Gavin E L Hall

November 2012

Government or governance - The Challenge of Liberia

Lowenkopf, M. (1995) 'Liberia: Putting the State Back Together'. in Hartman, I. (ed.) Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. London: Lynne Rienner
Lloyd, R. (2006) ‘Rebuilding the Liberian State’.
Current History 105 (691), 229-233.
Reno, W. (1999)
Warlord Politics and African States. London: Lynne Reinner

The three texts for review provide important insight into the discussions surrounding how best to proceed with the post-conflict reconstruction in weak states, with particular reference to Liberia. In the case of Lloyd (2006) this is written after the United Nations intervention in 2003, so it is arguably a more reflective piece, in terms of the overall picture, than the others. Lowenkopf, in particular, is writing during the height of the brutality of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and his various opponents. Though even with this in mind, his arguments in favour of local empowerment for the benefit of civic society play an important role in how post-conflict sub-Saharan African states operate today (Lowenkopf, 1995). Meanwhile, Reno (1999) is writing during the Taylor’s legitimate sovereignty, and his work forms more of an explanation as to how and why power operates within weak states.

Post-conflict reconstruction is a hotly debated topic, not in the sense of whether it is needed, but more fundamentally in how it can best be delivered. Traditionally Western donor states have pursued their own notion of what a state should look like, and tried to impose this onto a culture and society that historically has not been receptive to it (Jackson, 1990). On the other hand is the Neopatrimonial viewpoint, which arguably represents the reality of how governance in sub-Saharan Africa actually operates in the post-Cold War world (Braton and Van De Walle, 1997). This review will focus on the strands of this debate in reference to Liberia, via the arguments put forward in the three texts. The challenge was perhaps best summed up by The Financial Times (2003) when it described Liberia as ‘more criminal empire than government’.

In a post-conflict situation the fundamental questions as to who does this empowering and who will share power, and who will ultimately maintain the legitimacy symbols of the nation and state need to be addressed (Lowenkopf 1995). On the surface the argument appears to be a straight divide between Reno putting forward an argument based from Max Weber’s patrimonial governance, whereby the right to rule rests with the individual not the office (Weber, 1968). Lowenkopf and Lloyd pursue the more Western centric notion of the state, where it is the state apparatus and bureaucracy providing the right to rule, though they do disagree on how to best rebuild the state. However, as they are looked at in more depth the distinctions between the lines of thought invoke a less constrained analysis, as the reality is much more akin to the melting pot that is reality.

Reno argues that the most important factor in the control of power within weak-states is the control of markets, and he goes onto develop this notion using four case studies, Sierra Leone, Congo, Nigeria and Liberia. He argues that the pursuance of warlord politics is a rational response to the unsustainability of very weak states, bought on by patronage politics (Reno 1999). This can be seen in the very origin of the conflict in Liberia. President Tolbert had essentially spent the 1970s acting as a classic neopatrimonial ruler, dispensing his patronage to bolster the Americo-Liberian elite (Braton and Van De Walle, 1997). A degree of consternation built up over time, especially after the economic downturn of 1973 which led to a decline in the resources available for patronage, and subsequently political influence. This meant that the dominance of the regime suffered, which to Reno (1999) cements his position that the key to power originates from control of the markets. Furthermore, one of the factors in the decline of the ability of a state to function comes from the patronage abuse that has bloated the bureaucracy to such a degree that it is no longer economically sustainable (Braton and Van De Walle, 1997).

Lowenkopf (1995) puts forward the case for the traditional state institutions, which he argues comes from a good solid basis of social order and economy that enables the political system to flourish and thus serve the needs of the people. He is arguing that local people will be able to rebuild the state from the bottom up if given the opportunity, establishing strong foundations of civic society. This seems like an overly idealistic notion, as the people of Liberia are largely displaced and have their basic needs, food and water, to attend to as a matter of importance. That being said Lowenkopf does highlight some areas that have been successful, such as the Special Emergency Life Food (SELF) which operates distributing food in Monrovia. Furthermore, they have also managed to transcend the conflict and help people on all sides by providing technical assistance to Liberians United for Self Help (LUSH) that operates in NPFL territory (Lowenkopf, 1995). This would appear to give some credence to the argument, however, it could be that is an example of people doing what needs to be done rather than the forerunner to a grandiose state-building project as the people, in general, are unlikely to be outwardly thinking about macro politics as to them which particular type of “ruler” they have, be it warlord, President, or other system the reality is they expect corruption so it makes little real difference to the man on the street as to who is being called leader at any given time.

