Liberians fear mass violence amid elections preparations, aid group reports

A series of stores in the Waterside Market section of Monrovia, Liberia. (Credit: Mark Fischer/flickr)

More than half of Liberians fear the return of large-scale violence in the run-up to its first leadership transition since the end of its second civil war, according to a new survey.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has held office since 2005, winning the country’s first elections after the overthrow of dictator Charles Taylor. The survey revealed that many issues remain unresolved and there is uncertainty as to whether the country will witness a peaceful transition of power.

“People are seeing this as a real test. And people are not feeling very confident,” Jennifer Overton, regional director for West Africa at Catholic Relief Services, told Humanosphere. “Specific groups feel their concerns from the war were never addressed.”

Catholic Relief Services heard from its staff and partners that some people were concerned about the upcoming elections. It surveyed more than 1,500 Liberians across the country between March and May 2016 to understand attitudes about the government and the late 2017 elections. The findings uncovered divided attitudes. Half of the respondents said there is a “high to very high risk” risk of violence returning. Meanwhile, nearly 44 percent of people said there is “no to low risk.”

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Responses varied by region. Roughly three-quarters of people living in Rivercess, Nimba, Grand Kru and Grand Cape Mount counties fear the return of mass violence. The concerns reflect the economic disparities between groups and geographic locations, Overton said. The general perception about the ability of the government to maintain peace and deal with a potential conflict is low.

Liberia is celebrated for establishing peace after its two civil wars. Sirleaf and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gobowee jointly shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Yemen’s Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” She is also credited with leading Liberia as it reduced poverty and improved economically.

The Catholic Relief Services survey shows that the gains made over the past decade are not distributed evenly.

“We want people to pay attention and people to realize this is real,” said Overton. “This is what people are feeling and we should pay attention to it.”

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Youth unemployment is a particular concern to Overton. Former child soldiers were denied access to education during the civil war. Nearly 60 percent of the people surveyed said unemployed youth were highly likely to contribute to national conflict, second to political leaders. Development that supports all Liberians is crucial to reduce unemployment and allay the other leading concerns – corruption and land disputes.

Catholic Relief Services is working with churches and other local actors to bring groups together and get people to speak out so that the candidates hear what they are saying. It is also to bring attention to many of the underlying concerns before the election takes place. That means promoting free and fair elections and undertaking work that continues the process of post-war reconciliation.

“Liberians are telling the world that the causes of the long civil wars are still there and they have genuine fears of their country returning to violence,” said Overton. “We now have some very specific key indicators for potential risks of conflict. But we have to address them now.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.