Realizing the Relevance and Power of Liberian Women: An Epiphany on the Road to Peace (1999-2005)
Author: Horace P. Nagbe
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 04/08/2010
Born as a male child and yet a male by sex, I was made to believe that women are weak-minded, unintelligent, slow, inactive, unwise, and passionate, and that they could do something but better than if a man would have aided them, or if a man would have done it himself. I was also taught to believe that men are wiser, intelligent, charismatically energetic, intellectually sound, braver, stronger, faster, unwavering, and more eager than women; something I was always reminded of as a young man growing up. Accordingly, women would always need the guidance and protection of men. As a result of these propagated beliefs, I tried becoming a “man” thus, provided help and guidance for women, especially my sisters, even if they could have done those things even better.
As a socio-culturally constructed, traditionally affirmed and politically enforced tenet, this act of gender stereotyping and discrimination against women owes its foundation to the ancient Greek religious cultures and traditions, one of the world’s oldest cultures which have had much influence on modern and/or contemporary cultures and traditions. Within the Greek culture and tradition, unlike modern times, women had limited freedom, especially outside the home. They were only allowed to attend weddings, funerals, some religious festivals, and only allowed to visit female friends for a brief period. Also, women’s only job then was to run the house (not home) and bear children; something in my opinion is socially constructed and politically manipulated, based on biological difference.
This ancient culture and tradition did not only influence modern/contemporary cultures and traditions, but also religions. For example, in the Islamic religion, especially in its guiding principle and tools (Sharia Law), women are not given much freedom. Besides, Sharia Law, as is practiced in some parts of Sudan, has made women’s participation into politics very difficult, as they are not allowed to work outside the homes. This law of course serves as a guiding tool for the daily routines of all Muslims, including familial, religious and financial obligations and dealings. Also in Christianity, especially around A.D. 52, the Apostle Paul wrote (according to Corinthians 14:33-35) that women should keep silent in the church, and that all of their questions and concerns should be channeled through their husbands. Moreover, in Confucianism, within the Chinese culture, it is required that a woman be subject to her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her son after the death of her husband. While this may be concerned with religions and their practices, I am not being judgmental. However, I believe that it is important to understand the context and content of those propositions inscribed in the various religious texts. These religious policies and practices should not be incorporated in legislation for the governance of a society and people, as is being done with societies like those governed by Sharia law and other religiously cultural and traditional beliefs and practices, without carefully understanding and analyzing the context from which the belief derived.
However, this ideology which captivated many cultures and traditions, has been translated into many scholarly disciplines, thus expanding and enhancing its relevance. For example, Patrick Geddes, an 18/19th century town planner, writer and professor of biology from a Scottish background wrote on a wide range of social issues, including a gender-related issue: human sexuality, using what is termed “cellular physiology,” which, in my opinion, is intended to justifiably explain reasons for gender inequalities.
Quoted by Thomas Laqueur in his book, “Making Sex”, Geddes provided that women were indeed “more passive, conservative, sluggish and stable than men, while men were more active, energetic, eager, passionate, and variable.” In this regard, Geddes tried to demonstrate that the status given women, as well as the roles assigned to them, are biological, and need not be tempered with. On the other hand, Elizabeth Dore provided that such biological difference is not as Geddes thinks, instead, it has been translated into a socially constructed and politically manipulative tool resulting from the wrangling over the definitions and regulation of femininity and masculinity, in an attempt to keep women submissively suppressed. Agreeing with Dore however, this article is not intended to academically and intellectually metabolize the issue, but to demonstratively and analytically portray the relevance and power of the Liberian women, vis-à-vis women in general, in the context of peacebuilding in a conflict situation; something that has since been an issue of debate.
The sort of habit described above, however, brought me honor as I received applause from traditionally gender-insensitive elders within the community who thought that I was being a man indeed. Even during gatherings that required major decision-making in and out of my community, I realized then that women were never allowed to make points, nor were they heard. As a socio-culturally constructed and politically manipulated effort against women, their exclusion was evident during the Liberian Civil War and all of its peacebuilding efforts! Women were always left out of the peace processes until time had come to change hands.
