(Continued from Last Publication)The Liberian war has often been characterized as one driven by ethnic grievances—and thus as a paradigmatically “ethnic conflict” (see Kaplan, 1986; Ellis 1999). Yet perhaps what is most significant to note in the Liberian case is that rather than having been motivated by ethnic divisions and grievances that predated it, the Liberian civil war generated or significantly accentuated ethnic and religious identities and tensions that previously had not been significant sources for violent mobilization and conflict before it occurred. In fact the tendency in most locations prior to the war had been for peaceful co-existence and negotiation of existing religious and ethnic differences through non-violent means.
The post-war reality is one in which ethnicity and religion have been exploited by leaders to mobilize followers and have polarized many communities. In the social milieu, its common to see Liberian intellectuals and non intellectuals using ethnicity as strategy for patrimonial acceptance and solidarity, especially when dealing with uneducated folks. A Kissi will use his/her Kissi linage, when seeking unique favour and acceptance. The same goes for other tribal groups. In this context historical narratives have been recast and reformulated in new ways.
Thus, in some communities the children or grandchildren of those who once welcomed outsiders and granted them land now invoke ethnically-based claims to status as the “original settlers”, who can challenge and ultimately revoke the rights of other groups that arrived “later.” We see in Liberia the emergence of a form of identity noted elsewhere in the West African neighbourhood. This discourse of “autochthony” (Gescheiere, 2009)—characterized by a growing discussion of who has the most legitimate and “original” ties to land and locality—has played an increasingly prominent role in the competitive democratic politics of countries as diverse as Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire (Geshiere, 2009), Rwanda (Uvin 1997) and Burundi—often, unfortunately, as the precursor to descents – or returns to – violent political conflict.
My own research has highlighted how potentially inflammatory these war-generated ethnic grievances and divisions remain in the post-war Liberian context. Potentially explosive competition over land is based on ethno-religious divisions that were generated during the war both as a result of fighting, displacement, and denial of access by majority ethnic groups. In 2005, returnee Mandingos from Guinea and other parts of the sub-region faced serious hurdles from their kinsmen in reclaiming their farmland and house spots in Nimba County. Mandingos were generally regarded as those who supported the LURD offensive against residents of Ganta in 2003.
Local authorities seized the properties and distributed them among offended ethnic groups inhabiting Ganta City in reprisal for destroyed, burnt, or looted properties during the LURD attack. The grave situation forced the government to appoint a presidential committee with mandate to probe the impasse. Later on, the government and UNMIL requested Interpeace’s intervention. Interpeace discovered that besides inter-ethnic tensions in Nimba, there were also intra-ethnic disputes and a dearth of conflict management structures.
Another ethnic incident occurred among the Mandingos and Lormas in February 2010. Mandingos in Voinjama waged vengeful attacks against Lormas on account of a cell phone inflamed report that implicated Lormas in burning the local mosque and attacking the local imam in retaliation for the alleged ritual killing of a female student in Konia. At least 4 people were killed and 18 others injured on account of the misinformation. According to reports from the National Traditional Council (NTCL), the Carter Center, and a delegation from UNMIL and Interpeace, the crisis was triggered by the rumor and provoked by past grievances between the two groups. Despite efforts made by government to resolve these issues, during the recent July 26, 2011 Independent Day celebration in Lofa, aggrieved youth of the county sought to disrupt the celebration that had been planned for Voinjama.
The vulnerability of ethnic and religious allegiances to opportunistic mobilization by unscrupulous leaders has been accentuated by the fact that a sense of national identity—a sense of common “Liberianess”—has been severely undermined by the civil war. National identity might thus potentially serve as a potent countervailing force to the fragmentary tendency of ethnicity that was accentuated by the war. An identity of “citizen” that involves a sense of direct relationship to the state unmediated by participation in an ethnic, religious, or other form of moral community would need to be cultivated.
Yet this remains a monumental challenge because so many Liberians believe that their entitlements to political participation do not accrue to them in any meaningful way because they are citizens but as a result of their participation in an ethnic, religious, class-based, or other form of social group. This is perhaps most readily manifest in the ongoing public discussions and divisions over the so-called “Mandingo question.”
