July 14, 2016, 1:20 pm
By The Carter Center
This month, the United Nations turned over the responsibility for Liberia’s security to the Liberian government.
It’s the first time in 13 years that the government has been solely in charge of keeping the peace.
The transfer comes at a critical time for Liberia, which is still grappling with the aftereffects of 2014’s Ebola outbreak even as it prepares for 2017’s election to replace President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has led the country since its emergence from a brutal civil war.
One key to a successful peace will be the country’s network of chiefs and traditional leaders.
The chiefs are often among the most respected people in their communities — the ones who make many of the rules, the ones others call on to settle disputes. And since 2010, The Carter Center has been working with the chiefs to increase their understanding of the country’s laws, to strengthen their ability to resolve disputes, and to better connect them to local and national government officials and agencies.
During the Ebola crisis and a subsequent measles outbreak, the chiefs proved invaluable in persuading their communities to take preventative measures to halt the spread of the diseases, said Pewee Flomoku, who helps manage the Carter Center’s Access to Justice Project in Liberia. He thinks they can be similarly effective in maintaining peace.
“Chiefs are on the ground. They are the eyes and ears of their community and an early-warning system when crises threaten,” Flomoku said. “Generally, there’s little trust in the government, and the police and courts are hard to access in rural areas. But a chief is a combination of a political leader and religious leader, and people are more likely to do what the chiefs ask.”
Already this year, they have played important roles in a couple of issues with national security implications: Local chiefs near Cote d’Ivoire met with their counterparts across the border (alongside representatives of the government and the U.N.) to discuss border security. Chiefs also held discussions that helped ease tensions related to a proposed constitutional amendment that would declare Liberia a Christian nation.
The Carter Center supported both events. And as election season heats up, it will be working with election officials to conduct educational sessions for chiefs (as well as for women and youth) on the electoral process. The goal is to increase the chiefs’ understanding of how things should work so they can pass that information on to their communities.
Said Flomoku, “We’re hoping that through our training and through working with local security forces in their own communities, the chiefs can help ensure that there are good elections and that disputes are resolved in non-violent ways consistent with the law.”