Violence in Voinjama highlights fragility of peace on Liberia-Guinea frontier

International Alert recently conducted research into perceptions of security and access to justice among stakeholders in three districts of Lofa County in northwest Liberia, as part of its EC-funded Initiative for Peacebuilding (IfP) project. The eruption of communal violence in Voinjama while Alert’s team was visiting the county seat provided a stark reminder of the fragility of peace in Liberia and the challenges of security provision in a remote and sensitive region.

Lofa County was central to the spread of conflict from Liberia into Sierra Leone in the early 1990s and the proxy conflict between Liberia and Guinea in 1999-2003. It remains among Liberia’s most sensitive counties given its complex inter-communal relations and the potential for instability in the neighbouring Forest Region of Guinea. Through interviews and focus group discussions with county and district officials, legal professionals, police and security forces, chiefs, elders and religious leaders, media, civil society organisations and local communities’ representatives, Alert has gained a broad understanding of the security and justice challenges facing Liberia’s far north.

Drivers of insecurity as perceived by stakeholders across the county included inadequacies in the provision of security and justice, land disputes among existing and returned former displaced populations, legacy divisions between ethnic and religious communities, and the physical isolation of many communities which remain inaccessible for much of the year. Contrary to foreign reporting of the Liberia-Guinea frontier, few local people felt that small arms were widely available or used. The low incidence of armed robbery and the apparent absence of modern weapons during the Voinjama violence appear to support this.

Violence against women is still widely perceived to be a problem, although most respondents believed the situation had improved thanks to the activism of the Liberian Government and its security forces, the UN, and local and international NGOs. While public education and advocacy campaigns including Alert’s Human Security and Gender-Based Violence project appear to have modified behaviour and willingness to report crimes, there remain significant gaps in the ability to prosecute offenders as well as financial obstacles.

Specific shortcomings in the provision of security and justice identified by stakeholders, including the police and legal professionals, include: insufficient ordinary police manpower, depots and equipment, especially vehicles; a lack of specialised policing, including riot control and forensic facilities; lack of detention facilities outside Voinjama, insecurity of the county prison and lack of provision for secure prisoners’ transportation; confusion between legal regimes exercised by statutory and customary authorities; and a lack of trained judges, magistrates, solicitors and clerks as well as insecurity of court houses, records, evidence and witnesses.

The consequence according to people we interviewed is a low level of public confidence in the rule of law and thus high frustration with the state, almost seven years after the end of the war. The cost of pursuing cases through the statutory system is high, Attending court is expensive for victims and witnesses, and police and judicial officials are widely reported to demand money to investigate and prosecute. Delivery of justice is slow and many prosecutions collapse or are abandoned.

Alternative mechanisms include customary authorities, with some chiefs exercising de facto policing and criminal justice powers, and vigilante groups, including ex-combatants. Reliance on NGO advocates for successful prosecution of gender-based violence cases is very high and UNMIL peacekeepers remain the only realistic response to public order incidents. As one respondent highlighted, ‘all of Liberia’s PRS [Poverty Reduction Strategy] is founded on the idea of the rule of law but the reality is often mob justice’.

Violence in Voinjama on 26th February is reported to have claimed four lives, injured over 20 more and involved arson attacks on several buildings and churches, demonstrating the volatility of societal relations as well as the difficulties in containing urban violence. Three features were notable from the onset, spread and interpretation of the violence.

First, the violence demonstrated continuing high levels of distrust between elements of society in Lofa divided by the 1989-2003 war. This is manifested ethnically between Mandingo and Loma peoples, religiously between Muslims and Christians, generationally between youth and elders, and internationally between Liberians and Guineans. When security deteriorates, there appears to be a widespread belief in Liberia that Guinea or Guineans will benefit from it at Liberians’ expense.

Second, UNMIL – especially given the reductions in the number of peacekeepers – is not always adequate or appropriate to maintain public order in the country. Violence actually escalated rapidly after peacekeepers, many armed with inappropriate weapons, arrived. Some local Christians even complained that Pakistani and Jordanian peacekeepers only protected Voinjama’s mosques and the Muslim quarter, and whether or not this is true, it contributes to a local perception that the UN is unable to deal with this kind of incident. However, without UNMIL, Liberian security forces remain incapable of responding to this level of violence outside of Monrovia.

Finally, the role of rumour and misinformation was critical to triggering the violence. Youths initially reacted to false rumours that a mosque in Zorzor District had been burned. Spread by mobile phone, this misinformation filled a media vacuum created by the temporary failure of community radio stations in Zorzor and Voinjama, normally relied upon for local reporting in vernacular languages. Alert plans to research the role of such information flows in sparking and managing conflict in Liberia and Nepal as part of its IfP Early Warning project later in 2010.