Lloyd (2006) sees the solution in terms of the Government being democratic and transparent, in order to have the confidence of the people, and from this maintain the ability to provide security. Indeed it is the provision of security that he sees as the most important factor. It can be argued that this is an extension of the state maintains the monopoly of violence definition put forward by Max Weber. Following this through, Lloyd (2006) is really arguing for the development of the traditional Western interpretation of the apparatus of state. This comes across an archaic argument, as it is detached from the reality of the people’s experiences on the ground. If we look at policing in Liberia, for example, it is clear that the Police – as an institution of state and expression of the sovereignty of the state - simply do not exist in the same manner as we would perceive them through our Western eyes. The reality is much more akin to Lowenkopf’s notion of empowering the local populous to rebuild civic society from the ground up (Baker, 2009, 2010). This highlights the problems faced when trying to undertake post-conflict reconstruction, the end objective may well be agreed upon but the path to achievement is much less predetermined.

It should be realised that the importance of control of markets cannot be underestimated as every market that is under one sphere of influence is denied to the opponent, thereby exacerbating the effect of that market on political influence even more (Reno, 1999). Thus, the fundamental basis of power in a warlord environment, and their key concern, is the maintenance of control of the markets. This is no different to colonial methods of doing business with the local strongman, and the concepts of
Afrique utile and Afrique inutile, where in the modern context the key to power is the dominance of the Afrique utile sphere (Jackson, 1990). Therefore, the use of patronage to keep supporters, and more so potential enemies, friendly to the warlord’s cause is the only real course of action available. This means that the state is kept weakened as it consolidates the warlord’s power base to do so. In other words, weak states become a self-fulfilling cyclic paradigm. Exemplified in the cases of Tolbert and Doe, both lacked sufficient capital to exercise the necessary patronage in order to appease their enemies. The fact that Taylor, as an Americo-Liberian, the elite Doe had ousted, was able to led a successful coup against Doe, goes to illustrate just how weak Doe’s position had become in terms of his access to markets and political patronage (Reno, 1999).

The distinction between the texts is not as definitive as first appears. Lloyd advocates in his conclusion that the solution to Liberia is to embark on revitalising the state towards democracy, yet he accepts that the patronage and utilisation of resource gain to benefit the Mano and Gio tribes as being a factor in the maintenance of Taylor’s power, and also via his overreach into Sierra Leone and Guinean markets his ultimate demise (Lloyd, 2006). This clearly benefits Reno’s position and it can be argued that if the predisposition for power rests with the control of markets then how to alter the paradigm in favour of a state with both
de jure and de facto sovereignty becomes of pressing importance. Indeed we see the markets, specifically the diamond trade, being of such over-riding importance that it was not only Taylor exploiting the markets, but also the Economic Community of West African States Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) forces, as well as other rebels (Atkinson, 1997). Indeed there is evidence of business deals and collusion over the markets between the antagonists, specifically NPFL and ECOMOG (Reno, 1996). Furthermore, Taylor was actually able to operate and run without either de facto or de jure sovereignty, and as such didn’t have access to the organs of state for traditional patronage and support, so it is important to understand that he is not fulfilling the modern neopatrimonial mould, but rather the original patrimonial concept (Reno, 1999).

