A Case Study: the Liberian WarsBy Liz Boulton February 13, 2019
This case study presents an example of the potential of women and women’s networks to positively influence conflict situations. It showcases smart ways of working within the Human Dimension, and could inform future operational campaign design.
LEADERSHIP & SELECTING THE RIGHT CENTRE OF GRAVITY
In a time of wide-spread and potential growing global conflict, it may be instructive to reflect upon how the Liberian Civil Wars were brought to an end. Leymah Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and the related documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell describe a different strategy, one led by a woman.
After a decade of suffering both war-time horrors and being trapped in a cruel domestic violence situation, Leymah Gbowee emerged from a period of crippling depression to become a mighty leader who played a key role in ending the Liberian Civil War. I argue here that her ability to correctly identify and then relentlessly target the Centre of Gravity (COG) was key to her success.
Context – The Liberia civil wars
The Liberian Wars, which stretched from 1989 to 2003, missed much of the world’s attention as they overlapped with the First Gulf War, the 9/11 New York World Trade Centre attack and subsequent US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The socio-cultural background to this conflict was a divided society. Liberia’s elite and most powerful were the ‘Americo-Liberians’ who had descended from freed American slaves. They distinguished themselves as superior to the local indigenous Liberian people and had held political power continuously from the end of US Colonization in 1847 to 1980. In 1980, an indigenous Liberian, Samual Doe organised a violent coup and took over Government. He was the first indigenous Liberian to hold power and, initially, he received great support from the US. Yet his Government was besieged by counter-coup attempts and lost international support after becoming repressive and corrupt.
The first civil war began in 1989, when Doe was challenged by a member of the previous elite ‘Americo-Liberians’ Charles Taylor, and another warlord, Prince Johnson. Johnson’s forces tortured Doe to death. In the following years, Charles Taylor went on to become the dominant force, and in 1997, when he promised he would deliver peace and prosperity to Liberia, he was elected President. Peace ensued, yet it lasted barely two years once it became apparent that Taylor was callous and divisive. In 1999, the ‘Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy’ (LURD) group rebelled against him and the second Liberian Civil War commenced.
It was a savage conflict, where civilians were key targets. Atrocities were committed by all sides, particularly sexual violence against women, and there was widespread use of drugged child-soldiers. The Liberian Civil Wars were devastating to Liberia’s infrastructure, economic activities and people, particularly psychologically.
Influences on the war and its ending…
Taylor’s strong hold on power partly related to his pivotal role in the Blood Diamond trade with Sierra-Leone, which afforded him great resources. The conflict was also influenced by proxy Cold War dynamics; the resource-curse associated with Liberia’s abundant iron-ore, timber and other resources; and ethnic tensions. When it came to ending the war, of course, the UN, International agencies and other countries, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), played a role, but one might ask, were any of these powerful agencies the initiator of change? Did they bring the breakthrough, or rather just play supportive and largely mandated procedural roles in response to a larger force, a larger influence, that really kick-started the change?
I propose that the initiator of change was a force that effectively identified and targeted the COG, and that was the ‘Women of Liberia want Peace’ movement.
IDENTIFYING THE CENTRE OF GRAVITY
If you were an impoverished citizen of Liberia who wanted to stop the war, what tactics and strategies would you adopt? What options were even available to you?
Leymah Gbowee identified that Taylor often spoke about the divine authority behind his power. As depicted in the documentary (Pray the Devil Back to Hell), Taylor says to a Church congregation:
I am here because the One… created me, to launch this revolution… I’m not here because I wanted to be here... Because the only person that could have protected me over the past 5 to 6 years is the Jehovah God Almighty!
She also noted that the two main warring parties had different faiths: Taylor went to Church. And the leadership of the LURD went to the Mosque.
Her comments below show how she and her team started to identify the COG:
Taylor could pray the devil out of hell. And we said if this man is so religious, we need to get to that thing that he holds firmly to. So if the women started pressurizing the pastors and the bishops, the pastors and the bishops would pressurize the leaders. And if the women from the mosque started talking to their imans, they would pressurize the warlords also.
