Liberia: The Violence of Democracy (The Ethnography of Political Violence)

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Liberia, a small West African country that has been wracked by violence and civil war since 1989, seems a paradoxical place in which to examine questions of democracy and popular participation. Yet Liberia is also the oldest republic in Africa, having become independent in 1847 after colonization by an American philanthropic organization as a refuge for "Free People of Color" from the United States. Many analysts have attributed the violent upheaval and state collapse Liberia experienced in the 1980s and 1990s to a lack of democratic institutions and long-standing patterns of autocracy, secrecy, and lack of transparency. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on neopatrimonialism in Africa.

Mary H. Moran argues that democracy is not a foreign import into Africa but that essential aspects of what we in the West consider democratic values are part of the indigenous African traditions of legitimacy and political process. In the case of Liberia, these democratic traditions include institutionalized checks and balances operating at the local level that allow for the voices of structural subordinates (women and younger men) to be heard and be effective in making claims. Moran maintains that the violence and state collapse that have beset Liberia and the surrounding region in the past two decades cannot be attributed to ancient tribal hatreds or neopatrimonial leaders who are simply a modern version of traditional chiefs. Rather, democracy and violence are intersecting themes in Liberian history that have manifested themselves in numerous contexts over the years.

Moran challenges many assumptions about Africa as a continent and speaks in an impassioned voice about the meanings of democracy and violence within Liberia.

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About the Author:

Mary H. Moran is Professor of Anthropology and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction: Liberia, Violence, and Democracy

Violence and democracy are words that do not sit easily together in the same sentence. Indeed, our tendency as Westerners is to see them as opposite ends of an evolutionary scale; the successor to widespread violence, we often imagine, is democracy, a system in which rulers are freely chosen by their people and in which everyone is allowed to voice their opinions and concerns. If such conditions exist, what need is there to resort to violence?

In the 1990s and into the current century, war and genocide in the Balkans, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been attributed to the absence of democratic institutions. Processes of "democratization," including "capacity-building" workshops and efforts to promote "civil society," are prescribed as post-conflict solutions to support the "free and fair" elections which are the ultimate goal. Indeed, the ability to hold a "transparent" election is held to be the real test of whether or not democracy has "taken root" in a formerly troubled society and is seen as a bulwark against further outbreaks of war. Democratic societies, we are told, do not make war on their neighbors, but must be poised to intervene when nondemocratic regimes threaten to overstep their boundaries. But are democracy and violence really separate (or separable) ontological states, or is there violence in democracy and democracy in violence? Can both be viewed as means of communication between higher and lower levels of political organization; for example, between the local community and the state? In what instances does the discourse of democracy, grounded in the expectation of "a fair discussion among equals" (Guinier 1995, cited in Wonkeryor et al. 2000: 52), fail? When does the state resort to imposing its will by force, and the local population resort to resistance or aggression? Conversely, what conflicts between local and national elites can be accommodated by the ritual forms of elections and designated representatives? How do leaders on both the small and the large scale manage to allow disparate voices to be heard without compromising their own legitimacy? Can a people really be said to "choose" democracy over war, and vice versa?

Liberia, resting on the great bulge of West Africa, is the setting in which I investigate these questions . It is in many ways a paradoxical place, often cited as the exception to most sweeping generalizations about sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the rest of the continent, Liberia was never formally colonized by a European power; its pseudocolonial "mother country" is the United States. It was born out of the contradictions inherent in the founding of the United States itself; a nation predicated on individual liberty which at the same time condoned and profited by chattel slavery. Although frequently characterized in the Western media as "founded by freed slaves," Liberia was initially imagined as a haven for "free people of color," descendants of Africans who by luck, birth, or their own efforts were no longer legally enslaved. The country was literally the philanthropic project of a private, white, benevolent organization founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society. Its establishment in 1822 of an American outpost on the West African coast served multiple interests. Slaveowners saw repatriation as a means of removing unwelcome examples of independent, self-supporting free blacks from the view of their slaves. Some white abolitionists who felt slavery as an institution was immoral were nevertheless uncomfortable with the prospect of actually living in a multiracial society. Evangelical Christians, inspired by the Second Great Awakening, envisioned a divine plan to "redeem" African heathens through the example of black missionaries and Christian communities. American merchants, competing with their European counterparts, welcomed a secure landing place on the African coast and an advantage in the emerging "legitimate trade" in palm oil, coffee, and other tropical products (see Adeleke 1998; Beyan 1991; for older accounts, see Staudenraus 1961; Shick 1980, among others).

