History of the Conflict in Liberia

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A Short History of the Conflict in Liberia and the Involvement of NGOs in the Peace Process

The Liberian civil war broke out in 1989 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, invaded the country to oust the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe. Within a few weeks, the NPFL had assassinated Doe and assumed control over 90 percent of the country. In 1991, the Taylor-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) joined the war from Sierra Leone, the NPFL split into smaller factions, and former soldiers from President Doe's army formed the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). In 1996, the warring factions signed the Abuja peace agreement and concurred to hold elections, which Charles Taylor won. Between 1997 and 2000, Liberia experienced a flawed and fragile peace. Taylor was accused of ongoing support for the RUF, which had plunged Sierra Leone into a civil war of its own. In 2000, full-scale conflict erupted again when the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a loose alliance of anti-Taylor groups, invaded Liberia from Guinea to expel the groups of RUF fighters who were still in Liberia. In early 2003, another anti-Taylor group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), emerged in the south. By the summer of 2003, LURD and MODEL had reduced Taylor's control of the country to a third. Under mounting national and international pressure, Taylor agreed to participate in peace talks to be held in Accra, Ghana, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, amid 17 charges of war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law stemming from the Sierra Leonean conflict, Taylor left the talks and resigned from the presidency of Liberia on August 11, 2003. On August 18, 2003, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Accra, Ghana, and the Liberian National Transition Government (LNTG) was entrusted with running the country until January 2006, when democratic elections took place.

The peace agreement was signed by the Government of Liberia, LURD, MODEL, and Liberia's 18 political parties, and the LNTG took office on October 14, 2003. Delegates from Liberian civil society, including several NGOs, such as the Association of Liberian Professional Organizations (ALPO) and the Mano River Women's Peace Network (MARWOPNET), participated in the negotiations. A few of these groups, including MARWOPNET, the Inter-Religious Council for Liberia (IRCL), and the Liberian Bar Association, signed the agreement as witnesses. They maintained that civil society needed to partake in the shaping of the peace agreement to ensure democratic forms of decision making and respect for the needs of Liberian civil society during the negotiations, and acceptance of the peace agreement by the Liberian people after their conclusion. The agreement resulted in a four-way power-sharing arrangement that divided Liberia's ministries, publicly owned corporations, autonomous government agencies, and commissions between the remnants of Charles Taylor's government, LURD, MODEL, and representatives of civil society, which, because it now assumed a political responsibility, acquired a unique and novel role.

Prior to the 2003 negotiations, Liberian civil society was relatively weak, and democracy or human rights NGOs scarce. The first Liberian NGOs were formed in the 1970s, but experienced a backlash following Doe's accession to power in 1980. During his rule, the development of Liberian civil society was severely hampered by repressive NGO laws and their public harassment, but the establishment of the first transitional government in 1994 provided a medium for them to re-emerge. Two notable NGOs who vied for input in the peace talks during this time were the Interfaith Mediation Committee (IMFC) and the Liberian Women's Initiative (LWI). The IMFC convened the first consultations between the representatives of Doe, Taylor and the AFL, in June 1990. Two months later, their proposals were adopted and articulated as the original ECOWAS peace plan. Although neither IMFC nor LWI officially participated in the negotiations that led to the Abuja Peace Agreement in 1996, they were able to attend regional peace talks, get their concerns included in the agenda of the negotiations, and influence public support for them. When it became clear that peace talks were going to be held again in 2003, Liberian civil society adopted a different approach and called for its formal inclusion in the talks, particularly because several of them, such as MARWOPNET, had been instrumental in convincing the leaders of the warring factions to agree to hold peace negotiations. The participation of NGOs in the Liberian peace negotiations remains one of the few examples of direct NGO involvement in top level, formal, political peace negotiations.

Information for this short history of the conflict in Liberia has been drawn, in part, from the following sources:

    Liberia: Civil Society's Role in Political Transition. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). January 2004.
    The Role of Civil Society in National Reconciliation and Peacebuilding in Liberia. Augustine Toure. International Peace Academy. April 2002.