During the “last part” (1999-2003) of the Liberian conflict, everyone, including most men, became very hopeless because of the situation, having thought that peace would not be achieved. As children were continuously being conscripted, dehumanized and demonized; as women were being raped and the bellies of pregnant women opened to identify the sex of unborn children; as homes and businesses were being looted, shattered and burned down; as thousands of lives were being lost and thousands more shattered; as the neighboring countries like Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana received Liberian refugees in the thousands; as young people, especially boys were continuously being taken out of schools under the disguise of protecting their country and thereby getting killed, while others were being maimed; when Charles Taylor resolved to fighting until the “last soldier died”, whilst the rebels remained resolute in “redeeming” the suffering people of Liberia from the hands of Taylor; when Taylor refused to go to Accra, Ghana for a peace talk; and when no one, not even the “men” could have faced Taylor to ask him to give peace a chance for fear of their lives: something epiphanical happened, thereby revolutionized and transformed my world-view of women in contrast to what I learned!
This article, thus presents such queue or flow of the revolutionary transformation of my mind, as I hopelessly and vulnerably trekked the streets of Liberia, watching the deaths and maiming of many friends, relatives and loved ones, especially the deaths of my beloved parents and siblings. Thus, it begins with the first major part of the conflict and peacebuilding efforts, as it is divided into 1989-1997 and 1999-2005.
Part I: (1989 – 1997)
Founded in 1821 and independent in 1847, Liberia represents the first example of socio-political and socio-economic independence on the African continent, in the context of the former slaves that were brought to Africa under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS). Culturally of course, I can not give account of any independence, except the drastic revolutionization of the cultures and traditions of the aboriginals by the ex-slaves or Americo-Liberians, who were influenced by the cultures and traditions of their slave masters/owners. Chased out of ‘Shebro Island’ in Sierra Leone, the ex-slaves finally settled in present day Liberia, on what is called “Providence Island,” wherefrom they spread out to other parts of the land and expanded.
A country of approximately 3.5 million inhabitants, Liberia is bordered by Guinea to the North, the Ivory Coast to the East, Sierra Leone to the West, and the Atlantic Ocean to the South. As a once peaceful land, many tourists were attracted to the country until 1989, when it assumed the posture and character of cannibalism and witch-hunting. The 24th of December, 1989 thus witnessed the beginning of one of the bloodiest civil wars throughout human history, coming from the Northeastern region of the country, by way of Nimba County, the second largest political subdivision thereof. This rebel invasion of the Liberian society came under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by former president, Charles Taylor, with the intent to “emancipate” the peaceful and long-suffering Liberian people from the “dictatorial regime” of late president, Samuel K. Doe.
Resulting in the death of over 250,000 persons; the damage of millions of dollars worth of properties; acts of cannibalism, rape, torture and death, especially of women and girls; and the exile and internal displacement of nearly one million people, the country lost its seat in the committee of nations. Its people experienced almost two decades of impoverishment and underdevelopment, with the majority of the population wandering in abject poverty, at the imposition of sanction by the United Nations. Historically, the Liberian Civil War owes its roots to the alienation, marginalization, discrimination and degradation of the religious, cultural and traditional practices of the aboriginals, coupled with massive corruption as a byproduct.
A Liberian scholar and writer, Alfred Chea, quoting the final version of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia says:
[…] the sentiment of adopting a Euro-American style of settlement with a civilizing and Christianizing mission in time alienated, marginalized and degraded not only the majority (indigenous) of the inhabitants of the Liberian area, but also the black settlers, many of whom (had themselves) suffered slavery and harbored American colonialist sentiments.
Chea projected that such ideology represented the philosophical beginning of the establishment and rule of Liberia for the first 25 years, by the American colonial leaders. Amongst such style of leadership by the Americo-Liberians since 1848, the Liberian nation experienced massive constitutionalized corruption in favor of barely 5% of the entire population, which resulted in the suffering of the rest of the population; the indigenous and marginalized Americo-Liberian families living on less than one US dollar a day.
