Liberia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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The administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in 2007 continued its campaign to combat corruption and rebuild Liberia in the aftermath of a 14-year civil war, but improvements in many areas, especially the judicial system, proved elusive. Responding to a 2006 corruption audit by the Economic Community of West African States, the government arrested a number of leading figures from the 2003–05 transitional administration, including the interim president. However, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2006, encountered funding shortages and delays in 2007, and has yet to produce any significant findings.

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 political landscape 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. In 1989, forces led by former government minister Charles Taylor and backed by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups launched a guerrilla insurgency from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. A year later, Nigeria, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led an armed intervention, 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 arguing that a vote for him was the only way to ensure peace. Nevertheless, peace proved elusive and violence continued. Long-standing grievances were not resolved, and Taylor made little effort to seek genuine reconciliation. Some of his rivals eventually formed Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), comprised primarily of the Mandingo ethnic group, and launched an uprising from neighboring Guinea. 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 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, and 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 continued, especially in the countryside. Delegates to the peace talks in 2003 chose businessman Charles Gyude Bryant as Liberia’s interim president, and he ruled the country until the 2005 elections.

Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate George Weah, who had risen from the slums of Monrovia to become an international soccer star, won the first round of the presidential election in October 2005 with 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 filed a challenge 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. The CDC led the voting, taking 18 seats, while the UP captured 11.

Taylor, who had been indicted by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in March 2003 for his alleged role in arming Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for diamonds, was finally turned over to the court by Nigeria at the behest of Johnson-Sirleaf in March 2006. His trial on 17 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law began in June 2007 in The Hague, the Netherlands, but a motion by the defense to postpone the trial until January 2008 was accepted by the court.

Since her inauguration in January 2006, Johnson-Sirleaf has worked to fulfill her campaign promises to repair infrastructure and combat corruption, making some noteworthy progress on both fronts. Significant international investment in education has dramatically increased the number of children attending primary school, and recruitment for the Liberian National Police has exceeded expectations, with more than 3,500 new officers trained by September 2007. Also in 2007, the government made a number of corruption arrests, including that of interim president Bryant, though some have suggested that the cases have been pursued selectively.

The reconstruction effort is heavily dependent on international investment and the continued presence of 15,000 UN troops. Liberia currently has $3.7 billion worth of debt to international lenders, and Johnson-Sirleaf spent much of her time abroad in 2007 to encourage investment and debt relief, particularly from the United States. The U.S. government consequently agreed to write off $391 million in debt, and Germany similarly promised to cancel all of Liberia’s bilateral debt.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Liberia is an electoral democracy. International observers determined that presidential and legislative elections held in 2005 were free and fair. The bicameral National Assembly consists of a 30-member Senate and a 64-member House of Representatives; senators are elected to nine-year terms, and representatives are elected to six-year terms. Presidents also serve six-year terms and are eligible for a second term. Major political parties include President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s UP, George Weah’s CDC, the Liberty Party, and the National Patriotic Party, the party of former president Charles Taylor. The presence of so many parties in the Senate has yielded a fragmented and disorganized opposition, which has given Johnson-Sirleaf the opportunity to quickly push reforms through the House.

Johnson-Sirleaf has made fighting corruption a central goal of her administration. The transitional administration that preceded her is believed to have been responsible for the theft of some $100 million in public funds. In 2006, ECOWAS published an audit that implicated a number of prominent transitional officials on corruption charges. In response, the Liberian government in early 2007 ordered the arrests of a number of those individuals, including the former finance minister and the interim president, Charles Gyude Bryant, who was charged with embezzling some $1.3 million. Bryant argued that his status as former head of state gave him immunity to such prosecution and boycotted the proceedings in early December. The court disagreed and held him in prison until he agreed to appear in court a few days later. However, such cases are jeopardized by the inadequate functioning of the judiciary. A case against former employees of the National Social Security and Welfare Corporation had to be thrown out in 2007 due to lack of evidence. Earlier in the year, auditor general John Morlu accused the Johnson-Sirleaf administration of being “three times as corrupt” as the transitional administration. He expressed his concern that millions of dollars of the 2007–08 budget were unaccounted for. Nonetheless, domestic and international observers generally agreed that the government has made a credible effort to tackle such problems, and as a reward for its efforts, the United Nations in 2007 lifted sanctions on the export of Liberian diamonds. For its part, the government remains uncertain that it has the capacity to control the illegal diamond mines and smugglers still operating in many parts of the country. Liberia was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perception Index.

