Issue 10 - Article 15

Liberia (February 1998)

February 1, 1998
Philippa Atkinson, RRN

Following its first six months in office, observers are still very uncertain about the nature of the new Liberian Government – developmentalist or rogue state? Mixed signals from Taylor’s administration in the key areas of security and the economy have left Liberians and outsiders wary of the new peace. An issue for policy-makers is how best to intervene in order to support and encourage efficient and responsible governance. Conditionality on aid flows is being introduced by both the US and EC, but its effectiveness as a lever remains to be seen. The real challenge lies in the kinds of programming funds are used for, as well as in the types of relationship that outsiders can develop with the new administration.


Early consolidation of the State security apparatus was to be expected from the Taylor government, and some of the accompanying tensions could also have been anticipated. The difficult situation in neighbouring Sierra Leone has been a major factor adding to the insecurity in Liberia, while grievances from the conflict are still unresolved at local levels and at the national political level. In spite of these real problems, the behaviour of the government so far has been worrying, with concern over the restructuring of the national army, the setting up and arming of special police forces, and continued harassment of the press and opposition.

The restructuring of the national army has been conducted independently by the government, who rejected provisions in the Abuja accord for ECOMOG assistance. Almost the entire higher command has been dismissed or retired, and one quarter of the ranks have been laid off, replaced with former NPFL generals and fighters. In the area of human rights protection and press freedom, the disappearance and murder of a prominent opposition politician and his family in December was one of a series of incidents that have included harassment of senior Krahn figures, and of members of the press seen as critical of the government.

Although Taylor’s government has distanced itself from some actions, claiming the police have overstepped their authority, responsibility must ultimately lie with the cabinet and president. Representations have been made on these issues from diplomatic quarters, and from the Liberian human rights community, with clear messages from both donors and potential investors that such occurrences are unacceptable. It remains to be seen whether this type of pressure will prove effective, but the government’s seeming commitment to rejoining international circles has led to some optimism. The failure of the international community to push for intervention on the restructuring of the army may however represent a missed opportunity to influence the composition and professionalism of the new army, both of which are now questionable.

Economic developments since the election have also been highly ambiguous. The appointment of serious professionals to key economic positions has been welcomed by international financial institutions, and progress is being made in balancing the budget, integrating the dual currencies, and rescheduling the large outstanding foreign debt. However, corruption continues unabated within the civil service, and private deals continue to play an important role in the exploitation of mineral and forest resources. This latter is particularly worrying, as the unequal redistribution of profit from Liberia’s natural wealth, and its diversion from national development to private hands, was a major factor in creating the conditions that led to violent conflict in the first place.

This issue has been included in the list of conditionalities proposed by Minister Pronk, who is chairing the donor conference on Liberia in April, and such attention is welcome. The international financial institutions should ensure that any new financing or debt forgiveness is dependent on accountability and transparency in all aspects of the economy. In conjunction with the use of aid as a lever, however, donors should attempt to support positive indigenous efforts and mechanisms of change. Positive local capacities do exist, and must be strengthened wherever this is feasible. Indirect ways to promote accountability, good governance, and the protection of human rights in Liberia, from support of grass roots activists to direct capacity building within relevant ministries and government departments, may have as important an impact as direct conditionalities.

Some initiatives exist, including the new UN peace-building office which has a mandate to assist the government in renewing structures destroyed in the war, and to promote adherence to international standards of good governance. Other plans, such as a US initiative to provide specialist training for the restructured police forces, have been temporarily abandoned due to apparent lack of cooperation from the Liberian side. Support for the functions of the justice ministry and courts has also been minimal so far. Intervention in this area of national law enforcement is a delicate issue, but must at least be attempted. If approached in a sensitive way, capacity building could help to support those forces within the government that favour adherence to the rule of law, and to undermine those elements pursuing other objectives.

Efforts to promote peace-building and sustainable legitimate livelihoods at local levels, as NGOs are attempting through reconciliation and community development programmes, are also important and should be expanded. Undermining the negative forces in Liberia will be difficult, but can only be achieved through support for local mechanisms of accountability and conflict resolution. Pro-active and pragmatic engagement to encourage these mechanisms should thus constitute the most positive and ethical response from the international community, and should be employed alongside the negative use of conditionality and threats.


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