In January, Liberia completed its first peaceful transition of power between democratically elected leaders in decades when George Weah was inaugurated as president. This was a significant moment for the West African nation, marking the first change of political power since two-term president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election following the end of Liberia’s devastating civil wars in 2003. Despite the potential for violence, the 2017 elections were held without any major incidents, thanks in part to the important role local citizens played in working together to promote peace.
As we wrote for the Diplomatic Courier last year, there were several indicators of potential violence heading into the October 2017 general elections, including the extended presence and then drawdown of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), concerns raised about the capacity of the Liberia National Elections Commission (NEC), existing political divisions along ethno-regional lines, and a fragmented party system. Concerns were heightened when the run-off for the presidential election was postponed due to allegations of fraud during the October general elections. Such disputes have historically been triggers for violence, given the accusations exchanged among political parties and the prolonged period of uncertainty while decisions with the NEC and the Supreme Court were pending. The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia even issued a warning of possible election violence during the run-off.
However, the elections—both the general elections in October and the December run-offs—were held without any significant incidents of violence. Citizens also noted that despite some registration issues that became apparent on election day and despite the delay for the run-off, people remained peaceful and cooperative overall. Subsequently, a variety of international and regional institutions and observers have lauded the peaceful conduct of Liberia’s elections.
Certainly some of the credit should be given to the candidates in the run-off who came out quickly and publicly after the election to accept the results. Furthermore, the NEC was recognized for its role in preventing tensions from boiling over. Both the outgoing and incoming presidential teams worked together, despite being from different parties, to ensure a smooth transition.
What should not go unrecognized though is the role of every day Liberians in making this peaceful election and the transition possible. In the past five years that we, with the Purdue Peace Project (PPP), have collaborated with local citizens in Liberia on violence prevention, we have witnessed the power of local citizens working together to promote peace.
Leading up to and during the 2017 elections, local Liberians across sectors in Bong, Margibi, Montserrado and Nimba counties engaged in a variety of peacebuilding activities aimed at urging their fellow citizens to “say no to violence.” These local peacebuilders, who refer to themselves as members of the Pen-Pen Peace Network (PPPN), include members of the Liberia National Police and pen-pen motorcycle taxi drivers, groups that historically have had violent interactions, working side by side along with market people, youth, and other community members. Through their efforts, citizens joined together in peace marches to watch football tournaments between police and motorcyclists and to participate in one-on-one games (e.g., Scrabble, Ludo), engaged in dialogue at town hall meetings and through radio call-in programs, and danced together during community outreach events. These activities did not just bring local citizens together but emphasized the importance of peace and the need to maintain and sustain it.
As a second example, a group of Liberian women mobilized for peace using a variety of tactics, including three weeks of public prayer and fasting heading into the October 2017 elections. These women, many of whom are part of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), gathered daily on the roadside near party headquarters for several presidential candidates regardless of the weather. Utilizing many of the same nonviolent, mass action strategies they used to help end Liberia’s civil wars, the women appealed to political parties and their fellow citizens for the 2017 elections to be peaceful.
While these examples of local citizens’ efforts to prevent violence give us hope for Liberia’s future, we recognize that the country’s peace could be precarious. Several peace and security concerns remain during the transition. UNMIL is preparing to depart in March 2018 after 15 years in the country, with some questioning whether Liberia’s security structures are fully prepared. Supporters, particularly youth, have high hopes for their new president who is faced with tackling high youth unemployment, corruption, ongoing land conflicts, and a stalled post-war reconciliation process, all of which earlier reports have indicated can be drivers of fresh outbreaks of violence. These challenges indicate the need for continued efforts of individuals in multiple sectors to sustain the peace Liberians have worked so hard to achieve.
About the authors: Jasmine Linabary, PhD, is the Associate Director of Research and Operations of the Purdue Peace Project (PPP), Purdue University. Stacey Connaughton, PhD, is the Director of the PPP and an Associate Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University. Jennifer Ptacek, MA, is a graduate research assistant with the PPP. Meghana Rawat, MA, is also a graduate research assistant with the PPP. Grace Yeanay is the Liberia Country Director of the PPP.