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Recent Developments in Liberia: Address to the Africa Society

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Issue Brief Forum: Recent Developments in Liberia Thursday, January 20, 2011 2:30pm – 4:30pm   The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa, in partnership with Howard University’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center, will be sponsoring an  Issue Brief Forum entitled
“ Recent Developments in Liberia”

This forum will take place at the Ralph J. Bunche International Center located at 2218 6th Street, N.W., Washington D.C.  Please RSVP by email to pbaine@africasummit.org with your full name and organization/affiliation. For more information call 202.232.3862.;



1. Bruce Wharton Deputy Coordinator at U.S. Department of State (view remarks)

2. William Bull, Sr., Ambassador of the Republic of Liberia to the United States (view remarks)

3. Mr. Nicholas Cook, Specialist in African Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress (view remarks)

4. Ms. Barrie Freeman, Deputy Regional Director for Central and West Africa, National Democratic Institute (view remarks)


Remarks by Bruce Wharton,
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
“Current Developments in Liberia”
Howard University
Ralph Bunche International Affairs Center
2218 6th Street, NW; Washington DC
2:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.


    Ms. Paolo, Ambassador Bull, and other distinguished guests, it is an honor for me to be here today to share the Department’s views on recent developments in Liberia.  As President Obama said last May, “the United States and Liberia are close friends and long-standing partners.”  Liberia is emerging slowly from a very difficult period in its history.  It has been over seven and a half years since Liberia’s stakeholders signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and five years since the inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s democratically elected president.  So now is a good time to take an assessment of where we stand, and address some fundamental questions.

    Bilateral relations between our countries remain very good, and Liberia has enjoyed a number of success stories.  Monrovia’s most notable accomplishment is achieving a staggering $5 billion in international debt relief and putting its own fiscal house in order.  The Liberian government’s ability to abide by IMF and World Bank fiscal policies has allowed it to establish credibility in the eyes of donors (which has not been the case for decades) and to pave the way for the approval of credible development projects that should benefit all Liberians.  Of great sentimental and symbolic importance to Americans and Liberians alike, the Peace Corps resumed operations last August after a 20-year absence.  Not only do these volunteers provide valuable service and lifelong ties to Liberia, but their placement demonstrates U.S. faith in the stability and security of a host country.  Liberia also has been a regional leader in promoting transparency.   Last October, it became the first West African state to enact a Freedom of Information Act and already has acceded to the Kimberley Process (KP) and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

    Of course, Liberia faces major challenges.  Official estimates vary but after decades of civil war, about 40% of Liberia’s population is illiterate, and some 80% lives in poverty, and is unemployed.  About a third of Liberians are malnourished, not fully immunized, and do not have access to safe drinking water or proper sanitation.  While these daunting problems are not going away soon even with the best of governance, Liberia faces fundamental challenges that are among the root causes of its chronic instability.  Although public financial management has improved, corruption remains prevalent and a significant threat to Liberian democracy.  Liberia’s Auditor General has aggressively and thoroughly tracked government revenue from practically every ministry, but the government follow-up has been very disappointing.  Some crucial bills affecting key resources such as timber and maritime revenue have been passed without adequate attention to key details.  Furthermore, the government must begin addressing a wide variety of issues affecting national reconciliation.

    To its credit, the Sirleaf government understands Liberia’s development priorities and has worked hard and closely with its partners.  With Fiscal Year 2011 assistance at almost $220 million, the United States is Liberia’s largest donor.  We have spent over $1 billion in assistance for Liberia since 2003.  USAID oversees a $15 million threshold program from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (signed in July 2010) with Liberia, which focuses on improving land rights/access, increasing girls’ primary education enrollment and retention, and improving Liberia’s trade policy and practices.  Liberia is one of 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa with preferred market access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.  Last May, President Johnson Sirleaf participated in the launch of the White House’s “Feed the Future” initiative, which will help to create greater food security and independence in Liberia.  We also continue to work with Monrovia on issues like maternal health and education. 

Most importantly, development entails a sound economy built on trade and investment.  Liberia has adopted sound fiscal policy and seen strong economic growth.  The government also understands the importance of international transportation and the development of natural resources, evidenced in the inauguration of direct trans-Atlantic flights by Delta Airlines, the three-year contract signed with Chevron to explore for oil offshore, and cooperative arrangements reached with firms to manage the airport and seaport.  However, as global firms continue jockeying over Guinean ore transit rights, Liberian officials have experienced technical problems on bids for mineral and railroad concessions.  It now also must avoid the “oil curse.”  Liberia’s government must balance the maximization of short-term profit-taking by a few with the development of domestic capacity and delivery of public services.  To that end, Liberia must work with its partners to ensure bids are done transparently, efficiently, and maximize corporate social responsibility to benefit all Liberians.