Although most American abolitionists, white and black, rejected the colonization movement, between twelve and thirteen thousand colonists were settled in Liberia between 1822 and 1867 (Liebenow 1987: 19). Of these, roughly 4,500 had been born free, while the others were emancipated from slavery on the condition that they emigrate to Africa. These numbers were augmented by about 6,000 "recaptive" Africans taken from impounded slave ships before they ever crossed the Atlantic. Along with a few hundred immigrants from Barbados arriving after the abolition of slavery there, this group over time became the national elite known as Americo-Liberians, "Congoes," or simply "Settlers."

The remainder of Liberia's population of between two and three million have affiliation with one or more of over sixteen indigenous ethnolinguistic groups, often glossed as "tribes." As is commonly the case in Africa, these groups are not bounded, internally organized, or historically continuous political units, but rough approximations of regional and sometimes religious identity. Intermarriage and internal migration have made it possible for many Liberians to invoke more than one "tribal" affiliation, despite the fact that all the indigenous groups subscribe to an ideology of patrilineal descent (see d'Azevedo 1969-70: 111-12). Although "tribalism" has been invoked as an explanation for the violence in Liberia in recent years, local histories point to more evidence of conflict within than between ethnic categories.

It is hard for me to believe that I first went to Liberia more than twenty years ago, in 1982. This book has evolved over those years of my involvement with the country, taking a different shape from the way it was first imagined as a "followup" to my work on gender and prestige among the Glebo people of the southeast (Moran 1990). At various times, it was to be a study of local and national interpretations of political events, then it became a book on civil war and state collapse, and, finally, it has taken its current shape as a study of themes of democracy and violence in Liberia, past and present. It has taken me a long time to parse the relationship between these two terms, so often represented as polar opposites, and to understand them as persistent and mutually constitutive themes in Liberian history.

In the early nineteenth century, the American missionary John Payne characterized the Glebo of southeastern Liberia as practicing "the purest of democracies" (cited in Martin 1968: 15). In 1847 the African American settlers declared their independence from the American Colonization Society, affirming their commitment to an American-style constitution and its attendant democratic institutions. For one hundred and thirty-three years following, elections were held at regular intervals for both national offices like the presidency and local positions such as town chief. Although members of the settler group maintained a monopoly on state institutions and the indigenous people were not fully enfranchised until the 1960s (Liebenow 1987: 63-65), there is substantial evidence that some principles of transparency and accountability were employed even during the period of single-party rule (1877-1980) by the True Whig Party. "There was, first of all, the observance of constitutional norms, which apparently had high value to the legally minded Americo-Liberians. Secondly, it did provide for at least a biennial discussion of the party's goals and permitted new generations to be socialized . . . the personnel of government did change as a result of this active discussion" (1987: 94; see also Sawyer 1992; Liberty 2002). Before centralized power was fully consolidated in the executive branch by W. V. S. Tubman (1943-71), recognized corruption in political office was severely punished; several Liberian presidents were impeached or forced to resign, and transitions were relatively peaceful.

