Today’s Choices, Tomorrow’s Liberia

1 Jul 2015

Today’s Choices, Tomorrow’s Liberia

Reflections of outgoing UNMIL SRSG Ms Karin Landgren, Monrovia City Hall, 30 June 2015

Your Excellencies, Honourable Ministers;  our host, the Monrovia City Mayor;  all distinguished guests; 

Good afternoon, and thank you for taking part in this event – which is both my farewell and a contribution to a Liberian conversation. 

I.  Introduction

I am coming to the end of three years as SRSG in Liberia.  Three years is not long, and I approach these reflections with humility, as well as with gratitude to the many here who have shaped my thinking and who continue to work to bring Liberia a brighter future.  

Three years are long enough, however, to have observed many changes.  Liberia and its people have achieved a great deal, especially in the past year.  Liberia overcame Ebola (always with the knowledge that it could come back, as it has), reached agreement to conduct Senate elections safely during that epidemic, and managed the related political, legal, and logistics challenges.  These successes crown 12 years of peace.  Is Liberia's progress now irreversible?

I cannot help but cast a backward glance at the situation of two countries where I previously headed UN Special Political Missions, Burundi and Nepal, and whose current struggles reflect deep disagreements over constitutional matters, among other things.  I will refer to some of these experiences.

As SRSG here, I have led a steady UNMIL drawdown, and strategies for strengthening support to the security sector. But international peacekeeping is intended as an interim solution, while the affected country regroups and the foundations are laid for longer-term peace.  Today’s Liberia is unrecognizable from the ruins in which it lay in 2003.  Still, Liberians from all backgrounds, men and women, elders and young people, acknowledge lingering issues that can drive, and revive, conflict, - no matter how capable the national security sector.  

Whether these lingering issues are on track for resolution, for strengthening Liberian stability is the topic of this reflection.  This is not an academic question.  For one thing, UNMIL's departure is on the cards.  Moreover, we've seen how a shock to the system exposes a nation's faultlines, as Ebola did here, as April’s earthquake did in Nepal.  Discussion and decision are needed on addressing these socio-political faultlines:  as we know, “The future depends on what we do in the present.”  

I will take up three related issues, starting with concrete measures to alleviate the burden of Liberia's cleavages.  

II.     Cleavage Upon Cleavage

In her New Year's Day speech 2015, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf referred to "this great resilient nation", saying " As we start this New Year, let us begin anew, putting old habits, old grievances and old differences behind us.  Let us carry the torch of reconciliation and compromise."  

Liberia has accumulated complex layers of exclusion and of incomplete reconciliation.  “The war years broke people, and added cleavages", one Liberian analyst told me.  Every war, everywhere, adds wounds and scars to the living.  Aaron Weah, one of Liberia’s promising young voices for reconciliation, describes a “memoryscape”:  the places and history that surround the survivors, the victims and the perpetrators alike.  And, I would add, surrounds their children.

These wartime scars were not etched onto a blank slate.  They landed atop earlier scars, older cleavages;  deep resentments which I hear echoed even now in the expression "you people".  “You people”:  Liberia's privileged elite has broadened considerably, but the resentment of perceived exclusion has not gone away.  In her autobiography, the President captured the suffering of exclusion, referring to “the deep anger and resentment, the very real and very dangerous pain that comes from being told that you are inferior.”

These relationships require more sustained attention.  These relationships are a core reason why Liberia is still described as fragile.  In 2009, Dr Amos Sawyer said that the just-published Truth and Reconciliation Report "exposed our weaknesses” and pointed out “how fragile the peace is, how much work we have to do on reconciliation and national cohesion. I think [he said] we have neglected this area."

"… The wounds are there,” he went on.  “The suspicions, the bitterness, they’re all there. They don’t go away with elections.  They don’t go away because we’re coming up with a poverty reduction strategy. We have to address them, and we didn’t.  So that’s one of our flaws."

There is tremendous honesty around this, and I commend Liberians for holding up this mirror.  It continues today:  one senator said that, "While we have the peacekeepers maintaining peace in Liberia, it is time for us to prepare ourselves for their departure and how we can make sure that our togetherness is cemented.  That is the test… As I travel throughout Liberia [he said], I see the attitude of our children, the attitude of our people, and it presents to us that we are not at total peace." [1]

If the time is now to make sure that Liberians are at total peace, what are the concrete steps towards this?  How can old grievances truly be put behind, and torches be carried for reconciliation and compromise?

