By Ali D. Kaba
Liberia has a small population of about 5 million with an abundance of valuable natural resources, including gold, diamond, plenty of fresh water, and home to over forty percent of the remaining rainforest in West Africa. This natural wealth contrasts with an entrenched rate of poverty, widespread social and political distrust, a looming debt crisis, and an increasingly bitter political culture that is leading to a state of near economic paralysis.
Despite passing a progressive Land Rights Act in 2018, Liberia is witnessing an aggressive landholding class or land hoarders increasingly acquiring titles to rural lands through legal loopholes and backdoor negotiations among rural and national elites, leading to private enclosure of common land – excluding small villages and towns from surrounding natural wealth.
External private mining interests are also destroying local livelihoods. There are a huge number of poorly regulated, foreign-sponsored or owned artisanal-mining and timber-extraction activities throughout the country. These activities are notorious for displacing communities and destroying sources of livelihoods. Indeed, mining in general, and unregulated artisanal mining in particular, is foisting environmental degradation and social breakdown upon rural communities. The potential negative impacts are especially pronounced in places were the presence of the state is not only poor but is also seen as negatively excessive. Reports emanating from places like River Gee and Maryland Counties – where communities have denounced land-grabs by national elites and an invasion of foreign artisan miners and loggers – are just one tree in a vast forest of problems that extend into Grand Bassa, Lofa, Bong, River Cess, and the list goes on. Land cases in general, and those in Nimba and Montserrado in particular, remain highly combustible – with ethnic identity masking a deep structural distrust and resentment between individuals, groups and the state.
A large part of the country – particularly the rural areas – remains ungoverned and poorly serviced, with gangs of unemployed youth entrenched in enclaves of sectors like illicit mining and pit-sawing roam unabated. Drug kingpins, criminal gangs, ethno-nationalists, private security firms, concession plantations and large estates security structures, including quasi-state militia incubate and sanctify some of these elements into a readily command and control trigger. These issues are compounded by cases of perceived corruption, economic mismanagement, and white elephant projects, with no tangible or coherent results for the common Liberians.
The tendency to gloss over some of these pertinent issues is attributable to the fact that some people believe or act as if the conditions for a relapse into civil war or the appetite for chaos are gone. And it is here that the problem gets even more serious. Indeed, with these neglected risks Liberia seems to be at a critical juncture. The country’s international partners appear to have taken a hands-off approach due to frustration with the lack of commitment from the current government. Even before this government, some were disappointed by the fact that some of the large investments made over the last 16 plus years have not meaningfully paid-off.
Regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – despite major achievements in areas like regional economic integration, attempts at social cohesion, and peacemaking through peace keeping missions – are still hamstrung by the age-old question of political sovereignty. As such, ECOWAS currently lacks a clear political pathway and regional framework to solve national problems before there is a spillover into full-blown violent crisis.
To be sure, the challenges for Liberia are daunting and considerable, and conflict or a return to extreme political and social tensions appears to be a constant threat. In fact, this should force national leaders, policymakers to critically think through development approaches and policy options that not only engender hopes, but bring meaningful relief to a poverty-stricken population.
Unfortunately, the country’s current developmental policies seem to be necessitated by a depleted national coffer or insolvency, forcing the government to make policy principally based on attracting capital in the extractive sectors or through risky loans. But such policy should not be confused with job-creation schemes or national development because the objective is different. Indeed, besides the practical day-to-day reality on the ground, the empirical evidence and theories in international political economy and economic geography tell us that investors will seek quick return to their investment in an environment of uncertainty and heightened risks. Therefore, it is not surprising that the current batch of foreign investors trooping into the country is much more interested in the artisan extractive sectors.
On the whole, it is apparent that the current developmental model in play might not be sufficient to promote economic growth or maintain political stability. This regime, as a product of development through resource induced cash infusion and foreign aid – a postwar model of development borrowed from the past regime – is limited as a means for job creation and sustainable development. (In fact, at best, this model could only benefit a small number of urban elites who may not trickle the wealth down). The question is therefore whether the people should count on this model or these actors to institute the necessary reforms that would lead Liberia to its full potential.
Finally, what might be most critical about Liberia is the fact that its citizens have seen their general wealth (or GDP per capita) declined significantly over four consecutive years, dropping from $714 per capita in 2016 to $620 in 2019. The country is characterized by high-youth unemployment and underemployment; the so-called “youth bulge.” Even granting that Liberians are tired of violence as means of expressing their economic and political dissatisfaction, the most important question is: Are Liberians now generating the conditions or incentives for the country to relapse into extreme political crisis? In other words, are we enabling an atmosphere in which conflict or profit through violence can be seen as morally permissible, if not less costly than elections? If so, what are the underlying elements of these conditions, and how do we make war or political violence an unacceptable mode of political and economic transaction in Liberia?
We may not have direct answers for these questions, nor any easy fix to address the challenges, but we must never give up on raising them and demanding accountability and effective management of our land and natural resources – so the whole nation might share and come together around our natural wealth. They hold the key to our progress and stability as a country.
Ali Kaba is a Doctorate Student at American University’s School of International Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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