Since the expulsion of Charles Taylor, the media environment has become decidedly more open. There are more than 30 newspapers publishing primarily in Monrovia, and nearly 50 radio stations operate across the country, principally on a community basis. Journalists frequently report unfavorably on the current government’s behavior, though a number have been harassed as a result. In May 2007, the Independent, a privately owned newspaper, was banned for a year in response to an article that included photographs of a senior minister in a compromising sexual situation. The minister, Willis Knuckles, was forced to resign, but the newspaper successfully challenged the ban in court.

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 rebel group, follow Islam. In May 2007, the Senate rejected the formation of a Muslim caucus.

The government does not restrict academic freedom. During reconstruction, the government has actively encouraged more students to attend primary and secondary school. Those efforts, combined with significant international investment, have resulted in a 40 percent increase in attendees. However, the educational infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the influx, and many students are taught by unqualified teachers in ill-equipped classrooms.

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. Although union activity is limited by the lack of economic activity, there were a number of protests throughout the year against the government’s failure to pay salaries on time. Demonstrators behaved peacefully, and the government refrained from using force in response. In a repeat of 2006 protests, approximately 1,000 former soldiers rioted in Monrovia in February 2007 over unpaid demobilization packages and salaries. Police quickly dispersed the crowd and arrested five protesters, and only a handful of people were injured, none seriously.

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 build a functioning justice system, the funding allocated for that purpose has so far been inadequate. This has caused significant problems for the successful resolution of corruption cases.

In October 2006, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began functioning in Liberia. The commission ostensibly has the power to investigate crimes committed between January 1979 and October 2003, and to recommend for prosecution those individuals who it believes are responsible for the most serious human rights violations. Nonetheless, the government has yet to make any preparations for providing compensation to victims, and at year’s end, the commission was at least six months behind schedule. Moreover, some of the commission’s staff claim that they have not been paid since February 2007, and civil society groups complain that they have been excluded from the process.

Many of Liberia’s prisons were destroyed during the war and have not yet been rebuilt, though some reconstruction efforts did begin in 2007. Many that remain are grossly overcrowded, including Monrovia Central Prison, which now houses four times its intended capacity. Inmates are forced to live in sometimes life-threatening conditions, and reports of abuse of female and juvenile inmates are common. Delays in the judicial process further aggravate the situation, causing many to be held in pretrial detention for more than 90 days, often in the same cells as convicted criminals.

The police force is being restructured under the 2003 peace accord. By September 2007, Liberia had exceeded its goal for the number of new recruits, and more than 3,500 had been trained, including 202 women. However, reports of police intimidation and abuse have continued. Crime is on the rise in Monrovia, and the security situation outside of the capital remains tenuous, but the current security forces are lack sufficient arms and funding.

Interethnic relations continue to be strained, since many groups fought one another during the civil war. Animosity exists primarily between the Krahn, Gio, Mano, and Mandingo ethnicities. Tensions between thousands of returning Mandingo refugees and members of the Mano and Gio tribes, who have since taken over their land in the northern county of Nimba, continue to threaten the peace in that region.

The treatment of women varies by ethnic group, religion, and social status. During the civil war, women and girls were often abducted as laborers or for sexual exploitation, while others joined rebel groups or militias to protect themselves. Even after the civil war, many women continue to suffer physical abuse, particularly in the Monrovia area. The local media report at least two rapes of young girls every week, with many more going unreported. The former transitional government strengthened existing rape laws in December 2005; previously, only gang rape had been considered a crime. Nevertheless, the weakness of the judicial system has meant that few rape prosecutions come to fruition. As of 2007, only two convicted rapists have received the maximum life sentence.

Many orphanage owners exploit their charges to obtain international donations, particularly from faith-based organizations. In order to inflate their numbers, many take in children whose parents are still alive. Promises of education and income made to the parents often go unfulfilled, and the children are frequently kept in unsanitary conditions and forced into labor. A UN report in 2007 found that 11 out of every 15 Liberian orphanages represented a serious human rights violation. By August, the government had officially recognized the problem and began reuniting thousands of “orphans” with their parents.