Building Durable Peace: Liberia’s Long Road to Psychological Recovery

By: Emmanuel Dolo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
October 24, 2015



We have yet not begun to understand the full psychological impact of the war and its trauma on our citizens. We have not made ample efforts to deal with the profound psychological damage that the war caused and is still causing. Yes, since the end of the war in 2003, intense communal violence has become less visible, but conditions for longer-term psychological healing and reconciliation have not started or taken roots. The control of violence at an interpersonal and inter-communal level, which is a prerequisite to building durable peace, has also not gotten underway.

Escalating violence in the country is jeopardizing peace and stability. Look back at what happened at Redlight - the communal violence which involved burning of police stations and other facilities. Now, it is confirmed that a local businessman’s home and commercial facilities were burnt on the basis of rumors alone in Ganta.

Notable, these two incidents are not all that need to catch our attention. The pattern or tendency in our society toward violence are many: the recent act of violence enacted by former Executive Protection Service (EPS) Deputy Director Darlington George against his alleged female victim, Esther Glain; fistfights in the legislature; riots in Yekepa, Sinoe or West Point and/or a 53 year old man raping a 13 year old girl – cumulatively, the mental health consequences of the war are emerging and tearing the social fabric apart.

One is forced to ask: Have the normal restraints and inhibitions of a civilized society disappeared from our nation? Is it that violators are living with the illusion that they cannot be held responsible for their actions anymore and thus heightening their aggression? Has the history of violence pre-dating the war now had a conditioned effect on the minds and moods of Liberians?

Urgent efforts must be exerted to end these senseless patterns of violence. Treating each of these incidents separately can hinder the design of comprehensive strategies for communal violence prevention and reduction and impede the development of coherent national and local policies and interventions. Imagine the devastating violence, fear, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and other effects that trauma associated with the war is producing daily. We have no mechanisms to address these problems in a determined way. Those within the security arena might term these as violent acts of terror. But from my vantage point, we have a public health dimension, and left unattended, unintentionally conceals the underlying risk factors for future armed violence and divert attention and resources away from effective entry points, particularly psychosocial interventions.

The initial interventions made immediately after the conflict may have focused primarily on the underlying causes of the war, but not on its resulting psychological outcomes. There may be those who are underestimating the sporadic outbreaks of violence, but the risk of them getting completely out of control is extremely high. We cannot allow a culture of impunity (mob justice) to fester out of control. We must create a counter culture of accountability and social justice in response to this deepening gang-type righteousness. But applying the rule of law is not enough to break the cycle of violence.

As a society, we have not done enough to provide substantive solutions to the problems that caused the war. I do not think we have done enough to avert revival of violent conflict, although short-term conflict prevention strategies like the presence of UN peacekeeping forces have been employed. We need to recognize that building durable peace goes beyond the imperative of stopping the gun and/or superficially reintegrating ex-combatants in society.
To prevent the recurrence of violence for the long haul, a broad scope of structural transformations has to be utilized. We will need to tackle the root causes of the war, if the goal is to prevent a relapse into conflict.

Social scientists are keen to note that it is rare for violence to erupt around a particular event and then spur mass property destruction, personal injury, and death without being connected to something at an individual level. Public acts of violence like the ones noted in Ganta, Redlight, and other places here are always connected to unresolved personal acts, which may have gone unaddressed for a prolonged period. Essentially, failure to understand the relationship between private violence and public violence helps to promote the latter; and to effectively intervene and achieve long-term peace at the community and national levels.
It is too optimistic to think that after ten years of peace, we cannot return to war. Although the progress that we have made in peace building with the presence of UN peacekeeping forces on the ground relies on improvements in inter-communal relationships, what has been missing is repairing relations on a psychological level. As such, we find ourselves in a state of war-fatigued forced deceptive civility and inactive peace, which provides support for ongoing perpetration of violence in our society with impunity. Peace is inactive when psychological wounds an emotional hurts have been left unattended. It is often ignored and not connected to the growing epidemic of violence in the society. As was done in our case, when the physical violence associated with the war ended, we took no intensive step to address the emotional and psychological pain that continues and contributes to what has become sources of private and public violence.

We confused deceptive civility emerging from war fatigue as long-lasting peace and security. Narrowly defining these violent incidents as exclusive security matters only masks the potential for even more extreme violence to occur. We must understand that the nation is experiencing inactive peace within the context of a deceptive civility, which people are showing one another. For peace to be durable it must be active and the civility in society must concurrently not be pretentious or hollow, but rather honest and strong.

We need durable reconciliation program and strategy to overcome the downward spiral that our nation is slowly following. The first two attempts at reconciliation by now Senator George Oppong Weah and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee failed miserably. With no time to dwell on their reasons, we need to revive this process and make it stronger than ever before.

We need a process that will heal the trauma caused by indiscriminate killings, tortures, and abuses that we all suffered. The combatants who meted out abusive violence and deprivation on others still live amongst us untreated for their illnesses and unaccountable for their actions. Their victims still live among us with no meaning and control over their own lives. For most Liberians, their vulnerabilities have been further exacerbated by lack of treatment, chronic poverty, loss of income, lack of social support, and low self-esteem. We have not helped them to overcome these defenseless exposures. Women who were sexually abused and exposed to physical brutality and psychological wounds still live with those indelible scars. 

Reconciliation has to be a process of returning these broken lives to normality by focusing on victims’ psychological and social needs. Perpetrators have not sought apology and forgiveness from their victims. The personal and cultural realities that were shaped by violence, people who enriched themselves as a result of the war still walk the nation with impunity. Once personal healing does not take place, group harmony will not take place. It is dehumanizing to live in the same space with your abusers who have yet not experienced restorative or punitive justice for their crimes. No community can be maintained when perpetrators do not respect their victims.

