Building Capacity for Reconciliation: Lessons from Lost Opportunities

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 22, 2007


Follow the trail of bloodshed before and during the civil war and you will find countless acts of ethnic bigotry and governments too immersed in discrimination, thus too feeble, to make meaningful difference in the prejudices and inequities that pervaded the society. If you were to visit gravesites in Lofa, Bong, Nimba, Grand Gedeh, and many other counties where the civil war raged, the stories that people would tell you of how their loved ones were killed; would be that people whom they knew, pointed them out to murderers as rival ethnic group members. Let’s not discount the widespread hostility that indigenous people faced prior to the 1980 coup, which limited their liberties at the hands of Americo-Liberians. Intolerance toward indigenous people extended in all spheres of their lives.

The confluence of these experiences converted Liberia into ethnic enclaves. Today, many Liberians are fearful, resentful; even hateful of people from certain ethnic groups – sometimes suspicious of their motives even when their intentions are good. But the intellectual sluggishness, even neglect of our scholars and policy makers alike, have created a scenario whereby these so-called leaders have failed miserably to develop appropriate interventions to address the ethnic fragmentation and the growing social tensions. Let me be kind to say that some leaders have nominally embraced the idea of social reforms, but have being unable to devise sustainable solutions to the problem. Often, they hire people with little discernible expertise in matters concerning social policy in post-war societies (understanding of the Liberian historical context being critical), who develop jumble assortment of ideas from unrelated societies that support the ideological preferences of political leaders. Unfortunately, competent experts are rarely invited to contribute to the reconstruction process, especially if they are found to have raised hard questions about the government’s policies and preferences.

Because the stakes are too high for the future of our country, I have decided to take this subject on, although the possibility of it grabbing the attention of policy makers in Monrovia remains remote. This has implications for k-12 education as well as higher education reform. It has implications for the workplace and for contracting and purchasing services from the government and from private entrepreneurs. The whole functioning of post-war Liberian society depends a great deal on it. We have limited or no infrastructure for countering ethnic bigotry and/or discrimination at large. We have not developed curriculum for anti-ethnic bigotry education of teachers and teacher educators. It is not far-fetched to think that our workplaces are still venues where discrimination goes unattended, with limited exceptions. Change is slow to come because we have yet to prioritize systemic reforms around these issues. This article does not pretend to be a curriculum guide for implementing anti-bias/discrimination interventions, but to increase awareness about the issue and elicit systemic response from the state.

Decades following the civil war, the Liberian society is experiencing a proliferation of new identities and new divisions, some along ethnic lines and others along other social indicators. In a sense, these might be mere reconfiguration of the familiar identities, essentially rendering the congoe-country divide archaic and unable to capture the mosaic pieces of Liberian identity emerging in the post-war era. The convergence of cultures from the homeland and the Liberian many Diasporas only add to this mix. Intermarriages between people from different ethnic backgrounds only buttress the changing demography. In this sense, the increasing diversity is disentangling the old frameworks that carved Liberians out solely as Americo-Liberian versus indigenous people. It should be noted that with the growing diversity also comes the division of the society into ethnic splinter groups due in part to the factionalism, which resulted from the war and associated processes of social disintegration. No longer is the “bland uniformity” that was the norm in the pre-war era able to hold. It is therefore natural that discontented constituencies of all sorts exist within the Liberian body-politic, including known opposition political parties. This pattern of social change spells the end of the periods when the expectation on the part of some powerful elites was that all citizens would fall in line and carry the message of the privileged few. If the cohesiveness of the Liberian society is in jeopardy, it is important that we think deeply and seriously about how to create new structures to accommodate this change rather than reject it. We must convert this natural resource into an asset; and not let it weight on our capacity to build a vibrant pluralistic society.

Our hostility to diversity has led to several lost opportunities to create a unified and cohesive national identity, and this paper addresses that concern, particularly signs that we could be moving toward another lost opportunity. I say this to say, that the danger of Liberia fragmenting into ethnic ruins is a strong possibility. In the absence of conscious efforts: policies and programs to address this concern, we could sacrifice the economic and cultural recovery and dynamism that the current administration is seeking to achieve.

How can the Liberian government “manage” the increasing diversity of its citizens so as to prevent the constituencies from agitating and churning into militarized units? How is the state intervening in society to address latent social tensions or boundaries between groups that have negatively influenced their interactions with one another? For example, what short-term, intermediate, and long-term strategies have the government developed to address the growing divide between Mandingoes and Manos/Gios in Nimba over property rights? Krahns and Manos/Gios have been at loggerheads for at least a decade now. What is the government doing to mitigate this divide?

