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Liberia: Unity in Diversity?

October 17, 2011

There’s a narrative in Liberia in which the erstwhile easy co-existence of different ethnic groups, including the “Americo-Liberian” settlers (ex-slaves and others from the US), Mandingo “settlers” from elsewhere in the region, and a number of “indigenous” tribes was manipulated by unscrupulous leaders during the civil war years. As a result, the country became mistrustful and divided, and remains so.

The part of this narrative I don’t buy is the idea that things were all sweetness and light before they fell apart. When Samuel K. Doe seized power in 1980, executed the previous government and launched more than two decades of disorder, he was surely acting somehow on behalf of an “indigenous” population which felt – and was – structurally disenfranchised within the political economy.

After all, the previous government (whom he displaced and many of whose members he killed) had itself recognised this and was beginning to try and redress the balance by extending education and leadership opportunities outside the ruling elite. The very symbol of the Liberian state – a ship riding at anchor with the motto The Love of Liberty Brought us Here – seems to represent only the Americo-Liberians and to exclude the descendants of those they found living in the land they colonised.

But there is no doubt that Doe’s action initiated or reinforced a period of ethnically based manipulation. Doe himself is widely seen to have engineered his own downfall (he was assassinated in his turn) partly by favouring his own Krahn ethnic group along with Mandingos. And so the Liberian civil war initially became a war defined and fought to a large degree on the basis of ethnicity and identity. When it was finally brought to a close in 2003, it was hardly surprising that many Liberians had learned to trust their own identity group more than others. Nor is it surprising that many – seeing the national institutions of Liberia collapse around them – sought solace and community in the institutions and identity of their ethnicity. And nor – given the later stages of the war when it was hard to trust anybody, is it surprising that there remains a generalised lack of mutual confidence within society.

Either way – whether you take a Hobbesian or a fallen-from-grace view of recent Liberian history – there’s no doubt that one of the big post-war challenges from 2003 was the need to recreate a sense of national identity and rebuild trust, confidence and solidarity among Liberians. Between Liberians such as “indigenous” Mano and Gio, and Mandingo “settlers” in Nimba County, whose disputes over land remain a thorny issue to this day; or between the indigenous tribes in the interior and the Americo-Liberians from the coast whose forefathers had unilaterally sold land belonging to the former to international rubber plantation companies.  

The mistrust and enmity resulting from history was put somewhat to one side during the elections of 2005, as an artefact of the immediate post-war moment. Most people still felt too acutely the pain of the just-ended war. They voted for a measure of stability and, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won with 59% of the vote, even those who had voted against her accepted the result as an opportunity for a bit of peace and quiet. (Losing candidate George Weah – who had led in the first round – dropped his allegations of electoral fraud, in the interests of peace). The government’s subsequent exhortation to Unity in Diversity was a clear call to “think Liberia”, even while acknowledging local or ethnic identity.

It is perhaps a testament to the progress made since then, that people seem to have lost the inhibitions which subdued them in 2005. The electoral map and electoral tactics seem to be drawn very much with ethnic identity in mind. George Weah – member of the Kru group – has cleverly presented himself as the vice presidential candidate running with Winston Tubman, nephew of a previous president and of Americo-Liberian origin. Thus they can attract at least two sets of voters. Prince Johnson, an ex-warlord turned born-again Christian, has polled enough votes in the first round mainly from his Nimba people, to be seen as the kingmaker in the run-off.

This is not to say that ethnic identity is the only factor in the election; nor to deny the sophistication of many voters. But is an enormous factor nonetheless. Just as warlords and war leaders especially during the early years of the civil war manipulated people’s identify for warlike purposes, so their peacetime equivalents – political party leaders – are doing the same for political purposes. Highly understandable – what politician would not use the levers and tools available to gain or maintain power? – but also worrying. Because despite the rhetoric of Unity in Diversity, the practice is actually deepening divisions between peoples.

I have not examined them myself, but I have it on good advice from Liberians during a visit to Monrovia over the past few days, that the election manifestos of all 16 political parties are more or less carbon copies of each other. Perhaps that’s an indication of the dearth of fiscal and other political choices available to the next government of this poor country which is so dependent on the interests of international donors, mining and oil companies. But the phenomenon I have described above provides an important clue to one of the priorities the incoming government should adopt.

Whoever leads the government coming to office after the election must surely focus on the need to stimulate, promote and strengthen trust between and among Liberians. This means creating some kind of national framework for reconciliation along the lines suggested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which reported a couple of years back. It also means stimulating local trust building and reconciliation measures while resolving local conflicts e.g. over land. The envisaged decentralisation of power promises improved local governance, which should provide an important opportunity to situate decision-making closer to the people, while avoiding doing so along predominantly ethnic lines. There is also a plan to undertake a Vision 2030 process, involving Liberians in imagining the country they would like to live in two decades from now. That too, is an opportunity to put reconciliation and trust at the heart of national policy. Unity in diversity, yes, but diversity does not just mean tribe.

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