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Reinventing Liberia: Civil Society, Governance, and a Nation’s Post-War Recovery

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 8, Issue 2, November 2005

By J. Peter Pham1

On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated as the 24th president of Liberia, the West African country originally established as a homeland for freed slaves and other African-Americans “repatriated” from the United States.2 Johnson-Sirleaf’s installation, coming after national elections in October 2005 and a presidential run-off in November in which she won 59.4 percent of the vote against soccer superstar George Manneh “Oppong” Weah, is historically significant for a number of reasons.3 The election was arguably the freest, fairest, and most democratic poll since the nation’s independence in 1847. As the first woman elected head of state in Africa, Johnson-Sirleaf represents a remarkable breakthrough in what historically has been a predominantly patriarchal society where women have largely been relegated to the periphery of political life (the new president campaigned explicitly on her gender, and many of her supporters sported T-shirts that proclaimed “All the men have failed Liberia; let’s try a woman this time”). The generally smooth transition back to constitutional government also fulfilled one of the key objectives of the August 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA),4 which ended the country’s second civil war in a decade and began post-war transition and peace-building processes in which both the United Nations and the United States government were heavily invested.

While these are by no means insignificant achievements, it would be dangerous to overestimate their importance in the context of the violent conflicts which have wracked Liberia for nearly three decades and which ignited a regional conflagration that consumed – and, in some parts, continues to plague – its neighbors Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire.5 In 2003 the Bush administration, egged on by pundits demanding that it “do something” on the eve of the President’s first trip to Africa,6 contemplated leading an international “humanitarian intervention” in the Liberian civil war, and went so far as to deploy three warships offshore with 2,300 Marines. I dashed off an essay for an online foreign policy journal that turned out to be one of the few pieces published that summer that argued against anything more than a very limited mission.7

My opposition to a more forceful engagement had nothing to do with doubts about the American military juggernaut (though stretched by the Iraqi situation, the U.S. armed forces would have hardly been challenged by the ragged forces in Liberia) or with any lack of sympathy for the Liberian people (I had just returned from a two-year tour there, during which I formed many lasting bonds). Rather, my skepticism stemmed from a sense that many advocates of intervention suffered from what the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban described as the “tendency to imagine the past and to describe the future”8 – in the present case, they invented an idyllic Liberian past, demonized the present, and imagined a future paradise to be brought into being easily enough by American arms and a round of balloting. Reality, of course, is much more complex, and I doubted whether, despite the best of intentions, the would-be interventionists had either the vision or the commitment to undertake transformative change of the failed state that Liberia had become. More likely than not, elections of some sort would be organized and, under the cover of the “success” of holding the polls, the international community would retreat, leaving the situation no better (if not worse) for the effort and the root causes of the conflict unaddressed – thus perpetuating the historical cycle of conflict and violence.

Nearly three years later, my intuition has, regrettably, proved to be correct. Despite much-ballyhooed initiatives such as the U.S. administration’s general agenda to promote democratization abroad, as well as very specific prescriptions such as those in the 450-page tome released last year by British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa,9 international policy with respect to failed states – and not only in Africa – remains very much attached to what could be called an “election fetish,” the notion that electing a national government is the end point of state-building. According to this view, an election “cures” the crisis that provoked the intervention, absolves the ethical obligations of the outside forces, and dispatches the nation happily along the peaceful pathways of development toward a future of prosperity. This notion, already tried with less-than-convincing results across Liberia’s western border by the just-wrapped-up United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL),10 typifies the international community’s mindset.

In my view, by contrast, electoral processes alone do little to address the governance issues that are the essential foundation for sustainable peace and development. Recently, I have had the immense satisfaction of finding concurrence with my contrarian views from no less a figure than Amos Sawyer who, in addition to being one of the founding fathers of modern Liberian civil society and perhaps the preeminent political scientist produced by his country,11 served as Liberia’s internationally recognized head of state from 1990 to 1994, as president of the Interim Government of National Unity during the first civil war. Now living in the United States, where he is associate director and research scholar at Indiana University’s Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Sawyer has turned his attention to whether a stable political order can be established in Liberia after years of collapsed governance, unimaginable violence, and complex humanitarian crises. His answer, which comes in a recently published volume, Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia,12 is a qualified yes: the task is feasible, but only in the context of constitutional arrangements and societal institutions that represent a clear break from those of the country’s past.

After reviewing the background of the Liberian civil war, this article will, taking Sawyer’s work as a point of departure, examine the responses of the international community and civil society through the just-concluded transition and highlight some of the governance issues that the newly inaugurated Liberian government must address to avoid a relapse into conflict. While the discussion will be limited to Liberia, the lessons gleaned from the West African country are applicable to nation-building exercises in other places, not the least of which is the Greater Middle East.

From “Model” to Failed State

Liberia’s 1847 Declaration of Independence proudly proclaimed Africa’s first black-ruled republic to be “the happy home of thousands who were once the doomed victims of oppression,” a place that “if left unmolested to go on her natural and spontaneous growth, if her movements be left free from the paralyzing intrigues of jealous ambition and unscrupulous avarice, … will throw open wider and yet wider a door for thousands who are now looking with an anxious eye for some land of rest.” Despite the lofty ambitions of the freed slaves and other transplanted African-Americans, what was inaugurated was something other than the exemplary democratic polity romanticized by the popular media on this side of the Atlantic. Rather, over the course of the next century and a half, relations between the “Americo-Liberian” settlers and their descendants – who never accounted for more than roughly 5 percent of the total population – and the native peoples of the region were characterized by a peculiar version of the colonial mission civilisatrice that continues to haunt Liberian public life.