It is an established fact in the social sciences that when people intermingle and mix together socially and culturally with a certain degree of frequency, they are more likely to bridge their differences and even consider themselves as part of a connected social fabric. The state has an important role to play in bringing about this kind of cohesiveness, although not exclusively. That responsibility also rests with other non-governmental institutions (faith-based organizations, social service organizations, private citizens, corporate entities, etc).

Nevertheless, for the one year that the Sirleaf administration has been in power, it has seemed that its brand of politics have gravitated toward one that some have characterized as the “with us or against us” strategy, although some of her lieutenants have argued otherwise. Furthering diversity and national identity is not just a value in a post-war setting, where people have been polarized along a variety of lines, but a product of premium value. The reason, national identity is the foundation upon which national security and social development evolves. Neglect it, and the consequences are dire. Treat it as a subsidiary to economic policy, and you will realize that healthcare policy, education policy, workforce development policy, and all others like it, hinge on this one item. This is why it is of premium value. The factors that were and are still conducive to insurgency and violence were not primarily economic ones (although an integral part), but the state’s inability to deal with difference. Therefore, a government cannot be saying in one voice, it wants to liberalize and unleash the benefits of democracy within a nation; when it has not developed and announced a national plan for addressing the polarization of its citizens.

Recall that economic development and democracy have the tendency to let loose “new competitive forces” within society, including dividing the society along class lines and empowering subordinated groups to assert new found liberties. In a transitional society such as Liberia, as new and old cleavages clash, the result can be extremely harmful to the social fabric, if there is no infrastructure to address difference. Liberian history is replete with instances where the state’s only response to difference was a ruthlessness that oppressed those with the least amount of power to defend their liberties.

And to be saying in one breath that we want economic change and democracy and then failing to devise social policy to create a buffer against the residual effects that these twin factors would cause is at the least, contradictory, if not shortsighted. Just as some Americo-Liberians fear the prospects of the indigenous majority ruling with iron hands, so does it evoke fear and loathing in members of the indigenous majority, when they think about the prospect of Americo-Liberian rule. This mutual trepidation should be a sufficient source of warning to the government that building adequate capacity in the society as a whole for addressing difference is critical to moving forward in the future. A leadership paradigm that is trans-ethnic, rather than mono-ethnic; which allows people to transcend parochial identities is much needed here.

For all its imperfections, the Sirleaf government has to take credit for the fact that it has and continues to broach new frontiers in governance within the Liberian context. But also, we cannot allow it to be at the brink of collapse before we start to find ways to safe it from the tipping point. There are those supporters of the Sirleaf government who use the ludicrous argument that the Sirleaf government, like any other, must hire those who share its philosophy or those whom it “feels comfortable with.” This desire may be well-intentioned, but it is counterproductive within the context of public sector governance in an ethnically pluralistic society. In public sector governance, the good of each and all in society is at stake. Optimal utilization of the skills and competencies of all citizens is critical. Therefore, the insularity of the “with us or against us” strategy can backfire and all citizens can fall victim. This has happened in Liberia more than we have ever wished: (i.e.,) True Whig party (TWP) hegemony, Doe, and Taylor? Repeating this mistake once again, will be foolhardy.

I would like to revisit two sites of missed opportunity in the life of our country and how reverberations of those historical failures are still haunting us today. The first occurred on April 14, 1979. The second came after the April 12, 1980 coup led by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). There is a third site of missed opportunity – Taylor’s false gesture of disgust against Doe’s cronyism and failures, which he exploited to acquire wealth illegitimately and to use power indiscriminately. That is not worth discussing here because it is fresh within our memories.

Trace the reverberations of the April 14, 1979 protest on the elite institutional arrangements of the time. When the Rice Riots provoked outbreaks of law enforcement interventions and mob violence ensued, the Tolbert administration galvanized the largest sector of Liberian society into action. Sadly also, Tolbert’s response produced devastating results a year later on April 12, 1980. The aftershock of that moment, we are still facing. What is important about that period is that die-hard Americo-Liberian conservatives within the TWP hegemony hardened their anti-democratic and ethno-elitist positions against the opposition movements comprising of some, whom the might have felt were not of the same social and cultural ilk.

The axis of populist movements: Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), and the Student Movements garnered enormous popularity and leverage. Tolbert’s popularity eroded as did that of the TWP. The TWP’s hold on power until then appeared impassable. In hindsight, if the TWP failed to respond to the demonstrators, its strong grip on power would wane. And if Tolbert failed to respond, TWP hardliners would cry: “crucify Tolbert” for he is not ruling with iron hands – and is letting non-status quo members of society gain hold on power. Tolbert reluctantly moved to resolve the dilemma, and his solution precipitated his overthrow a year later.

