I just returned from a too-brief stay in Liberia: a few days with ex-combatants in remote mining camps near the Sierra Leone border, a few days with street youth and ex-coms in central Nimba, close to Guinea, and a few days with street youth in Monrovia’s more chaotic market areas, made even more chaotic by the splurge of holiday spending (a flurry of empty consumption that rivals any other I have seen).
While I’m cautiously optimistic about the situation in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, there’s a risk of renewed war. I spent a lot of time with the kind of Liberians you would expect to run towards rather than away from the trouble. One fear in the capital is that they’ll do just that, in search of quick money and a little glory. I find this hard to believe. Short of state collapse or war in Liberia, even the most hardened and disenfranchised combatants I met had little interest in a bush fight. I believe them. There is money to be made in Liberia, more than almost all of them ever saw from 14 years of war.
Of course, one should not extrapolate too much from small sample sizes. Fortunately I’m running a survey of ex-coms in six weeks. If you’re trying to evaluate the impacts of an experimental reintegration program, you could find a worse measure of success than whether the treatment and control group are migrating towards the Ivoirian and Guinean borders awaiting the the move to violence.
The next Liberian election is also a year away. I also don’t see many signs of election-related violence. If it comes down to a narrow and disputed victory, like we’ve seen in Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire, anything is possible (I don’t care how stable a democracy you have). But I saw little evidence of ‘violent entrepreneurs’ starting to mobilize the least stable young men. Not even the crime is particularly organized. But measuring this will be a main objective of my street youth study.
Actually, the biggest problems I saw were innumerable broken promises by UN agencies and NGOs. If you want to give unemployed young men a grievance, try promising them something worth their annual income and then fail to deliver for 12 months. Are UN procurement problems and bureaucracy the greatest enemy of peace in fragile states? I might say so.
A lowlight was waking up in my Nimbalian hotel room full of bedbug bites. All I owned in that room is now quarantined. I draw some solace from the fact that a rebel war criminal turned Senator and Presidential candidate, Prince Johnson, would be staying the the same room a couple of days later. I did not tell the manger about the bedbugs. Bite away, little buddies, bite away.
A final piece of wisdom to pass on to readers: if you happen to be interviewing a drug dealer and professional phone-jacker in the middle of a slum, be sure to put your iPhone on silent.