Liberia: The Violence of Democracy

Liberia: The Violence of Democracy

Liberia: The Violence of Democracy

Liberia: The Violence of Democracy


Liberia, a small West African country that has been wracked by violence and civil war since 1989, seems a paradoxical place in which to examine questions of democracy and popular participation. Yet Liberia is also the oldest republic in Africa, having become independent in 1847 after colonization by an American philanthropic organization as a refuge for "Free People of Color" from the United States. Many analysts have attributed the violent upheaval and state collapse Liberia experienced in the 1980s and 1990s to a lack of democratic institutions and long-standing patterns of autocracy, secrecy, and lack of transparency. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on neopatrimonialism in Africa.

Mary H. Moran argues that democracy is not a foreign import into Africa but that essential aspects of what we in the West consider democratic values are part of the indigenous African traditions of legitimacy and political process. In the case of Liberia, these democratic traditions include institutionalized checks and balances operating at the local level that allow for the voices of structural subordinates (women and younger men) to be heard and be effective in making claims. Moran maintains that the violence and state collapse that have beset Liberia and the surrounding region in the past two decades cannot be attributed to ancient tribal hatreds or neopatrimonial leaders who are simply a modern version of traditional chiefs. Rather, democracy and violence are intersecting themes in Liberian history that have manifested themselves in numerous contexts over the years.

Moran challenges many assumptions about Africa as a continent and speaks in an impassioned voice about the meanings of democracy and violence within Liberia.


Violence and democracy are words that do not sit easily together in the same sentence. Indeed, our tendency as Westerners is to see them as opposite ends of an evolutionary scale; the successor to widespread violence, we often imagine, is democracy, a system in which rulers are freely chosen by their people and in which everyone is allowed to voice their opinions and concerns. If such conditions exist, what need is there to resort to violence?

In the 1990s and into the current century, war and genocide in the Balkans, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been attributed to the absence of democratic institutions. Processes of “democratization,” including “capacity-building” workshops and efforts to promote “civil society,” are prescribed as post-conflict solutions to support the “free and fair” elections which are the ultimate goal. Indeed, the ability to hold a “transparent” election is held to be the real test of whether or not democracy has “taken root” in a formerly troubled society and is seen as a bulwark against further outbreaks of war. Democratic societies, we are told, do not make war on their neighbors, but must be poised to intervene when nondemocratic regimes threaten to overstep their boundaries. But are democracy and violence really separate (or separable) ontological states, or is there violence in democracy and democracy in violence? Can both be viewed as means of communication between higher and lower levels of political organization; for example, between the local community and the state? In what instances does the discourse of democracy, grounded in the expectation of “a fair discussion among equals” (Guinier 1995, cited in Wonkeryor et al. 2000: 52), fail? When does the state resort to imposing its will by force, and the local population resort to resistance or aggression? Conversely, what conflicts between local and national elites can be accommodated by the ritual forms of elections and designated representatives? How do leaders on both the small and the large scale manage to allow disparate voices to be heard without compromising their own legitimacy? Can a people really be said to “choose” democracy over war, and vice versa?

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