Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Liberia’s political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to improvements in combating corruption and greater government transparency.
In January 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated as the first female head of state in Africa following elections in October 2005 that were widely considered to be free and fair. Since assuming the presidency, Johnson-Sirleaf has embarked on an ambitious campaign to combat corruption and rebuild a country crumbling from the impact of 14 years of war, though improvements in many areas—especially the judicial system—have been slow in coming. In March 2006, former president Charles Taylor was handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to face charges of war crimes. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began functioning in October.
Liberia was settled in 1821 by freed slaves from the United States and became an independent republic in 1847. Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves, dominated the country until 1980, when army sergeant Samuel Doe led a bloody coup and murdered President William Tolbert. Doe’s regime concentrated power among members of his Krahn ethnic group and suppressed other groups. Forces led by former government minister Charles Taylor and backed by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups—which had been subjected to severe repression—launched a guerrilla war from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire against the Doe regime on December 24, 1989. In 1990, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led an armed intervention force, preventing Taylor from seizing the capital but failing to protect Doe from being captured and tortured to death by a splinter rebel group led by Prince Johnson.
After seven years of endemic violence that forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, a peace accord was signed, leading to elections in 1997. Taylor won decidedly by convincing the people that a vote for him was the only way to ensure peace. Nevertheless, the peace accord was not entirely effective and violence continued. Long-standing grievances were not resolved, and Taylor made little effort to seek genuine reconciliation. Many of his rivals were forced to flee the country. Some eventually formed the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and used neighboring Guinea as a staging ground from which to launch their uprising against Taylor. With rebels poised to overrun the capital and the United States calling for him to step down, Taylor resigned in August 2003 and accepted Nigeria’s offer of asylum.
Taylor’s departure from Liberia quickly ended 14 years of intermittent civil war that had spilled over into three neighboring countries and left 200,000 people dead in Liberia alone. ECOWAS helped negotiate an end to the fighting between Taylor’s forces, the LURD, and another rebel force, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia. West African peacekeepers became part of a 15,000-strong UN-led force that oversaw disarmament and demobilization. Human rights abuses abated considerably following the ceasefire, but some violations have continued, especially in the countryside. Delegates to the peace talks in 2003 chose businessman Gyude Bryant as Liberia’s interim president, and he ruled the country with the transitional National Assembly until the 2005 elections.
Twenty-two candidates contested the presidency in the first round of voting in October 2005. Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate George Weah, who had risen from the slums of Monrovia to become an international soccer star, won 28.3 percent, followed by Harvard-educated economist and Unity Party (UP) candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, with 19.8 percent. In the November runoff, Johnson-Sirleaf captured 59.4 percent of the vote, compared with Weah’s 40.6 percent. Weah registered a challenge with the National Electoral Commission over the fairness of the vote, and there were fears that some of the former fighters who supported him would resort to violence. However, in late December—under pressure from Nigerian, Ghanaian, and other regional leaders—Weah officially conceded the election.
During the concurrent legislative polls, 12 parties—including those of former warlords such as Prince Johnson—were voted into office, as were a handful of independents. Weah’s CDC won 18 seats, the highest number for one party; Johnson-Sirleaf’s UP captured 11 seats. The multiplicity of political parties that the elections left in both houses has the potential to stall much-needed legislative progress if some party consolidation does not occur.
In March 2003, Taylor was indicted by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on 17 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law for his alleged role in arming Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for diamonds. In March 2006, Nigeria finally turned Taylor over to the court on the request of the newly elected Liberian president. Due to concerns that his presence in the region might spark further fighting, Taylor was transferred in June to The Hague, the Netherlands, where he will be tried. If convicted, he would serve the entirety of his prison sentence in Britain. Taylor is only the second head of state, after former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, to face trial in an international court for crimes committed during his presidency.
