Liberia: Stronger Security Focus in U.S. Policy on Liberia?



— Reading between the lines of Biden’s Ambassador-designate, CIA director’s visit here, and the Liberia McCarthy is leaving behind.

By Lilian L. Best and Bai S. G. Best

News last week Monday of U.S. President Joe Biden’s nomination of a new envoy to Liberia has sparked speculation of a heightened national and regional security focus, leading up to the country’s presidential and general elections. 

The Ambassador-designate, Mark Christopher Toner comes with extensive experience in national and regional security, according to a White House statement

He has supported U.S. engagement with its European allies in the thirty-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He has also served as Senior Advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and a Senior Faculty Advisor at the National Defense University. 

Toner was last posted in Paris, France as Minister-Counsellor in charge of Public Diplomacy. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he will replace Ambassador Michael McCarthy, who took office in January 2021. 

Liberia appears to be Toner’s first Ambassadorial post in a long career in the U.S. foreign service. He joins a succession of consequential Ambassadors who, over the last twenty years, have supported Liberia’s postwar transition and development. U.S. support under their tenure ensured the transition from post-conflict emergency to economic recovery. 

It ranged wide from health and education to economic and fiscal governance reform and ensured the development of Liberia’s military into a contributing international security force. Not least among the markers of U.S.-Liberia relations was Washington’s support for response and subsequent economic recovery from the two major public health crises, Ebola and Coronavirus (2019). 

Arguably the most memorable is the current U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield who, like Toner, had her first international foray in Liberia in the 1970s. Toner was reportedly a peace corps volunteer here. Thomas-Greenfield  took office in 2006, succeeding John W. Blaney (2002-2005) and Donald E. Booth (2005-2008). Two more women followed her – Deborah Malac (2012-2015) and Christine Elder (2016-2020) – an apparent nod to Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 

Assuming the Democratic Senate majority favors Biden’s choice in short order, McCarthy, a Trump-appointed envoy, will have served little more than two years at the Embassy. 

But, if their credentials were any indication of America’s posture towards its closest ally on the continent, then Toner’s appointment shows signs that we have come full circle. 

While all his predecessors are career Foreign Service Officers with the credentials and experience to lead U.S. missions across Africa and the world, none appear to have had an explicit national security focus. Except for Blaney. 

Blaney was an officer in the U.S. military, teaching at West Point Military Academy in New York State, before joining the Foreign Service. He then played diplomatic roles that drew on that experience. 

He developed and led negotiations for the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers Agreement between the U.S. and the then-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), prior to the latter’s collapse. 

He then served as Deputy Chief of Mission in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s administration, yet another posting in a region undergoing a delicate transition to democracy, following the gross injustices of apartheid. His promotion as Chief of Mission to Liberia proved pivotal to engineering an end to the civil conflict. 

Toner’s eerily similar profile raises questions about Washington’s read on the severity of the security situation on the ground, and its game plan. But no answer to those questions would be especially surprising, given what has already transpired. 

A smooth segue

U.S. policy has packed a punch, during McCarthy’s term. Although taking pains to present a hand of partnership to the Weah administration — support continued for America’s pet policy programs, including health, education, energy, and national defense — he condemned the rife corruption, human rights abuses, and other elements of Weah’s poor governance record. 

McCarthy’s many warnings foreshadowed a litany of sanctions later imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, legislation allowing the U.S. government to penalize foreign public officials for proven human rights abuses, including freezing their assets and prohibiting their entry into the U.S. 

The first sanctions hit former warlord and Nimba Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, in December 2021. The second shot fell on Weah’s inner circle, in August 2022. The U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, custodian of the global anti-corruption legislation, announced sanctions against Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Teah Twehway, “for their involvement in ongoing public corruption in Liberia.” 

Unlike Johnson, the three disgraced officials, under public pressure, eventually resigned their respective posts as Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Solicitor General, and Managing Director of the National Port Authority. 

But corruption continues, along with human rights abuses and a declining economy, leading up to the contest for Weah’s second term later this year. A failed census, four years late and a month short of its usefulness to determine voter rolls and redistricting, has Liberians fearing the demise of free and fair elections.

And, as if to confirm those sentiments, the past few weeks have seen three alleged cases of election violence — none of them aimed at candidates affiliated with the ruling party. 

Both male and female opposition candidates for legislative seats — incumbent Yekeh Kolubah in Montserrado District 10, Wadei Powell in that county’s 7th district, and Charlyne Brumskine in Grand Bassa’s District 3 — have reported death threats and injury to their supporters. 

These incidents echo the explosive antagonism against opposition candidates in the 2019 legislative contest that saw young female aspirants Telia Urey and Cornelia Kruah Togba narrowly escape attacks in the form of arson and a mob disruption of a campaign rally, respectively. 

