Post-Civil War Liberia at a Crossroads

Liberia 2010

By John Diaz

December 13, 2010

Also published in the San Francisco Chronicle

The public-service billboards along Liberia's roadways only begin to hint at the magnitude of challenges facing a nation trying to right itself after 14 years of civil war that ended in 2003.

Their stark messages underscore the lingering strife in a nation where 200,000 people were killed, and many times more were terrorized or displaced, in the spasms of rebellion, coups and tyrannical rule.

This 9-month-old boy was abandoned by his mother when she took him in for an immunization at Monrovia's Old Redemption Hospital. He is being cared for by the mother of a young girl who is hospitalized there.
Photo: John Diaz

"Women are precious. Don't beat them."

"Make Liberia gun free."

"Pay your taxes."

"No sex for jobs."

"Share ideas, don't miss out. Go to school."

"Rape is a crime."

The near-complete breakdown of Liberia's systems - education, transportation, health care, electricity, water, roads, judicial - presents a daunting question: What is the priority? This is a nation of 3.5 million people with an annual budget of $350 million. As a point of comparison, San Francisco, with a population of 800,000, has a budget of $6.6 billion.

In meeting with a group of Liberian legislators in Monrovia, it seemed curious that most listed roads as the nation's top priority. Their reasoning: Without passable roads, Liberians can't get to school or medical facilities. Without roads, there is no hope of increasing commerce. The roads-first argument seemed odd only until one ventured a few miles beyond the capital city and the irregular pavement gave way to a progressively treacherous obstacle course of dirt (mud, in the rainy season) and mammoth potholes.

Liberia has been called "America's stepchild" because of its origins as a destination for freed slaves and its subsequent dependence on U.S. aid and commercial investment, most notably the 188-square-mile Firestone Plantation, established as a source of rubber for the emerging U.S. auto industry in the 1920s.

The nation's irrepressible face of hope, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also has a distinct American connection. She lived in the United States for stretches of her life and earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Yet Johnson Sirleaf kept returning to her native Liberia, serving in and out of government - and in and out of danger, particularly during the erratic and brutal reign of President Samuel Doe in the 1980s. She defeated soccer star George Weah to ascend to the presidency in 2005, and plans to run for re-election next year.

The 2011 election is regarded by U.N. and U.S. diplomats and by the Liberians themselves as the critical test of the nation's postwar health. If all goes well, the United Nations will complete the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops - now 8,000 strong - by the end of next year.

"We all must do all we can to make sure it's free, it's fair, it represents the people's choice and that ... the results are accepted by all," Johnson Sirleaf recently told a group of visiting U.S. journalists. "After that, I think Liberia will be put on an irreversible course for democracy, development, peace."

Potential for setbacks abound. Johnson Sirleaf's likely opponents include Weah, who initially contested the 2005 result, as well as ex-warlord Prince Johnson, now a member of the Liberian Senate, whose claim to infamy was being videotaped drinking beer while overseeing the torture and murder of ex-President Doe.

Prince Johnson's mere presence in the corridors of government is a measure of Liberia's reluctance to fully confront its past in the way South Africa did after apartheid. Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recommended that Prince Johnson, former President Charles Taylor and others be prosecuted for crimes against humanity - but the commission's wishes carried no force of law. Taylor is on trial in International Criminal Court at the Hague, but not for anything he did in his own country. He is accused of a long list of war crimes for allegedly fomenting mayhem in neighboring Sierra Leone to pillage its vast mineral wealth.

The 72-year-old Johnson Sirleaf's most significant obstacle to re-election could be impatience with the pace of change. Her vow to root out the endemic corruption in Liberian government as "Public Enemy No. 1" will be scrutinized with skeptical eyes in the heat of a campaign. While she claims to have helped attract $16 billion in direct foreign investment, the signs of enduring depravation are everywhere.

For all of Liberia's poverty, panhandling is almost nonexistent. But the hustle to make a living is pervasive - and poignant in its paucity. On the streets of Monrovia, sellers of washcloths and socks walk while holding their goods aloft. It is not unusual to see someone on a street corner hawking a single fish to passing cars.

Johnson Sirleaf, affectionately known as the "Iron Lady" by admirers, does not pretend all is well. She readily acknowledges the struggles to provide basic services (even the capital city has no municipal electricity, a legacy of war sabotage) and to instill a sense of confidence and hope in young people who lost their innocence, and years of schooling, during the fighting.

It seems difficult to see where Johnson Sirleaf, for all her charisma and resolve, draws the optimism to predict that Liberia could be free of foreign assistance in 10 years. One clue might be the deal her government just struck to allow the Chevron Corp. to begin exploration for oil in deep water off the coast of Liberia.

"We think we may be lucky with oil," she said. "That may be the major transformative asset."

Liberia could use a little luck.

At the moment, though, its recovery from civil war remains an international challenge. The nation seems a long way from the self-image that its president so valiantly tries to project.

"We've grown up. We're no longer a stepchild," Johnson Sirleaf said. "Today we see a relationship (with the United States) that's based upon partnership with mutuality in benefits and respect."