Since her inauguration on January 16, 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf has worked to fulfill her campaign promises to repair infrastructure and combat corruption, making some noteworthy progress on both fronts. In July, electricity was turned on in selected Monrovia neighborhoods in a ceremony timed to coincide with the nation’s Independence Day. A few days earlier, limited supplies of running water had also returned to the capital. Reconstruction efforts in the health and education sectors are ongoing, as are much-needed road repairs, but limited funds and low salaries for government employees have hampered progress in these and other areas. Johnson-Sirleaf’s most tangible successes have come in her war on government corruption. Among other measures, she has begun laying off thousands of unqualified government employees who had been installed by previous administrations in exchange for political support.
Liberia is an electoral democracy. Presidential and legislative elections were held in October 2005. Hundreds of international observers determined that the vote was free and fair. The country’s legislature consists of a 30-member Senate and a 64-member House of Representatives; senators serve nine-year terms, and representatives serve six. Presidents serve six-year terms, and are eligible for a second term. Major political parties include Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party; George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change Party; the Liberty Party, which fielded the third-ranking presidential candidate, Charles Brumskine; and the National Patriotic Party, the former party of Charles Taylor.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has said that fighting corruption, which has been at the root of many of the country’s problems, will be a central goal of her administration. The average civil servant is paid barely enough to live above the poverty line (even after a 2006 salary increase), contributing to endemic graft. The transitional administration that preceded Johnson-Sirleaf’s is believed to have been responsible for the theft of some $100 million in public funds. Such practices have proven to be significant impediments to much-needed foreign investment and ongoing reconstruction efforts. In 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf ordered audits of all government ministries as well as 300 members of the outgoing administration. The Anti-Corruption Taskforce—a group of economists and security experts assembled in January 2004—conducted the audits and discovered that fraud worth nearly $1 million had been perpetrated at the Ministry of Finance under the transitional administration. The probes led directly to the dismissal of five mid-level finance ministry employees, as well as three high-level officials from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Commerce, and the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, the new administration has addressed the problem of a bloated and costly civil service by laying off thousands of employees, either for consistently failing to show up to work or for being unqualified for their positions. Many of these employees were hired for political reasons by previous administrations.
Liberia is operating under a three-year antigraft plan, the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Plan (GEMAP), that was drawn up by international donors and approved by the transitional government. It aims to install foreign experts in key revenue-generating institutions—such as the port, airport, customs office, and forestry commission—for an initial term of three years to monitor and reduce corruption. GEMAP officially began operations after completing the deployment of all international experts at the end of May 2006. In response to Liberia’s reform efforts, the UN Security Council in June partially dropped the ban on arms sales to Liberia and completely lifted sanctions on Liberian timber exports. However, the Security Council extended sanctions on Liberian rubber and diamonds; this decision will be reviewed again June 2007. In April, the Liberian government established the National Diamond Task Force intended to help the country meet international diamond trade criteria set out in the Kimberly Process. However, illegal diamond mines and smugglers operate in many parts of the country because the government does not yet have the capacity to curtail this activity. Liberia was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perception Index.
Liberia’s independent media have survived despite extensive self-censorship during the civil war. Journalists suffered from constant surveillance, harassment, threats, detentions, and beatings. Since the expulsion of former president Charles Taylor in 2003, the media environment has become decidedly more open. Several private newspapers are published, and there are at least five FM radio stations. Call-in radio talk shows are very popular, and Johnson-Sirleaf herself participates in a monthly talk show, “Conversations with the President.”
The animosity between the government and the media has become more obvious under the newly elected government than it had been under the transitional administration. Journalists frequently report unfavorably on government behavior, and security service personnel have, on a number of occasions, harassed reporters covering presidential events. In August 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf accused the national media of unprofessional reporting and engaging in blackmail. In response to a request by the Press Union of Liberia to investigate the causes of government agents’ repeated attacks on reporters, the president appointed an investigation committee that included lawyers and members of civil society. The committee released its findings in mid-September, though the results were largely dismissed by many of the journalists involved for having a perceived progovernment bias.