Members of indigenous African communities, for example, were denied the right to vote altogether until 1946, when it was extended to the select few of their number who owned a home, paid taxes on it, and were otherwise deemed “civilized” by arbitrary criteria established by government officials. The country’s legal system, codified only in the 1950s with the aid of legal scholars from Cornell University, vested neither indigenous ethnic communities nor individual members of such groups with title to the lands that they had occupied from time immemorial. Rather, indigenous communities were granted the use of what was declared public land. The law went on to stipulate that “when a tribe shall become sufficiently advanced in civilization,” it was entitled to “petition the government for a division of tribal land into family holding.”13 As the dean of Liberian studies, J. Gus Liebenow, once observed, the Americo-Liberians’ “views of Africa and Africans were essentially those of nineteenth-century whites in the United States. The bonds of culture were stronger than the bonds of race, and the settlers clung tenaciously to the subtle differences that set them apart from the tribal ‘savages’ in their midst.”14

This effectively colonial state of affairs persisted until April 12, 1980, when a quasi-literate master sergeant, Samuel Kanyon Doe, an ethnic Krahn, and his band of seventeen low-ranking soldiers launched a coup that killed the last Americo-Liberian president, William Tolbert Jr., and overthrew the settler oligarchy. Despite his increasingly violent and oppressive rule. Doe, like his Americo-Liberian predecessors, benefited from America’s Cold War calculus that, more often than not, turned a blind eye to the abuses of despots so long as they proved willing to accommodate U.S. interests. In Liberia, those interests included a large diplomatic and intelligence communications relay station comprising two 500-acre antenna fields, a 1,600-acre Voice of America relay station, a U.S. Coast Guard maritime navigational tracking station (one of only six in the world at the time), and unlimited access for American military flights to the Robertsfield Airport.15 U.S. economic and military assistance to Doe – famously saluted during a state visit to the White House by President Ronald Reagan as “Chairman Moe” – amounted to over $500 million between 1981 and 1985.

The fall of the Americo-Liberian ruling class had been greeted with hope, but it soon evaporated with Doe’s imposition of an even more repressive Krahn-based military oligarchy. As Jeremy Levitt of Florida International University has observed:

Doe’s native regime … failed to progressively reconfigure let alone overhaul Liberia’s sociopolitical order. It rather widened preexisting fissures and sent the country spiraling downward into an abyss of darkness from which it has yet to recover. The outcome of Doe’s rule may signal the extent to which authoritarianism, corruption, ethnic divisions, and elitism have been entrenched into the Liberian body politic and wider cultural fabric. Hence it may be asserted that while the 1980 coup brought about the (short-lived) ethnic transformation of Liberia’s body politic, it did nothing to reconstruct its constitution of order or fundamentally enhance the quality of life of the Liberian masses. In this sense, the Doe episode demonstrates that majority rule, whether it be settler or native Liberian, is not synonymous with democratization.16

The end of the Cold War altered America’s strategic calculations: during Reagan’s second term, U.S. aid to Liberia plummeted from $53.6 million in 1986 to $19.5 million in 1989. Except for some $10 million in emergency food and other humanitarian assistance, no aid was appropriated in the first budget submitted by the George H.W. Bush administration. Then on Christmas Eve 1989, rural Nimba County was invaded by a handful of insurgents led by Charles Taylor, the U.S.-educated son of an Americo-Liberian father and a Gola mother, who had been trained in Libya after breaking out of a federal prison in Boston (he had been held on an extradition request from Liberia for having allegedly embezzled from the government agency he had run earlier). Within the year, until they were halted by a military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Taylor and his allies had gained military control over nearly 90 percent of Liberia’s national territory and had captured and killed the hapless Doe.

While the deployment of the regional military intervention force, dubbed ECOMOG (“ECOWAS Monitoring Group”), in August 1990 prevented Taylor’s takeover of the capital, Monrovia, the unintended consequence was to prolong the conflict. Denied the prize that was almost within his grasp, Taylor doggedly engaged the would-be peacekeepers as well as an ever-proliferating host of other armed factions for seven long years, during which the fighting engulfed all or parts of neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. In Liberia, the death toll has been estimated to be as high as 250,000, out of a pre-war population of just over three million. Ironically, the end result was the same as if there had been no intervention at all: in an internationally monitored election on July 19, 1997, Taylor triumphed over his opponents, winning 75.3 percent of the vote. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, ran a distant second with 9.5 percent, while a trio of veteran civil society activists – Cletus Wortorson, Gabriel Baccus Mathews, and Togba Nah Tipoteh – trailed with humiliating 2.5, 2.5, and 1.6 percent, respectively. The election was judged “free and fair” though flawed by the international community – including observers from the U.N., the European Union, the Organization of African Unity, and the Carter Center. Despite Taylor’s reputation as a brutal warlord, the across-the-board victory for him personally and for the National Patriotic Party formed out of his rebel movement could best be explained by the uncertain security situation. Voters made a rational choice for the candidate most likely to bring stability soon and, they hoped, improved conditions eventually.