To move this on a stage further, if we follow Lowenkopf’s position through then it is mutually exclusive to Reno’s position, in terms of ultimate power. Lowenkopf (1995) would contend that the control of the markets is a factor, yet in his blueprint they are under the auspices of the state, and therefore by definition not subject to the influences of warlord politics, with ultimate power resting with society. If we examine Liberia, up until Taylor is elected President in 1997, Lowenkopf’s assertion cannot stand up to scrutiny, as there is a complete abstinence of statehood until Taylor eventually secures
de facto sovereignty via the election, which on the surface appears to be free and fair, though the reality is one of little real choice for the suffering people of Liberia (Harris 1999). Reno (1996, 1999) attributes this to the control Taylor secured over the key diamond and timber industries, and as such his election can largely be seen as one of self-interest for the population, both in terms of economic self-benefit but also self-preservation. For Lowenkopf’s (1995) ideology to hold true then it becomes clear that the warlord system of Reno, needs to be overhauled entirely before reconstruction can begin. To give an indication of scale, in 1995 diamond and gold exports were worth an estimated $300-$500 million (Atkinson 1997). Consider that against the GDP per person of Liberia, $1,269 in 1980 decreasing to $163 in 2005 and you have an idea of just how effective Reno’s assertion on the importance of controlling the markets to enable political patronage is (United Nations, 2006). Therefore it is argued that,
‘The economic and political incentives for faction and government members to pursue illegal activities outweigh any incentives to work for peace or democracy’ (Atkinson, 1997, 26).

This highlights the core problem facing post-conflict reconstruction, it has to be in someone’s interest or the chances of it arising are minimal. If we look to Reno (1999) then the argument is that if control of the markets can be incorporated into a peaceful solution, without impugning one side or the other then peace becomes of benefit. Turning to Lowenkopf (1995) then the idea becomes one of rebuilding the state as an institution from the ground up, by engaging the populous on a local level to aid the cohesion of civil society. Lloyd (2006) puts forward the notion that the rebuilding process comes from the top down, with an effective leadership that is backed by the main actors within the state, and is able to operate on a transparent democratic level.

All three of the texts looked at for this review find their arguments as part of the matrix that makes up the post-conflict reconstruction of Liberia, therefore, they help to provide a greater depth of knowledge for not only understanding the cause and conduct of conflict but also provide the answers to the rebuilding process. Indeed the Africa Governance Initiative (2011) argues that with the reconstruction process underway since 2003 with the backing of the United Nations, and ultimately the election of President Johnson-Sirleaf 2006, Liberia is on the road to recovery, with $16billion invested over the past 5 years and annual growth around the 7% it can be said that Liberia is looking firmly towards the future, with government and people as partners in the endeavour.

List of References
Africa Governance Initiative (2011)
Liberian President: Government and People are Partners in Progress [online] available from president-government-and-people-are-partners-in-progress [09 Nov 2012]
Atkinson, P. (1997)
The War Economy in Liberia: A Political Analysis London: Overseas Development Institute
Baker, B. (2009) ‘A Policing Partnership for post-war Africa? Lessons from Liberia and Southern Sudan’.
Policing and Society 19(4), 372-389
Baker, B. (2010) ‘Resource Constraint and policy in Liberia’s post-conflict policing’.
Police Practice and Research 11(3), 184-196
Braton, B. and Van De Walle, N. (1997)
Democratic Experiments in Africa: Regime Transitions in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Harris, D. (1999) ‘From ‘Warlord’ to ‘Democratic’ President: How Charles Taylor won the 1997 Liberian Elections’
Journal of Modern African Studies 37 (3), 431-455
Jackson, R. (1990)
Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lloyd, R. (2006) ‘Rebuilding the Liberian State’.
Current History 105 (691), 229-233
Lowenkopf, M. (1995) ‘Liberia: Putting the State Back Together’. in
Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. Ed. by Zartman, I. London: Lynne Rienner
Reno, W. (1999)
Warlord Politics and African States. London: Lynne Rienner
Reno, W. (1996) ‘Business of War in Liberia’.
Current History 95 (601), 211-215
The Financial Times (2003)
A State of Collapse: Liberia is the Main Obstacle to West African Security. 27 June
United Nations (2006)
Liberia: Development Challenges Top Agenda as the Nation Recovers from Years of Civil Strife [online] available from [09 Nov 2012]
Weber, M. (1968)
Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology Volume 2. New York: Bedminster Press