Democratic State-Building in Liberia Needs Rethinking

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a national holiday on August 23, the day of Liberia’s constitutional referendum. Via the referendum, Liberians rejected four proposed amendments to change judge tenure, election scheduling, electoral policy, and presidential candidate requirements. The referendum marked an important national moment for Liberians. As the country’s national elections are slated to begin on October 11, the referendum represented an opportunity to gauge the country’s commitment to both the logistics and ideals of a peaceful democratic process.

Still, convoluted referendum results suggest that the connection between the government and citizens of Liberia remains disjointed, and this accountability gap is exacerbated by the international community’s approach to "state-building." In order to ensure free elections and facilitate Liberia’s long-term rehabilitation, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) must look beyond voting booths to address systemic problems in Liberia’s political system. While empowering Liberians to participate in all aspects of the electoral process, UNMIL must also address the structure and culture of government, especially focusing on decentralization and anti-corruption campaigns.

In preparation for this fall’s elections, UNMIL should consider devoting resources to the following programs:

1) Empower Liberians to partake in election monitoring. In order to establish a cultural precedent and functional infrastructure for peaceful campaign seasons to come, the UN must buttress local capacities to facilitate a fair election. While the UN has long engaged in a public partnership with the National Elections Committee (NEC), recent referendum and redistricting controversies have undercut public perception of the NEC’s legitimacy and created an authority vacuum for the upcoming election. Given this reality, alternative efforts to empower grassroots monitors, such as the Open Society Institute’s partnership with Ushahidi, a “crisis mapping" technology company, represent important steps to ensuring stability during and after elections. Similarly, an International Crisis Group report recommends that UNMIL develop accessible routes for citizens to articulate grievances and report electoral corruption. "Palava huts," which are spaces for communal conflict-resolution and "customary" justice, should be leveraged as safe environments not only to reconcile Liberia's violent past, but also to conceive the country's democratic future. The international community should invest in this traditional framework as a vehicle to hear and respond to local concerns before, during, and after elections.

2) Invest in “emergency” civil education, especially for women and youth. Voters need clarity. In a country where about half the population is illiterate, information regarding elections must go beyond billboards and posters. Creative and engaging community-based education must be a priority. Civil education campaigns should specifically target women, who are especially removed from information inroads and often reticent to engage the political process. By contrast, young people are often enthusiastic campaigners and political activists, but many lack basic understanding of the political process and candidate platforms. Uninformed, unemployed youth embody extreme destabilizing potential for Liberian society, so civil education must be a priority at high schools and universities.

3) Look beyond elections to restore the fundamental legitimacy and efficiency of governmental institutions. The international community must recognize that a peaceful election season is not an indicator of long-term Liberian stability, as long as 8,000 UN peacekeepers and 1,300 UN police are armed to preserve order. Even if elections transpire smoothly, the true test begins thereafter, as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) begins its inevitable phase out. In lieu of an unconditional retreat, UNMIL must remain engaged in the wake of elections, spearheading a visible and systematic anti-corruption campaign. Then, using public sector decentralization to bring representation to long-disenfranchised rural communities, UNMIL can help foster universal, popular sovereignty in Liberia.

The international community desperately needs a road map for democratic state-building in the aftermath of civil war. Rethinking state-building starts by acknowledging there is no quick fix or single indicator for post-conflict recovery. If Liberia achieves sustainable peace and prosperity, UNMIL will serve as a counter to widespread criticism that the UN is ill-equipped to attempt the gamut of militarized intervention, disarmament, reconciliation, and development. For now, though, Liberia hovers in limbo, as UNMIL plans a problematic post-election drawdown.

Photo Credit: United Nations Development Program