Muslims perceive that they are discriminated against both by the state and Christians, notwithstanding the secular character of the Liberian state as defined by the constitution. Many Muslims feel that they are discriminated against since none of their religious holidays are recognized as national holidays in contrast to Christian celebrations. Also, they consider the difficulty in securing land for ritual needs such as burials and other unique religious and cultural activities as signs of discrimination against them. Most Mandingos feel that their self-dignity is not valued since they are often referred to as “Mandingo dogs”.
Moreover, this tendency to accentuate identity politics is arguably being reinforced by a democratic process in which not a few politicians have chosen to build an electoral base on these identities and the protection of their access to patrimonially distributed privileges and power—rather than on the basis of issues and identity-neutral programs.
Even though the sources of the Liberian war are complex, many observers believe that the war was due to the breakdown of patronage system and a desperate attempt by influential Americo-Liberians to re-establish themselves as the dominant political force in Liberia. Indeed, the war was not about tribes seeking dominance over one another as in the case of Somalia and elsewhere but about influential and dominant individuals exploiting tribal and religious sentiments for political power and opportunism. Following the violent overthrow of the Americo-Liberia oligarchy, Liberia’s political system and power structures were not only interrupted but numerous patron-client relations were completely shuttled.
As Stephen Ellis argues, with the ruling elite deprived of power and its numerous personal networks and patronage-channels cut off from necessary resources, the neo-patrimonial system of Liberia was seriously shaken (Ellis, 1999). Although Doe and his military regime re-introduced a similar system of patronage and nepotism, ethnic discrimination gained currency during the 1980s and contributed to the civil unrest.
Faced with the adverse effect of the end of the Cold War on hegemonic politics as well as the deteriorating economy, Doe’s ability to support existing patron ties diminished thereby necessitating the search for local wealthy groups, mostly Mandingos, for support in return for full citizenship recognition. Accordingly, in the mid 1980s President Samuel K. Doe amended the Constitution of Liberia to eliminate explicit reference to Christianity (and the implication that Liberia was a ‘Christian state’) and expressly permitted the free exercise of religious practices.
The language of toleration was joined with the admonition that no Christian sect should have “exclusive privileges or preference over any other sect” (Art. 14; Constitution of Liberia). To further strengthen the allegiance of the new patrons, the constitution placed a caveat on the authority to exercise one’s religious freedom by asking all Liberians to heed to religious practices that are peaceable and to not ‘obstruct’ others. There were severe consequences. The NPFL, presuming that all Muslims were Mandingoes who were aligned with their adversary, President Doe, killed many Muslims particularly in the early 1990s who were actually unaffiliated with the Mandingo tribe.
The advent of the war in 1989 witnessed the manipulation of tribal sentiments for economic gains. The numerous paramilitary groups fought vigorously and competed against each other in loose and varying alliances for the purpose of power, resources and wealth accumulation. Warlords consistently rejected any form of agreement that they considered not in their economic interest. Once the war started, Taylor found wealth, and the war was increasingly about maintaining that fortune. All warlords wantonly exploiting Liberia’s resources to keep themselves and their patronage system supported.
Charles Taylor invaded Liberia in the name of trying to right the wrong for the Gios and Manos. Susceptible to Taylor’s propaganda, these two ethnic groups formed the majority of the fighting forces and comfortably benefitted from the ‘spoils of the war.’ When the Taylor rebels entered Nimba County, the conflict quickly targeted the Mandingoes, who are mostly Muslim, for elimination. Mandingoes in turn started forming an ‘alliance of convenience’.
The various opponents of Taylor’s NPFL in the early 1990s could be characterized along an ethnic fault-line: ULIMO-K (led by Alhaji G.V. Kromah) represented the economic and political interests of the Mandingoes while ULIMO-J (led by David Roosevelt Johnson) represented similar interests for the ethnic Krahn. After realizing Taylor’s secret agenda of eliminating competent indigenes from Nimba and elsewhere in Liberia, Prince Yormie Johnson broke away from the NPFL at the early stage and established the Independent NPFL.
The INPFL did not have any concrete political aims but its leadership was bent on gaining economic wealth and publicity. Other factions in the war economy included the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), the Lofa Defence Force (LDF), the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). These groups and all the numerous small commandos, militias, and warlords with micro combat-units acted autonomously and engaged in war predominantly for profit, status, and economic reasons as part of the new patronage-clients system rather than fighting on ideological principle.