Earlier this year, the Margibi County youth coordinator told me, "Ebola exposed many of our weaknesses.” But he added:  “What I really liked about the crisis was the togetherness."  He was truly onto something.  Dr Peter Clement of WHO talked to me about his experience seeing the people of Barkedu come together after the onset of Ebola.  He said that Ebola had risked turning into a Christian-Muslim conflict.  But when the local leaders understood that this was a health problem, they asked their communities for contributions to buy fuel for the ambulance.  These were traditional and religious leaders, involving youth groups, women's groups and others.  And people trusted those leaders enough to contribute.  In Foya, the district superintendent brought all the traditional chiefs together with the message Don't Let Our People Die.  They worked freely, without any expectation of being paid.  And what they did was to visit everyone and spread the word about Ebola.    

This led to Liberia's greatest success, which at local level did not cost much money. 

Cementing togetherness, stronger relationships across society, is also about addressing difficult issues and facing the truth.  It is now the sixth anniversary of the TRC Report, and let us remember that this report, like the Reconciliation Roadmap, should not be understood as limiting in any way the human desire for reconciliation and for truth. 

Liberia's Reconciliation Roadmap indicates, as a strategic objective, that "Liberians will enjoy a shared positive national identity".   I arrived in Monrovia just in time to hear the national orator, Dr Elwood Dunn, speak to these issues on July 26th 2012.  But twelve years after the war ended, progress towards forging that shared positive national identity remains limited, whether it is writing a common Liberian history, holding postwar Palava Hut discussions, or selecting new national symbols.      

This can take time, no doubt.  On June 17th, nine African-American churchgoers were shot and killed by a white man at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was said that overnight, the US had a national epiphany.  Serious discussions began – as did some direct action – to remove symbols of Confederate reverence.

Every day, we either open space for more dialogue about the past, or we narrow it. The purpose is not to dwell in the past for its own sake, but rather to address it and thus to release its grip on the present.  Without this process, I fear that this country’s exercise in building a national foundation of trust and shared values will remain incomplete. 

III.  Changing the Rules of the Game:  Accountability and Transparency

A related set of issues concerns accountability and transparency.  At its most pedestrian, so to speak, let me say a word about the vanishing vehicles.

When I travelled across the counties to say goodbye in recent weeks, one government entity, time and again, county after county, lacked a single working vehicle.  And mobility was essential to its work. Their vehicles had all disappeared:  some sold, or damaged beyond repair while being used for private business, or driven away to Monrovia by the lawful driver.

It doesn’t have to be that way:  another government entity reflected a different ethic, and had functioning vehicles.  

Now, cars are cars:  Although a lack of cars is affecting security, Liberia's stability may not be directly compromised by the illegal appropriation of vehicles.  But the unaccountable theft of cars reflects a broader challenge of answerability, of getting to grips with wrongdoing. 

The cost-benefit calculations of compromised accountability in Liberia are complex.  They reflect centuries of weak governance, rules being adjusted to suit individuals and groups, an entrenched patronage system, and rarely a price to pay for stealing.  My purpose here is to contrast this deeply ingrained approach with Liberian aspirations, with the ideal of a shared Liberian project for all citizens, the common good, the togetherness that will help Liberia advance as a nation.

Attaining that goal requires a significant shift.  Many Liberians in positions of authority have tried to change the rules of the game, and have been beaten back.  Liberia’s elite class may have changed, but the ground rules have not.  Liberians have spoken to me about old patterns of privilege being revived, or not being reversed.  Does it matter?  

Yes, it does matter. It matters above all because of Liberia's history of conflict.  The perception of old patterns persisting continues to generate resentment among those who as yet feel no real stake in building this country, and see little foundation for building their own futures.  

I referred to Liberia's greatest success, the community togetherness that eventually drove out Ebola.  Nepal’s greatest successes have been in maternal and child health, through Mothers’ Groups;  and in preserving forests, through Forestry User Groups.  In both cases, the beneficiaries were themselves participants. [2] In these powerful examples, from Liberia and Nepal, money was far less important than ownership and accountability.  This offers vital guidance for Liberia and its donor partners. [3]


Ladies and gentlemen,

During my tenure here, I have seen important steps taken towards greater transparency. The efforts taken up under the auspices of the Open Governance Partnership are increasingly bringing to people and communities a growing awareness of what their government is doing, and what they can expect of it.  Transparency is essential for building that relationship.

IV.  Where to Invest:  Hard Choices 

The final set of issues pertains to the hard choices of where to invest, literally and metaphorically.  It is about Liberia’s chosen model of development, and whether the country’s financing is maximizing inclusion and participation, and strengthening its social and human capital. 

