The election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf situated the nation on the path to democratization. One basic tenet of democracy is the efficiently vetting of state institutions and reorganizing them to become inclusive, transparent, accountable, and hospitable to the needs of all Liberians. Grappling with the progress we have made along the democratization continuum means sober reflections on the past. Only then can we devise realistic strategies for healing the social fabric, rebuilding communal trust, and activating the much needed civic commitment to overcome divides caused by the war and previous misrule.
The civil conflict can be traced back to Americo-Liberian rule from 1847-1979, which was characterized by division between the minority Americo-Liberians and the majority indigenous populations. Americo-Liberians ruled the nation, and granted people of their social ilk favor in terms of access to education, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities. They constituted the tiny bourgeoisie comprising the administrative, technocratic, political and business elites. Protracted discrimination against the indigenous people naturally led to antagonisms and bred tensions between Americo-Liberians and their indigenous counterparts. In 1980, a coup led by non-commissioned military personnel of indigenous stock under the aegis of the People’s
Redemption Council (PRC) overthrew the William R. Tolbert government.
This paved the way for military rule led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe (SKD). Over the next several years, the PRC Revolution resulted in leveling down of the ruling Americo-Liberian aristocracy as far as having power over the state was concerned.
The subsequent presidential election would be rigged by SKD. SKD’s illegitimate presidency did not lead to egalitarian governance, but rather repression, suppression, and corruption epidemics widespread across the country with ethnic politics as a backdrop. Before long, SKD ostracized all his allies gained at the onset of the coup against the Americo-Liberian aristocracy. He had returned to the vices that caused the coup, embedding inequity into all aspects of governance. Under SKD, the bigotry targeted members of specific groups for ethnic cleansing. SKD recreated the ethnic stratification which the coup was meant to resolve and worse, infused it with militarized venom.
Ethnic bigotry became an instrument of hegemonic control of the natural resources and state power by one social group. Illicit accumulation of wealth by individuals within privileged groups and exclusion of rival socio-ethnic groups would establish conditions for the civil war and its near total embrace by the larger segment of the society. Under Charles G. Taylor (CGT) who launched the civil war in December 1989 against the SKD regime and lasted until 2003, the same repressive governance mechanisms continued to fuel insecurity at economic and physical levels.
Again, the disadvantaged populations saw ethnic identity as the core determinant of an unjust political order. There was opportunistic exploitation of ethnic identity by CGT and the warring factions. The tradition of using state violence in the exercise of power became even more egregious under CGT than those whom he succeeded. It is the violence that facilitated dominance of his regime over the masses and invited armed uprising against his government. Dissent was fought by extermination and terror against those whom he deemed his rivals.
To break this ominous cycle and to achieve durable peace, there is need to restructure the state system in ways that will maximize physical, economic, and political security for all the citizens. A new society cannot be built without addressing first and foremost structures that lead to inequality. As long as these institutions remain in place they will continue to nurture inter-ethnic fears and strife. Too much centralization of power has led to conflicts with opportunistic misuse of ethnic and even class identities. To avoid further abuse of ethnic and class identities by different power centers or those competing for power and destruction of the society, we need to start speaking out at this important inflection point in our society’s democratization process.
In the three instances recounted above, there were marked failures by the ruling class to anticipate the consequent social implosion because leaders governed within their respective socioeconomic bubbles. The state became the main instrument of illicit wealth accumulation by those in power. Disparities did not alarm the leaders and those surrounding them. These situations produced conditions where a majority of Liberians turned against the ruling regime because many could not meet food, energy, and other livelihood requirements. The structural poverty whose roots were embedded in unjust distribution of opportunities set the basis for each crisis.
Lasting solutions to the Liberian ethno-political conflict will bear no sustainable results, if it does not include program for accelerated and inclusive economic development. Fostering an equitable socioeconomic development and growth will realize shared national goals and offer lasting security against violence rooted in poverty, exclusion, and associated fears. The state of wealth for a smaller segment of the population must not coexist with the state of chronic poverty and misery for the largest portion of the population. For the fragility of the state to be mitigated, explosive tensions amongst socioeconomic groups must be remedied. Economic development plays a major role in national reconciliation. New pro-poor development projects can be conceived as means to reunite Liberians at home and to foster the return of those living in the Diaspora. This will promote solidarity actions and common social goals.
Based on this brief historical overview, what stands out is that in the aftermaths of Americo-Liberian rule, the coup and civil war, the nation has been fractured across all imaginable differences. The rhetoric of reconciliation which ensued under SKD meant unifying indigenous people against Americo-Liberians, although this effort itself did not last long enough when inter-ethnic hatred began to gain the strongest foothold. Instead of cross-ethnic healing, it meant enshrining a Krahn hegemony. Under the presidency of CGT, the division was even exacerbated in varying forms given the carnage and warring ethos transplanted in the society. Present day peace building efforts have remained undefined and the impact is yet to be seen.
In today’s Liberia loyalties are polarized across political parties; also across those who feel left behind due to economic discrimination; women who feel still subjugated as the weaker gender; youth and other vulnerable groups who feel disempowered and disenfranchised; and others who distrust the elite political institutions. All these groups provide ample reasons to disrupt the status quo ante in 2017. We must break away from our past as we consolidate our democracy. In doing so, we must realize one crucial fact: No one can draw a single line of guilt for all that has happened in Liberia to one social group or individual. Perpetrators and victims alike cut across all sides of the aisle ethnically and politically. We cannot build long-lasting peace without accepting this singular fact. Building a social order that promotes virtuous healing will require increased tolerance of differences, integration and a pro-poor agenda. All these must be wrapped in a radically compassionate system of governance (care for one another and love for country).