Why then did Liberia, with a longer experience of political independence than any other nation in Africa, fall victim to the syndrome of violent civil war and state collapse which swept the continent in the 1990s? Following a military coup in 1980, the situation deteriorated into outright war from 1989 to 1996, leading to complete national disruption, foreign occupation, and the deaths of up to 200,000 people, most of them civilians. Even after a brokered peace agreement and internationally supervised elections in 1997, Liberia could not enjoy an end to violence. Charles Taylor, who had begun the war in 1989, received 75 percent of the vote in what were widely described as free and transparent elections, yet within two years he was challenged by another armed faction and spent his five-year term as president trying in vain to hold off "rebels" who occupied more and more of the country. Taylor was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003, and a transitional government is preparing for new elections in 2005. Along with its neighbor Sierra Leone, Liberia in the 1990s gave the world ghastly images of child soldiers, "warlord" politics fueled by "blood diamonds," and utter, regionwide devastation.

Explanations have been offered from a variety of perspectives for this puzzling phenomenon. Some analysts have seen the combination of rising populations, ecological degradation, deep-seated "tribal" animosities, and marginalization from the global economy as enough to throw any society into irrational chaos and anarchy (see Kaplan 1994, 2000). Other scholars reject this "New Barbarism" argument and locate the source of the conflict in the very rational competition for resources amid rising but unfulfilled expectations that underlies civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Congo as well as Liberia (Reno 1995b, 1998; Richards 1996a). Still others point to the postcolonial "politics of the belly" that has, in the absence of an industrial sector, made state institutions the primary means of accumulation and distribution of wealth (Bayart 1993; Chabal and Daloz 1999). There is an extensive literature on Liberia which argues that elections and other "democratic" trappings were never more than show pieces to begin with; that since its inception the nation has been dominated by the small settler elite through the mechanisms of a one-party state, an "imperial" presidency, and a set of exclusive institutions ranging from churches and schools to Masonic lodges (Dolo 1996; Dunn and Tarr 1988, Gershoni 1985; Sawyer 1987, 1992; Leibenow 1987; Holphe 1979; Osaghae 1996, among others). Finally, it has been suggested that the peculiar "religious" orientation of Liberians, related to a regional "politics of secrecy," may have influenced both the shape and the extent of the violence (Ellis 1999; for Sierra Leone, see Ferme 2001).

This book is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on state collapse, reintegration, and democratization in Africa, through the lens of the particular case of Liberia. Specifically, I hope to make three related contributions to the current scholarship. First, this project contributes to the goal of "denaturalizing" violence and warfare, directed particularly at essentialist commentators like Kaplan (1994, 2000) and Huntington (1993, 1996).This project has dominated the "anthropology of violence" during the 1990s and into the present century (Warren 1993; Nordstrom 1997; Daniel 1996; Besteman 1999; Richards 1996a; Taylor 1999, Besteman and Gusterson 2005, among others). Second, I contest the characterization of Liberia and other Guinea Coast societies as dominated by secrecy, distrust, and hierarchy; as religious and cultural systems that explicitly impede democratization (Ellis 1999; Bellman 1975, 1984; Ferme 2001). These authors, of course, acknowledge that a range of political orientations exists within the region, but see alternatives to hierarchy and secrecy as suppressed or underdeveloped. I argue that there are strong indigenous traditions of participation, voice, and empowerment, otherwise known as "democratic values," embedded in the governmental structures of local communities and in the operative conceptions of personhood used by these populations. Although these structures and values have undeniably changed over time, there is also a remarkable continuity in the language people use to talk about what they expect from political leaders, both local and national. Following Piot (1999), I argue that these democratic traditions are fully "modern," in the sense of being part of the repertoire of daily life, and are the result of global historical processes involving the indigenous people of Liberia, while at the same time insisting that they represent an alternative model of political process to that which has its origins in Western Europe. Third, I suggest that violence and democracy are not conceptually opposed in Liberian political discourse but are aspects of the same understanding of legitimacy. Liberian history can be understood as an ongoing interplay between themes of democracy and violence enacted on both local and national levels. This point is particularly crucial in the context of American foreign policy of the early twenty-first century, in which the establishment of democracy (by force if necessary) is seen as a solution to regional instability and the ensuing threat to strategic resources.