These hopes, however, were quickly dashed. Taylor’s authoritarianism combined with declining socio-economic conditions – by 2003, the average Liberian was, by most indices, worse off than before the civil war had started more than a decade earlier – led The Economist to dub the country “the worst place to live in 2003.” Not surprisingly, an anti-Taylor umbrella group, the Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD),17 emerged with the support of Guinea, whose territory had been repeatedly invaded by Taylor. LURD was soon joined by another armed group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), supported by another of Liberia’s aggrieved neighbors, Côte d’Ivoire.

As 2003 began, Taylor had been weakened considerably by the military pressure of the LURD and MODEL insurgencies, coupled with the political and economic isolation resulting from U.N. sanctions imposed because of his role in fomenting Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. By late May, with nearly two-thirds of Liberia loosely under rebel control, but with neither LURD nor MODEL strong enough to take the capital by storm, Taylor finally agreed to sit down with his opponents at peace talks, to be held in Accra under the auspices of ECOWAS. However, much to the embarrassment of the African diplomats who had set up the meeting, Taylor’s attendance was cut short. On June 4, the U.N.-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone published its previously sealed indictment of the Liberian president. He faced some seventeen counts of war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law stemming from the brutal Sierra Leonean conflict that he had precipitated as a sideshow to his own fight.18

While Taylor hastily fled back to Monrovia, the end game had clearly begun, especially after U.S. President George W. Bush declared on June 26, the eve of his first presidential trip to Africa, that “President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed.”19 After protracted negotiations, a Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, acting under the authority of an apposite U.N. Security Council resolution, landed in Monrovia on August 4. On August 11, Taylor resigned the Liberian presidency, handed power over to Vice President Moses Blah, and accepted an offer of asylum in Nigeria.

Transitional Arrangements

Multi-party talks held in Accra, Ghana, created the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) from the remnants of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), the LURD and MODEL rebels, and representatives of civil society organizations. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) provided for a four-way power-sharing arrangement that parceled out positions in the cabinet and the rest of the government. In the cabinet picked to work alongside NTGL chairman Gyude Bryant, a businessman with longtime political aspirations, the NPP retained five ministries, while five each were allocated to members of LURD and MODEL and six were entrusted to civic leaders. The 76 seats in the unicameral National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) created by the CPA were likewise divided up by participants to the negotiations. Supporters of the outgoing NPP government, LURD, and MODEL were each given twelve seats. Each of the eighteen registered civilian political parties, except for the NPP, was allocated one seat. Seven seats were reserved for representatives to be designated by civil society groups. Less than a quarter of the parliamentary seats – fifteen – were to be filled by election, with one representative chosen from each of Liberia’s counties. In similar fashion, the Accra agreement parceled out Liberia’s publicly owned corporations and autonomous government agencies and commissions. The transitional government took office on October 14, 2003. Under the CPA, confirmed by an apposite U.N. Security Council resolution, the transitional government would remain in office until January 16, 2006, when it would cede power to a government elected in a 2005 poll.20

During the transition, Liberia was, for all intents and purposes, under a regime of international trusteeship, the NTGL being propped up by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), headed for most of the period by a retired U.S. Air Force general, Jacques Paul Klein, who had previously served as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For a change, the international community backed up the peacekeepers with the resources necessary for reconstruction and other humanitarian assistance. A February 2004 conference co-sponsored by the United States, the World Bank, and the United Nations, and co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, generated over $500 million in pledges. By then the U.S. Congress had already appropriated $447 million for the West African nation ($245 million for the international peacekeeping force and $200 for humanitarian assistance, in addition to the gratuitous $2 million congressional earmark for a bounty to secure the delivery of the deposed President Taylor to the international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone21), and various U.N. agencies had committed $177 million. At the end of the donors’ conference, Secretary-General Annan pledged to “consolidate the peace, and make the peace process irreversible.”22

The Devil in the Details

The reality, however, fell short. Recall that before his ouster, Liberia’s Taylor had incited a series of conflicts across the region, including civil wars in Sierra Leone (pacified) and Côte d’Ivoire (ongoing), plus various intrigues in and even an invasion of Guinea, an increasingly unstable country where a rising tide of ethnic and other tensions was held back only by the aging autocratic president, Lansana Conté, who survived an assassination attempt in January 2005 that the then-chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone explicitly blamed on Taylor’s machinations.23 A peace plan whose scope is limited to one country, no matter how well supported and faithfully implemented, has at best a tenuous chance of succeeding while regional conflagration remains a very real possibility, with violence and refugee crises spilling over ill-defined and porous frontiers.

Even aside from the regional considerations, the reconstruction effort in Liberia has suffered from contemporary international society’s equivalent of Martin Luther’s articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae: that the “success” (read, “exit point”) of international interventions in weak or failed states is measured by whether or not elections can be held by some arbitrarily established deadline, regardless of circumstances on the ground. While democratic elections are arguably the most significant factor in providing legitimacy to an emergent political order, their efficacy in this regard is negated if essential institutional reforms are sacrificed in a headlong rush to the ballot box. And perhaps no country knows this better than Liberia, where the 1996 Abuja II peace agreement paved the way for the ascendancy the following year of warlord Charles Taylor who, backed by his relatively well-disciplined military force and enriched by the booty he had acquired during the civil war, easily trounced his divided and under-funded civilian opponents in hastily organized elections – thus sowing the seeds of a renewed conflict.