Let me note one new initiative we are pursuing with respect to Liberia.  In late February, we are working to support the travel of  a “tech del,” a technical delegation, of American women to travel to Liberia.  These are women who are leaders in the U.S.  information technology sector who will travel to Liberia to meet with business, government and civil society leaders.  There, they will explore the potential for use of  IT platforms such as applications for cell phones, SMS and social media to help Liberia realize its potential.  Further, they will be able to learn about how Liberians are thinking about applying these technologies to national challenges.  There may well be examples, models and ideas in Liberia that will be of international interest. 

For years, we have welcomed the Government of Liberia’s pledge to focus on development, tackle corruption, promote national reconciliation, commit to the rule of law and reform the judiciary.  To the extent that Liberia remains committed in these endeavors, I want to make sure that everyone–especially the people of Liberia–understands that the United States is going to be a constant friend and partner in these efforts.

Voter registration has just begun in Liberia for presidential and legislative elections scheduled for later this year.  Given that Liberia’s National Elections Commission has had five years and strong donor support to prepare for these polls, we expect it to be well prepared.  The candidates and their parties need to show their electorate that they are organized and unified.  Most importantly, they must demonstrate a clear strategy to ensure economic success, political stability and internal security.   Liberians must ask their candidates, “What are you going to do to improve our quality of life?”  Empty promises and rhetoric are not enough.  The best measuring stick of success for these polls will be how much Liberians realize that a multi-party democracy responsive to the people and rule of law is the best way to effect positive change.  The United States has budgeted over $17.5 million through the next two fiscal years for the elections and for political party building.  We are working with Liberians and donors alike to support a free, fair, and peaceful process.

    Liberia, indeed, has an important role to play in maintaining peace and security in West Africa.  With the consolidation of a democratic system in Sierra Leone and the recently successful inaugural elections in Guinea, Liberia has an opportunity to use its own elections this autumn to solidify its place among the community of democracies and demonstrate its political maturity as an example for Côte d’Ivoire.   Liberia is not yet able to contribute peacekeepers to UN missions, particularly as long as it continues to host a major UN operation and its new armed forces continue to receive close mentoring from U.S. military personnel in Liberia.  But Liberia can–and does–contribute to regional stability through its support of U.S. positions at the United Nations and at other institutions.   Liberia’s coordination of, and support for, relief efforts towards the almost 30,000 refugees from Côte d’Ivoire is another welcome contribution.   Furthermore, there has been an extraordinary level of cooperation between our two countries on countering terrorism as well as drug trafficking.  As Liberia’s police, military, and border officials exercise greater professionalism, Liberia will increase its sovereignty and in turn, place less stress on U.S. and other international resources needed to address critical issues elsewhere.

To this end, and for its own security, Liberia should implement the asset freeze on Charles Taylor and his associates, as mandated by the UN Security Council, especially while the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) remains firmly in place, and well before Taylor’s trial adjourns and elections are held.  Freezing these assets is the best way to ensure that Taylor and his supporters cannot wield significant influence as the Government of Liberia builds support for its development/reform agenda.

    In summary, while the Government of Liberia has made important strides on economic, political, and security conditions, there is much more to be done for Liberia to exercise its full sovereignty and to achieve true stability and security.  The current Liberian Administration understands that one key to success in these areas is close collaboration with the UN’s newly-established Peace Building Commission, which is focused on Rule of Law, Security Sector Reform, and National Reconciliation.
As UN forces gradually depart and Liberia becomes a net contributor to security, the government and people of Liberia will recognize that the United States and Liberia’s other friends actually will stand better prepared–and with greater resolve–as mutual, equal partners in developing Liberia’s long-term prosperity.

Finally, I want to commend all Liberians in advance for their commitment to democracy.  Liberia is their country.  Ultimately, they all are the solution to Liberia’s problems.  Liberians must hold their leaders accountable for progress, and Liberia’s leaders must demonstrate they are committed to Liberia’s best interests, and not their own.  Regardless who wins the legislative and presidential elections this fall, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s greatest legacy arguably is to usher in a sense that democracy is the regular way of doing business in Liberia.


Recent Developments in Liberia: Address to the Africa Society

Ambassador William V.S. Bull, Sr.

Embassy of the Republic of Liberia, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, January 20, 2011


Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to join you at this Forum and wish to thank the organizers for inviting me to share my views on the progress in Liberia and the opportunity to learn from such distinguished colleagues, on issues of importance to Liberia’s progress.

Democratic elections were held in Liberia and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated as Africa’s first female president on January 16, 2006. Although I bring a long list of accomplishments in Liberia, and much optimism about Liberia’s progress, the Liberian recovery is not without its fragility. And if we are to continue the recovery and lock in the reforms, we will need sustained effort, more good leadership, continued partnerships, especially that of the United States, and — of course – God’s blessings.

Liberia’s economic recovery is well on its way. But let us remember where we started from. Over the course of two decades of political instability and conflict, Liberia’s GDP per capita experienced a fall of more than 90%. This may be the largest decline in the world since data on national incomes have been widely collected.