Popular power took its toll on power concentrations that were preserved for in-group members only. We have not accumulated sufficient knowledge on how populist organizing undermined the Tolbert regime. But we wonder daily, had Tolbert taken a different stance, what would Liberia be like? We have since witnessed leaders of the opposition movements straddle advocacy for democracy and assume prominent roles in dictatorial governments, even administer governance with a tinge of dictatorial tendency manifesting itself. We have also seen the organizations that were the repositories of popular political power morph into institutions bearing the same characteristics that its leaders previously criticized.

Then when the PRC overthrew the Tolbert administration, it gained access to an opportunity to build a functioning state. Accomplishing this goal would have required a trans-ethnic leadership paradigm. A trans-ethnic governance strategy (inclusive of all Liberians in spite of ethnic background) would have given it sufficient leverage and power to develop the identity that all other governments before 1980 failed to acquire.

Such a project would have meant a systematic process for intervening in the ethnic factionalism that the nation faced, which was the PRC’s pretext for overthrowing the Tolbert government. Without an intentional and purposeful strategy for consolidating the fragmented ethnic groups and efforts to reconcile conflicting sides, democracy in Liberia remained at risk. It also would have meant political reform and economic development in the rural economy, including decentralization of political power and economic resources. Too little happened in these arenas, and the price that we paid for it as a nation and people, is a deep and profound one.

The argument that this paper makes is that inclusiveness in all manifestations is the bedrock of democracy and to help the anti-democratic forces in Liberia internalize democratic values and virtues, the government must practice “democratic protocols” in all facets of its governance. This will help buttress the perception that the Sirleaf administration has no intention to squander this historic opportunity as Doe and Taylor as well as others before them did. This would generate valuable political momentum toward reconciliation and national recovery.

“Apprenticeship in democracy” can be invaluable because the Sirleaf administration’s critics might just become her allies, if they gain sufficient exposure to the intricacies and merits of her governance paradigm. They too might also enhance the quality of her governance with their set of ideas and innovations. Consensus building, which is an outcome of such a strategy, has the potential to shift resources from internecine strife to building sufficient leadership capacity. By removing all pretexts for those critics who may be bent on self-serving motives, the Sirleaf administration, might just be able to manage the expectations of those members of the public that are still skeptical that the government is not serving the aims of the larger public, but an elite few.

Building an infrastructure for governance that is consciously geared toward bridging ethnic difference is a systematic and systemic process of inquiry and change making. The goal is to learn how society arrived at a point of chronic polarization, driven in large measure not only by intellectual curiosity, but a desire to make sustainable change in oppressive systems and structures. Indeed, here are some suggestions that the Sirleaf government might find useful. Building an equitable system for governance has to be anchored in democratic values, if the change is to be durable.

First, it should integrate within its policy making framework, a national coordinating body to oversee national spending and program development on infrastructure and standards for professional conduct around issues of ethnic bigotry and all other forms of discrimination or civil rights violations. Second, the leadership of this institution should identify crucial benchmarks and concepts in anti-ethnic bigotry awareness and education to be disseminated and taught nation wide. Third, it should divide the nation into at least four regions or trans-ethnic reconciliation regions, and develop systems and strategies for managing ethnic bigotry and discrimination. Within the regions, reconciliation cohorts can be developed to reduce the “big system” into manageable units for intervention (providing an intimate feel) dealing with challenges that are unique to each of the cohorts. Fourth, it should establish benchmarks and timelines for achieving those standards. Fifth, within every government agency, an anti-ethnic bigotry or discrimination ombudsman should be hired to attend to the civil rights needs of citizens. Sixth, anti-ethnic bigotry curriculum/content should be integrated in all teacher, military, police, and healthcare staff training and certification requirements to enable these professionals, if not all professionals, to begin developing competencies that would prevent discrimination in their work. Seventh, as many extension programs do in other societies, the time has come to use “fact sheets and workshops” as the instructional strategies for building awareness and competence around how to deal with difference.

In a society where the needs of the largest population has been marginalized and thus caused chronic divisions and resentments, no intervention is most critical in the reconstruction process than a citizenship education that has consolidating cohesive national identity as its key anchor. That framework too has to be built on one foundation – anti-ethnic bigotry and identity awareness/education. We must change mindsets to change behavior. And only then would we overcome the huge challenge before us – reconciling Liberians one to another. If the state develops a framework for anti-bias leadership development and governance, funnel this content to local governments, and provide incentives for them to adhere to such standards, no doubt, young people will grow away from ethnic bigotry.

Bigotry and discrimination deprive people of opportunities and services. That is why we must probe our history and consciousness deeply for the root causes of ethnic bigotry and discrimination. We might face a hard time trying to change the mindsets of those Liberians that are adamant about exploiting difference. But we can change our structures, processes, and institutional practices to make them more conducive to fostering inclusiveness, thus, preventing primordial responses to difference. Through scrupulous social criticism, this paper hopes to spur and advance a debate about this issue.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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