Why the UN Can't Leave Liberia

Stability, Consistency, and the International Community

The Ebola virus treatment center where four people are currently being treated is seen in Paynesville, Liberia, July 16, 2015. James Giahyue / Reuters

In 2005, the British academic Stephen Ellis wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he suggested that “a better approach to dysfunctional states in Africa” would involve “a form of international trusteeship.” The essay, “How to Rebuild Africa,” used Liberia, which had emerged from civil war two years prior, as a primary frame of reference, and it attracted significant criticism in Africa. Regional intellectuals such as former Liberian President Amos Sawyer and think tank director Adekeye Adebajo accused Ellis of racism and Afrophobia. Ellis was perceived as discounting the positive role of regional peacekeeping forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone and neglecting the crippling role of irresponsible Western aid to autocrats.

However, more than a decade later, it is difficult to write off Ellis’ words. Liberia has experienced a series of setbacks over the last decade as it has tried to establish itself as a functioning state.

In 2011, Liberian mercenaries crossed the country’s porous borders to attack UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire. Also that year, the opposition pulled out of the second round of voting in the presidential election, resulting in violence and several fatalities. In 2015, several corporate and public institutions were subjected to mob violence and a police station on the outskirts of the capital was destroyed. Most notably, the Ebola outbreak overwhelmed Liberia’s health-care system and was addressed only because of a concerted international effort.

Were it not for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), these issues could have spiraled even further out of control.

But UNMIL, which has operated in Liberia since the war ended in 2003, continues to draw down and will transition all security responsibilities to the government by the end of June. From a peak force of more than 15,000 troops, UNMIL’s presence will drop to fewer than 2,000 military and police forces. The mission will have bases in only five of the country’s 15 counties. Alarmingly, there are reports that the mission might withdraw from the country altogether before the 2017 national

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