Liberia: Links between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement

Current challenges to durable peacebuilding in Liberia are anchored in the limited responses to the issues and concerns that have confronted those who were displaced as a result of the fourteen year civil conflict (1989-2003) that disrupted the judicial, political, economic and social systems of the country. Since Liberia’s origin in 1847, political exclusion, economic marginalization, ethnic hostilities and intense disagreement over patterns of resource distribution have formed the basis of conflict in Liberia.[1]

The initial conflict, between Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Samuel Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) turned into a civil war with other armed groups motivated not primarily by ideological differences but by personal grievances and economic interests.[2] During the fourteen-year war, widespread killing of innocent people, abductions, torture, rape and other forms of human rights abuses and violations were committed by all armed factions, leading to mass population movements both inside and outside of the country.[3] Displacement was virtually universal as almost all Liberians, at one time or another, were forced to leave their homes. The massive internal displacement, with many Liberians fleeing to Monrovia, the country’s capital, increased pressures on urban services and transformed the livelihoods of the population. Before the war, about 70 percent of Liberians were rural farmers.[4] By 2008, after the war, almost a third of the country’s population lived in Monrovia.

In examining the relationship between displacement, conflict-resolution and peacebuilding in Liberia with a particular emphasis on the role of the military and police in supporting solutions to displacement, there is evidence that although the government of Liberia has made great efforts to set up and develop its internal security apparatus, the country would have relapsed into conflict without the significant external assistance to displaced people and the role played by the international community in helping to preserve peace.

Liberia has made significant progress on various fronts, especially infrastructure development and security issues; yet, current prospects for sustainable peace in Liberia remain weak. Almost all Liberian security forces were involved in the war and thus have faced difficulty in being seen as neutral or objective. Prior to the war, the justice system in Liberia was manipulated by powerful individuals who used these structures for their personal benefits. Broadly considered then, the prospects for stability and peacebuilding will require attention to improving the state of security in Liberian society and resolving displacement.

While most internally displaced persons (IDPs) still contemplate return, this solution is limited by their inability to secure livelihoods, shelter, food security and health services in their places of origin. These are gaps that need to be addressed. In the case of Monrovia, growing urbanization fueled by internal displacement has exerted pressure on fragile environments, limited resources and exacerbated health hazards. Instead of policies aimed at expulsion and exclusion which has recently been pursued by the government, the authorities should seek their positive inclusion into the urban fabric.[5] These slum communities have a potential for productivity and social contribution which has yet to be explored and realized.

The Liberian peace and reconstruction process followed the usual pattern of the UN’s modus operandi since the end of the Cold War, which is largely characterized by a sequence of activities in the following order: peace agreement, deployment of peacekeepers, a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program, security sector reform and, finally, elections. In Liberia, regular elections have been crucial for maintaining peace, but they have not addressed the issue of socio-economic development and popular participation in democratic governance.

In an attempt to fill important peace keeping gaps, a Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peacebuilding and Reconciliation was formulated in March 2013. The roadmap was to foster coherent institutions and systems; to support national healing and reconciliation; and to strengthen efforts towards sustainable peace.[6] However, despite this initiative, intra-communal cohesion and trust, both of which are important indicators of reconciliation, have yet to be achieved. Some communities remain fragmented and perceptions of entitlement and legitimacy are often distorted. Reform and conflict resolution mechanisms at the local and national levels do not adequately address inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-generational tensions over natural resource management and long-term, secure access to land. The long conflict in Liberia polarized communities that once co-existed as the major warring factions and their supporters divided along ethnic, religious and social lines.[7]

The role of the relief community in supporting the basic social needs and services of Liberians provided an essential safety net for most people; but the inability of the Liberian government to resume the responsibilities for social services once provided by the humanitarian community is a challenge that can hardly be met.

Almost ten years ago, the Liberian government decided to close the IDP camps and to begin a national process of reconstruction and reconciliation.[8] Rather than considering the particular needs of IDPs and returning refugees (many of whom undoubtedly became IDPs), the government decided to prioritize issues of youth employment and rural development.  These are both issues which affect IDPs, but it is regrettable that the government and the international community did not prioritize consideration for the needs of the displaced. Without basic data on the numbers of displaced who found solutions or who remain in limbo, it is difficult to draw conclusions about their on-going needs or about the relationship between ending displacement and security. Given the number of competing problems (including the recent Ebola epidemic) and the scarcity of resources, the government has not made IDP issues a priority.

Fundamentally, the wars and displacement changed the economic basis of Liberia’s existence. It is unlikely, for example, that IDPs who have lived in Monrovia and other cities for years will return to their rural communities, with implications both for the urban and rural areas.

There are several lessons to be drawn from the Liberian conflict. Mistakes made early in the process of response to displacement have had repercussions in subsequent years. The government and international agencies did not implement a registration procedure nor a process to ascertain the solutions that IDPs themselves wanted. The authorities assumed that all the IDPs were willing to return, an assumption that proved erroneous. The weak follow-up programs for IDPs and returning refugees, especially in cities, were a direct consequence.[9] Hence, there is concern that the lack of solutions for the displaced could threaten the country’s fragile peace and security. Resolving displacement is also central to the government’s development agenda.

Although Liberia recently celebrated ten years of relative peace, the postwar DDR programs left most of the youth without prospects for a better future. Liberian women, and in particular, rural women and displaced women living in the border areas, continue to experience various forms of human rights abuses, marginalization and exclusion. Incidences of violence incurred during 14 years of war have continued to manifest in continued widespread cases of rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Under the circumstances, there is a critical need for policies by both government and non-governmental institutions to address some of the consequences of the country’s massive and long-term displacement, particularly its impact on urbanization.

[1] Shelly Dick, “Country Guide: Liberia,” Forced Migration Online,

[2]Morten Boas, “Dead ringers? The logic of neopatrimonial rule,” in Third World Quarterly, vol. 22, No. 1, 2001

[3] Human Rights Watch Report, “Back to the brink: war crimes by Liberian government and rebels, a call for greater international attention to Liberia and the sub region,” Human Rights Watch, vol. 14 No. 4, May 2002.

[4] Colin Scott, “Liberia: a nation displaced,” in Roberta Cohen and Francis M. Deng, ed, The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced, Brookings Institution Press, 1998, p.119. See also Ipshita Mondel, “Lost in one’s own country: the challenges of internally displaced persons”, The Bruce Hall Academic Journal, Vol. VII, 2011, p.50.

[5] Ailey Keiser Huges, “Liberia: Using Land Policy to Improve Life for the Urban Poor,” Focus on Land in Africa Brief, February 2013,

[6] Debey Sayndee and Silke Pietsch, “Liberia: Between Reconciliation Commission and Roadmap- Steps Forward in a Halted Process?”, Kofi Annan Institute of Conflict Transformation, Policy Brief No 1, June 2013, p. 4.

[7] Debey Sayndee and Silke Pietsch, op cit.

[8] IDP camps were formally declared closed and UNHCR assistance discontinued in April 2006. See Neill Wright, et al, “Real time evaluation of UNHCR’s IDP operations in Liberia,” July 2007, p. 7.

[9] An inter-agency assessment in April-May 2006 found approximately 28,000 individuals still residing in former IDP camps, of whom just over 16,000 had received return packages but had either not departed or had done so but later returned to the camps. Ibid, p. 7.