The 2003 CPA did avoid the mistake of its abortive predecessors by providing for a two-year transition, during which the interim government – or, rather, the multinational peacekeeping force acting on the NTGL’s behalf – would reestablish some modicum of control over national territory, demobilize and disarm combatants, and rebuild the collapsed institutions of state. UNMIL, unlike earlier U.N. peacekeeping operations, was mandated and funded to carry out this process of state-building. Furthermore, again unlike earlier engagements, there was a unity in the international mission: during his tenure, Klein, himself a former military officer as well as a diplomat, simultaneously held both political and military portfolios as special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General and commander of the peacekeeping force (although a Nigerian general managed routine day-to-day military operations).

While, at least to a certain extent, UNMIL succeeded in demobilizing and disarming the combatants in Liberia’s long-running civil war, including some as young as twelve, and helping the interim Liberian authorities take the first steps toward rehabilitating the country’s infrastructure and resuscitating the capacities of state institutions, the 2005 elections may still be remembered as the starting point for renewed conflict.

With few, relatively minor, exceptions, the electoral exercise was well-run.24 Approximately 1.35 million citizens registered to vote in April and May 2005, in a process marred by localized violence but generally peaceful. Nearly three-quarters of the registered voters, some 1.012 million people, participated in the October poll and approximately 60 percent, more than 821,000, voted in the November presidential run-off. The international community facilitated the process through education, technical assistance, and security. The U.S. alone contributed over $10 million to the effort, most of it dispersed through civil society organizations involved in democratization efforts, including IFES (technical assistance for polling), the International Republican Institute (training for political parties), and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (civic education). More than 6,000 Liberians, including some 3,500 from local civil society organizations, were accredited to monitor the voting.

George Weah came in first among the field of 22 candidates in the first round, only to lose to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the second round by a 59.4 percent to 40.6 percent margin. Weah has contested his defeat, claiming that the vote was rigged and demanding a re-run of the run-off. While he has called upon his supporters to keep their protests peaceful, some fear the possibility of violence, given that his base includes a high proportion of ex-combatants. Furthermore, legislative obstruction is a possibility. Weah’s political party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), is the largest group in the new 64-seat House of Representatives, holding fifteen seats; by contrast, Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party (UP) has only seven seats.

However, the real danger for Liberia’s future lies not with the volatility of the defeated candidate but with the institutions that the winner inherited. Despite the care in managing the country’s post-war transition, one important detail was omitted if not deliberately glossed over: no real consideration was given to what kind of government would take office after the voting and how it would govern.

Johnson-Sirleaf assumed power under Liberia’s 1984 constitution, a ramshackle adaptation of the country’s seriously flawed 19th-century constitution with adjustments to suit the exigencies of the 1984 dictator, Samuel Doe. Under this charter, the president, elected for a renewable six-year-term, holds broad powers that ensure a very centralized regime. According to the constitution, “All cabinet ministers, deputy and assistant cabinet ministers, ambassadors, ministers and consuls, superintendents of counties and other government officials, both military and civilian, appointed by the President pursuant to this Constitution shall hold their offices at the pleasure of the President.”25 While local mayors and traditional tribal chieftains are elected by their constituents, they too are subject to dismissal by the chief executive.26 And while the constitution vests the legislature with the power to raise revenue, the chief executive exercises sole discretion in the disbursement of public funds to government agencies through a centralized system of presidential warrants.27 As Sawyer comments succinctly, “A president who has the sole authority to determine disbursements of public funds through a warrant prepared by his assistant and passed unchecked by any other independent authority is empowered to exercise exclusive control over the public purse, notwithstanding the legislature’s authority to review and approve the national budget.”28 In short, the unreformed Liberian constitution provides for precisely the “winner-take-all” system that has been the bane of many post-colonial African polities, with competing factions given little incentive to accept anything short of “total victory” – and with a history of breaking down, with tragic consequences.

The international community’s almost obsessive rush to the polls in Liberia has meant, however unintentionally, that after last year’s “successful” electoral exercise, the country simply reverted to a constitutional regime with few safeguards against the tyranny of the majority and almost no checks on the all-powerful chief executive. Everything is effectively gambled on the personal integrity of the winner – the inversion of the principle in The Federalist Papers that governments were designed for men and not angels29 – even as recent history has shown that popular elections in the aftermath of regime change in Africa have returned leaders as disparate as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (though the latter was admittedly not quite the same tyrant early in his tenure). While one always hopes for the best, it is more prudent to plan for the worst and, before embarking on the road of democratization, to ensure that the constitution erects hurdles to any dictatorial impulses, lest the experiment in democratic self-rule be stillborn and the very exercise of suffrage be transformed into one more barrier to a sustainable polity.