Future Trends and Challenges
The possibility that religiously-signalled ethnicity could re-ignite conflict is significant and too dangerous for the international community or the Liberian government to ignore. Muslims perceive that they are discriminated against both by the state and Christians, notwithstanding the secular character of the Liberian state as defined by the constitution. As mentioned previously, the fact that their religious holidays are not recognized as national holidays and the difficulty in securing land for ritual needs reflect their second-class status.
While I have focused largely on Islam as the most visible form of religious identity that correlates with potentially violent ethnic division in post-war Liberia, it is not the only way in which religion maps identity-based conflicts in post-war Liberia. Christianity—especially in its Pentecostal form—has also experienced remarkable growth throughout Liberia (Gifford, 1993). Both Islam and Christianity have increasingly come into conflict with other traditional forms of spirituality and religion in a growing number of communities.
This is particularly noticeable in the rural communities where traditional secret societies (like the Poro and the Sande) have historically exercised forms of social power that are now resented and in some cases actively contested by the adherents to Pentecostalism and Islam. They have resisted efforts to recruit their children into these societies or refused at times to conform to ritual exigencies (such as those that require non-members to stay indoors when the “bush devil” comes to town). Moreover, the very different postures of Pentecostals and Muslims vis-à-vis “traditionalists” towards socio-spiritual beliefs such as trial by ordeal, witchcraft, and the authority of traditional justice practitioners in these matters has engendered intra-community conflict in many areas.
These secret societies and traditional authorities have in turn resented the interventions of the Liberian state and its international partners in these cases—viewing them as undermining legitimate and long-established practices and effective ways for dealing with crime and social malfeasance (see Isser, Lubkemann and N’tow et al 2009). Traditionalists view adherence to traditional values as necessary for the preservation of their cultural heritage and the well-being of the community. However, some other parents see the “bush school” of Poro and Sande as institutions that are undermining their children’s education. The forceful recruitment of their daughters into the Sande, or sons into the Poro, against the will of children and parents can be source of strong resentment and tension, particularly due to the lengthy time spent in the bush, ranging from one to three months.
Conclusion: Whither Liberian Citizenship?
The 1986 Constitution of Liberia stipulates in Chapter IV Articles 27 and 28 that Liberian citizenship is guaranteed to persons under three conditions: (a) those who had Liberian citizenship before the coming into force of the Constitution; (b) Negroes or those of Negro descent by birth or by naturalization; c) having either parent as a citizen of Liberia at time of person’s birth declaring the need for citizenship upon reaching maturity.
Most Liberians today believe their rights to land, justice, or political participation are in fact accessed and ensured only through their membership in ethnically or religiously defined groups. Moreover, ethnicity and religion in at least some cases, especially involving the Mandingos and Islam, are often seen as corresponding. The first line of evidence for this is the noticeable tendency to resort to discourses of “autochthony” that argue for discriminatory privilege based on a narrative of historical antecedence—i.e. that “we” (as ethnically and/or religiously defined) are more “original” than “they” are—rather than equality before the law as “Liberians.”
Clearly, such understandings of enfranchisement and political rights differ from the notions of “citizenship” established in the constitution. These tensions are particularly worrisome and require renewed dialogue among various social groups. Nor can we assume that the democratic process will automatically address these divisions and foster a sense of Liberian citizenry. The continued willingness of some Liberian leaders to use ethnicity and religion to compete for electoral votes means that democracy may just as well serve as a conduit towards greater ethnic polarization as towards its mitigation. We need only witness the recent travails of ethnically based democratic competition in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire
Liberia has yet to live up to the rhetoric of its founding: to foster freedom and to serve as the beacon of hope for the Black race. Social cohesion remains a distant goal that will require a concerted effort to transform ethnicity and religious identity into something other than the exclusionary markers of political mobilization, competition, and discrimination that have colored Liberia’s history and its recent violent civil war.
What then must be done? The international community should not place all its peacebuilding hopes and efforts in the electoral process alone as the end point of intervention in Liberia. Rather, it must pursue programs that more directly and in a nuanced fashion foster continued and constructive intra- and inter-community dialogue that creates a basis for effectively transcending ”autochthony politics” at the micro-level of lived everyday practice. The article recommends that stakeholders intensify inter-group dialogues with the view of defusing tensions and building momentum for continuous discussions and interactions on critical conflict issues among the different ethnic and religious groups in Liberia.