Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Liberia: Reconciliation and Reform
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

The Fourth Leg

Reconstructing Liberia is like taking a plank of wood and turning it into a piece of furniture.  The raw material is rich and promising, but the legs have to be attached solidly for it to make a good table.  If any one of the legs is wobbly, the whole table can come crashing down.  In Liberia, those four legs are transparent elections, good economic governance, a new military and judicial reform.  So far Liberia has achieved good elections and has engaged initiatives to reform economic governance and the military, but judicial reform is only beginning to be considered for what it is: a sector so important that it could sabotage the other three.

Take economic governance for example.  In this area, events came to a head with uncharacteristic speed in the middle of 2005.  In May, disgruntled donors aired their grievances at a conference in Copenhagen.  On the basis of findings from audits of five Liberian parastatal companies and the Central Bank, as well as an investigation by representatives of the Economic Community of West African States, they demanded intrusive oversight over the monies they were pumping into the Liberian reconstruction effort, as well as accounting for the millions of missing dollars that should have been coming into state coffers from sources as varied as customs duties and the licensing of cargo ships the world over under Liberia's flag of convenience.

By August, the transitional government put in place when Charles Taylor fled to exile in Nigeria had signed on to what had become known as the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Plan (GEMAP), which gave co-signature rights to international experts in many of these parastatals and several ministries.  The bedrock assumption of the undertaking is that the GEMAP program will help to promote transparent economic governance, and punish those who break Liberia's laws.  A serious deficiency in the GEMAP strategy for Liberia is its insufficient recognition of the importance of judicial reform for reconstruction. There is an acknowledgement that it should be addressed, but discussion of judicial reform in the GEMAP document is cursory and vague. Within the international community, there's an emerging consensus that someone else should take up the challenge. Both the Americans and the UN are developing plans to tackle the issue, but coordination and a clear division of labour will be crucial if they are not to waste time and energy competing for the lead role.

Yet how do you prosecute corrupt officials or those trying to bribe them if the judiciary is not independent from the executive branch?  Liberia's judges serve at the pleasure of the President, and over the years, whether one got away with stealing government funds depended upon whether one was close enough to the president to enjoy his protection.  The system is now so entrenched that it is not clear that even a president of good will, like the newly-elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, can dismantle it.  The greatest help she could receive is honest, tough judges who are paid a respectable salary and don't have to fear for their jobs if they take unpopular decisions.

Questions about the judiciary also arose in the context of the elections.  Several minor candidates had been barred for procedural reasons from running for president.  When they appealed the ruling of the National Electoral Commission to the Supreme Court, the Court ruled in their favour.  The situation threatened to delay the elections, and was only resolved at the last minute when the candidates agreed to stand down.  People in Monrovia at the time, from taxi drivers to diplomats, told Crisis Group they believed that part of the deal had involved the judges and candidates being paid off to settle the affair.  While we have no evidence to prove that such payments took place, the easy assumption by many in Liberia that the country's Supreme Court could be so easily corrupted indicates a serious crisis of confidence in the judicial system.

Judicial reform is also inextricably linked to ongoing attempts to reform Liberia's security sector.  In Liberia as in many West African countries, one of the greatest sources of injustice is the long periods - up to years - spent by prisoners in miserable conditions in pre-trial detention.  Many prisoners arrested for petty misdemeanours die of malnutrition or disease before ever coming to trial, because the justice system is so overwhelmed and the prisons so overcrowded.  Greater access to justice is thus of capital importance, and solutions will have to be creative, involving training of community-based paralegals, and construction of new prisons and courts.

The situation in rural villages is not much better, with justice meted out in customary courts in which elders and chiefs collect sizeable sums from both accuser and accused, and then decide whether to impose a further penalty on one party.  In any case, they themselves take the initial sums, plus much of any further fines assessed.  Magistrates, often the only local representatives of the state legal system, act like justices of the peace.  There are few qualifications required to become a magistrate, but only about one half fulfil the most basic one - literacy.  Liberians understand that these problems, and the impunity they fostered, were root causes of the 14-year war that devastated their country, even if the calls for 'judicial reform' are not as well-articulated as those calling for an end to corruption.

In the current circumstances, it is hard to have faith that the Liberian system of justice renders predictable and consistent justice, treating men and women, elders and youths, rich and poor in the same way.  In such a judicial environment, it is difficult to convince potential investors to do business in Liberia, though it is exactly such investment that is necessary to create jobs for Liberia's estimated 80 per cent unemployed.  Even more ironically, it is difficult to convince the hundreds, and possibly even thousands of Liberian born, American-educated lawyers resident in the United States to return to their home country to practice law.  What is needed is a thorough overhaul of the judicial system, addressing issues from liveable wages to separation of executive and judicial arms of the government.  This could set into motion the kind of virtuous cycle that would see talented Liberians returning home and further strengthening the system.

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