Following this inhumane treatment of people, a riot broke out in 1979, under the leadership of Liberia’s first indigenous politician, the late Gabriel Bacchus Matthew, during the regime of the late president, William Richard Tolbert, Jr. The prime and cardinal reason for such uproar was that the price of Liberia’s staple food (rice) was being raised at the detriment of the already impoverished masses. Though the riot resulted in the death of hundreds of indigenous protestant Liberians, it also instigated political turmoil, which marked the beginning of democratization in light of a multi-party political system. This system then saw the emergence of several political institutions like the Liberia People’s Party, the United People’s Party, and the National Democratic Party of Liberia, amongst others. Finally, the 1980s saw the ascension of its first indigenous leadership, headed by the late president, Samuel K. Doe from the Krahn ethnic group who allegedly assumed power through a bloody coup of less than 48 hours. This was followed by a temporary military rule, under the auspices of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), 1979-1984, and a general election in 1985, with late president Doe emerging as Liberia’s first democratically elected indigenous leader of the second republic.
As head of state under the PRC, late President Doe ordered the execution of 13 former government officials of Tolbert’s regime, all of whom hailed from the Americo-Liberian background. During his tenure, Doe was accused of a dictatorial reign, a tribalistic leadership pattern, massive corruption, and the mismanagement/appropriation of the country’s wealth, which accordingly resulted in the massive impoverishment of the people. Though academically inept, most Liberians believe that the late President Doe did well for the entire country during his tenure as compared to all other leaders before him, which is of course not the essence of this article.
Henceforth, a coup was planned in 1985 and led by the late Thomas Quiwonkpa of the Gio/Mano ethnic group, though it failed. With a resolved mind to dismount the “dictatorial government” of the late Doe, a rebel group was then organized: the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, under the leadership of exiled president Charles Taylor. As the innocent people of Liberia were killed and maimed in the thousands on a daily basis; while many lives were shattered; as properties were being devastated in the worth of millions of dollars; and when the number of refugees increased in the millions, the Liberian Council of Churches, the National Muslim Council of Liberia, and the Economic Community of West African States, amongst others, decisively intervened in bringing the conflicting parties together, as a way of identifying and discussing the root causes of the conflict, as well finding ways forward towards peace. Thus, several peace colloquies were enkindled.
Presenting on the relevance and power of Liberian women, I would like to quickly mention herein, according to the testimony of exiled president, Charles Taylor, as well as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia, that the 1989 revolution in terms if its beginning, was made possible by the involvement and support of a woman, the current president of Liberia, Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf! While this may be considered an allegation, President Sirleaf herself mentioned that she did support the revolution, but could not continue with the process as the honest purpose (political change) thereof was being betrayed. This mention however, is intended to demonstrate the relevance and power of women, to unwaveringly ensure the implementation of whatever they desire, as was seen during the second part of the Liberian crisis, a narrative that is provided below.
Peacebuilding Efforts and Results
During the Civil War, several peace talks were held, as well as several interim leaderships established, all in an attempt to end the unexplained sufferings of the already impoverished Liberian people, of which the majority were women and children. During this period (1989-1997), more than eight peace talks were initiated and held, as well as about four interim leaderships put in place for the purpose of ending the pain and destruction of the Liberian people, and to allow for a democratically elected leadership, through the process of free, fair and transparent elections. While researching for my 2007 undergraduate thesis, titled “A Critical Analysis of the Mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Strategy for Sustainable Peace in Postconflict Liberia”, I compiled information concerning peace conferences and their instigators, which included: the Liberian Council of Churches and the National Muslim Council of Liberia, in late January and mid June, 1990 in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), 17 August 1990, in Banjul, Gambia; the Interfaith Mediation Council of Liberia, in late-August, 1990; the 27 November 1990 peace talks; the Geneva Peace Accord of 1993; the Akosombo Peace Pccords of 1994/95 respectively; and the Abuja peace agreement in 1995 amongst many. However, of all these peace processes, there was never an account of the participatory involvement of a woman, let alone a women’s group, which in fact was never in existence.