Real GDP growth is expected to have rebounded to 6.3% in 2010, up from its lower rate of 4.6 percent during 2009, the year of the global financial crisis, and consistent with rates of economic growth since President Sirleaf took office. This means that, since the election, per capita income in Liberia has risen by approximately one third. To regular Liberians, this means that they have returned to their farms and confidently planted a second or third variety of crop. It means they have begun to raise livestock like goats and chickens again. It means our market women have been able to bring back two containers of palm oil to sell in the local market, and not just one half. It means our government employees and our taxi drivers can now afford to put their children in school.

When the elected government took office in 2006, it inherited a budget of $80 million. In Liberia that translates into a mere $23 per person. Since then, the government has been able to increase revenue from a higher tax base, better revenue collection, and budget support from donors. The current fiscal year budget stands at $369 million. Each year thus far, the government has responsibly maintained a balanced budget.

Our infrastructure is gradually being rebuilt, from general revenues and with help from our partners. Only two-years into the implementation of our Poverty Reduction Strategy which began in March 2008, more than 1,260 miles of road have been built or rehabilitated; more than 175 schools have been constructed or renovated throughout the country and free primary education has been enforced; more than 50 health clinics and health centers have been constructed around the country and there is pipe borne water in Monrovia and its environs. Now 50% of the Liberian population has access to safe drinking water; up from 25% just two years ago. From zero power generation, 10 megawatts of electricity is now being provided with an additional 45 megawatts scheduled to be commissioned.  A visit today to Monrovia is characterized by paved roads and street lights, whereas just a few years ago the city was dark and traffic on any major road was snarled due to potholes and puddles. Our hospitals and our schools are populated with citizens receiving care and education.

One of the biggest achievements on the revenue front of the last several years was achieving US $4.6 billion of debt relief through the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) process. We achieved 100% debt reduction from most of the multilateral lenders, 100% debt reduction from our bilateral lenders in the Paris Club, and 100% debt buyback (at three cents on the dollar) from our commercial creditors. This relief leaves us in a strong position to focus on investing for the future, not making reparations for the past.

Liberia has been able to attract the highest caliber of foreign investment. Our government has signed investment agreements with BHP Billiton, Arcelor Mittal, Severstal, Buchanan Renewable Energies, American-Liberia Mineral Company, Sime Darby, China Union, Chevron, and Anadarko. We have signed agreements with the two largest oil palm planters in the world, and renegotiated our Firestone agreement to better serve its workers in the country. The hotel sector, in particular the investment by American businessman, Robert Johnson, into a luxury hotel near Monrovia, is also seeing some $50 million in investments.

In total, more than $16 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) will result from the above deals being realized. The Government intends to use these investments as the catalyst for the growth of the Liberian middle-class, as the source of finance for our infrastructure and public services, and as a source for decent employment. We have worked from day one to make sure that foreign investment works to help all Liberians, and that it will not simply be a return to the Open Door policies of the past.

Fiscal management, debt relief, and attraction of FDI have been matched by conservative monetary policy that has kept our exchange rate stable and our inflation at single digits. Moreover, our legislature has passed a number of important acts that reform the business environment, provide for low and fair taxes, and ensure transparency in the public financial management system.

The executive and the legislature have also taken important strides to improve the governing institutions of the country. We have a General Auditing Commission, freedom of the press, an Anticorruption Commission, and a new Public Procurement and Concessions Commission. Liberia is the first country in Africa to become fully compliant with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and we are in the process of establishing a commercial court.

On the political front, I am happy to report to you that Liberia today is more stable. Liberians now see the ballot, and not the bullet, as the key to effecting political change. Unlike many countries in Africa, our top political parties have not been divided according to tribal or geographic lines. President Sirleaf’s cabinet is made up of a broad coalition representing nearly all of Liberia’s tribes and counties. Voter registration is now underway for the elections in October this year.

Under President Sirleaf’s leadership, Liberia is now a respected member of the international community whose views are sought in regional and international fora.

Without a doubt, the Liberian people owe a debt of gratitude to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) for maintaining stability and security. The presence of this force helps to ensure that our politics are nonviolent and that disgruntled citizens do not resort to extralegal means of expressing themselves. We are fortunate that the last five years in Liberia have been characterized by only a few violent incidents. The presence of UN peacekeepers has had a stabilizing impact on peace and security.

This security is not just about avoiding war. It is about returning to normalcy. The rural areas, once scarred by conflict, are now producing bounties of crops. Monrovia is far from being perfectly safe, but it is much safer than many capital cities across the developing world today.