Rethinking Governance

It is at this point that Sawyer, who chaired Liberia’s National Constitution Drafting Commission in the 1980s before he was pushed aside (and eventually jailed) by Doe, makes some interesting theoretical contributions premised on a series of conceptual distinctions:

Governance and Self-Governance. Whereas “governance” generally refers to the management of public affairs, and “good governance” denotes the embrace of civil society as government’s partner in that administration, Sawyer proposes “self-governance” as a system of “polycentric institutional arrangements” crafted through “processes of constitutional choice and designed for problem solving by people themselves.”30 While these institutions of self-governance (which Sawyer also calls “democratic governance”) include centralized institutions, the emphasis stretches beyond the government.

Development and Self-Reliant Development. Sawyer furthermore contrasts the term “development” as it typically appears in the literature, meaning “transforming people and society from a state of ‘backwardness’ associated with local traditions and lifestyles to a state of ‘modernity,’ ” to his ideal of “self-reliant development as a companion to self-governance” and “a self-generated and self-sustaining transformatory process that obtains through self-governance.”31

Participation and Constitutional Choice. Since “participation” can sometimes mean perfunctory involvement, Sawyer advocates “constitutional choice,” where people establish and sustain their own systems of governance:

Constitutional choice for democratic governance involves the challenge of a people arriving at a theory of governance suitable to their circumstances and establishing governance institutions based on that theory. It is a process by which the people of a society, through enlightened discourse oriented toward problem solving, make fundamental rules to address their governance dilemmas.32

The success of this process necessarily involves knowledgeable contestation in an open public realm as well as an ongoing mechanism for trial, error, and adaptation as circumstances require.

In the case of Liberia, it is clear that unitary sovereignty is wholly ill-suited to democratic governance. What check, asks Sawyer, can exist on a president who has the entire governmental infrastructure as a patronage machine? Next to none, because “citizens who may act only as seasonal voters cannot constitute a significant check on presidential power.”33 Holding elections without addressing the underlying governance issues is likely simply to perpetuate the cycle of fierce competition, breakdowns, and violent conflicts that has entrapped the nation for decades.

Civil Society as the Foundation of a New Order

In contrast to this vicious cycle of government predation, repression, and state failure, Sawyer argues that African countries in general – and Liberia is clearly foremost in his mind – need “a fundamental shift away from a system of unitary government so that there can be several centers of authority underpinned by a system of shared sovereignty in which ordinary people acting as empowered citizens can meaningfully participate in an array of governance institutions at local, provincial, national, and even regional scales where necessary.”34 Here he finds hope in the individual and social ingenuity with which Liberians have mobilized for their very survival through nearly three decades of violence: How have the Liberian people coped with the collapse of their state and all its consequences? What residual institutions sustained them? What potential do these offer for the post-war recovery?

In point of fact, arguably the largest lacuna in contemporary social sciences’ understanding of African political processes is the impact of voluntary associations and other associational realities on governance at all levels of society.35 Further, to the extent that social scientists do pay heed to this sector, as World Bank advisor Stephen Ndegwa has noted, they tend to concentrate on

the reorganization of power relations in African states. The civil society thesis – that civil society actors are important contributors to democratic change – is essentially a statement on their positive contribution to altering power relations in Africa. Analysts therefore need to raise fundamental questions regarding where civil society actors derive their power to oppose the state and, even more importantly, where this power resides.36

Notwithstanding this caveat, Ndegwa has observed that the “one level of civil society action that has been largely ignored but that may lead to more durable changes in African political life is grassroots empowerment.”37

In formulating and implementing donor-driven reconstruction programs such as Liberia’s, there has a strong bias in favor of assessing needs and largely disregarding potential. As Sawyer notes, the Joint Needs Assessment, prepared by the NTGL, the United Nations, and the World Bank in the lead-up to the February 2004 international donors’ conference,38 was “disappointingly quiet on the critical question of what Liberians themselves possess, even in their state of misery.”39 The answer to the query, had it been posed, would have been voluminous, embracing a range of local, national, regional, and international third sector organizations covering the gamut of interests. In fact, a notable contribution of Sawyer’s volume is its panoramic survey of Liberian civil society mechanisms for coping with violence and conflict, including the pan-ethnic Poro “secret societies” in northern and northwestern Liberia, the more limited Kwee institutions in the forests of the southeast, and the neighborhood watches in urban communities. Sawyer notes that while these local institutions have deep roots in the history of the country’s indigenous communities, modern Liberians found them flexible and adapted them to help cope with state collapse and its attendant violence. Sawyer describes how Poro symbols and authority, for example, were creatively co-opted “to restrain the actions and behaviors of armed men who operated with hardly any supervision and whose loyalty was only to a leader in Monrovia,”40 as well as how “appropriate rites of restoration were performed and … the basis for reconciliation established” between Guinean Loma communities and Mandingo communities during the long conflict.41 The author also explores clan-based, community-based, religion-based, and economic-based organizations, as well as the more widely covered (and conventional) local and international nongovernmental organizations.

