An Update on Progress and Democracy in Liberia
A discussion with Special Representative of the Secretary General for Liberia, Ellen Løj.
This discussion was moderated by Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity and Africa Program Director Howard Wolpe.
On September 11, 2008, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program was privileged to host Ellen Løj, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Liberia. Ambassador Løj served previously as Ambassador of Denmark to the Czech Republic and as Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations, from 2001–2007.
Løj began with a brief overview of the current government's progress. She affirmed that Johnson-Sirleaf's government was making positive steps, and that she would report to the Security Council that the United Nations should not step back from Liberia but recommit to it.
Løj explained that Liberia's civil war was responsible for many years of governmental and developmental paralysis, much of which is still apparent. From the assassination of former President Samuel Doe in 1990, to the rise to power of Charles Taylor in 1997, at large until 2003 when he was accused of crimes against humanity, participation in the Liberian government was exclusive, ostracizing Liberians who disagreed with Monrovia's views. Løj also mentioned that individual greed and mismanagement of the nation's resources, including gold, diamonds, and rubber, was used to fund decades of armed hostilities and contributed to general poverty. Although a transitional government was installed in 2003 after Taylor left power, it was only in 2006 when the first democratically elected government came to power that progress and democracy started to become a reality in Liberia.
Following her inauguration, President Johnson-Sirleaf promised to restructure the government and to resolve Liberia's debt. Løj said that the current government has put regulatory framework needed for a democratic society in place and secured steady revenue for government operations. Løj also commented on the state of the separation of powers in the Liberian government, modeled after the American government system. Particularly, she noted concern over the lack of cooperation between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and that Johnson-Sirleaf's party holds a relatively small percentage of seats in their congress, raising some doubts for the government's efficiency and stability.
Liberia's economy, like many in the region, is highly dependent on mineral extraction. This reality exacerbated its wars, providing funding for continued hostilities even after total government and economic collapse. Now, progress has been made towards transparency in the mining sector. Illegal mining has been banned. The current government has introduced more sophisticated oversight structures for mining, allowing Liberia to become a member of the Kimberly process for diamond classification.
Delivering the peace dividend to the Liberian people was what Løj identified as one of the main challenges for the national government and the international community engaged there. Sustainable development in Liberia is impossible without peace. Citizens have certain expectations of increased economic participation and rebuilding now that the conflict has ended. The phenomenon of urbanization is rather acute, due to the perception that Monrovia can supply jobs, resulting in a rural exodus. Many Liberians also fled the country during its nearly three decades of war, and more continue to leave in search of employment and opportunity. Liberia faces serious economic development challenges due to an increasingly severe human capacity deficit. Acknowledging that basic services such as health care and education need significant improvement, Løj maintained that major infrastructure, specifically roads, is what is most desperately needed in Liberia. Currently, many citizens are unable to bring goods to market and access services due to lack of infrastructure. Løj and Johnson-Sirleaf have both acknowledged that creation of jobs nationwide is critical to the reduction of crime and poverty, and could help reduce crowding in Monrovia. Løj mentioned that the government has been holding meetings in different rural towns in an effort to promote civic participation in rural areas and counter the thinking that Monrovia is the only area taken into account.
The establishment of rule of law is another major challenge facing the Liberian government. Currently, the public is generally skeptical of the effectiveness and partiality of the courts, and is still prone to resorting to vigilantism, especially with confidence in the police very low and the potential for corruption and mismanagement high. Training of police is one of the mandates of UNMIL, under Løj's authority. In the short-term, the country will likely remain dependant on international assistance from the UN and bilateral partners to help to restore trust and ensure accountability.
Løj concluded that although there has been much measurable improvement, the international community should continue to support Liberia's peace dividend and to continue to invest in this new democracy.