presidency, in 2005, and vice-presidency, in 2011.
But before that election wrangling, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), active in Liberia since September 2003, is set to hand over responsibility of the security sector to the Liberian government by next June. From a peak of 15,000 military personnel in the immediate aftermath of the war, the force is slated to be reduced from its current strength of approximately 4,800 military personnel to just over 3,500 by the end of September. Observers have widely speculated that violence could return to Liberia when the U.N. withdraws. The late historian Stephen Ellis went so far as to argue that the U.N. was so important to Liberia’s reconstruction that the country should be placed under a modern-day trusteeship.
UNMIL has also experienced notable leadership changes, with its head, Karin Landgren, the U.N. special representative for Liberia, finishing her tenure in early July. In an outgoing address, she expressed fear that the “country’s exercise in building a national foundation of trust and shared values will remain incomplete.” In addition to Prince Johnson, a number of U.S.-educated warlords—such as George Boley and Alhaji Kromah of the Liberia Peace Council and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy-Kromah faction, or ULIMO-K, respectively—remain politically active, having unsuccessfully contested the recent Senate elections.
Meanwhile, many on the streets of Monrovia continue to express support for jailed ex-President Taylor. A number of his former associates linger in power; one of Taylor’s former foreign ministers is the current minister of information. Taylor’s National Patriotic Party, now led by his ex-wife, a popular senator, remains a key player. It wouldn’t be surprising if pro-Taylor parties or other aggrieved parties pursue some sort of targeted retaliatory action with a weaker U.N. presence. The use of Liberian mercenaries by forces allied to former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in 2011 and 2012 shows that such networks can still quickly mobilize.
On top of these old political tensions are emerging religious ones. While the Christian church has been a key arbiter of power since Liberia was founded in 1822, the country has not traditionally witnessed the active repression of religious minorities. This changed during the civil war with the arrival of warring factions like ULIMO-K, dominated by Muslims. A constitutional review conference held in early April accepted the recommendation that Liberia become a Christian state, further stoking religious tensions that have risen in recent months.
In May, protesters gathered outside Liberia’s Capitol Hill, in the center of Monrovia, with hundreds of Muslims aggressively delivering a petition to the legislature opposing the constitutional review conference’s recommendation. Protesters noted that nearly 170 years of Liberian independence under Christian domination has brought little development to the country. The July death of Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, a prominent Muslim advocate for peace, removed an important religious mediator from the scene.
Before recent remarks by Sirleaf against the campaign, after months of silence from her office, it had appeared that a constitutional referendum on the issue could be held as early as next year. Rev. Emmanuel Bowier, a former minister of information and now a noted personality on Radio Monrovia, has called the Christian state movement a “recipe for disaster.” Coming against the backdrop of the UNMIL drawdown and a heated election environment, the already aggressive debate could boil over into violence.
Last year, at the height of the Ebola crisis, Liberia defied the most negative predictions made by both government officials and outside observers by uniting to halt the spread of the disease. However, inspired by the recent examples of their neighbors in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, Liberians may now be less likely to tolerate a disaster wrought by the political self-interest of their leaders. The country need not be doomed to a cycle of armed conflict and public health emergencies, but without the emergence of an alternative to the status quo and the sensible use of international support, instability is a growing risk.
Source: By Brooks Marmon - World Politics Review