In addition, again with help from our partners including the United States, the new 2000-strong Armed Forces of Liberia is up and running. One tenth of our soldiers are women, all of them are high school graduates, all of our officers are college graduates, and each of our counties and ethnic groups is represented. A new culture of national service is being inculcated, and we are on our way to having our Armed Forces become a source of national pride, as they are training to participate in international peacekeeping operations.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I share with you today my pride in the accomplishments of the postwar government of Liberia under President Sirleaf’s leadership, I will also share with you my concerns. While our recovery is vigorous, it remains fragile. While our reforms are bold, liberal, and in the interests of our population, they are not yet locked in. While our security and infrastructure investments are in the right direction, they remain dependent on the continued support of our partners. And while our own politics forges towards a new equilibrium, our neighbors in the sub region contemplate a different path that could threaten our own peace and stability.

Another concern is that the last assessment report submitted to the UN Security Council on UNMIL’s mission in Liberia acknowledges that the security situation in Liberia is still fragile. The capacity of the reconstituted Armed Forces of Liberia, the National Police Force and the Immigration and Naturalization Service require strengthening since these entities are to eventually assume full responsibility for Liberia’s security as UNMIL continues its drawdown of personnel that is expected to be accelerated after the October, 2011 elections.

The Liberian people, for the most part, share a consensus that our path of reconciliation, institution building, and economic recovery is the right one. The sentiment that we are doing the right thing is growing with each year as the dividends to peace and stability and sound macroeconomic management pay off.

I can confidently say that the priorities of the government match those of the people. That is because all of the growth and development policies of President Sirleaf’s government are part of our national Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), a consensus document that was reached through extensive consultations across all of our counties. The Strategy referred to as “Lift Liberia” consist of four pillars: Pillar One: Consolidating Peace and Security; Pillar Two: Revitalizing the Economy; Pillar Three: Governance and Rule of Law; Pillar Four: Infrastructure and Basic Services.

The PRS launched in April, 2008 was to be completed by June 2011 but has been extended to December 2011 to enable the completion of thirty vital infrastructural projects that will boost completion of the overall PRS from about 86% to 93%. 

Another initiative, Vision 2030, which will go through the same rigorous process of consultations, will provide an 18-year development platform to accelerate Liberia’s development into a middle income country.

One of our biggest challenges in implementation is the lag time between formulating a policy and its effects fully being experienced. We have to continue to work to manage expectations in this regard, since a policy must first be debated, written, formulated into law, applied and enforced, and only then will it begin to have its effects.

Overall, I believe that the combination of economic recovery, institution and infrastructure building, and political and physical security have been primarily responsible for getting our people to the point where they are best able to heal from the scourge of conflict. But we have also undertaken additional efforts in conflict resolution and nation-building over the last several years. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped to identify some of the root causes of the Liberian conflict. It has also proposed measures such as the National Palava Hut programs and reparations as ways to promote reconciliation all of which have been endorsed by the Government. However, some of the recommendations have constitutional and legal implications requiring the consideration of the Ministry of Justice and Independent Human Rights Commission.  Our Governance Commission is working to build a political consensus around the new Liberia, replacing our old narrative of settlements and conquests.

In conclusion, post-conflict recovery is an infinitely complicated task, and the consequences of getting it wrong are extraordinary. But the record of President Sirleaf’s Government over the last five years is one that I and many Liberians are proud to stand by.

We have learned much from our past, and I hope that in today’s session we can share the Liberian experience and draw lessons from it that may be of help to others. We are filled with hope because we know that Liberia’s best days are ahead of her. 

Thank you for your time.

Nicolas Cook, Congressional Research Service
Written Comments for Oral Delivery
 Forum on Recent Developments in Liberia 
Africa Society/Howard University/Humanity United, January 20, 2011



Thank you for inviting my participation here today. The comments I am about to make are entirely my own, and do not reflect any view or position of my employer, the Congressional Research Service, which takes no position on any public policy matter. In my remarks, I was asked to answer several questions. In the interest of time, I will limit myself to responding to three.

The first question is whether it is fair and accurate to judge the up-coming 2011 presidential election as "the critical test of Liberia’s postwar health," given that it is a country recovering from a near-total collapse of its education, health, and judicial systems and physical infrastructure.

My view is that the election is not—in and of itself—a crucial test of Liberia’s overall postwar health, but it is a critical test of the degree to which the consolidation of peace and democratic institutionalization has been achieved since the 2003 peace accord. If successful, it will also represent a major further sign of progress on those fronts.

It is also an essential prerequisite for continuity of the substantial progress that has been made in reconstructing social services and rebuilding infrastructure — notwithstanding the many, enormous challenges that remain in these areas. Of course, the election will not guarantee that such progress continues. That will depend on the quality and capability of the leader who Liberians select.

The election will also be a test of whether Liberian leaders are willing to continue to respect the sanctity of democratic choice — which would bode well for the continuing strengthening of peace and participatory governance — or whether they will be willing to use violence, fraud, or bribery to win at any cost. Such an outcome would suggest the re-emergence of the long-standing and problematic view of the state as a material and political power resource, the rights to which the winner takes all. Such an outcome would imperil the progress of the last seven years, together with billions of dollars of post-war donor investments (notably of U.S. taxpayer dollars).

