Liberia has suffered 20 years of ‘negative peace’. It’s time for change

The root causes of the wars Liberia suffered have remained unaddressed for two decades; the first step to changing that is rebuilding trust.

Two white stars painted on a basketball court in the compound of St Peter's Church in Monrovia, Liberia indicate where victims of the first Liberian war have been buried [Courtesy of Robtel Pailey]
A white star painted on a basketball court in the compound of St Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia, indicates where victims of the first Liberian war were buried in mass graves. [Courtesy of Robtel Neajai Pailey]

On a typical weekday at St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, children can be seen scoring three-pointers at the basketball court while adults crank up their engines in an adjacent parking lot. Yet, beneath the thick slab of asphalt on the church’s one-acre compound lie mass graves flanked by two large memorial stars painted in white.

On July 29 and 30, 1990 – as Liberia’s first war was raging – about 600 men, women and children were massacred in and around the perimeters of St Peter’s. Today their families and massacre survivors are embroiled in a battle of wills with the church over whether the erection of a basketball court and parking lot on mass graves demeans the victims buried there. The Lutheran Church Massacre Survivors Association (LUMASA) has also advocated for exhuming the remains and reburying them in a more dignified location.

As Liberia marks two decades since the end of its second war, which combined with the first took the lives of more than 250,000 people, the St Peter’s Church reckoning over memorialisation reflects the unfinished business of postwar stability and the country’s struggles with collective amnesia.

Since the conflicts ended on August 18, 2003, Liberia has only seen what peace studies pioneer Johan Galtung has called “negative peace” – the absence of direct physical violence characterised by fears of relapse into warfare. Its transition from war to peace remains incomplete because its norms, rules and regulations continue to fuel inequality and injustice.

What Liberia should strive for is “positive peace”, which involves building values, customs and institutions that create and sustain peaceful societies.

Our country has beaten insurmountable odds to maintain stability. It has defeated two epidemics, successfully overseen the withdrawal of a massive UN peacekeeping mission, and experienced the first democratic transfer of power from one president to another since 1944. Yet, the hallmarks of “negative peace” endure.

Structural violence persists in the guise of economic mismanagement, lawlessness, resource extraction without value addition, rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and deteriorating education and health outcomes.

Perhaps the most extreme example of Liberia’s “negative peace” is the politicisation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was created in 2005, and the lack of traction to bring those who bear the greatest responsibility for the wars to justice.

Unlike South Africa’s solely restorative TRC framework, Liberia’s approach comprised both restorative and retributive measures aimed at tackling the root causes of the conflicts. The TRC’s work ended in 2009 with the release of its final report endorsing actions that national authorities should undertake to ensure accountability.

One of its flagship recommendations was the establishment of an extraordinary criminal court for over 100 individuals allegedly involved in gross human rights violations, violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes.

The TRC also proposed lustration in the form of barring from public office those it recommended for prosecution; the seizure of individual and corporate assets acquired by means of economic pillage during the wars; and reparations for designated survivors administered through a Reparations Trust Fund.

Although most Liberians at home and abroad hailed these recommendations, with some activists mounting domestic and international support for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia, successive Liberian governments refused to carry them out. Thus, the root causes of the wars presented in the TRC’s final report – inequalities of access and opportunity, poor governance, damaged intergroup relations and a weak judiciary – have remained unaddressed.

In the past two decades, impunity has reigned supreme with alleged war-era criminals engaged in political intimidation, threats of renewed violence and doling out the spoils of war. Some have reinvented themselves as millionaires-cum-moguls, philanthropists, political kingmakers, ethno-nationalists or reformed evangelists, manipulating and distorting violent wartime memories for the purpose of evading accountability.

A case in point is a resolution to establish a Transitional Justice Commission (TJC), proposed by the Liberian Senate in 2021 but rejected by the House of Representatives. It was perceived as elite manoeuvring to formally audit the work of the TRC and declare its reports and recommendations illegal.

Prosecuting alleged Liberian war criminals abroad through universal jurisdiction has also been challenging. A mere three convictions have been handed down in American and European courts, with the most recent ruling in Switzerland sentencing a notorious rebel commander to 20 years in jail.

The lack of accountability and other hallmarks of “negative peace” have permeated Liberia and are often reflected in its politics. A recent incident involving supporters of President George Weah (no relation to author Aaron Weah) carting a casket in Monrovia with the photo of Joseph Boakai, the main opposition candidate, is a good illustration.

Taking place just two months before the fourth postwar elections scheduled for October, this provocative spectacle not only evoked wartime grief and political violence but also violated the tenets of the Farmington River Declaration on upholding peaceful polls signed by all presidential candidates.

The ruling party’s reticence to condemn the casket display, despite public outrage, reflects Liberia’s political reality in which the spectre of violence persists. A subsequently brutal confrontation between supporters of the two leading presidential candidates signals looming electoral aggression.

So, how can the country achieve “positive peace” amid political hostilities at home and military coups in the region?

The first step in this process is to build public trust among citizens, civil society actors, grassroots communities and political elites.

To deepen public trust, Liberians must also forge a new consensus on the relevance of the TRC’s final report and criminal accountability as an essential ingredient in attaining “positive peace”. This consensus must foreground the dangers of forgetting the wars and the history that preceded them, especially for Liberia’s post-2003 generation who comprise 70 percent of the population.

It is our hope that renewed trust will motivate Liberians to pursue accountability while taking measures to combat structural violence.

We see “positive peace” as both the duty to remember and the responsibility to guarantee justice for survivors and victims of the massacres at St Peter’s Lutheran Church and beyond. But there can be no “positive peace” in Liberia without justice.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article wrongfully identified Johan Galtung as “the late peace scholar”. Galtung is 92 years old and very much alive and well. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.