Liberia has come a long way from the bloody civil wars that raged from 1989 until former president Charles Taylor left office in 2003.
In less than a decade, two credible elections have been held, the last in November. But Taylor's imprisonment for war crimes in Sierra Leone has done little to help with reconciliation. Indeed, Liberians remain divided, and by some of the problems that plunged the country into conflict.
Corruption, nepotism linked to oil contracts, impunity; a security sector in disarray; high youth unemployment; and flaws in the election laws have polarised society and corroded politics. Unless President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf uses her limited powers to the fullest to reconcile the nation more insecurity beckons.
Even last year’s relatively-successful polls highlighted these divisions. Inflammatory rhetoric by some politicians and sporadic violence in the run-up to the elections, then opposition allegations of cheating after the vote, show how fragile things are.
Young people are increasingly resentful that they can’t find work, even as Liberia’s elite grow richer. Community relations are also tense, notably between the residents of Nimba in the north, and Grand Gedeh, to the east.
Security is a central issue. The recent conviction of Taylor was welcomed world wide, but Liberians are uneasy that others like him have not been prosecuted for crimes committed not next door but in their own country. Some say they will not feel safe until those responsible for the atrocities are behind bars.
A new campaign led by the Grand Bassa county representative for a law to establish a war crimes court in Liberia is encouraging news and the initiative should be supported by the government. Yet the numerous recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009 have yet to be implemented.
To address the problem, the government needs to clarify how the recommendations tie into the national peace and reconciliation initiative launched by President Johnson Sirleaf. It should also adopt a recommendation by the Special Independent Commission of Inquiry to pass a law against hate crimes. Civil society and donors must invest in strengthening the media, notably by building a media training centre and encouraging worker exchange programs with countries that have an established and vibrant press.
On top of that, people have little confidence in the police. The Liberian National Police was totally revamped in 2004, but its officers failed to control some of the election-linked violence, and they were accused of using excessive force against peaceful protestors. This has only undermined public confidence and cast doubts over the extent of police reform.
The United Nations, wary of the force’s abilities, has decided to keep its police contingent at current numbers even as it draws down its soldiers in the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) over the next three years. The government must urgently seek funds for further police training and to buy essential equipment.
Liberia’s next elections are not due until 2017, but the voting laws must be revised. The opposition claims of cheating were driven by the National Election Commission (NEC)’s inability, or unwillingness, to stop the ruling Unity Party from allegedly using state resources.
Parliament ought to debate and introduce new laws so that the NEC can control party funding and set tougher criteria for parties to stand in the polls. The criteria could include demands for financial transparency, significant representation in all regions and the respect of democratic standards in their internal structure.
A special fund could also be established for party reform, to strengthen their legitimacy and capacity. In addition, efforts should be made to educate voters and polling staff, some of whom were uncomfortable last year with the counting and tallying methods, according to observers.
Finally, national development must be bolstered. Young people, many of whom fought in the conflicts, must be given long-term economic opportunities so they don’t return to violence. Investment should be poured into neglected communities like Westpoint in the capital Monrovia, and unstable areas like Grand Gedeh near the Côte d’Ivoire border.
President Johnson Sirleaf is leading a divided country and is doing so with a limited mandate. But Liberia could easily be destabilised by disputes over natural resources, a weak police force and a frustrated younger generation with few prospects for the future.
So she must spur the government to boost the economy and do more to fight corruption, as well as encourage reconciliation – without encouraging impunity – and reforms, both electoral and in the security sector. Only then does Liberia stand a real chance to definitively turn its back on the conflicts of the past.
Gilles Yabi is West Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.