Speaking at the national threat assessment workshop last year, National Security Adviser Dr Boima Fahnbulleh said, "the focus needs to be on dealing with the contradictions that separate our people", through a "model of development which leaves no one behind."

With Liberia’s history, the need for development is inseparable from the need for social inclusion. The President too has underscored this fundamental linkage, writing that “the root cause of conflict is not simply poverty but poverty brought on by exclusion.”  

Liberia’s model of development relies on extractive industries.  A current World Bank study on concessions [4] points to clear, troubling trends, with a sharp decline in commodity prices exacerbated more recently by the Ebola crisis: ebbing prospects and escalating competition for gains, it says, are pushing Liberia’s natural resource economy to a critical juncture. On top of this, concessions are sites of social tension, where simmering discontent often boils over.  It doesn’t have to be this way.

The question is whether Liberia’s model of growth responds to this country’s root causes of conflict.  A nation cannot change its economic model overnight. But without a structured, deep-ranging process of building capacity, Liberia will not have choices:  it will be stuck with this old model. 

You may be amused to know that in Nepal, low growth is blamed on having few natural resources and no coastline. Liberia’s inherent advantages would be envied, as they would in Burundi, an overcrowded country in which 93% of the population depends on agriculture.  Yet as the Secretary-General of UNCTAD observed recently, “The reality of the “Africa rising” story is that higher growth has resulted from increased exports of exactly the same products we were exporting decades ago, and from growing imports to feed an expanding appetite for consumption.  There has been very little learning, and very little value addition along the way.”[5]

Liberia’s human development indicators are sobering, and the country lies near the bottom of the Human Development Index.  Whether we look at literacy, primary school enrollment, educational quality, gender equality, maternal mortality, or sexual and gender-based violence, these all show the great catching-up Liberia will need to do.  Economic growth alone will not bring Liberia there.  As in the 1970s, a gap persists between growth and development.

Central to the World Bank’s research on improving the concessions model is the need for a sustained effort to increase engagement with local communities, enable them to see benefits, and empower them.  In my farewell visits to counties, I have heard stronger, louder, community demand for better education.  Such an investment, too, could help reduce a significant national cleavage.

V.    Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen,

President Obama said, in his eulogy in Charleston, "For too long we've been blind to the way the past continues to shape the present."  There is an ongoing debate, it seems to me, about true Liberian values.  Liberia is still finding its postwar balance, and articulating its policy options.  There has been massive investment in Liberia's peace:  it is for Liberia itself to protect that investment, to define and design the institutional arrangements of governance that will do so. [6]

A new report by a high-level panel on UN Peace Operations reminds us that "Ultimately, political primacy rests with national actors.  The UN and other international actors can only support and facilitate a national commitment to peace.  The main effort of any peace operation must be to focus international attention, leverage and resources on supporting national actors to make the courageous choices required to restore peace, address underlying conflict drivers and meet the legitimate interests of the wider population, not just a small elite." [7]

This is what UNMIL has sought to do, and I seek to continue this afternoon.  Important decisions for strengthening Liberia's common good, and shared identity, remain pending.  Pending - but hiding in plain sight:  the word that recurs most often in these remarks is communities.  With more attention, engagement and support to communities, I have every reason to believe that the Liberian project will prosper.  

Accountability and transparency are about societal norms - about expecting integrity, and making integrity not only a habit, but a habit that pays.  A Liberian ex-combatant said, upon switching political parties:  Where the sun shines, that is where you hang your clothes.  I encourage Liberia to do no less than to make the sun shine on integrity and accountability, on that shared positive national identity, on the model of development that leaves no one behind – to engage fully with its own past and thereby determine its bright future. 


Thank you.   



[1] Reported in The New Republic, Senator Thomas Grupee (Nimba) speaking to a traditional leaders' forum in Gbarnga

[2] Nepali Times, 5-11 June 2015 #761 Bihari K Shrestha:  Guest Column - Follow the People

[3] Nepal grapples with the same:  Tom Bell in Al Jazeera on 25 June:  Nepal's donors must help to pay for the recovery without inadvertently bankrolling the country's structural problems. Attempting meaningful accountability wouldn't make life easy for those in authority, either on the "national" or the "international" side of the equation. But it might at least mean that the coming massive influx of funds helps promote democratic practices and the public interest, rather than strengthening the opaque networks of patronage and resource extraction which work to defeat those ends.

[4] Preliminary elements of which shared with UNMIL on 12 June.

[5] “How Can Africa Achieve the Right Kind of Growth?”, Mukhisa Kituyi, 3 June 2015, for World Economic Forum

[6] p. xii, Sawyer Dr Amos, Beyond Plunder

[7] ¶48, Peace Panel report