By Tom Price*
A Catholic Relief Services (CRS) survey of more than 1,500 Liberians has revealed deep-seated fears of renewed violence as the country prepares for historic presidential elections in October.
The nationally representative study, conducted from March to May 2016 in each of Liberia’s 15 counties, applied both quantitative and qualitative methods. It’s one of the first studies to reveal how Liberians perceive the state of peace, reconciliation and conflict since the country’s devastating 14-year civil war that ended in 2003.
“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 Jennifer Overton, Regional Director for CRS in West Africa. “We now have some very specific key indicators for potential risks of conflict. But we have to address them now.”
Among the key findings, the study found that the wounds inflicted by the wars have not fully healed. Respondents cited three key factors that could lead to renewed violence: systemic corruption in the public sector, disputes over land ownership and high rate of youth unemployment.
“This report is an inventory of issues that require urgent and serious attention,” said Pilate Johnson, Acting Director for the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Liberia.
“We all have a responsibility to act,” he said. “Both the Liberian government and the international community cannot afford to be complacent about peace in Liberia. This study makes that very clear.”
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s incumbent president and Africa’s first elected female head of state, is stepping down from the presidency of the country founded by freed slaves from the United States in 1847. Her departure would mark the first peaceful democratic transfer of power since the 1970s. But it comes as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), a peacekeeping force, will have significantly pulled out from Liberia, increasing the possibility of a return to fighting.
Key Findings of the study:
- Fragile peace: Respondents were evenly split on whether Liberia is at risk of once again descending into large-scale violent conflict (50.6% for “high to very high risk” and 43.7% for “no to low risk”).
- Reconciliation: More than 80% of respondents felt that people who suffered grave injury during the war did not receive justice through the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Half of respondents (49.7%) believed that post-war reconciliation failed to achieve its objectives.
- Key actors: Political leaders (71.8%) and unemployed youth (58.2%) topped the list of those who could instigate violence.
- Flashpoints: Nimba, Grand Gedeh, and Montserrado were cited as the counties most likely to spark conflict, due to both historical and current factors. Inhabitants of Rivercess (79.3%), Nimba (74.9%); Grand Kru (74.4%); and Grand Cape Mount (74.2%) assessed the risk as highest, while respondents in River Gee were the most optimistic.
CRS and the Catholic Church, which have been active in Liberia’s post-war healing and reconciliation processes, will use these findings to guide its continued work toward inclusive development and sustainable peace.
In the time leading up to October 2017 elections, new programs will be promoting voter education and registration, and supporting vulnerable groups such as women and youth to participate in electoral and political processes.
Simultaneously, CRS and the Church will be sharing the findings of this study at county and district levels in Liberia through faith-based networks and will engage with other interested civil society partners and government to share the results more broadly.
“For peace to thrive, we also need to build a better future for young people in Liberia,” said Overton. “They need to heal and advance their livelihoods through job training, education, and leadership development.”
*The author is a staff of the Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. The agency alleviates suffering and provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, without regard to race, religion or nationality. CRS’ relief and development work is accomplished through programs of emergency response, HIV, health, agriculture, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. For more information, please visit crs.org or crsespanol.org and follow CRS on social media: Facebook, @CatholicRelief, @CRSnews, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.