As Liberians vote this week for their new president, the country must simultaneously deal with another seismic change to its political landscape: the complete withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeeping mission after more than 14 years on the ground.
It is a coming-of-age moment for Liberia. Although the country and its outgoing president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have been widely praised for maintaining peace and stability in the wake of an especially brutal civil war that ended in 2003, they have done so with the assistance of up to 15 000 peacekeepers at any one time.
Johnson Sirleaf’s successor, whoever that may be, will not have that luxury.
Johnson Sirleaf herself acknowledges just how important the peacekeeping mission has been. Last month in New York, she addressed the UN general assembly. It was her swansong as president of Liberia, so she took the opportunity to gloat a little about the progress made during her two terms and 12 years in charge: how the economy has grown, how life expectancy is up, how the civil service is working again, and how power is about to be handed over in a peaceful election for the first time in Liberian history.
And then she thanked the UN for making it possible. “We could not have accomplished all of this without … most importantly, the stabilisation and security provided to our country through the United Nations Mission in Liberia [UNMIL],” she said.
Compliments uttered in the UN general assembly building are hollow more often than not, but Johnson Sirleaf’s praise was genuine. If Liberia is a post-conflict success story — and that’s how Johnson Sirleaf likes to define her legacy — then UNMIL is a major reason why.
“UNMIL has been hugely important in helping Liberia to achieve the level of stability it has achieved. It gave the government and its institutions the space that it needed to move past the immediate post-conflict period,” said Kathleen Jennings, a senior researcher with the Fafo Research Foundation.
In the dark days immediately following the Liberian civil war, UNMIL acted as a de facto government, taking on the roles of both the army and the police as well as facilitating basic service provision. It took the lead in organising the 2005 election, which Johnson Sirleaf won, and then propped up her fragile administration in its early days.
It helped that Liberians, exhausted by war, were generally receptive to the peacekeepers’ efforts. It also helped that they found their perfect partner in Johnson Sirleaf’s famously technocratic approach.
“People were ready for peace and UNMIL came in, and they were lucky they ended up with Ellen,” said Jennings. “Despite all her flaws, and she had a lot, she did a commendable job. She was able to unify people, not for the whole 12 years but in that immediate post-conflict period.
“People were really invested in her and the stability that she brought, and she had such a good relationship with UNMIL and they had a good relationship with her. If UNMIL could have picked a dream president, it would be her.”
‘All bets are off’
Since then, UNMIL’s blue helmets have become ubiquitous in the country. But they were never intended to be a permanent solution to Liberia’s problems. With the peace kept, the peacekeepers could leave.
UNMIL is in the middle of a “phased drawdown” — a slow and steady reduction in the number of peacekeepers deployed in Liberia. If nothing changes, the mission will be gone entirely by April 2018.
Already, it has reduced its footprint to just 1 240 military and 606 police personnel. In August 2016, the Liberian government assumed full responsibility for the security of the state, making UNMIL surplus to requirements — in theory, at least.
Nonetheless, the mission continues to play an important role, especially during what could have been a turbulent election period. “UNMIL has acted as deterrent if anyone wants to start something, start another situation that would lead to a relapse,” said Thomas Jaye, a Liberian political scientist at the Accra-based Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre.
Not that UNMIL was perfect. It was dogged by accusations of sexual abuse committed by its troops and claims that it was playing political favourites because of the mission’s close relationship with Johnson Sirleaf.
It also attracted criticism for its handling of Liberia’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process, which was supposed to bring ex-combatants back into civilian life but struggled to overcome organisational and financial challenges.
Still, the mere presence of the peacekeepers was enough to keep Liberia heading on the right trajectory. “UNMIL acts as a kind of backstop,” said Jennings. “It’s a psychological thing, an external actor or force that can sort things out or use pressure. When that goes, all bets are off.”
Few people are seriously worried that Liberia could regress into open conflict, although these fears may increase depending on the identity of the next president.
Among the frontrunners are Prince Johnson, the notorious warlord who kick-started the civil war when he mutilated and executed then-president Samuel Doe; and ex-footballer George Weah, who chose Jewel Howard-Taylor, who was once married to former president Charles Taylor, as his running mate.
[Former star footballer George Weah, Fifa’s World Player of the Year in 1995, is one of the frontrunners to succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberian president.( Photo: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)]
Weah’s critics claim that Charles Taylor is running Weah’s campaign from his prison cell in Durham, United Kingdom, where Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes.
Although Weah vociferously denies this, the return of civil war-era rivalries is potentially ominous, and could complicate any new administration’s efforts to fill in the blanks left by UNMIL’s impending departure.
Tensions or not, does Liberia have the necessary capacity to fill in those blanks? The Liberian National Police has a little over 6 000 officers for a population of 14.1‑million people, and the Armed Forces of Liberia has just 2 000-odd soldiers.
Former police inspector general Chris Massaquoi insisted last year that his officers were prepared. “We are ready, capable and committed,” he said.
Not everyone is so confident.
“It’s an uphill battle for Liberia,” said Jaye. “The issue of finances, logistics and [expanding] the capacity to patrol its own airspace and seas … it’s not possible to have the presence of security forces in every area.”
Other consequences of UNMIL’s withdrawal are less obvious but no less concerning. Economically, there are concerns about the impact of thousands of troops who spend foreign currency withdrawing en masse: What happens to Monrovia’s restaurants and hotels and supermarkets?
And is there a danger that donors and development partners might take UNMIL’s departure as a sign that the country is “fixed”, and start to draw down funding too?
Peace Medie, a research fellow at the University of Ghana, is worried that gender rights might take a backseat without UNMIL in place to advocate for them.
“Despite improvements in the criminal justice sector, most girls and women who are victims of rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence in Liberia struggle to get formal justice. This is partly due to a capacity gap in the police force and the courts, and unethical practices in these institutions.
The drawdown of UNMIL threatens to exacerbate these problems and to increase the barriers to justice for girls and women,” Medie wrote in a policy brief.
At the UN general assembly, Johnson Sirleaf was right to gloat about her administration’s accomplishments — Liberia has come a long way since she took office. But her legacy is not yet set in stone.
Given the key role played by UNMIL in securing Liberia’s progress over the past 14 years, Liberia will only be able to judge the scale of her achievement once both she and the blue helmets have departed. Having relied on an UNMIL crutch for so long, will Liberia finally be able to walk on its own two feet?