Women Key to Uneasy Peace Forged in 2003

Liberia's women were the heroes that forced the end to 14 years of civil war, but the several dozen who gathered at the "Peace Hut" in Monrovia were in no mood for self-congratulation.

"A lot of the things that took us to war still do exist," said Lindorah Howard-Diawara, national director of the West African Network for Peace, drawing nods from many of the market women in attendance. Howard-Diawara cited land disputes, corruption and ethnic conflicts as potential flash points.

A coalition of Christian and Muslim women played a critical role in ending Liberia's civil war. "They have guns, but we have God" was their mantra, Lindorah Howard-Diawara said during this meeting in which women wore the white T-shirts and head wraps that became trademarks of the peace activists as they made their presence known in 2003.
Photo: John Diaz

Peace huts have been established throughout the country as places for women to strategize on how to maintain the peace they helped forge.

In 2003, a movement known as Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, consisting of Christians and Muslims, pressed President Charles Taylor into attending peace talks. They made their silent presence felt through months of peace talks in Ghana.

It was a daring and dangerous uprising - especially considering the levels of raging violence and retribution that observed no bounds of humanity - but the women saw no alternative.

"Whether or not we do this, we were dying," Howard-Diawara said.

The activism of women certainly contributed to the 2005 election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state on the continent.

Today, about 5,000 Liberian women participate in the peace network. They talk about the urgent need to rebuild schools, health clinics and roads that were neglected or devastated by war. They also talk about the desperate need for trauma counseling in a land where few were untouched by war's horrors.

"For me, this is one of the key issues," said Etweda "Sugars" Cooper, mayor of Edina, a coastal town south of Monrovia. "That's a very real need, not just for women, but for men as well."

Liberia Cultivating Hope in Children of War

Mark Dowee was 18 when rebels stormed into his family's home in rural Bong County, Liberia, more than a dozen years ago. They raped his mother in his presence and left with his 17-year-old sister. Dowee has not seen his sister since.

Arthur Bondo, 25, lost his right arm after he was wounded in a Monrovia gunbattle while fighting with Charles Taylor's forces in 1996. He is learning how to farm at the Bong Youths for Development Farm in rural Liberia. As a child soldier, he packed an AK-47 assault rifle. "War is not good," he said. "We don't want to go back to war."
Photo: John Diaz

Dowee soon became a general in Charles Taylor's patchwork forces.

"We went to defend our land," said Dowee, who speaks with the clipped certitude of a leader who is accustomed to dishing out commands.

The task of reintegrating former child combatants into society is as daunting as any of Liberia's postwar challenges. The estimates on the number of child soldiers varies widely - perhaps 20,000 or more. Conscription of troops as young as 8 was a concerted strategy of rebel and government leaders during the civil war years. Taylor, who eventually became president, even had a Small Boys Unit in his rebel army. Stoked with drugs and equipped with automatic weapons, the poorly trained child soldiers witnessed and inflicted unimaginable horrors. Young girls were kidnapped and forced to work for the fighters as cooks or sex slaves.

Today, on a 25-acre farm in Bong County, Dowee helps lead a government-supported project that helps about 400 former combatants learn agricultural skills. He walks two hours to and from home and the farm each day.

"Peace is sweet," said Dowee, adding, "If we have support to engage (the former combatants) in constructive activities, their minds will be changed."

Various nonprofit groups have worked mightily to steer ex-soldiers toward education and job training. Still, groups of young adults are seen hanging out on street corners throughout Liberia with stares as vacant as their job prospects. There is no way of knowing how many of them carry secrets - and traumas - that will never be reconciled.

Where Rubber Meets Reality in Liberia

Workers at Firestone's wood-processing facility wear tiny orange earplugs to shield their eardrums from the constant roar of machinery. But they have no protection from the fumes of the glue that binds the boards or the sawdust that drifts through the air. And the vast metal building offers scant refuge from the stifling heat and humidity.

Rubber wood has become an increasingly significant commodity for Firestone Liberia, which has resumed operations after a long pause during years of war.
Photo: John Diaz

Charles Stewart, president and managing director of Firestone Liberia, is asked how much the workers are paid.

"I don't know," he said, turning to an assistant. "What is the starting wage here?"

It is $4 a day, he is told.

Stewart quickly adds that workers with certain trade skills - such as electricians - can earn in the double digits. All of the plant's workers are eligible for overtime after eight hours, he emphasized: "Time and a half."

The "tappers" who meticulously make 1/16 -inch-deep cuts into the trees to draw out the latex earn at least $150 a month - the most productive tappers make up to $400. Firestone also provides its 6,800 workers with housing, health care, schooling for dependents and two 100-pound bags of rice a month.

The plantation's hospital employs seven doctors and 37 nurses - all Liberians - and has some of the nation's most spacious and updated facilities. The high school's chemistry and computer labs are air conditioned (Firestone has its own hydroelectric facilities).

By Liberian standards, Firestone offers good jobs on its 188-square-mile plantation, which the U.S. company obtained in 1926 under a 99-year lease. In return, the debt-ridden nation received a soft loan of $5 million from Harvey Firestone, a deal that still rankles some Liberians.

