Unemployment, corruption, nepotism and impunity threaten to entrench social and political divisions and jeopardise Liberia’s democracy unless the government addresses persisting historical enmities.
Liberia: Time for Much-Delayed Reconciliation and Reform, the latest International Crisis Group policy briefing, highlights the country’s longstanding grievances and deepening fault lines. Disputes over natural resources, a weak police force and a frustrated younger generation threaten the fragile peace. Despite successful elections, resentment is growing among jobless youths about the enrichment and impunity of former leaders. The re-elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, must use her relatively weak mandate to focus on reconciling a divided nation and tackling unemployment.
“Bringing the divided citizenry together is a huge challenge”, says Titi Ajayi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Fellow. “The fallout from the November 2011 election and its accompanying violence underlined the need for political reconciliation and better links between peacebuilding and development policies”.
The recent conviction of former President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone raises questions about the lack of prosecutions against others like him in Liberia. Though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended holding them to account, impunity still prevails, deepening sentiments of exclusion and of domination by the political elite. Stronger state security presence at Liberia’s border with Côte d’Ivoire is imperative after a cross-border attack on 8 June in which seven UN peacekeepers and a number of civilians died.
The failure of the National Elections Commission (NEC) to penalise the ruling Unity Party’s use of state resources in the recent campaign reinforced perceptions of bias. Security remains precarious as the Liberian National Police – built from scratch in 2004 – failed to control the violent protests during the elections, increasing negative feelings about their performance.
Johnson Sirleaf has outlined key initiatives for her government in a 150-day action plan that prioritises youth unemployment and reconciliation, both critical for sustainable recovery. Clear targets must be set and met to create buy-in and rebuild trust between citizens and their government. The government and NEC, as well as civil society and international partners, should focus on short- and medium-term priorities to address deep divisions in the country.
Holding overdue local elections by January 2013 would help foster a sense of inclusion for counties and communities outside the capital. If they are further delayed, responsibility for decisions, resources and delivery of basic services will remain in Monrovia, prolonging the isolation of marginalised communities.
“Success for the fragile democracy depends on the president’s ability to broker political reconciliation and dialogue that could help shape national unity, as well as on a sustained effort to strengthen political parties through a variety of incentives for internal best practices”, says Gilles Yabi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “A more convincing effort against corruption and better economic opportunities are needed both to help appease those likely to challenge state authority and to provide a basis for addressing reconciliation and security and electoral reforms”.