Liberia Ten Years Later

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A policeman soliciting a bribe on the streets of Monrovia.

By: Blair Glencorse. A longer version of this piece was originally published in African Arguments.

A decade ago on August 18th, 2003, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought Liberia’s horrific 14 year civil war to an end. As this small West African country faded from the international headlines, a new era of hope began. Deeply entrenched networks of corruption were a central cause of violence,and Liberians sought to move away from the past and towards a clean, accountable government that put the rights of its citizens before the self-interest of its power-holders.

Under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf- the first female Head of State in Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011– the government has made a series of reforms to address the country’s corruption problems. These have ranged from dismissing tainted civil servants, to pushing through new strategies for reform, to passing legislation to address graft. However, Liberia is still far from a well-functioning society with secure peace and sustainable development. Nearly 7,500 thousand UN troops remain stationed around the country to prevent violence; the population has no public provision of clean water, sewerage or electricity; and over 76% of the population still lives on less than $1 a day. Late last year at the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda,

At the root of Liberia’s problems is a deep lack of accountability. President Johnson Sirleaf herself stated that corruption in Liberia has become “systemic and endemic,” and Liberia was ranked towards the very bottom of Transparency International’s recent Global Corruption Barometer.  Since 1822 when repatriated American blacks arrived in Liberia, the legitimacy of political actors in the country has been derived not from the delivery of services to the public or responsiveness to constituents – but from participation in deeply entrenched patronage networks.

The problem is not that the legal framework for accountability does not exist. A host of institutional changes have created bodies to fight corruption, but the formal structures set up to build integrity largely lack the mandate, powers and resources to combat graft. Public sector salaries are low (despite significant increases in recent years); the civil service is not subject to regulations to prevent nepotism, cronyism, and patronage; and at the local level, institutions do not provide sufficient incentives for participation in decision-making. Within public bodies, information and opportunity are often jealously guarded, which can make collaboration and cooperation very difficult.

This issue goes beyond the role of government. Politicians, civil servants and businessmen may abuse their positions, mistaking their wealth for legitimacy. Yet, at the same time, citizens who often complain about officials “eating money” are also willing to accept patronage from these power-holders when it suits their own interests. A syndrome has developed whereby those with access to resources through any kind of position of power are seen as “stupid” if they do not use this access to maximize their own wealth. In this way, public and private morality have become divorced and the corrupt status-quo continues.

A final element that stymies the struggle for accountability in Liberia is the state’s orientation towards international organizations and businesses. Though democratically elected, Liberia’s government arguably answers more to outsiders than to its people. Over $340 million in aid per annum is delivered through a myriad of government agencies, NGOs and contractors, which reinforces dependency, leads to uncoordinated activities and generates sub-optimal outcomes. Well-qualified Liberians are drawn away government or civil society positions by higher wages in donor organizations, which undermines domestic capacity. Meanwhile, as Global Witness has reported, huge contracts between the government and natural resource extraction companies have been far from transparent.

To give Liberia a better chance at cementing peace, those who care about the country’s future should redefine their thinking to focus more directly on the core elements of accountability. First, we must match our view of accountability with local realities. Prosecution of high-level transgressions must be matched with efforts to change the incentives and relationships that give rise to endemic graft- as part of a campaign to build a contextualized system of values and ethics.

Second, we must support the creation of accountability institutions not just on paper, but in practice. This means bolstering the capacity and scope of anti-corruption bodies; encouraging collaboration among and between relevant agencies; and building constructive bridges between civil society organizations that work on these issues and key government ministries.

Finally, we must use different tools and timeframes to build peace and accountability. Large conferences and lengthy reports may have their uses, but they are far from sufficient. Instead, international organizations should carefully support alternative approaches (using religious leaders, cultural networks or new technologies, as the Lab is doing, for example) to drive anti-corruption messaging in ways consistent with Liberia’s oral traditions. Young people can be especially useful to these efforts since they are less beholden to traditional patronage structures and tend to be more creative.

There has now been ten years of peace in Liberia, and the country’s worst days may be behind it. But in order to ensure this remains the case, it is critical that the Liberian government, its people, and its partners across the international community focus more directly on accountability issues.

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, based in Liberia. You can follow the Lab on Twitter @accountlab

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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