Protests spread throughout the Liberian capital of Monrovia on Monday as opposition leader Winston Tubman threatened to boycott and eventually withdrew from the run-off elections following allegations of fraud against incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. These confrontations only serve to highlight the tense political situation within the country and raise questions about the government's ability to maintain order in a country still recovering from a bloody civil war. If the government elected on Tuesday is to stand any chance of surviving, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) must remain in the country indefinitely and aid agencies within the UN and the U.S. government must simultaneously bolster their efforts while demanding more accountability and transparency from the Liberian government.
It is easy to imagine a much different outcome had UN forces not been present. Even though the Liberian government would never directly confront the UN, the standoff indicates a disregard, at least on the part of rank and file police, for the UN's authority, and the actions of police against protesters shows a willingness to use violence and intimidation to stifle civil disobedience.
The police force is the least of the country’s worries, though. Liberian mercenaries have been fighting in neighboring Ivory Coast as recently as the 2010 elections, and their return to Liberia following Laurent Gbagbo's defeat in the spring has been cause for alarm for peacekeepers on both sides of the border. The appearance of former warlords in Liberian politics, going so far as to make demands of the Sirleaf administration as preconditions for their support, is yet another example of just how tenuous a grasp the government has on the country, and with a nearly 85% unemployment rate and scores of young men trained for civil war, it is difficult to overstate the gravity of conditions on the street. The fact that the Security Council finds it necessary to call for the cooperation and restraint of various Liberian “stakeholders” outside of the government shows just how much power these groups hold.
The U.S., already engaging a militia on the other side of the continent, should take a proactive stance in Liberia in order to avoid another situation that merits military intervention. As important as American aid is, steps must be taken by the UN and agencies such as USAID to ensure that money is going into the right hands and not falling prey to the corruption common to rebuilding countries and which seems endemic to Liberia.
Rather than simply warning those elements that would impede democracy and the rule of law in Liberia, President Barack Obama should demand that the Sirleaf administration take measures against corruption and threaten to withhold aid unless theft by government officials and misappropriation of funds can be curbed.
Regardless of the outcome, the opposition's attempt to derail the elections and the violent support they were able to gather for their cause show that Liberia remains deeply divided, and political differences will not be resolved at the ballot box for some time. Only providing the Liberian government with both the means and the incentives needed to establish effective institutions will achieve stability.
Photo Credit: Irish Defense Forces