This analysis requires an interrogation of both terms, "democracy" and "violence," as discourses that are deployed, contested, and altered by participants in small communities, in the national capital, and within the state apparatus. At all these levels, actors must also refer to international definitions of democracy and "human rights" as these are tied to multilateral aid packages and relations with foreign powers. A key feature of the scholarly and policymaking literature on political transition in Africa is the tendency to view representational democracy as unproblematic, an obvious "good" that will only benefit all sectors of society. Furthermore, democracy is often represented as alien to Africa, a recent import from the West; much of the debate within the discipline of political science has centered on whether or not Africans are "ready" for democracy, generally defined as the ability to hold transparent elections (for one example, see Diamond, Linz, and Lipset 1988). Strongly evolutionary assumptions underlie this line of argument, since preexisting political institutions, kin, and ethnic ties are described as "patrimonial" and are believed to be antithetical to more modern forms of rational bureaucracy and efficiency (Clapham 1985, but for a rethinking of these models, see Joseph 1999). Several African scholars have contested these assumptions (Ake 2000; Monga 1996), but they continue to underlie a great deal of the foreign policy of the Western powers regarding Africa. I will argue that this approach not only obscures the democratic possibilities in indigenous political arrangements, but blinds Western scholars from interrogating the meaning and operation of democracy in general.

As an anthropologist, I want to consider seriously what led John Payne to recognize "democracy" in the political organization of nineteenth-century Glebo towns. ...

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2008. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Liberia, a small West African country that has been wracked by violence and civil war since 1989, seems a paradoxical place in which to examine questions of democracy and popular participation. Yet Liberia is also the oldest republic in Africa, having become independent in 1847 after colonization by an American philanthropic organization as a refuge for Free People of Color from the United States. Many analysts have attributed the violent upheaval and state collapse Liberia experienced in the 1980s and 1990s to a lack of democratic institutions and long-standing patterns of autocracy, secrecy, and lack of transparency. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on neopatrimonialism in Africa. Mary H. Moran argues that democracy is not a foreign import into Africa but that essential aspects of what we in the West consider democratic values are part of the indigenous African traditions of legitimacy and political process. In the case of Liberia, these democratic traditions include institutionalized checks and balances operating at the local level that allow for the voices of structural subordinates (women and younger men) to be heard and be effective in making claims. Moran maintains that the violence and state collapse that have beset Liberia and the surrounding region in the past two decades cannot be attributed to ancient tribal hatreds or neopatrimonial leaders who are simply a modern version of traditional chiefs. Rather, democracy and violence are intersecting themes in Liberian history that have manifested themselves in numerous contexts over the years. Moran challenges many assumptions about Africa as a continent and speaks in an impassioned voice about the meanings of democracy and violence within Liberia. Seller Inventory # AAV9780812220285

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Book Description University of Pennsylvania Press, United States, 2008. Paperback. Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.Liberia, a small West African country that has been wracked by violence and civil war since 1989, seems a paradoxical place in which to examine questions of democracy and popular participation. Yet Liberia is also the oldest republic in Africa, having become independent in 1847 after colonization by an American philanthropic organization as a refuge for Free People of Color from the United States. Many analysts have attributed the violent upheaval and state collapse Liberia experienced in the 1980s and 1990s to a lack of democratic institutions and long-standing patterns of autocracy, secrecy, and lack of transparency. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on neopatrimonialism in Africa. Mary H. Moran argues that democracy is not a foreign import into Africa but that essential aspects of what we in the West consider democratic values are part of the indigenous African traditions of legitimacy and political process. In the case of Liberia, these democratic traditions include institutionalized checks and balances operating at the local level that allow for the voices of structural subordinates (women and younger men) to be heard and be effective in making claims. Moran maintains that the violence and state collapse that have beset Liberia and the surrounding region in the past two decades cannot be attributed to ancient tribal hatreds or neopatrimonial leaders who are simply a modern version of traditional chiefs. Rather, democracy and violence are intersecting themes in Liberian history that have manifested themselves in numerous contexts over the years. Moran challenges many assumptions about Africa as a continent and speaks in an impassioned voice about the meanings of democracy and violence within Liberia. Seller Inventory # AAV9780812220285

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