As Instability Sweeps, West African Leaders Plead With Liberian Party Chiefs to Stop Inflammatory Comments

Voters show their ID in 2017 elections. Credit: AFP

MONROVIA, Liberia – A series of violent incidents by political partisans, and inflammatory comments from party leaders, has Liberians on edge in the runup to next month’s presidential and legislative elections. As the West Africa region boils with military coups and political instability – and an election outcome in neighboring Sierra Leone that many view as fraudulent—the international community, Ecowas and many Liberian community leaders are warning parties to stop inflaming tensions and keep their young members in check. 

Experts say the violence could undermine Liberia’s hard-won peace twenty years after the end of the country’s 14 years of civil war. The violence follows reports of partisan militias in Lofa County and the discovery of large shipments of illegally imported weapons that have fueled fears that factions are planning to fight if the elections results don’t go their way. The growing financial crisis that has four in five Liberians struggling just to find food, is adding to the tension.

Many young people are unemployed so you can provide all the training, but it is not putting food on their table,” says Eddie Jarwolo, the Executive Director of accountability watchdog, Naymote. Jarwolo says that makes young people vulnerable to payments from political leaders looking to cause trouble instead of empowering them. “They can be manipulated by people who provide the money.” 

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), held a peace summit in Monrovia last month. The Women of West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), has been holding vigils at Fish market on Tubman Boulevard, a major road into Monrovia, where women’s groups famously held vigils that helped lead to the Accra Peace Agreement in 2003. Now, as then, they are singing and holding placards calling for peace.

“We fought for peace in this country,” says Bernice Freeman, coordinator, and head of Advocacy of WANEP. “We fought for our children, our husbands, our family so that we can have a better future, so the peace means a whole lot not for us but for the whole country.”

With eight coups in the West African region since 2020 –two in the last three months alone—and a heavily disputed election in neighboring Sierra Leone earlier this year, the international community and regional leaders are increasingly concerned about the fragility of democracies in the region. Rising food prices, unemployment, and climate change-induced challenges like rising sea levels, depressed farm yields, and flooding have all combined to fuel tensions.

In August a scuffle ensued between the supporters of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and the opposition Unity Party (UP), that led to four people being injured and one victim’s ear being chopped off.

Another incident that attracted concern was CDC youth carrying a casket bearing pictures of Joseph Boakai, the UP standard bearer. Critics condemned the act as inciting violence against Boakai. Emmanuel Johnson, National Youth League Chairman of the CDC, defended the actions, saying it symbolized the death of one of their colleagues during a clash between police and CDC youth ahead of the 2011 runoff election between Cllr. Winston Tubman of the CDC and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Boakai’s presidential running mate. But the act was condemned by President George Weah and CDC leadership.

CDC youth chair

“Before the electoral process as a youth league have come up with an anti-violence policy,” says Johnson. He says a committee was set up to probe and report and there are rules to stop violence at all levels of the party. “We have been disabusing the minds of young people with the party.”

The October 10th elections are the first since the wars that the Liberian government is going to pay for itself. It will also have sole responsibility for security. Previous elections had heavy support from the international community. So far, it has not lived up to those obligations. The National Elections Commission (NEC), tasked with running the elections, has complained of constraints caused by the government’s failure to provide the full funding needed.  There has also been a well-documented failure to fund police throughout the country.

In April all political party leaders and the NEC signed on the Farmington River Declaration, an agreement that committed signatories to promote free, fair, and peaceful elections. The NEC said it has been pushing parties to live up to that agreement.

“The Commission is currently working with the political parties trying to ensure they adhere to the Farmington River Declaration that will keep the election peaceful,” says Ignatius Wisseh, Director of Public Affairs at the National Elections Commission. “We are also coordinating campaign schedules amongst them trying to avoid future electoral violence or would-be violence.”

Concern about the mounting violence prompted one leading presidential candidate, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, Liberia People’s Party standard bearer and renowned human rights lawyer, to visit party headquarters.

“I went to nine political parties’ headquarters and talked to them about peace, that we need to live up to the Farmington Declaration,” Gongloe says. “The Liberian people deserve peace and we should not do things to be a benefactor of violence.”

Despite the funding shortages the Liberia National Police leadership insists the police are ready to combat violence.

Moses Carter, Police Spokesman

“We have put in place mechanisms aimed at curtailing election violence ranging from engagement and awareness with political parties to ensure adherence to the Farmington River Declaration, the media, civil society, motorcyclists,” says Moses Carter, spokesperson. Carter said parties were requested to send in campaign schedules to assist police. He said consequences for anyone who engaged in any act against the undermined the peace would be charged and sent to court.

Jarwolo called on all public officials to step up their performance in the coming weeks.

Eddie Jarwolo, Naymote , Executive Director

“We calling on the leaders to be tolerant and the National Elections Commission to make sure that the election is transparent and credible to build trust by their ability to communicate properly,” says Jarwolo. “There are two areas where you encounter violence: during the campaign period and announcing of the result. So, these are the two areas we calling on the police to be as professional as possible and the courts to fast-track all the electoral cases.”

Freeman of WANEP said the group is actively promoting peace throughout the country. 

“We are in the communities advising the youth against violence. We have a sponsored project to mentor young people to take after us in promoting peace, we are advising people to maintain the peace and sustain it,” she says.

Beatrice Freeman, Coordinator WANEP

With the biggest tests ahead – election day and the release of results – activists are working hard to ensure peace prevails.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.