Noting the four types of capital – human, social, physical, and natural – Sawyer argues that Liberia, for all its devastations of recent years, still has a considerable pool of human and social capital with which post-conflict reconstruction must be built if it is to be sustained over the long term:

What is important is that the Liberian reconstruction process be perceived essentially as one designed with emphasis on helping Liberians develop and utilize their talents and skills for wholesome and productive purposes, such that as individuals they become not only providers of their own livelihoods and drivers of their own future, but also contributors to the development of their communities and transmitters of values, knowledge, and skills to succeeding generations. It is further important, in this respect, that extant stock of social capital in Liberian society be assessed and used where appropriate as …“bonding” capital to strengthen within communities; as “bridging” capital to establish or strengthen cohesion among or between people of different communities; and as “linking” capital to nest communities within even larger communities. In this way, Liberians will be able to appreciate the need for ethnic-based institutions, such as clan-based organizations, and the support they provide their members; the importance of interreligious organizations, panethnic associations, alumni associations, and professional bodies – all of which serve to bring individuals of different communal groups into collective action and to build bridges among various communities; and the role of county-based or national-level organizations that help all of them develop a sense of nationhood.42

The result of this vision would be a democratic political order rooted in society, with its governance institutions built from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.

Lessons and Prospects

While international intervention may provide some measure of relief in the short term, as I have argued elsewhere,43 outsiders will never be able to address the root structural causes – cultural, social, economic, and political – of a cycle of governmental predation, repression, and failure such as Liberia’s. The usual accoutrements in the international diplomatic toolkit, including sanctions, peacekeeping contingents, and power-sharing arrangements, can serve as stop-gap measures, but they will provide only temporary relief, perhaps mitigating some of the worst consequences of a state’s collapse and the ensuing chaos. State failure results from a confluence of forces – ancient ethnic tensions, stagnant politics, economic deterioration, political repression, social exclusion, plus, in Liberia, the end of the Cold War – that push the polity over the edge. It is, more often than not, a case of what sociologist Charles Ragin has termed “multiple conjunctural causation,” where the historical outcome stems from a complex combination of structural and situational factors.44

Just as state failure has multiple causes, national identity is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that involves not only the public institutions and the monopoly of coercive power in a territory, but also the cultural and political bonds that unite different individuals into a single community. Anthony Smith of the London School of Economics has defined the nation as “a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members.”45 A failed state is likely to lack one or more of these elements. In Liberia, many if not all of these constitutive elements have been historically absent. Even after reforms in the last years of Americo-Liberian domination eliminated the de jure exclusion of the majority of indigenous peoples from the national life, a sense of de facto alienation persisted.

An effective and sustainable response to such state failure, however, requires that citizens take responsibility for their fate. Establishing a popularly elected government will not, by itself, be enough to build a free society out of Liberia or any other failed state. Rather, a stable and free society presupposes not only a democratic polity, but also a culture of liberty and a free economy. These three institutions are inherently interdependent: none can endure for long without the other two. The dependence of the economy on the basic rule of law and functional organs of government is relatively straightforward. Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has, in recent years, clearly demonstrated that the principal obstacle to development in many countries is the lack of access to clear legal property titles and, consequently, to credit markets.46 A government of laws provides this. Likewise, as Francis Fukuyama, among others, has shown, the economy depends on certain moral and cultural variables, including social trust and cohesion.47 For this culture to thrive, in turn, it depends on the conditions established by a market-based economy and a democratic regime, which can guarantee the requisite freedom from want and fear. And, of course, a stable democratic government requires material prosperity – or at least the reasonable opportunity to pursue it – and a culture that respects individual rights and encourages personal responsibility and tolerance for others.

If Liberia is ever to overcome its historical state weakness and rejoin the international community as a viable sovereign entity, all of this requires reconstructing the nation’s foundations from the bottom up. While hostilities in the Liberian civil war, now seen as a paragon of post-Cold War conflict in developing regions, began in December 1989, violence had been systematic for years, predating even Doe’s overthrow of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy in 1980. In retrospect, the structures and symbols of the Americo-Liberian-dominated republic contained the seeds of their own destruction – including the official motto, the national sense of historical mission and identity, the general sense of community, and the institutions of government, all of which reflected the experience and aspirations of the dominant settler minority rather than the indigenous majority. Consequently, the country’s post-conflict reconstruction also requires the strengthening – if not the wholesale overhaul – of those institutions of civil society that, if not destroyed during the years of fighting, remain compromised by either their involvement with previous regimes or their self-absorbed pursuit of individual interests. This charge, advanced by Liberians themselves, covers political parties, religious groups, and other non-governmental organizations. Sawyer, for example, discreetly notes that during the most recent conflict, “donor-driven NGOs were also more easily manipulated by Charles Taylor’s government” through threats to withdraw their legal registration: “Ensuring donor funding and keeping in the good books of the government require[d] such skillful navigation that some NGOs spen[t] much more time on these than pursuing the objective for which they were established.”48

Only with civil society renewed and reinforced can Liberia develop a culture – and a truly national identity – that can give hope to peace-building and national reconciliation. Amos Sawyer made the same point in a memorandum that he circulated shortly after the signing of the CPA in August 2003: “No degree of external support can help Liberia in the long-run if Liberians are not the driving force in peace-building but are simply the beneficiaries of peace-building programs driven by others. And no peace-building approach can yield sustainable outcomes if it does not empower Liberians by strengthening their individual and collective capacity to do things for themselves, to rely on their own resources, and then seek assistance from others.”49 With this in mind, Sawyer, in his present work, issues an advisory to local NGOs operating today in Liberia that merits quoting at length:

