No Time for a Peacekeeper Exit in Liberia

Nigerian peacekeepers with the UN Mission in Liberia provide security during a presidential runoff election. Monrovia, Liberia, November 11, 2011. (Staton Winter/UN Photo)

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) began its mandate in one of the most fragile countries on the planet on October 1, 2003. A decade of intermittent civil war had caused Liberia’s gross domestic product to plummet by two-thirds, killed up to 500,000 people, and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population. With UNMIL as its primary guarantor of security, Liberia’s economy recovered, and elections in 2005, 2011, and 2014 went off without a hitch. The national population has doubled, meaning Liberia has an entire generation of youth who have little recollection of the country’s troubled past. So why would the UN put this progress at risk?

If all goes according to plan, UNMIL will officially hand over responsibility for the country’s security to the government of Liberia by June 30 this year. But a swift exit by peacekeepers in the face of reduced budgets and competing international security priorities would be a mistake. Despite appearances, the timing of the exit could not be worse. It comes during a period of great political and economic uncertainty for Liberia. With the prospects of contentious elections to be held in 2017, the UN should heed the calls of many prominent Liberian officials to remain.

Prior to UNMIL, international involvement in Liberia had failed to stop, or even helped fuel, conflict. President Samuel Doe was murdered in 1990 after rebels took him from the headquarters of the multinational West African force that had been brought in to stop widespread fighting. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1993, only to see the war criminal Charles Taylor elected, setting the stage for further conflict between 1999 and 2003. By contrast, UNMIL has played an essential role in Liberia’s post-conflict recovery.

After Ebola recently killed around 5,000 people and paralyzed much of the country for nearly a year, the people of Liberia have for the most part recovered from the devastating effects of the disease. But, faced with low commodity prices, a weak currency, and high inflation, Liberia’s economy has not. Growth slowed from close to double digits over most of the past decade to 0.7% in 2014 and 0% in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund. Prices of Liberia’s two largest exports, rubber and iron, have dropped more than 80% since their peak in 2011, forcing widespread work stoppages, layoffs, and labor unrest. The government has responded with austerity measures due to lower revenues and declines in funding from international donors.

A reeling economy has led to political unrest. Voters punished President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party in 2014 Senate elections, giving it only 10% of the vote. In response to the opposition’s allegations of cronyism, incompetence, and mishandling of Ebola, elements of the ruling regime may be digging in. Several prominent officials critical of regime policies have recently been found found dead under mysterious circumstances. Other officials, as well as independent media organizations, have been threatened with arrest and gone into hiding. One has accused the government of maintaining a “death list.”

The prospect of political change might be a good thing were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming 2017 elections to replace Johnson Sirleaf, who, whatever her government’s flaws, has played an essential role in keeping the country together. The opposition remains divided and Liberian politics contentious, with little clear indication of who might ultimately replace the outgoing president. Two candidates with viable shots include Prince Johnson, a former rebel warlord who was responsible for Doe’s brutal murder as well as other atrocities during the war, and Benoni Urey, a close business associate of Taylor, who was convicted of war crimes in 2012 by the International Criminal Court. Though Johnson and Urey both claim to have reformed, the prospect of either candidate unseating the Unity Party could stoke more unrest.

Certainly, a return to economic growth and a peaceful consolidation of Liberia’s democracy is possible even if UNMIL were to depart. Johnson Sirleaf has stated several times that she believes her forces are up to the challenge of maintaining security. A presence of around 2,000 police and military are to remain in the country, and UN officials say that they will further compensate through a planned counterterrorism standby force in Cote D’Ivoire. Though the past few years have been tough, economic analysts have expressed some optimism that commodity prices will stabilize and allow Liberia to return to growth. The country weathered the Ebola crisis well enough, and, despite their rhetoric, there is little indication that any major presidential candidate wishes for a return to war.

Nevertheless, Liberia can ill afford the rapid draw-down proposed by UNMIL. The sluggish economy and the prospect of a contentious political transition heighten the likelihood of political instability and a return to conflict. Elections in post-conflict countries are often volatile, particularly when a transfer of power from one political party to another is likely. This is a lesson the international community has learned only too well in places such as Burundi and Cote D’Ivoire. Though the counterterrorism force maybe able to compensate for a reduced UN presence in the future, it only held its first military exercise last October and remains untested in a major crisis.

They cannot agree on much, but major opposition leaders, Liberia’s chief justice, and presidential candidates have all pleaded for UNMIL’s forces to remain in the country. Even Johnson Sirleaf has called for a UN “quick-reaction” force to remain in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire until the end of next year. The 4,000 or so UN troops presently in Liberia should be allowed to heed the calls to remain in the country through the 2017 elections. For close to 14 years, UN troops have done an admirable job of maintaining the peace in a country riven by violence. Still, it will likely take a year or two more before their job is truly done.

Nathaniel D.F. Allen is a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies and a contributor on Liberia for the Economist Intelligence Unit. The views in this article are solely those of the author.