Clearly, the election will also be a benchmark of the capacity of Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC) to conduct a technically sound, free and fair election. Reports on NEC progress suggest that the Commission has developed an independent capability to do so, as seen a series of by-elections that it administered, most recently in 2009.

However, it is important to note that these by-elections were relatively small in scale. During October general election, given human resource limitations, financial constraints, and the challenge of servicing a national electorate that is often located in remote, inaccessible areas, the NEC will receive external technical assistance, from the U.S.-based IFES (International Foundation for Electoral Systems) and likely the U.N. Mission in Liberia/likely led by the UNDP.

The next question was what are the major strides made during President Sirleaf’s tenure on the economic growth and security fronts, and are these sustainable?

On the economic front, Sirleaf’s major success, which has been particularly important in the post-war short-term, has been the trust and confidence that donor governments have placed in her. This has led to a large and diverse inflow of international development aid and has been crucial in jump-starting public service programs, including education and health, that are so crucial to future growth. It has also spurred international write-offs of most of the national debt.

This is not to say everything is rosy. There are many deep-seated economic challenges. Joblessness remains high, human resource skills and training is needed, and cross-sectoral integration and secondary processing of commodities like timber could really benefit Liberia. Also, there has been growth in licenses for essential imports of commodities like rice and cement, but a much more liberalized market could benefit many more Liberians. Partial monopsonies still exist, which is politically and economically problematic.  The most problematic challenge for Sirleaf, however, is a perception by much of the population that she is not delivering tangible improvements in living standards fast enough or as pledged.

Notwithstanding such expectations of virtual miracles – remember, post-war growth began at a sub-zero starting point—Sirleaf’s achievements have been substantial. A second major achievement is the renegotiation of two major natural contracts signed during the national transition government, and the negotiation of several additional multi-billion dollar mining and agro-forestry deals.

The number and size of these deals are ground-breaking in Liberia, and promise to generate jobs and state revenue in the medium and long term, although they are not without their drawbacks. These include negative impacts on some local communities, a burgeoning of foreign corporate power in Liberia—given the wide-ranging authority that some exercise in their concession areas, and Liberia’s somewhat weak bargaining position as one of many developing countries seeking a finite supply of investment dollars. However, there are also regional synergies that may result. There are increasing indications that cross-border collaboration with Guinea in tapping the Mt. Nimbi iron ore deposits may occur, with Liberia providing an efficient rail-based export corridor. This may strengthen Liberia’s future bargaining power vis-à-vis some firms.

Infrastructure construction is another area of slow but emergent — and prospective — success, although it is also an area of enormous unmet needs that require large investments to satisfy. Several road building and water supply projects are currently underway, to supplement a range of earlier projects in these and other infrastructure projects, and the government is pursuing and further planning several large and micro-scale electricity generation and power transmission projects.
The government has reached a public-private partnership to start operation of a fiscally sustainable rubber wood chip power generation plant, which will distribute power to Monrovia’s small, still emerging USAID-backed power distribution system. In the longer term, the World Bank is slated to connect Liberia to the ECOWAS Power Pool, allowing imports of power, as well as future exports from Liberia. Toward that end, the government plans to rehabilitate the Mt Coffee hydro-electric dam, and eventually develop the St. Paul River basin to ensure more sustainable, all season hydro-electric. It is also pursuing micro-electric power generation.

Another positive policy emphasis is on increasing agricultural productivity, notably of rice. This is essential for slowing rural to urban migration, ensuring food security in an increasingly volatile world food market, and because about half of Liberians are rural. Agriculture remains a key component of the economy.

While economic growth is uneven nationally, and artificially boosted by foreign donor inflows, economic success can be measured in Liberia’s high rates of real growth. These totaled nearly 9% in 2008, dipped to under 5% in 2009, grew to 6% in 2010, and are projected to grow to 7% and 8% in 2011 and 2012, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

On the security front, with U.S. assistance, Liberia has created a new 2,000 person, ethnically and regionally balanced military made of human rights abuse-vetted troops. While this endeavor has been a basic success, long-term training, operations, and maintenance needs are likely to financially and technically challenge the government’s budget, and there is debate about the role and utility of the military. Even with a pledge to keep the defense spending at 9% or less of the total budget, some question why such a small institution must eat up such a large part of the pie, especially since the military does little of daily, direct service to society, such as by building infrastructure or helping communities, when development and reconstruction needs are massive and immediate.

While some may contend that Liberia can ill afford to fund a national military, the need for one is widely viewed as crucial. Liberia lies within a sub-region that has experienced substantial political instability and cross-border armed conflict in recent decades. Investments are also seen as necessary to prevent a recurrence of the politically destabilizing role that Liberia’s military and state security forces have played in the past. There have been occasional problems of AFL absenteeism, rank and file protests about living conditions, and some reports of indiscipline, in some cases of a violent or criminal nature, or involving intoxicants. While such phenomena have been limited to date and do not threaten state stability, Liberia’s history of civil-military relations suggests that, if not addressed, they may have the potential to become more serious threats.