Out of the four interim leaderships during the period, only one was headed by a woman (late Ruth Sando Perry) in 1996, during this time the first postconflict democratic elections were held (in 1997). The elections however, brought to power exiled President Charles G. Taylor. Unlike the female-headed interim leadership, about three interim leaderships were previously headed by men, but without such achievement as establishing democratic elections. The reason, in my view, was that everyone emphasized personal interests above those of the Liberian people. Thus, Liberia had a democratically elected leadership in July 1997, with 75% votes in favor of Charles G. Taylor. He was then inaugurated into office on 2 August 1997. Taylor’s victory was conceived under the saying, “you kill my ma, you kill my pa I will vote for you”, signifying the tiredness of war by the Liberian people, and not necessarily out of love for his person and actions.
Following two years of Taylor’s rule (1997-1999) however, the country experienced another rebel onslaught from the North of the country, under the banner of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, led by Sekou Demante Konneh. This (last) round of the Liberian Civil War again saw thousands of civilians killed and maimed, with thousands more exiled. Disgustingly, however, was again the prevalently systematic rape of women and girls, some of whom were tortured and killed in the process. As some of the women and girls could no longer be subject to such humiliation, they revoltingly became part of the fighting forces, for revenge and/or prevention.
Important to note is that during these periods, the most victimized were women and children, especially female children. They were raped, taken as sex slaves, forced into human trafficking, tortured and killed upon refusal to embody the sexual abuse, even after being sexually violated. Without any remorse for the many deaths and sufferings caused the Liberian people, especially women and girls, these men were always willing to rain more havoc, until the second round of the Liberian conflict; when a final decision was reached to end all self-centeredness, demonization, dehumanization, rape, pillage and cannibalism.
Part II: (1999 – 2005) – The Point of Realization
During this period, the Liberian society again witnessed another bloody armed battle; more deadly than the others. Basically, women and girls were victimized, as they were adopted and taken as sex slaves for the combatants, including the so-called Armed Forces of Liberia, under the rule of Mr. Taylor. Also, thousand of lives were lost and thousand more externally and internally displaced, while millions of dollars worth of properties were destroyed.
As a result of this deadly period in the war history of Liberia, major street protests were launched by Liberians; thus engendering the urgent intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), among others. The protests and involvement of these organizations finally ended all thoughts of war and destruction, through a peace talk in Accra, Ghana, along with the major parties and stakeholders in the process. At this junction, an invitation was sent to all members of the then government, civil society groups, Liberians United for Reconstruction and Democracy (LURD), and other international organizations and partners. Unfortunately, Mr. Taylor, as usual, was involved with baffling the process and secretly purchasing more weaponry to defend the sovereignty of the people of Liberia, and as well witch-hunting those he claimed to be enemies of his government.
In the process, as mentioned above, young boys and girls were still being conscripted into militias and all state-prisoners were released to defend their country, though without any form or formal military training. At such time, everyone, especially the so-called strong, charismatically energetic men could not face Mr. Taylor to ask him to go to Accra, Ghana for a peace talk. While awaiting the departure of Mr. Taylor to Accra, thousands of lives were being lost, most of who were young people, some under the age of 12 years.
Children were often drugged in order to be merciless and fearless in facing danger, even in terms of their lives. They no longer thought like humans, as they would even kill their mothers and relatives in defense of their sovereignty. These children became cannibals. They were made to believe that anyone coming with arms against them is their enemy, and as such, those persons needs to die. Also, being anxious about material things, they felt zealous when told that they could enrich themselves with the spoils of their enemies as they overpower them.
Women and girls were still being systematically raped without punitive measures by the so-called legitimate government, as rape was being used to placate the fighters and encourage them to be vigilant in the defense of their country! Rape was also used to mortify their enemies. Accordingly, the root causes of the rebel invasion included the continuous abuse of human rights, the failure of the government to tackle the chronic social and economic problems facing the country, the conscription of militias and the use of what is termed, “ethnic scapegoating” by Mr. Taylor.