Gbowee and her team identified that the COG was the prevailing dominant narrative. This narrative, which could also be considered as a hegemonic philosophy, had two strands:
- Rightful power - Firstly, there was the idea that Taylor had a divine right to rule, and that it was rightful that the Americo-Liberians be in power.
- Ontology – Philosophical concept of ‘how to exist’ and ‘be’ - Secondly, Taylor was successful in establishing a new ‘normal’ of how Liberians lived. Early on assuming power, Charles Taylor’s words indicated an intent to usher in a new ideology and concept of identity for Liberia: we have an opportunity, starting from zero, to reconstruct the minds of our people…
It is hard to know if the ideological shift was as Taylor initially intended, or if it arose through the process of battling for power. Either way, the new way of ‘being’ for Liberian people featured a new level of division and the legitimization of extreme force and brutality. Previously, relationships between various tribes and ethnic or religious groups were relatively harmonious, and considered as separate to tensions over indigenous or Americo-Liberian status. However, Gbowee describes how Taylor deliberately brewed suspicion and hatred between tribes. Division and irreconcilable differences between these different groups became the ‘new normal.’
As Taylor and the varying rebel leaders and warlords fought it out over almost a decade, the idea that one assumes power and legitimacy through the use of extreme and vicious force also became accepted as part of this wider ‘way of being.’ It was no longer questioned. There were mass rapes, mutilation, and cannibalism. People lost the ‘idea’ that peace was possible.
Gbowee proposed an alternative narrative for Liberia: the idea that peace was preferable, urgently needed and possible. She focused upon prayer and thus while not overtly saying it, the women’s peace movement challenged Taylor’s narrative that ‘his way’ was divinely decreed and the only or ‘right’ religious way. This was a grass-roots approach aimed at the Liberian people; the fighters; leaders; and the international community. Gbowee notes that various solutions were developed ‘on the run', however, it can be seen that, collectively, all actions worked towards achieving this single point of aim: establishing the idea that peace was preferable, urgently needed and possible – as the dominant narrative.
- One single message: “The women of Liberia want Peace.” This was repeated and reiterated via radio; T-shirts; formal ‘position statements’ presented to Parliament; and mass ‘sit-ins’ with placards held in prominent places. The largest sit-ins were strategically sited at a rice market alongside the main road which Charles Taylor commuted along each day. These sit-ins brought up to 2,500 women at a time.
- An alliance between Muslim and Christian women. This was forged in deep and layered ways. The women worked hard to overcome initial religious based hesitations. The slogan, ‘The bullet doesn’t care if you are Muslim or Christian’ helped create unity.
- Alliances and powerful networks. Gbowee and her various collaborators worked through extensive networks and had alliances with multiple civil and international groups, especially among other West African countries. This allowed them to promote their narrative and vision widely.
- Forgoing all ‘labels.’ Tribal and religious labels were dropped. Everyone was just a ‘Liberian.’
- Inclusivity. Women of all ‘classes’ were involved, especially those from internally displaced person (IDP) camps.
- Morale. The women’s movement worked to lift the self-esteem and morale of many women who had been demoralized and humiliated. Instead of viewing themselves as ‘nothing’ or powerless, they identified and then celebrated positive acts the women had done, teaching the women to say “I am a peace-builder…” “I am a networker...” “I am a leader...” “I am a provider...” Early on there were night-time candlelight sharing circles where women disclosed painful stories of what had happened to them, (such as being raped by knifes; having breasts cut off or their children killed or maimed in front of them). These circles came to be called ‘the shedding of the weight.’ Voicing and sharing these stories became profoundly healing and solidified the women’s cohesion and commitment.
- Visual symbols. The women all wore white. They stopped wearing jewelry and make-up. At one stage, Gbowee threatened to strip naked at the stalled peace talks in Ghana. This was a powerful act because some Africans believe it is a curse to see your mother naked.
