Anyone who remembers the period spanning from the 1970s to the early 2000s, the social uprising, the military coup, the killings, the wars and their attendant trauma would have cold shivers whenever hearing about UNMIL leaving Liberia in just about a year, when the nation would face a testing political exercise. The 2017 elections will check Liberia’s political maturity and the capacity of politicians to provide the leadership and guidance required to nurture the peace process, which is far from over.
By the time the United Nations dispatched a military force to Liberia in 2003, the country had hit rock-bottom. The cruelest memories are numerous, but many remember images of the young fighter up in the air, bare-chested, armed with an AK-47, flying above a bed of empty shells that littered the Gabriel Tucker Bridge and no one can forget images of dead bodies in front of the American Embassy which happened to be across Greystone, where thousands people had taken refuge. The camp of displaced people sleeping under the rain had turned into a killing field, where rockets and gunmen slaughtered scores daily.
Before those images, there were the ones in 1979, when demonstrators were gunned down, thrown in mass graves. Those images will be followed by the daylight televised execution on a sunny beach of people that had had absolute control over the nation for a century just a few days earlier. Then came the images of young soldiers who had high jacked power, going on a killing spree, killing each other one after the other, until there was only one man standing, Samuel K. Doe. His death is probably the most gruesome political reality television show.
Images of refugees, summary executions at checkpoints, child soldiers, wigged commandoes and the uprooting of almost an entire country, something only akin to what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia still linger in the traumatized Liberian collective memory. The fact that nobody has ever been punished or made to pay for all the crimes only makes the situation even more unforgettable and traumatizing.
The older generation has good reasons to feel chills when hearing about UNMIL leaving. They are afraid that the country would return to those days of uncertainty, violence and absolute, lawless power. Liberians have learned more and more to trust and depend on foreigners for an entire generation and dread the days when they will be left alone to deal with each other.
The fears may be justifiable, but Liberians will have to face their demons. UNMIL has come when it was needed, it did its job of helping to create a relatively secure and peaceful social and political environment conducive for the return of the country to a somehow normally functioning state. UNMIL has completed its job and will be needed in other parts of the world. UNMIL will leave.
Liberia is at peace because Liberians want peace, not because UNMIL is here. Some of the most important issues at the core of the agitation in the 1970s have been resolved. The various political movements and the warring factions all fought for the same principle, however different their methods and visions may be: to be part of the political process; to break the cycle of oppression and regain lost dignity; to have the same opportunity as anyone else. All those battles led the nation to where it is today, with freedom of speech, freedom of association, national leadership open to anyone without distinction as in any democracy.
There is no guarantee that the peace and freedom that came through 30 years of upheaval will and can withstand destabilization of the kind that devastated the country. Only Liberians can ensure that it will never happen again. No amount of peacekeepers can do that.
Rather than calling for UNMIL to extend its stay, political and opinion leaders must start talking to the general citizenry about peace and peace building. So far, this has been mostly the work of international organizations, sometimes with scanty results.
The next administration will not only have to maintain the country on a stable trajectory, but also reinforce peace, freedom and social justice. This will demand strengthening the institutions of integrity such as the GAC, the PPCC, the LACC, the Human Rights Commission, the Land Commission and others all set up to check corruption, impunity and injustice but are still in their formative stages. It will also have to narrow the economic inequality gap that seems to grow as a new political class emerges.
The danger the country faces will be more about social and economic injustice than outright political violence. The fact that the “emerging” middle class of Liberia uses politics as its only tool to success will lead to the birth of a weak and corrupt bureaucratic elite, less and less connected with the people, busy milking government and the minute private sector.
UNMIL will leave and like the child who must get up and walk someday after falling many times, Liberia will have to learn to be its own peacekeeper. The best protection against war is not the presence of peacekeepers, rather social harmony and justice.
UNMIL has fulfilled its mandate. Liberians need to start talking and thinking about how to build and maintain peace on their own. This may be the first step towards ending the dependency mentality that has hooked the nation to foreign aid for decades.
Ready or not, UNMIL will leave. Liberia will have to live with itself and bury its demons.