Liberia is also standing up a small coast guard with U.S. assistance.

Significant police reform and restructuring progress has also been made — with over 3,600 Liberian National Police (LNP) officers, about 9% female, trained — but significant challenges remain.

LNP deployment to the field, notably up-country, is limited and faces constraints. These include lack of basic infrastructure and equipment, including vehicles, fuel, and communication gear, for which the LNP is largely dependent on donors. There are reports of absenteeism, moonlighting, and other disciplinary problems, like bribery, and LNP leadership and specialized skills are limited.  In part due to limited police and broad justice sector operational weaknesses, incidents of mob violence and vigilante justice remain common. However, there are a range of donor assistance programs and government efforts to build further police capacity.

The final, most complex question centers on whether Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations have the force of law—and, if they do, why they have not been implemented, placing in question the TRC’s recommendation that ex-warlords, some sitting legislators, and others be prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The question asked was: "What are the complicating issues and why does Liberia seem more reluctant to confront its past, as did South Africa did after apartheid?

This is complex question, really beyond the scope today’s permitted time, but here are some brief responses.

First, there is a disinclination, for many reasons, by Liberia’s dominant political elite to enact into law measures, e.g., passage of allocations of funding or the establishment of new institutions, which may be required to implement certain of the TRC’s recommendations.

This reticence has to do, in part, with the TRC’s origin the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of August 2003 (Article 8). While civil society was involved in the negotiation of the CPA, its main signatories are the three main warring parties in Liberia’s second civil war, along with most of Liberia’s main political parties. The CPA designed the TRC to be a "forum that will address issues of impunity," "root causes" of the conflict, and "an opportunity victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to share their experiences, in order to … facilitate… healing and reconciliation."

The TRC was also to "recommend measures" for the rehabilitation of human rights abuse victims. Interestingly, the only reference to amnesty in the CPA was a mandate that the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL, the interim entity that organized the 2005 election that brought President Sirleaf to power) “give consideration to a recommendation for general amnesty to all persons and parties engaged or involved in military activities during the Liberian civil conflict.”

Despite this limited reference, some persons later subject to TRC prosecution recommendations reportedly have claimed that the CPA gave them amnesty. This assumption may reflect an ex-post facto, reified understanding by the main signatories that they would comprise the NTGL, and that they would amnesty themselves, even if this did not occur. While the later TRC Act, passed by the NTGL in 2005, gave the TRC broad powers, and a mandate much like that of South Africa’s TRC, the assumption that TRC was given only the more limited powers outlined under the CPA appears to continue to guide the views of some regarding its powers.

Reticence toward the CPA is most notable regarding prosecutions, which could potentially target not only ex-fighting faction leaders, but also politicians. Included in this group are a fair number of current Senators and Representatives, among others holding positions of power. The threat to affected elites, and thus their concern, is broad because the TRC’s proposed scope for prosecution includes both human rights-related crimes and economic crimes.  The TRC’s recommendations specifically and directly affect a discrete, named group of leaders. It recommended that 116 perpetrators be tried for human rights violation prosecutions, and recommended amnesty for 38 others due to their cooperation with the TRC. It also recommended that 49 persons be barred from holding public office for 30 years, including President Sirleaf and the president of the Senate.

Second, although the TRC recommended the creation of an ”Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal” for Liberia to try persons recommended for prosecution, Liberia currently does not have the capacity to establish such a court.

Despite some improvements and exceptions to the rule, the justice system remains severely challenged by a lack of trained personnel, financial resources, legal materials, and by corruption. It can barely handle the current common crime caseload. A special tribunal would require large amounts of financial and legal resources, and raise many politically explosive problems, including what the scope and number of prosecutions should be, and what the basis for prosecution should be — notwithstanding what the TRC has recommended.

I also see no current international appetite for a Liberia tribunal, especially after the legal duration and cost incurred by the SCSL and the Rwanda’s ICTR. It was telling that in her August 2009 visit to Liberia, Secretary of State Clinton reportedly declined to even comment on the TRC, even though it was then a major focus of public debate. The reactions of many leading international NGOs that had supported the TRC process were also muted and selective, and often primarily focused on support of the TRC’s human rights recommendations.

This selectivity was largely an artifact of the character of the main output of the TRC, its final report, was a very mixed product. On the one hand, it did an extraordinary job of constructing a complex history of the conflict, and fostering a broad ranging, highly participatory probe of Liberia’s past, from January 1979 to October 2003 (and with the authority to examine an even broader temporal mandate). It processed over 22,000 written statements, dozens of interviews, and over 500 hundred live public testimonies by victims, perpetrators, and other actors.

It also designed a national reconciliation process called the “Palava Hut," consisting of 64 district committees to "provide victims a public venue to confront perpetrators in their communities” in order to “hasten reintegration and reconciliation." Interestingly, this proposal has similarities to various traditional or community-based reconciliation processes in other African countries, like Mozambique and northern Uganda. This proposal is slated to be a major focus of the recently operationalized Independent National Human Rights Commission, which is given the mandate under the TRC “to ensure that all the recommendations” of the TRC are implemented—notwithstanding on-going questions over how prosecutions might be carried out, if at all.