Death news dominated the month of March in Monrovia. Former Chief Justice Gloria Musu-Scott, arguably the highest-profile victim of apparent political attacks this year, suffered three break-ins at her Virgina home. 

The last resulted in the brutal murder of her niece, Charloe Musu, 21. The first two attacks had apparently fallen on the deaf ears of the Liberia National Police (LNP). The force took no action until fatality ensued. 

Its ongoing investigation has been mired with manipulation, including their threats to arrest the grieving former justice for noncooperation, despite her documented efforts to comply with their procedures. 

Adding to these concerns is the unresolved matter of the batch of assault rifles and other firearms apprehended at the Freeport of Monrovia in January of this year. Prior to this was the US$100 million in cocaine smuggled through the shipping container of a frozen food importer. 

The consignment of firearms emanated from the U.S. and was reportedly the last of several batches shipped at intervals, over the course of a year. Arms from earlier shipments were found in Brewerville, not far from the Port, within 12 hours of the initial discovery. 

While the authorities reported their seizure of the stockpile, it is unclear whether and how they have disposed of it. In the wrong hands, those weapons could plunge the country into chaos.

Echoes of 2003 

In this fraught situation, the looming threat of further sanctions appears no match for the desperation rocking Weah’s sinking political ship. Between McCarthy and Toner’s tenures, the U.S. Embassy has a delicate path to tread, in the coming months. 

It could draw from Blaney’s playbook, albeit with a more heavily preventative bent, given current circumstances. Speaking in March 2022 at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s virtual forum “Commemorating 200 years of U.S.-Liberia Ties,” Blaney recounted his work to end the war, outlining his four objectives. 

The first was to facilitate an exit for dictator and warlord Charles Taylor, which warring factions upheld as non-negotiable if ceasefire agreements were to hold. 

The second was to strategically position peacekeepers, to maintain the ceasefire. Third, Blaney had to convince Washington under then-President George W. Bush that a path to peace need not add Liberia to Iraq and Afghanistan on the roster of post-9/11 war theaters. 

The safety of Embassy staff was also at issue. Blaney, with the support of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, convinced Bush to keep the team in place, when all other embassies had shut their doors. 

Lastly, Blaney described his efforts to secure the hard-won peace by supporting the establishment of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeeping force; the disarmament, demobilization, and repatriation of warring factions; and the U.S.-led security sector reform and rebuilding of the military “from scratch.” 

He hailed the success of this mission as a victory for Liberians as well as their international partners, while paying tribute to his embassy colleagues and grieving the thousands of lives lost.  

Blaney claims, with arguable validity, that the war would not have ended without U.S. support. That said, the U.S. famously – for Liberians, at least – pursued a policy of non-intervention throughout the protracted civil conflict. 

While warring factions claimed the lives of a quarter million people, a U.S. military contingent stood offshore with no directive to engage. West Africa’s joint regional force, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) were the tip of the bayonet for international peacekeeping efforts, from 1990 until their withdrawal in 1998.

 However, their mission is widely regarded as a failed exercise, with Blaney stating that they had been dragged into the conflict, becoming yet another warring faction. 

The ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) succeeded it in 2003 to steward the ceasefire enshrined in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Accra, Ghana, in August that year. It was absorbed into the UNMIL in September 2003. 

The Embassy’s next steps will tread the same fine line as Blaney’s mission had. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifteen month, has shown the U.S. Government’s determination to support its embattled ally with weapons, finances and other resources, while allowing minimal boots on the ground. So has its neck-or-nothing withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Liberians can, therefore, expect the U.S. to apply the fullest extent of its diplomatic and economic tools in pursuit of a corrective policy that will set Liberia back on a democratic and growth trajectory. 

Given Toner’s NATO experience, this approach may well include coordinating a more effective regional approach than the Mano River Union and ECOWAS have achieved in the past, thus preventing a return to the refugee crisis and conflict spillover that our civil war occasioned upon them, between the 1980s and early 2000s. 


All told, the past makes for a puzzling read of the tea leaves. The U.S. is certainly refreshing its approach with Central Intelligence Agency chief, Bill Burns, doing the rounds in Africa, this January, stopping in Liberia and Libya. 

However, more news of Weah returning the courtesy at Langley, in recent weeks, has raised alarm bells, in the context of recent unrest. What is afoot remains to be seen. The mission’s next course of action, however, will likely fulfill earlier threats of “more sanctions to come,” all things holding constant. 

Beyond that, however, Ambassador McCarthy has stressed the role of Liberians in fulfilling their franchise and holding officials accountable for good governance. Therein lies the path to sustainable and progressive democratic maturity. 

Regardless, Toner’s marching orders will be determined by the Senate after confirmation hearing(s). This could take effect at what Liberians call “4G speed”, or the eternal nine months it took for McCarthy to get confirmed. 

And if Liberia’s internal security lies within the hands of the Biden Administration, chances are that Toner could make his mark sooner than we  expect.