>Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa (Washington, DC)
Remarks by Nicolas Cook, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, at the Liberia forum sponsored by The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa and Howard University’s Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center.
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.