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

People hold the Liberian flag with a Christian cross on it during an official celebration of the country being declared Ebola-free, in Monrovia, Liberia, May 11, 2015.
People hold the Liberian flag with a Christian cross on it during an official celebration of the country being declared Ebola-free, in Monrovia, Liberia, May 11, 2015.
James Giahyue / Reuters
Unsurprisingly, most Liberians view the impending withdrawal with apprehension. Although UN peacekeeping forces have successfully left neighboring countries that faced similar postwar circumstances, such as Sierra Leone, there is a consensus that Liberia is not yet ready to follow suit. Pre-Ebola economic success has given way to financial freefall, and the nation’s anticorruption efforts have fallen flat. A high level of tension cloaks the political landscape, making a UN withdrawal hard to fathom.

In fact, backlash to the UNMIL pullout has already begun. Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara spoke against the move, and vowed to speak with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to press his case. International analysts have published opinion pieces that urge the mission to maintain a presence in Liberia until the 2017 elections are over. The UN Panel of Experts on Liberia essentially echoed these sentiments in April within its final report on the country’s progress. The report contained a litany of concerns about Liberia’s security situation, suggesting the government is not yet ready to stand on its own two feet.

Indeed, economic turbulence and political corruption still plague Liberia and have hampered growth. In 2013, Liberia’s economy grew by eight percent, before a drop in commodity prices and the ravages of Ebola knocked away an aura of postwar stability. The next year, growth rates dropped to barely one percent. And by January 2016, Monrovia announced that it would cut its annual budget by 11 percent, primarily due to falling international demand for iron ore, Liberia’s main export. At the same time, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s anti-corruption efforts have been ridiculed by Liberian civil society.

Although Monrovia now has a number of institutions dedicated to the promotion of integrity, such as the Governance Commission and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, these organizations have accomplished little, and the government’s biggest cases, prosecutions of a former Minister of Commerce and the Director of the National Port Authority for the misappropriation of public funds, have inexplicably stalled.

A recent Global Witness report implicated Alex Tyler, speaker of Liberia’s House of Representatives, as well as several senators linked to the ruling party, accusing them of receiving and distributing bribes in order to change mining laws. In a departure from this precedent, the government has given the impression of vigorously moving to address these charges and has already made several indictments.

The perception of continued impunity in Liberia has hindered the development of public confidence in national institutions. A 2013 Afrobarometer survey indicated that more than half of those polled believe that “most” or “all” members of the Liberian National Police are corrupt, while the Center for Global Development has posited that political exclusion facilitated the spread of Ebola. In this context, UNMIL (and the international community in general) has a significant role to play in ensuring that the Liberian populace has more productive interactions with those that are meant to protect and serve them.

A peaceful transition of political power is critical for Liberia’s continued stability, but it alone will not be enough to make the country safe and secure. The international community should be mindful of the call that Ellis made in Foreign Affairs for a cadre of diaspora and expatriate public administrators to govern Liberia with integrity and efficiency during postwar reconstruction.

Men walk by a mural that reads "Get the hell of Liberia, Ebola! And don't come back" in Monrovia, Liberia, April 1, 2016.
Men walk by a mural that reads "Get the hell of Liberia, Ebola! And don't come back" in Monrovia, Liberia, April 1, 2016.
James Giahyue / Reuters
The reality is that Monrovia is inundated with NGOs staffed by foreigners, even though a large number of Liberians who fled during the war have returned with enhanced skills. These returning Liberians could fill critical roles in the country’s growth. Unfortunately, as Ellis notes, “achieving real gains will take time.” As UNMIL extricates itself from Liberia, technical assistance and capacity building should remain a priority of the international community, and donors should not become fixated by the specter of peaceful elections at the expense of developing the institutions that actually govern. Despite the inefficient expenditure of funds, the Ebola response, which emphasized a coordinated and multifaceted approach, could serve as something of a template for a variation of Ellis’ trusteeship.

Policymakers would be well served to recall Ellis’ suggestions at this crucial moment in the country’s political future. Sirleaf has not groomed a clear successor, although many of the presidential candidates are well known within the country. Some, such as Liberian Vice President Joseph Boakai, have experience on their side but may be too old to be politically viable for the 70 percent of Liberians under the age of 35. Others, such as Liberian senator and former soccer pro George Weah, come with name recognition but lack substantive political experience. A few, such as Prince Johnson, an ex-warlord, and Benoni Urey, the head of the Liberia Maritime Authority during the administration of disgraced former President Charles Taylor, would be difficult for the international community to accept. Taylor’s ex-wife, Senator Jewel Howard-Taylor, has also thrown her hat in the ring.

The grave concern with the impending transition illuminates Ellis’ worry that the departure of UNMIL may result in the “resumption of politics as plunder and war.” Liberia receives some of the largest amounts of foreign aid per capita. If these disbursements have not led to major accomplishments amid the presence of the UN, it is even less likely that foreign aid will be wisely expended as oversight diminishes on weak institutions with no culture of accountability. However, the international community must establish a relationship with Liberia that fosters integrity and moves beyond quick impact projects to engage in the hard work that bears results over time rather than easy wins.

UNMIL has maintained a tenuous peace for over a decade despite numerous challenges, but Liberia is still in a fragile state. Little has been done to address the roots of its civil war, and no one in Liberia has been prosecuted for war crimes. Few citizens have a political voice, which is one of the causes of the increasing ubiquity of mob justice. The Liberian economy is tanking and shows few signs of recovery. The nation has few viable leaders on the horizon, especially given the ties of many of the leading candidates to Charles Taylor and the increasingly unpopular Sirleaf.

International support may have helped Liberia withstand a number of shocks, but it hasn’t allowed Liberia to develop the strong institutions that truly consolidate a postwar democracy. For that, Liberia and the international community must at least follow the essence of Ellis’ admonition. What the outcry over the UNMIL drawdown reveals is that it is past time to establish a relationship that more effectively harnesses the contributions of the international community and harmonizes the interests of both groups beyond a strategy that emphasizes short-term stability at the expense of integrity. 


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