Liberating Liberia: Understanding the Nature and Needs of Governance

By Sawyer, Amos | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Liberating Liberia: Understanding the Nature and Needs of Governance


Sawyer, Amos, Harvard International Review


In mid-April this year, the Analyst, a Monrovia newspaper, reported that US Ambassador to Liberia John Blaney warned that the current transition was Liberia's last chance to secure its future and that successful October elections will "declare that Liberia is permanently at peace and ready for business investments that will create more jobs and bring prosperity." The perception of elections as the key to lasting peace and development typifies the international community's approach to post-conflict transitions in Africa. While the ambassador's optimism is to be appreciated, the transformational power of elections has not borne out in the 25 years of violent conflicts in Liberia despite two failed transitions and has yet to show convincing results in neighboring Sierra Leone as well.

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This essay examines critical elements of Liberia's current post-conflict transition process and discusses some of the key challenges that must be addressed if Liberia is to transcend the cycle of violent conflicts in which it has been entrapped since the military coup of 1980 and build foundations for democracy and development. The current approach to post-conflict transition, like previous initiatives, does not offer sufficient opportunities for addressing governance issues that are basic to the attainment of durable peace and development. Unless appropriate governance reforms are integrated into the transition agenda, Liberia will not successfully embark on a new course. In pursuing this argument, I will briefly examine Liberia's transition program, commenting on some of its key components and noting their underlying assumptions and implementation strategies. Lastly, I will comment on the contextual issues that pose major challenges to the success of the transition agenda in Liberia.

Challenges and Assumptions of Transition Initiative

The approach to post-conflict transition adopted in Liberia has drawn from a generic model typically used by the international community in most post-conflict situations in Africa. It calls for inserting a peacekeeping force, disarming armed groups, forming a power-sharing transitional government dominated by leaders of antagonistic armed groups, and holding elections. Limited peacebuilding activities undertaken before elections typically include restructuring the military (often to absorb ex-combatants), resettling some of the displaced, and initiating a transitional justice process. Studies of the effectiveness of this model are inconclusive. UN experts claim a success rate of 50 percent, but admit that the UN has only intervened in at most 50 percent of the post-Cold War internal wars waged around the world. In the case of Liberia, the application of this model has neither yielded peace nor formed the basis for longer-term governance due to the questionable assumptions that underlie the formulation, the mode of implementation employed, and the failure to sufficiently adapt the approach to the Liberian and wider Mano River basin contexts.

Flawed Assumptions About Power-sharing

Scholars and practitioners of peacebuilding processes have noted that some of the assumptions that underpin the current approach outlined above are questionable in certain circumstances. For example, the assumption that bringing leaders of armed groups into power-sharing arrangements gives them sufficient incentives to commit to peace and to become guardians of a process of building democratic institutions has proven questionable in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. In Sierra Leone in 1999, leaders of armed groups took advantage of power-sharing arrangements negotiated under the Lome Accord to launch new armed offensives despite the presence of a regional peacekeeping force. In 1997, Liberians were rushed into holding elections precisely because the power-sharing transitional government dominated by the leaders of armed groups broke down after a month-long firefight among them in Monrovia. …

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