On the other hand, the TRC’s recommendations for prosecution and banishment from public office—which drew the most attention—were problematically laid out.

But first, I should say that, despite the particular problems that I will outline, the final product of Liberia’s TRC was not that different from that of South Africa. In both cases, the main product was detailed testimony and accounting of the past, and Liberia’s TRC gathered roughly the same number of witness statements as the South African TRC, despite being a much smaller country. South Africa’s process did produce some prosecutions, but very few, especially compared to the number of those not given amnesty.

The main criticisms of the TRC’s recommendations and their implementation focus mainly on the following points:

First, the specific reasons for individual listings were not clearly explained, and no specific legal rationale for them was included, prompting accusations that the TRC’s methodology was flawed.

Second, both politicians and ex-warlords, asserted that the TRC process and recommendations did not give the accused an opportunity to respond directly to their accusers, which included anonymous witnesses, even though the TRC asserted that its recommendations carry the force of law (an assertion apparently drawn from the 2005 TRC Act’s statement that TRC recommendations "shall be implemented").

Third, critics alleged a lack of moral and methodological balance. While some extreme human rights abusers were “not recommended for prosecution” because they “admitted to the crimes committed and spoke truthfully…and expressed remorse,” some alleged political leaders who appear also to have testified truthfully and have expressed remorse were recommended for a 30 year proscription on holding office. The most extreme comparison of cases illustrating this imbalance can be illustrated by the cases of Joshua Blahyi, AKA "General Butt Naked" and President Sirleaf. Blahyi, self-proclaimed born-again preacher and penitent, is a self-admitted mass murderer reportedly liable in the deaths of up to 20,000 people, was given amnesty due to his alleged cooperation and remorse.  In contrast, the sitting president, who — notwithstanding a number of substantive critiques of her tenure and in the face of great challenges — was banned for life from public office, despite showing public remorse and apologizing to the nation for her actions. These amounted to short-lived political support for and a $10,000 donation to Taylor early in his rebellion, during a time when the nation was subject to brutality under the Doe regime—and despite a record of later taking actions to counter Taylor and the disasters that he wrought on Liberia.  Sirleaf was not only threatened by arrest by Taylor for opposing him; she ran against him in the 1997 election, and has criticized him many times. She is also not that different from the majority of key politicians, most of who reportedly formed alliances with or politically supported one armed faction or another during the course of Liberia’s two civil wars. She has also demonstrably presided over thus-far peaceful post-election political stability and economic recovery, reforming governance and empowering women, and shown constant personal engagement with innumerable grassroots constituencies, which some would argue might compensate for her early, short lived political error. TRC members reportedly believed that Sirleaf had not been totally forthcoming, but never declared why they may have come to that conclusion or laid out what else they knew. Even what the TRC did know was not presented in detail; the TRC report contains minimal explanation of why Sirleaf or others should be banned.

In general, the lack of detailed specific evidence any number of its recommendations might leave the TRC’s motives and methodologies open to dispute. The TRC’s credibility was also questioned because of reported errors of fact in an early public draft version of the report, later withdrawn, and due to unexplained changes in its recommendations, and because the commissioners were viewed by some as political lightweights with limited in management skills.

In general, the more measured reactions of the political elite has either been guarded, vague, and ambiguous — responses along the lines of "we will review the findings, with any decisions postponed, or selective, as in Sirleaf’s response that she will respond to its recommendations only "where the recommendations of the Commission live up to its mandate and do not violate the Constitution,” as she put it in an early 2010 speech in Ghana.

The reactions of some ex-warlords have been more hostile. Some reportedly treated TRC commissioners with condescension and distain during their testimony, and have implied that they would use violence to fight off any attempt to bring them to justice, while also claiming, counter to fact, that the CPA gave them amnesty.

That the elite likely plan to reject the TRC’s findings is shown by Sirleaf’s intention to seek re-election, along with a likely electoral bid by Prince Johnson, in direct contradiction of the recommendations of the TRC.

What is missing from this picture are reports that despite all its faults, the report was received positively by much of the grassroots population, primarily simply because it publicly called to account an elite that many view with resentment and suspicion, and accuse of systemic corruption, thievery, sponsorship of wartime violence, etc. However, it is not clear that there is a groundswell of support for mechanisms to hold the accused to account, or broad consensus on what such mechanisms might be.

“Recent Developments in Liberia”
The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa”
In partnership with
Howard University’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center
January 20, 2011

Presentation by:
Barrie Freeman, Deputy Regional Director, Central and West Africa
National Democratic Institute (NDI)


I’d like to start my presentation by thanking the Africa Society for inviting NDI to speak today and more importantly for putting together this event at such an important time in Liberia’s history. I’m honored to be sharing this panel with Ambassador Bull and other esteemed guests.

NDI’s engagement in Liberia goes back to 1997, when the Institute provided technical and financial support to the Liberian Elections Observer Network, known as LEON. We were forced to shut down our operations soon thereafter, however, as the regime of Charles Taylor closed political space and put our staff at risk. We returned in 2003 soon after Taylor’s departure to provide support to civic organizations monitoring the transition process and later observing Liberia’s 2005 elections. Since then, we’ve helped modernize and strengthen Liberia’s legislature, and are now working with a newly formed coalition of citizen election monitoring groups that are currently monitoring the voter registration process for the 2011 elections, which began on January 10 and ends on February 6.

Liberia has taken great steps toward consolidating democratic rule since 2003. There is a growing sense of accountability at all levels of government, though corruption remains an overwhelming challenge. Civil society is robust, and Liberia’s press is lively. The legislature has made important strides as well, such as passage of a Freedom of Information bill and increased engagement in budget oversight, including the recent passage of an act to create a Legislative Budget Office.

The 2011 elections – if held freely, openly and fairly – will mark another significant step forward. Unlike in 2005 when the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) played a substantial role at all levels of the election process, the 2011 elections will be entirely managed and conducted by Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC).

One of the useful purposes of an election is that it provides citizens with an opportunity to take stock of their country’s democratic practices and institutions, and reinforces the connection of elected leaders to voters. I know many Liberians who are committed to taking the country forward on its democratic path, but many of them know that this path is strewn with obstacles. Political parties are weak and only active during election periods; they are not generally able to exercise oversight over their members and do not play a role in shaping public policy. Decentralization – key to socio-economic development and government accountability at the local level – has yet to take shape; to date, Liberia has never held local elections. More needs to be done to bring Liberian youth into the political process, especially as limited educational and economic opportunities make this segment of the population a ticking time bomb. Liberia’s extractive industries also pose challenges – despite engagement with the Kimberley Process and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), greater oversight and regulation will be critical to make sure that Liberia as a whole benefits from its natural resources, and that contracts with foreign companies are transparent and serve the country’s development needs.

A number of conditions are critical to the holding of credible elections. The NEC must carry out its responsibilities in an impartial, fair and transparent manner. Political parties and their candidates must behave ethically and discourage conduct that jeopardizes the integrity of the process. Candidates and parties must not use financial incentives to influence voters and must respect the political rights of all citizens to freely participate in the election process and vote for the candidates of their choice. The NEC is host to the Inter-party Coordinating Committee, a forum for political parties engaged in the election process. This key committee should be strengthened and through it the political party code of conduct reinforced, with mechanisms developed to monitor adherence and apply appropriate sanctions when its provisions are breached. Allowing citizen monitoring groups unfettered access to all stages of the election process will also be critical to building and maintaining public trust. At a minimum, monitoring activities serve as an important deterrent to illegal or unethical behavior.

NDI’s support to the 2011 election process includes technical and financial assistance to the Civil Society Elections Coordinating Committee (CSO-ECC, or ECC). ECC member organizations, nearly all of which have experience monitoring past elections in Liberia, are implementing a range of election activities in addition to election process monitoring. These include voter and civic education, voter mobilization and campaign finance monitoring. NDI’s support for the ECC is primarily focused on supporting observation of key milestones in the election process: voter registration, the August constitutional referendum, and the presidential and legislative elections that will follow in October or November. At present ECC observers are monitoring voter registration in six counties: Bong, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Lofa, Monsterrado and Nimba; and will soon issue a statement of their preliminary findings. Later in the election process, NDI will be working with local civil society and media partners to sponsor a series of debates between legislative candidates in different counties to promote issue-based campaigns.

Following voter registration, the NEC must begin delimiting boundaries, a complicated and potentially controversial exercise that could be a flashpoint for conflict. The delimitation of voting areas for the 2011 elections is primarily for the purpose of election administration and so has been left to the discretion of the NEC, with voters required to vote at the place where they have registered. Political parties have expressed concern about the impartiality and transparency of this process, and some reports suggest that parties are currently trying to manipulate voter registration by busing supporters from one area to another – despite the fact that the same voters would have to be bused again to those locations on Election Day and may ultimately be prevented from voting in their home areas for the candidates of their choice in local elections, as they will be registered in different localities.

The legal framework for boundary delimitation is provided for in the Joint Special Threshold Resolution passed by the legislature and approved by President Sirleaf. However, the resolution did not clearly spell out the rules and procedures for this process. It is essential that voters and candidates alike see the delimitation process as legitimate and fair. The NEC should publicly lay out its methodology and guidelines to ensure that the process is fair and transparent to avoid controversy that could dampen public trust in the overall credibility of the election process.

I hope that these insights – mostly gained through discussion with our NDI field staff and partners in Liberia – are helpful in evaluating where Liberia stands at this historic moment in time. Thank you.