There is something ironic and unsettling about the dependence of these bare-subsistence-wage workers on the benevolence of a company from the country their forefathers left in search of opportunity and self-determination.

"For Us Liberians, Land Is Life"

It is a matter of faith among many in Liberia that conflicts over land represent the No. 1 threat to a precarious peace.

In Gbuyee, a village of 1,000 near the Guinea border, Augustus Karli argued that a neighbor was trying to seize 46 acres his family has held since 1975.
Photo: John Diaz

Some of the most incendiary disputes are tribal. Many others result from the mass displacements of Liberians fleeing for their lives during the war years. Just about all of them are complicated by the laxity and contradictions in the few government land records that are available.

"For us Liberians, land is life," said Nyahn Flomo of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has set up shop in Ganta, a town of 50,000 near the Guinea border, to try to peacefully resolve land disputes without going to the courts - which are overwhelmed with cases and ill-equipped to handle those they receive.

In the nearby village of Gbuyee, townspeople recently gathered to hear Augustus Karli make the case to a Norwegian Refugee Council mediator and visiting journalists that his family had a rightful claim to dozens of acres that a neighbor has attempted to seize. The neighbor, Samuel Gbuyee listened quietly, then made his own case.

The two fired off a dizzying flurry of claims and counter claims that involved their parents' alleged handshake deals, decades-old decisions by village elders, with no paper trail and property markers such as trees that have been cut and swampland whose contours have shifted.

The dispute seemed destined to continue - as did their friendship. They once roomed together as young adults working in Monrovia.

"No bad feelings," said Karli. "We have to talk it through, that's all."

If only all Liberian disputes were so amicable.

U.N. Role Works as Peacekeeper in Liberia

What is striking in interviews with dozens of Liberians from various walks of life - students, politicians, journalists, peace activists, even former child soldiers - is the level of appreciation for the role of the international force in bringing calm to the West African nation after 14 years of civil war.

If there is any trepidation about the U.N. forces, it is about what might happen after their planned departure at the end of 2011.

Ellen Margrethe Loj, former Danish ambassador to the United Nations who now heads the U.N. mission in Liberia, noted that no outside force can impose peace on a country. But the U.N. effort has given Liberia a few years to catch its breath. When Loj arrived in 2006, she was struck by how "everything was destroyed by the civil war" - electricity, roads, schools, health clinics. The national army was disbanded.

The parking lot at U.N. headquarters in Monrovia. The United Nations has been drawing down its forces in Liberia but still has 8,000 troops deployed there.
Photo: John Diaz

Liberia's rebound is measured in baby steps. One sign of progress is that the Peace Corps has again declared the nation suitable for its volunteers.

A U.N. force that once topped 12,000 troops and 1,100 police officers has been drawn down to 8,000 troops and 1,300 police officers - still a considerable presence in a nation of 3.5 million.

The next key benchmark, Loj said, will be the 2011 elections. Will they be free, fair and conflict-free?

"There's peace in Liberia, but peace is fragile," Loj said during a recent briefing with U.S. journalists.

In Monrovia, convoys of the United Nation's white, four-wheel-drive vehicles roll through the capital city with an air of authority on streets that were once overrun by violence and chaos. Monrovians go about their business with little more than a passing glance at the vehicles.

More than a hundred miles from the capital, a contingent of U.N. peacekeepers works to win the "hearts and minds" of Liberians, said Brig. Gen. Mozammel Hossain of Bangladesh. He called the situation "mostly peaceful."

One of the few outbreaks of violence that merited a response from U.N. forces this year came in February in the far northern hills town of Voinjama, where two families accused each other of applying witchcraft on their communities. Three people died before the U.N. troops helped restore calm. The peacekeepers in that outpost, while armed and ready, seem most proud of their roles in nonmilitary projects: first aid, school restoration, agriculture, road repair.

Back in the United Nation's Monrovia headquarters, Loj said the civilian staff has been trying to resolve land disputes and other issues that could reignite the conflict.

"I want to underline very much that you can keep the peace, but if you don't build the peace, then history has shown us from so many other theaters that the moment you then withdraw the peacekeeping mission ... if the underlying issues for the conflict have not been addressed ... the risk of the conflict erupting again is very high," Loj said.

It's much too early for the United Nations to declare victory in Liberia. The post-election turmoil in Ivory Coast, which occurred after the Loj interview, has intensified the wariness in a region where conflict has often spilled across borders. Within Liberia, ethnic tensions continue to simmer, and public confidence in the nation's systems of law and justice remains low - and justifiably so.

But for seven years, the presence of U.N. peacekeepers has helped stop the slaughter in a nation that lost more than 200,000 lives in 14 years of civil war. It is no small accomplishment and is a reminder of the value and power of international intervention.

Skeptics of the ability of United Nations peacekeeping missions should consider the relative calm in Liberia, where the presence of blue-helmeted troops has effectively tamped down conflicts and provided a semblance of stability since a 2003 cease-fire.

John Diaz reported this series of articles on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. These pieces also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter.