Sunday, January 16, 2005

Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State by John-Peter Pham

This is a very detailed history of Liberia and how it came to the state it currently finds itself in. Liberia was never an official colony of the US, and it never really had the "special relationship" Liberians often liked to mention; so it is hard to attribute their problems to anything but circumstances and their own mistakes. Circumstances weren't kind to Liberia: European powers didn't care to recognize the government's claim to land it signally failed to even map, much less control. It found itself so strapped for funds that it occasionally had to give up control of portions of its finances to European representatives. But the lack of interest in infrastructure development and the lack of enthusiasm for allowing any voice to the uncivilized natives (and the abusive practices that developed over time) were crippling. I'd not seen Tubman described this way before: a man who used cronyism to try to establish a power base independent of the settler-descendants, with himself as a kind of "squire of the manor", but using means that brought more prosperity and spread the wealth around more than before.

Tolbert's succession on Tubman's death wasn't automatic (as suggested on p 47): Tubman died before elections and Tolbert had to be confirmed as the new presidential candidate. He started off with a popular campaigns against corruption, but the economy was bad, debt grew, and the OAU meeting he sponsored cost 200 million dollars (the country's debt was 600 million). And he and his family were very wealthy. "When Tubman stole a dollar, he would give ninety cents back to the people in the form of food or minor amenities, as for Tolbert, he would return ten cents." Rice riots, imported Guinean troops to suppress them, growing dissatisfaction with him and the dominance of the Americos all weakened him, and then Master Sergeant Doe and his band murdered him.

Doe, of course, was no improvement: he was brutal, dishonest, and paranoid; and he succeeded in making bitter enemies of the rulers of his neighboring countries. They eventually wound up sponsoring Taylor's rebellion, which came within a few miles of capturing the whole country. But the brutality of the two armies was horrifying enough that, under Nigerian pressure, ECOWAS intervened and sent peacekeeping soldiers to buffer between the armies.

And here we come to the center of Pham's critique. The intervention may have been well-intentioned (though he thinks it was driven by Nigerian ambitions), but it would probably have been better to just let Taylor win. If at least one of the sides in a conflict does not want to make peace, or feels like it has almost won, "peacekeepers" aren't. They are effectively intervening on one side. In the end, the war dragged on for years, Taylor succeeded in having his proxies destroy Sierra Leone (he had a grudge against the leader, and diamonds were a tempting source of money), and in the end Taylor was elected president anyway.

After a few years of Taylor came the LURD rebellion. Taylor was forced into exile (how complete remains to be seen) and the compromise government is shot through with corruption. Over and over peace agreements brokered by outside powers have focussed on civilian leaders--who have always been sidelined because they have no military power of their own and no respect nationally.

Pham makes a plea for some realpolitik. He points out that the worst of the consequences for the neighboring states came after, not before, the ECOWAS intervention: unintended side effects. Quoting Kissinger:

In the end, civil wars are about who dominates. As political legitimacy erodes, a vacuum develops which must be filled by some new authority. As the United States engages in a humanitarian military intervention, media and other observers descend on the scene, certain to find conditions deeply offensive to Western sensibility. They will urge a whole variety of initiatives, from ending corruption to the administration of justice, that make sense in the Western context. None, however, can be accomplished without greater intervention, drawing the United States ever deeper into the political process. And, sooner or later, no matter how well-intentioned, such conduct will begin to grate on African sentiments, and that, in turn, will tend to undermine domestic American and indigenous African support for the operation. Nothing is more likely to end a permanent American contribution to Africa than a military role in its civil wars.

He mentions Jean-German Gros taxonomy of failed states, which I quote in full here:

Is there a well-defined territory that is internationally recognized? Is there a polity whose social boundaries can be more-or-less delineated and which has a general sense of belonging to the country and the state in question? How effective is the control exercised by whatever authority structure lays claim over the territory and the polity? In other words, do public authority figures have a monopoly over the means of coercion nationally, or are there parts of the country that are off-limits? Are taxes--as opposed to tributes paid to local lords acting in the name of the state--collected, and do they make their way into state coffers?

Based on this, Gros identifies five types of failed states: the anarchic state, where no centralized government exists and where armed groups act under orders from warlords {sic} contest control; the phantom (or mirage) state, where a semblance of authority remains with efficacy in a very limited area; the anemic state, whose energy is sapped by insurgency of by a breakdown in effective control by the central government over regional and local agents; the captured state, where the state embraces only an often-insecure ruling elite rather than the entire polis; and the aborted state, that never fully consolidated.

The distinctions made by this taxonomy--or any similar model that could be constructed--are particularly useful if one must contemplate anything other than the laissez-faire attitude that is ethically unacceptable to the international consensus. Where a collapsed state falls on the spectrum necessarily determines the approach that is ultimately adopted to dealing with it. An anarchic state will require an entirely different response than an aborted state. The chosen solution, if not adequate to the nature of the state failure in question, runs the risk of not only being ineffectual, but also being outright disastrous, as the experience of recent years has shown. A good case can be made that the Rwandan genocide happened because the UN actually learned the lessons of the imbroglio in Somalia: the problem was that the former was a failed state of the captured variety, whose organizational machinery, alas, worked too well, while the latter was one of the anarchic kind, with its governmental structures completely disintegrated.

What causes failed states? Pham points out that the end of the Cold War (WW III) did not cause states to fail, but the end of outside subsidies permitted long-simmering but suppressed quarrels to surface (and freed up a lot of military hardware for cheap). Instead, "Collective identities in underdeveloped societies are particularly conflict prone because identities are derived from fundamental, incontrovertible, and non-negotiable values such as language, history, and religion." Leaders use tribal divisions to "distract their citizens from other domestic failures, often when the ethnic division is nowhere as profound as being claimed" (Tharoor, Deputy UN SecGen). And it is pretty hard to feel a part of a partly alien government when only the elites seem to ever benefit, with corruption at every level.

This is a good history of Liberia, a good evaluation of the processes that cause a state to fail, and a good start on analyzing what is needed to deal with them. I wrote a little of the difference between "peacekeeping" forces and "peacemaking" forces--this goes a little farther. (A quick once-over by an editor would have helped the book a bit.) Read it.

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