A major shortcoming of most local NGOs … is that many are wholly dependent on international donor support; consequently, they are donor-driven in their agenda and have a life span determined by external funding sources. Moreover, it is not infrequent that donor interest and local needs diverge. A classic example has to do with approaches to reconciliation. Donors seem more willing to support superficial projects in reconciliation characterized by radio jingles and sound bites than to invest in long-term solutions that could emerge from research and policies that provide new approaches to social ordering and opportunities to transform conflict. Preference for short-term, quick-fix approaches have often encouraged the creation of local NGOs, as reported in the number of jingles played on the radio, for example. Considered closely, such arrangements look very much like a scam pulled on both the targeted population, which is promised a quick fix, and on tax payers of the donor country, whose money may not have been effectively or efficiently used.50

Without this perspective, the entire project of post-conflict reconstruction that the international community undertook in Liberia – and which it will, undoubtedly, undertake elsewhere – is for naught at best and, at worst, patronization masquerading as humanitarianism. Even if the exercise is motivated by an enlightened self-interest, such as to build a stable state whose citizens pose a threat neither to one another nor to other members of the international community, then legitimacy takes on great significance. A state accepted as legitimate by a majority of its citizens, because it gives voice to their aspirations and contains reasonable means for political compromise, is ultimately in everyone’s interest, national and international. Without the assurance that voting will produce some sort of legitimate regime within which citizens have a stake, their only rational course of action will be driven by the logic of self-preservation: recourse to whatever ties offer the prospect of protection, whether social, economic, territorial, ethnic, religious, or other. The result will be a return to the failed state of warlords and civil strife – the scenario of the “weak state” vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels that the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy51 identified as a major threat to the U.S. and other countries. That weak state, ironically, was the raison d’être for the international community’s intervention in the first place.

Given the multitude of challenges facing post-war Liberia, it would have perhaps been preferable to postpone elections while including within the brief of the transitional government (and UNMIL) the mandate to help Liberians undertake a process of constitutional choice regarding governmental institutions and other structures – to say nothing of the other conditions that a democratic polity presupposes. What should have taken place, as Sawyer puts it in his compelling argument, is a broad-based consultative process featuring “open, informed, and enlightened deliberations with a careful exercise of choice” that rely upon “a deep understanding of how existing patterns came about and how they are relevant to changing circumstances.”52 The ideal result would have been characterized by the establishment of autonomous sites of decisionmaking powers where citizens can act in matters that affect them…. Citizens’ participation in town, city, and county councils and on boards that make decisions about schools, health care delivery, security, and the vast array of public goods is at the core of a system of democratic governance and the foundation of democratic peace.53

But, given that the international community had committed itself to staging a vote last year and that Liberia’s politicians and people had come to expect it, the electoral process had to go forward. Even so, the recent elections represent just the start of Liberia’s transition – the first step in the process of establishing authentic self-governance through thorough constitutional reform. Having intervened in Liberia, the international community must remain actively engaged in this reform process and avoid the temptation to proclaim the election an “easy success” and pull out quickly.54

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s freshly inaugurated administration should be strongly encouraged to examine the bases of its legitimacy by the international community – especially by the United States, whose influence in Liberia has survived despite some rather egregious failings in the past. Without substantive outreach to the opposition, the new government will have great difficulty establishing its hold on the war-torn country. Among the possible areas for compromise is reform of the constitution – mercifully, a not-too-onerous process by nature of the relevant provision – to incorporate adequate checks and balances on the exercise of political authority as well to embody the aspirations of all the peoples of today’s Liberia.55 As Sawyer, one of the country’s most loyal sons, wisely suggests, only by reinventing itself on the basis of its rich patrimony of human capital and associational patterns might Liberia indeed become the “home of glorious liberty” that its national anthem has long proclaimed, and only then might the international community, honorably and responsibly, proclaim that its mission has been accomplished.


1 J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the author of Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004) and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005). Dr. Pham served as an international diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in 2001 and 2002, as well as a U.S. delegate to international observation mission during the 2005 Liberian election. Copyright 2006 by J. Peter Pham.

2 This essay is a follow-up to a more extensive study published previously in this journal: J. Peter Pham, A Nation Long Forlorn: Liberia’s Journey from Civil War toward Civil Society, 6 Int’l J. Not-for-Profit L. (2004), available at

3 See Jeremy I. Levitt & J. Peter Pham, Editorial, Liberia Must Confront Its Past If It Wants a Brighter Future, Balt. Sun , Dec. 8, 2005 , at 23A.

4 Comprehensive Peace Agreement Between the Government of Liberia and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and Political Parties, Aug. 18, 2003, available at

5 See J. Peter Pham, Lazarus Rising: Civil Society and Sierra Leone’s Return from the Grave, 7 Int’l J. Not-for-Profit L. (2004), available at; J. Peter Pham, Democracy By Force? Lessons from the Restoration of the State in Sierra Leone, 6 Whitehead J. Dipl. & Int’l Rel. 129 (2005); see also J. Peter Pham, Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005) (on the conflict in Sierra Leone).

6 See generally Editorial, Liberia Denied, Wash. Post, July 22, 2003, at A16; Editorial, The U.S. Role in Liberia, Chi. Trib., July 23, 2003, at 20; and Editorial, America’s Role in Liberia, N.Y. Times, July 24, 2003, at A18.

