As elections approach, will Liberia be able to keep its peace?

A young family poses for a photo in Monrovia, Liberia, March 24, 2016 (CNS photo/Ahmed Jallanzo, EPA). A young family poses for a photo in Monrovia, Liberia, March 24, 2016 (CNS photo/Ahmed Jallanzo, EPA).

Conditions in the African state of Liberia have been driven from global headlines by more pressing crises of violence and famine in other African states like South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. But with elections coming up in October, a study undertaken by Catholic Relief Services suggests that the international community has not done enough to help prepare Liberians for what could be a wrenching transition.

A drawdown of United Nations forces concluded last summer means that the fall elections will be the first conducted without international peacekeepers since the civil war ended in 2003—though a little under 2,000 U.N. Mission in Liberia forces will remain “in case of emergency.” According to the C.R.S. study, undertaken last year at the request of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Liberia, only 22 percent of Liberians were confident that the government could keep the peace after that U.N. mission departs. Just over half of Liberians feared that unresolved tensions from the nation’s devastating civil war present a “very high risk” of returning the nation to armed conflict.

Robert Groelsema, the Africa Justice and Peace Working Group Team Leader for C.R.S., calls the 14 years since the end of conflict a “negative peace” because of those unresolved issues.

“On the surface, there is stability and there's not a lot of overt violent disputes,” he says. “[But] just underneath the surface...there are significant issues which divide Liberians: issues having to do with the youth [demographic] bulge and youth unemployment; divisive issues over land ownership and land tenure, and…who has the right to live where?”

According to the survey, about half of Liberians believed that the post-war reconciliation process failed to achieve its objectives. More than 80 percent of survey respondents felt that Liberians who suffered grave injury during the war did not receive justice through the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The C.R.S. report concludes: “Reconciliation did not reach deeply and widely enough to rebuild the torn relationships within and between ethno-regional groups. In the eyes of many Liberians, the elites manipulated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to absolve themselves of wrongdoing and to gain political advantages.”

Some of the tensions still troubling Liberian life have deep social and historical roots.

“People felt that perpetrators of the violence and those who should have been held accountable for the war got off too lightly,” Mr. Groelsema says. “People who have suffered at the grassroots level didn't have a chance really to have their voices heard in the process.”

Some of the tensions still troubling Liberian life have deep social and historical roots. The Republic of Liberia was declared in 1847, decades after a colony was established by former slaves and free-born African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans who first arrived in 1822. Descendants of that Americo-Liberian founding minority maintained an economic and political grip on the nation, contributing to tensions that first flared into violence during a coup d’etat in 1980.

Worse suffering began in 1989 as two rounds of a brutal civil war tore the nation apart. The war ended in 2003 after unprecedented bloodshed—the toll is estimated between 250,000 and 600,000 killed. But according to Mr. Groelsema, the Americo-Liberian minority, now 5 to 10 percent of the population, still exerts a disproportionate power in Liberia, and this is a major contributor to the unresolved social strains explored in the report.

Another outstanding problem is high unemployment, reaching 60 percent among Liberian youth. “While youth unemployment is a significant concern in many developing countries, this is a particularly acute problem in the Liberian context,” says Nell Bolton, senior technical advisor for justice and peacebuilding at C.R.S. She explains that many of the nation’s young adults were child soldiers during the years of conflict and received little to no schooling.

“They're coming into young adulthood without the same levels of education or skills that would give them entrée into employment, even if there were more economic opportunities,” Ms. Bolton says.

What many of them do possess, unfortunately, are skills picked up in combat. Now, says Ms. Bolton, there is widespread fear among Liberians that the combination of high levels of unemployment and political disillusionment will leave these youth “exquisitely vulnerable to being mobilized into action by various political factions, especially the closer we get to the elections.”

Beyond its political tensions, Liberia was among those West African states most affected by the Ebola outbreak that began in 2013. Its health care institutions are still recovering, Ms. Bolton says, adding that because of the stress and suspicions the outbreak provoked “the impact has gone beyond health into the social fabric of the society.”

After so many years’ focus on Liberia’s problems, the two C.R.S. analysts worry that the international community is eager to move on just as Liberia approaches a terrifically fragile moment.

But “when you're looking at governments that are very young [and] institutions that are extremely young and unproven, undeveloped or underdeveloped,” says Mr. Groelsema, “these countries still rely to a great extent on the international community for support and to help them be as stable as they can. By withdrawing...or focusing attention elsewhere, it forces them to stand on their own in some cases long before they're really ready to do that.”

Ms. Bolton suggests that the elections in October represent an opportunity, not to drawdown international support for Liberia, but to step up a multilateral investment in the nation’s—and West Africa’s—future.

“During the war, there were up to about 700,000 Liberians that were displaced throughout West Africa, and a return to conflict could spark massive displacement, sending refugees to neighboring countries and beyond,” she says.

Renewed strife in Liberia would be a threat to the entire region, Ms. Bolton warns. But with months to go before the elections, she says, a renewed, proactive international commitment can still make the difference in preserving the peace in Liberia.

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