- Belonging and Sisterhood. The women were given identity cards showing that they were members of the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement. They developed a sense of pride and were easily identifiable in their communities by their white, plain dress.
- Dialogue: “We are breaking the silence.” They used multiple, exhaustive and continued methods to start a dialogue on peace and to keep it moving, even after the war officially ended. This included talks with religious leaders; continued requests to fighters to sit down and discuss the issues; and endless appeals for peace talks. At peace talks in Ghana, the woman went back and forth talking to all the warlords and other representatives, acting as ‘middle-people’ and peace-brokers.
- A male ally and the issue of manhood. One of the most crucial moments in the peace talks was when the women confronted the warlords about their greed and the lack of serious progress in negotiations. The women physically barricaded the men in the conference room, by gathering enmasse, sitting around entrance doors and corridors in a tight bunch and interlinking arms. They declared that the men would not be allowed out until they reached a peace agreement. Food and water was also withheld, with the women arguing that the warlords needed to experience some deprivation so they could start understanding what they were inflicting upon their people. In this confrontation, one warlord lifted his leg as though he were about to kick the women. At this point, General Abubakar, (the former President of Nigeria who’d been tasked to mediate the peace talks) stepped in:
General Abubakar’s voice was steely as he turned to the warlord. “I dare you!” There was a moment of silence. “If you were a real man,” said the general, “you wouldn’t be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that is why these women will treat you like boys…” The man retreated… (p. 162 ‘Mighty Be our Powers’)
- Sex ban. Another tactic which – although a minor part of the much larger strategy, but which gained the most media attention – was the idea of a sex ban. Here the women of Liberia declared they would stop having sex with their partners until the men demonstrated that they were helping to move the country towards peace. This brought some humour to a stale situation and also helped create new chances for discussions and dialogue. It also undermined the war-time violent rape narrative as it portrayed women as being in charge of their own bodies and emphasized ‘consent’ as a normal and dignified requirement within sexual relations.
- Making the cost of war visible. Gbowee and her alliance of women continued to draw attention to the war’s human costs – especially on children. Through discussing mass rapes; children being dismembered, drugged and forced to kill parents and other macabre events, these horrors were brought out into full view for public scrutiny. Previously these issues were not discussed nor acknowledged, partly due to shame and fear.
IMPACT AND AFTERMATH
The war ended in 2003. The women decided to remain actively involved and ‘policed’ all aspects of solidifying the peace. Their motto was ‘peace is not an event, it is a process.’ They pointed out the UN’s disastrous efforts at managing weapons returns and proposed and helped manage a far more workable solution. They mobilized women to vote, which undoubtedly contributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf being elected as the President of Liberia; a woman with her own heroic story.
Achieving a peaceful outcome may seem an impossibility in some of today’s seemingly intractable conflict scenarios; however, Gbowee’s success in Liberia suggests pathways can be found. Gbowee recognized that a new story was needed, not just a slogan, but a narrative which addressed deeper issues, like ‘how do we want to be/live/exist?’ ‘who are we?’ ‘what is important?’ The vision mobilized others and was pursued relentlessly. And it worked.
President Sirleaf; Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karmanand were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Charles Taylor is currently imprisoned in the UK, where he is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes.
- Gbowee Peace Foundation
- Ted Talk, Leymah Gbowee, Unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls
- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:
- Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President, book by K. Riva Levinson.
- Madame President - The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, book by Helene Cooper
Gbowee, Leymah, Mighty be our Powers, 2011 Beast Books, New York
Fork Films LLC, films, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, produced by Abigail E. Disney and directed by Gini Reticker, 2008, http://www.forkfilms.net/pray-the-devil-back-to-hell/
About the author: Liz Boulton is a Transport Corps Officer currently working as a research officer at Army Headquarters. She has deployed to East Timor and Iraq, and has also worked in Africa and the Pacific Islands in civilian logistics, risk communication and liaison roles.