7 See J. Peter Pham, A Realistic Commitment: Balancing National Interests and American Ideals in Liberia, In The Nat’l Int.: Wkly. Analysis & Comment. on Foreign Pol’y , July 16, 2003, available at

8 Abba Eban, Diplomacy for the Next Century 11 (1998).

9 Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa (2005).

10 See generally J. Peter Pham, Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science, 2005).

11 See J. Peter Pham, Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State 74-104 (Reed Press 2004).

12 Amos Sawyer, Beyond Plunder: Towards Democratic Governance in Liberia (Lynne Rienner, 2005).

13 Liberian Code of Laws ch. 11, §§ 60-61 (Cornell University Press, 1957).

14 J. Gus Liebenow, Liberia: The Quest for a Democracy 15 (Indiana University Press, 1987).

15 See generally Herman J. Cohen, Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent 126-162 (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) (on U.S.-Liberian relations during Doe’s presidency by author who served as senior advisor on Africa to President Ronald Reagan [1987-1989] and assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George H.W. Bush [1989-1993]).

16 Jeremy I. Levitt, The Evolution of Deadly Conflict in Liberia: From “Paternaltarianism” to State Collapse 203 ( Carolina Academic Press, 2005).

17 Guinea’s support of the LURD insurgency was the result of a bizarre – but for the region, not atypical – confluence of strategic calculations and highly personalized motives. LURD leader Sekou Damante Conneh’s then-wife, Aïsha, is Guinean president Lansana Conté’s influential court seer and putative natural daughter. Interview with Lamine Sidimé, Prime Minister, Republic of Guinea ( Nov. 18, 2001).

18 The Prosecutor v. Charles Ghankay Taylor, SCSL 2003-01-I (Mar. 7, 2003), available at

19 President George W. Bush, Remarks to the Corporate Council on Africa’s U.S.-Africa Business Summit ( June 26, 2003), available at

20 The author’s concerns, noted in an earlier study (see Pham, supra note 2), about the temptations facing representatives of the third sector who take a direct role in the NTGL have, regrettably, proved prescient. In one of their last acts of office, the 76 outgoing interim parliamentarians, including the ex officio civil society representatives, voted to override Chairman Gyude Bryant’s veto and grant themselves the ownership of the state-owned vehicles, office furniture, and equipment – including, according to press reports, toilet paper – that had been assigned for their official use. See generally United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Liberia: Scramble for Goodies Ahead of Political Handover, IRIN News, Nov. 21, 2005, available at

21 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense and for the Reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, FY 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-106 (2003).

22 U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Address to the International Reconstruction Conference on Liberia (Feb. 6, 2004), available at

23 Press Release, Special Court for Sierra Leone, Office of the Prosecutor, Prosecutor Welcomes Resolution on Charles Taylor and Calls for Leadership from U.S. President Bush (May 4, 2005), available at

24 Nicolas Cook, Liberia’s Post-War Recovery: Key Issues and Developments, CRS Rep. No. RL33185, at 2-4 (2005).

25 Liberian Const. art. 56 (a).

26 Id. art. 56 (b).

27 Id. art. 32 (d) i.

28 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 106-107.

29 The Federalist No. 51 (Alexander Hamilton or James Madison) (“ But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”).

30 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 8.

31 Id. at 9.

32 Id.

33 Id. at 107.

34 Id.

35 See generally Michael Bratton, Beyond the State: Civil Society and Associational Life in Africa, 41 World Pol. 407 (1989).

36 Stephen N. Ndegwa, The Two Faces of Civil Society: NGOs and Politics in Africa 114 (Kumarian Press, 1996).

37 Id. at 115.

38 See National Transitional Government of Liberia, United Nations, & World Bank, Liberia: Joint Needs Assessment (2004).

39 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 58.

40 Id. at 60.

41 Id. at 64.

42 Id. at 79-80.

43 See J. Peter Pham, The Limits of Intervention, Humanitarian or Otherwise, 6 Hum. Rts. & Hum. Welfare 1 (2006).

44 See Charles Ragin, The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies 23-30 (University of California Press, 1987).

45 Anthony D. Smith, National Identity 14 (Penguin, 1991).

46 See Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, 2000).

47 See Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtue and the Creation of Prosperity (Free Press, 1995).

48 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 76.

49 Amos Sawyer, Peace-building in Liberia: Foundational Challenges and Appropriate Approaches ( Aug. 21, 2003) (privately circulated memorandum, on file with the author).

50 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 76.

51 National Security Strategy of the United States of America ( September 17, 2002), available at

52 Sawyer, supra note 12, at 114.

53 Id. at 107.

54 One positive indication is the innovative legal plan, the Government and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP), signed in September 2005 by representatives of the international donor community and the NTGL to ensure that the resources, revenue, and donated money for the country reaches the population in need. The terms of the agreement provide for the positioning of the foreign experts, armed with co-signature authority, in key state financial and revenue-producing sectors. It remains to be seen how the Johnson-Sirleaf administration implements the accord.

55 A possible starting point for discussions might be something similar to the twelve proposals made by a veteran Liberian civil servant, Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, and endorsed by Amos Sawyer and other leading scholars. See Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae, Proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia: Power Sharing for Peace and Progress (Bushfire Publications, 2004).