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August 09, 2011

Civil War Legacy Part of Liberia's Presidential Campaign

by Scott Stearns

Eight years after Liberia's civil war, the slow pace of reconciliation is a big part of local politics. In her re-election campaign, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the country is making progress. Her opponents say she is ignoring the findings of a commission that called for her to be barred from politics.  

President Sirleaf says her government has worked hard to heal the ethnic divisions that fueled 14 years of fighting. But the progress has been slow.

"Our process of national healing and reconciliation is neither perfect nor complete, but we know we have made the necessary first step on this long journey,” she said.

The president says that journey begins with a “palava hut” program where people can admit a wrong and seek pardon from the Liberian people through customary procedures.

“With peace and stability comes our great need for further reconciliation of the Liberian people traumatized by war and by ethnic and social tensions," she said. "We have started that process and have taken important steps to heal the country through a fully established independent commission on human rights.”

A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended the “palava hut” for less serious crimes but said those most responsible for violence must face formal prosecution. Jerome Verdier, who led that commission, says the president has failed in her responsibility to bring to justice former rebel leaders and their top associates.

“Without a semblance of justice, without any credible threat of prosecution for people who took arms and waged a senseless war, creates a fertile condition for a recurrence of conflict,” said Verdier.

President Sirleaf told the commission that she helped raise several thousand dollars for then-rebel leader Charles Taylor at the start of the civil war but withdrew her support when Taylor forces started killing civilians.

The commission said that as a “financier” of the Taylor rebellion, she should be barred from politics for 30 years.  With the commission report buried in parliament, Verdier says President Sirleaf's re-election campaign “epitomizes impunity at the highest level.”

“Just when we think we are making progress, it seems there is no moral authority to guide the progression of the country to genuine democracy,” said Verdier.

The commission also recommended banning from politics the former rebel leader and current senator Prince Johnson. Johnson is now running for president as well.  Verdier says that is not what post-war Liberia needs.

“An entire generation has known nothing but conflict and war," said Johnson. "And these are the masterminds, these are the organizers, the financiers of this conflict, of the war.  And to perpetuate their rule and their participation at the highest level of governance doesn't set any example for the new generation.”

President Sirleaf's political challengers say she has lost credibility on the reconciliation issue.

“Our country has yet to be reconciled," said Acarous Gray, secretary general of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change. "While it is true that we enjoy some degree of stability in terms of people shooting guns around here, the head of state has failed to reconcile the Liberian people in term of reaching out, in terms of concentrating on the TRC report.”

Gray is using the president's political vulnerability to promote his party's candidate.

“Ambassador Winston Tubman brings reconciliation to the table," said Gray. "He is not one of those persons who participated in the crisis, who sponsored Mr. Taylor or sponsoring any warlord, unlike President Sirleaf.”

The president's record on reconciliation features prominently in the campaigns of several of her challengers, including Taylor's former senate president, a former rebel commander, and a youth pastor.