September 7, 2007

HARRISONBURG— Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, is quoted several times in a feature article for the current (Fall 2007) issue of the global affairs quarterly Diplomatic Courier.

“One Nation under Ellen: Liberia’s Post Conflict Rebuilding” by Jed Levine, describes the ongoing reconstruction of the war-torn West African country (the full text of the article can be accessed online by clicking here). The author argues that while President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf “may be a heroic and inspiring icon, but evidence shows that Liberia has a long way to go before it becomes the shining example of African statehood that its original founders envisioned, and perhaps too much of that fate rests on the shoulders of one woman” and cites Dr. Pham:

Aside from the departure of Charles Taylor, little has changed among Liberia’s ruling elite since 2003. And while the warlord-turned-president was responsible for horrific atrocities, Taylor’s acts were hardly those of a lone madman; offenders came from all sectors of Liberia’s ruling elite and include even a number of Taylor’s relatives.

“Liberian elites in 2003 realized the pressure was on them, so they threw Taylor overboard,” said Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and author of “ Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State.” And while Taylor has been removed and is currently on trial for his crimes, there is little indication that his cronies will ever face the same kind of judgment.

Thus Liberia has been saddled with the same political elite it had before Taylor, including a number of war criminals and kleptocrats. Even Charles Taylor’s estranged wife Jewel Howard Taylor, who ardently supported her husband throughout his dictatorial regime, now serves as a senator for Bong County. His former son-in-law Edwin Snowe served as speaker of the house, within the presidential line of succession, until January of this year. Adolphus Dolo, who is now a senator for Nimba County, was known as “General Peanut Butter” during the civil war, when he paid child soldiers with marijuana and amphetamines.

“The only thing standing between [ Taylor’s cronies] and the government is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” said Pham, who echoed the caveat of placing responsibility with a cult-of-personality as opposed to a stable government system. “It’s not institutional constraints that are keeping Liberia democratic, it’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I prefer not to place my bets on any human being, I prefer to place my bets on institutions,” he added.

The article goes on to note that “despite efforts towards economic growth Liberia’s stability in the future is still dependent on security issues both internally and with its neighbors,” quoting Liberia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nathaniel Barnes, as well as Dr. Pham:

“Our borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, they are very porous,” said H.E. Barnes, highlighting the role that tribal and ethnic divisions have played in past conflicts. “Those factors mean that there is a likelihood of an overflow of these things spreading.”

Pham speculated that the next major threat to Liberia will come from Guinea, which has recently seen some cross-border guerilla activity. “There’s a tremendous amount of weaponry around Liberia right now and that is a failure on the part of the UN,” he said.

Both of Liberia’s civil wars began as guerilla attacks from rural areas and could easily be repeated in the absence of a continued UN presence or the stabilization of Liberian security forces. “This is a country that’s surviving on good luck right now and a bit of goodwill,” said Pham.