Being completely tired of wars, especially the raping of women and girls; the conscription of young boys and girls into militias; the drugging of young and promising Liberian leaders whose futures were being destroyed by the warlords; being convinced that they could make the much needed and necessary change in the status quo (war as a means of gaining wealth and prominence) and to restore the lost hope and future of the Liberian people; and without any means of support except the Almighty God, the weak, unintelligent, uneducated, unwise, passive and less eager women braved the storm; something that seems to be a nightmare to me, especially as I saw myself walking the streets of Liberia without fear of intimidation, and most importantly, without the sound of guns and heavy artilleries.
The Peacebuilding Efforts and Results
In 2003, in the city of Monrovia, and under the banner of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and the coordination of Ms. Leyman Gbowee and others, women from all parts of the country undauntedly gathered at the fish market, Airfield, in Monrovia, to consult with God and give their lives into his hands, as they decisively and willingly embarked on the journey towards the long awaited peace, which was being tampered with, baffled, and traded by the warlords and others for selfish reasons. They were then despisingly referred to as “the women in white.” It can be vividly recalled that they went without food for several days and weeks, praying and condemning the devil back to hell!
Quoting Ms. Leymah Gbowee from an interview, she said, “the women had nothing to loose; neither did they have any option, as rape was considered a toy of war and the female body parts having no privacy and regards.” Indeed, these women demonstrated resoluteness. It was learned that they also could not bear seeing their children being adopted before their eyes and conscripted into militias; nor could they any longer afford seeing truck loads of young boys and girls going as living beings and returning from the war front as dead bodies and cripples; the situation demonstrated hopelessness. Hence, they had to accordingly do the “unimaginable”. As it seems, the women were desperate and yet cognizant of the fact that they could only achieve their goal with the help of God, in whose hands they had placed their lives. Thus, they always gathered with each person and/or group praying to God.
According to Ms. Gbowee during the interview, this spiritually unimaginable action stemmed from a night dream, in which she was ordered to gather the women and pray for the peace of Liberia. In that regard, being a Christian and Lutheran, she first gathered the women of the Lutheran Church of Liberia and other Christian women, to whom she explained the dream. However, with the call to gather all women, irrespective of religion, culture, and social class, women throughout the country were invited and incorporated into the process as the most appropriate strategy. That is, Muslim, Christian and traditional women; educated and uneducated; native and Americo-Liberians; the old and young; rich and poor; and even the cripple and blind were all involved in the process – of course all were women.
All of them of course had major stake in the process, especially the Muslim women, as the then rebel group was pre-dominantly Muslim. With this gigantic gathering and unwavering actions of the Liberian women, the process towards lasting peace began. Admittingly, I doubted the women and their vigilance and commitment to the process! I had thought that they would have been bought by Mr. Taylor as other male-dominantly led civil society groups, most or all of which are non-functional. So, I waited to see the results of their actions.
As they gathered every day, from morning to night, they were considered frustrated, toothless bulldogs, and hopelessly looking for their spouses and prominence, as did other male-led groups. Hence, they were despised and often given less attention by the status quo. However, in the process they were being accordingly aided with information and encouragement by the very members of Taylor’s government. More than that, and in my opinion, they were resolute and unwavering, even without the information and encouragement. As many were afraid to speak out for fear of their lives, the women were seen as the voice of voiceless.
On numerous occasions, Ms. Gbowee and others appeared on national radio, calling on the government, especially Mr. Taylor, to go to Accra for the peace talks, as the people of Liberia were tired of war and wanted peace at last. Almost of those calls proved futile, as Mr. Taylor continuously negotiated for weapons to face the rebels, and as well continued to secure drugs to stimulate and destroy the lives of the innocent young Liberian leaders. Meanwhile, the war continued. In continuation, the women emphasized the many calls to the American Government through the Monrovia Embassy and that of the European Union offices, to give heed to the plight of the Liberian people in ensuring a successful end to the carnage.