Religious freedom is respected in practice. Muslims have been targeted in the past because many Mandingos, who were a key ethnic component of the LURD, follow Islam.
The government does not restrict academic freedom. Nonetheless, despite the efforts of university administrators, the University of Liberia—West Africa’s oldest institution of higher education, founded 144 years ago—has yet to reopen after it was forced to close due to the violence during the Taylor era. Students have protested the reinstatement of the former university president, Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh, who has faced accusations of corruption.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and respected. Numerous civil society groups, including human rights organizations, operate in the country. The right to strike, organize, and bargain collectively is recognized. However, the current labor laws badly need reform, and labor conditions are often harsh because bargaining arrangements are poorly implemented. Union activity is also limited by the lack of economic activity. In April 2006, former soldiers protested in Monrovia over unpaid severance packages that they had been promised for laying down their arms. The protesters turned violent and paralyzed the city for a day until UN forces were able to disperse them. As a direct result, the president banned an upcoming demonstration by civil service workers seeking to highlight their concerns about losing their jobs.
Under previous administrations, the judiciary was subject to extensive executive influence, intimidation by security forces, and corruption stemming from low salaries. Though Johnson-Sirleaf has pledged to rebuild a functioning justice system, too little funding has been allocated to the judiciary for that promise to reach fruition in the near future.
After Taylor was extradited to The Hague in June 2006 for trial by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began functioning in Liberia in October. The commission has the power to investigate crimes committed between January 1979 and October 2003 and to recommend for prosecution those individuals whom it believes are responsible for the most serious human rights violations.
Many of Liberia’s prisons were destroyed during the war and have not yet been rebuilt. Consequently, many of those that remain are overcrowded and force inmates to live in sometimes life-threatening conditions. Delays in the judicial process further aggravate the crowding situation, causing many to be jailed for more than 90 days without trial.
The police force is being restructured under the 2003 peace accord. At least 2,000 new recruits have been trained by the United Nations, and the government is making a concerted, though largely unsuccessful, effort to recruit women. As part of the peace accord, a new national army is being formed, but funding shortages will cause the force to be much smaller than predicted. Efforts are being made to ensure that human rights abusers are not permitted to enlist in the new military. For example, in June 2006, pictures of the first 100 recruits were published in the press so that members of the public could come forward and identify any criminals. The new security forces are critically needed. Crime is on the rise in Monrovia, and former militants have destabilized a number of regions outside of the capital, particularly in rubber plantation areas like Guthrie, where they engage in extortion, theft, and general intimidation of the population. Police, mainly at checkpoints, occasionally extort money and goods from citizens.
Interethnic relations continue to be tense, since many ethnic groups fought one another during the civil war. Animosity exists primarily between the Krahn, Gio, Mano, and Mandingo ethnic groups. The return of thousands of Mandingo refugees to their homes in the northern county of Nimba has caused disputes over land ownership with the Mano and Gio who have since settled there.
The treatment of women varies by ethnic group, religion, and social status. During the civil war, women and girls were often abducted as laborers and for sex, while others joined rebel groups or militias to protect themselves. Even with the end of the civil war, many women continue to suffer from physical abuse and traditional societal discrimination, despite constitutionally guaranteed equality. In fact, in a nationwide survey conducted by the government during 2005 and 2006, 92 percent of the 1,600 women interviewed reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse, including rape. The former transitional government strengthened existing rape laws in December 2005; previously, only gang rape had been considered a crime. Nonetheless, corruption and a lack of capacity in the fledgling judicial system has meant that few prosecutions under the new law have come to fruition and many victims are paid by perpetrators before a trial is even able to begin.
According to a 2006 UN survey, Liberian orphanages housing 5,000 children were found to be in unsanitary and inhospitable condition. In March, the Ministry of Health closed two out of three orphanages for operating illegally; the shuttered institutions were accused of serving as fronts for child-trafficking operations and failing to meet minimum health standards. At year’s end, the 2,800 children living in those facilities were set to be transferred to more appropriate accommodations.