As the time of the commencement of the peace talks in Accra drew closer, Mr. Taylor changed his statements along the way, insinuating that he might not attend the conference. Some of the assumed reasons included: the process was not credible; he is a legitimate leader and does not think a round-table peace talk with a rebel group is necessary; and that both his hands and feet were tied by the very international community that instigated the peace talk, etc. Against this backdrop, the women paid several courtesy calls at his executive mansion office, asking his departure to Accra, Ghana, being cognizant of deception.
On many occasions, he promised to go, but without further action. However, with the persistent psychological upheavals demonstrated by the continued physical presence at the executive mansion and voice calls by the women, who were protected by the Almighty God, as well observed by the international community and the Liberian people, Mr. Taylor could not employ his usual devilish tactics when faced with such situations. The devilish tactics included arbitrary arrest, detention and execution, under the allegation of treason, yet without any due process of law.
Finally, Mr. Taylor left the country for Accra, where he attended a day session of the conference and returned in the name of protecting the Liberian people, whom he loved and would well die for. Yet, amidst his confession of love, he pronounced a street-to-street, door-to-door; corner-to-corner; and house-to-house battle with the rebels, thereby insinuating no discrimination of who could be a rebel. However, he left an official delegation of government functionaries to continue the discussion. Interesting to note herein, is that the established rebel concept of “politics as usual” was thought of being employed. This concept calls for either disrupting a session, or it calls for signing an agreement to later deny the process, without an end to the trouble.
The Liberian women, under the leadership of Ms. Gbowee and others, were present as observers during the conference. In so doing, especially towards the end of the conference, when absolutely no positive results were filtering down to the women relative to the purpose of the meeting, the women then moved on to stripping themselves naked and as well blocking the entrance to the conference hall, calling for a positive response to questions and for lasting peace.
In the process, the foreign mediators were allowed to leave the room with only the Liberians being locked in, until they reached a reasonably amicable solution. Also interesting to note, according to Ms. Gbowee, she was being threatened to be arrested for allegedly “obstructing the process of justice.” In response she said, “what more humiliation can there be than stripping naked for these group of men to know that they had really run cross the line, like the Liberian men, who were sitting at that peace table?”
Indeed, Ms. Gbowee started the process of stripping naked, at which time all the men ran away and left her. As a result of the consistency and persistency of the women of Liberia at the peace conference, what is termed a “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” (CPA) was signed and thus, the Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG), under the chairpersonship of Charles Gyude Bryant, was birthed and inaugurated in 2003, followed by the holding of a free, fair and democratic election in 2005, marking the second postwar democratically elected government, this time under the leadership of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s as well as Africa’s first democratically elected female president.
Hence, the process of lasting peace continues in the context of sustainable economic reconstruction and development processes; infrastructural development; national peace and security; reconciliation, justice and human rights; gender equalities; education; human resource development and employment; the delivery of basic social services, etc., which are being successfully championed by women, under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
This is my epiphany, as I hopelessly and vulnerably trekked the road to peace in Liberia, during the unexplained civil wars. While it is undeniably realistic to be guided by some cultural, traditional and/or statutory principles, it is also expedient to understand what those principles were when they were crafted, how they were crafted and how they are implemented to incorporate the views and issues of every citizen and group within such societies, in spite of backgrounds and difference, giving that everyone has a stake in the design and governance of the society, to which his/her interest is attached. Hence, I have come to realize that in an effort to discriminate against and marginalize a particular group or sector of a society, an imbalance and many unresolved problems are created.
Bio: Horace P. Nagbe is a Liberian and theologian with a B.S. in Sacred Theology from United Methodist University. He was a former student activist and leader with the Liberia National Student Union and the West Africa Student Union. Nagabe has also been a Sunday School teacher and Minister of the Gospel, the Executive Director of Youth in Action for Sustainable Peace, Development and Social Integration in Liberia, a board member of the Liberian Youth and Adolescent Network and the Kollah Foundation Institute. Further, he was a former researcher and Monitoring Officer for UNOPS/Interpeace, Liberia and the former Chief Administrator for the Christiana Bedell Preparatory School. Nagbe is currently enrolled at the UN Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica as a candidate in the Master´s programme of Gender and Peace Building.