Reconciliation will not occur in Liberia, if all it means is a football game with celebrities showing off their talents. Reconciliation will not occur in Liberia, if we politicize it. Reconciliation will only occur when Liberians overcome their feelings of victimhood. Liberians will need to replace their resentment and anger and hatred with compassion. Unless and until Liberians transform their painful relationships into psychological rehabilitation, the sporadic violence will become more frequent and widespread.

Until deterrence is put in place against future abuses, Liberia will still be on the downward trajectory toward conflict. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings allowed a public opportunity for victims to express their grief and loss, injustice and pain, but it did not bring closure. We still need communal ceremonies and rituals to help victims search for new meaning. The suffering of victims must be recognized even if perpetrators will not be punished. Reduction in the kinds of violence that I alluded to earlier at Redlight and in Ganta is critical to rehabilitating our society. But these kinds of violence can best be managed if we build bonds between or amongst different identity groups in the society – commercial motorcyclists and others; elites and ordinary citizens, etc. We have many indigenous cultural institutions that can be tapped to help resolve communal problems and build harmonious community structures. Strong internal cohesion is missing in our society; reconciliation will give us that, if we take it seriously. Fundamental needs and concerns, as defined by local communities can be the foundation of our peace building activities.

We are trapped in a cycle of violence and until we eliminate the structures that breed such violence, peace will not be sustainable. These violent acts cannot be attributed to unavoidable eruptions of anger between individuals and groups divided by unsolvable historical differences. Maybe, they are extensions of social conflicts which include intra-communal riots, class violence, and other forms of sectional upheavals. But in the end, what the violence represents is an absence of civic ties across groups and communities, which only a thoughtful reconciliation program and strategy can mend.

Here are some possible things that we can do to begin the process of psychosocial recovery.  The Human Rights Commission should begin or accelerate the process of reconciliation and healing as we sort out the political components of the TRC recommendations. The Commission will begin a process of transformation that will fundamentally alter the way it works. The focus will be on bringing a better balance between remedies for individuals who have experienced discrimination, and effective broader psychosocial changes in the whole society to bring about reconciliation and healing. The vast majority of Liberians live in a reality that is still profoundly shaped by the war and previous social, economic and political divides. Liberia needs reconciliation and healing as a matter of urgency. Here are ways in which the new commission will be transformed:

The goal of all these interventions will be to make the Human Rights Commission into an agency that will help us look toward the future while healing social divisions from our past. It will help us in reconciling differences and enhancing the prospects for social cohesion.

The Human Rights Commission will foster new approaches to individual and group trauma healing, the practice of forgiveness, cultural approaches to restorative justice, and implementing perhaps the concept of a “Palava Hut,” so as to interrupt the intergenerational transfer of wounds and vengeance.  

Mae Moore
Mr. Dolo, your deliberate act and omission of not mentioning Police brutality or the murder of Cllr. Michael Allison and the criminal conduct of Benedict Sannoh aiding snd abeting senior officials within the government tells you are simply attempting to cover-up for the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf POLICIES which are all rooted in violence and deception!
Mae Moore at 01:05PM, 2015/10/24.
Nick Taylor
The one thing that you can all do is learn from others. My organisation runs the British Survivors Assistance Network and undertakes a number of reconciliation projects. We would be delighted to show you what we do and what we do can be exported easily tp any conflict situation.
Nick Taylor at 03:29AM, 2015/10/25.
Kou Gontee
Nick Taylor,

The polity, society, setting or context within or under which your organization operates(Britain) is a one marked by ACCOUNTABILITY AND DUE PROCESS OF LAW! Ours, under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a one notorously known for the REVERSE of accountability and due process!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hence, your organization is useless to and or for our problem. Thanks for your offer, however.

This (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf´s Liberia)is a society in which the president´s son (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf´s son) takes the law into his own hands by personally beating people out of their beds by 4 AM in the morning because he Mr. President´s son suspects the victim to have taken away his (president´s son´s) money.

This is a society in which the President thretens the life of palitical candidates who are opponents to her son in a senatorial race. This is a society in which the president son goes into a radio station and drags a broadcaster out of the station and dashes him into jail without the due process of law.

This a society in which police brutality is the norm as evidenced by the recent one by a security aid of the president - with the president filing in bond for the very security aid who brutalized an innocent lady.

This security aid is now walking scotfree while the victim of his brutality is been agonized in pains suffering and fear! So, Nick, please accept the scientific fact that your organization, is for our situation, in Liberia, useless!

Take another evidence: The president´s son Robert Sirleaf embezzles the THE National Oil Company to collapse and enjoys IMPUNITY! But had it been another individual the president would have dragged them for prosecution as she did recently with Clemenceu Urey, Dr. Foday Kromah and others until they proved that she instructed them in the act, and she commanded or ordered the courts to drop the case!

So, nick, you now see why we say due process and accountability are non-existent in our society - a major factor rendering your organization useless to Liberia at this time in point!
Kou Gontee at 05:57AM, 2015/10/25.
Johnson Sendolo
Thank you Dr. Dolo for your article on the unnecessary violence in Liberia today. As you mentioned and I agree with you that there are violence in all sectors of the Liberian society and that the family cohesion that we once enjoyed prior to the war has evaperated and there is no more civility in the country. It used to be a joy if a family member returns from abroad, family danced and have party to celebrate that return. But now, families are meted with violence, deceit and dishonesty upon return. The Liberian society is broken down. Between 1994 and 1995 violence was declared to be a public health issue and that violence needed public health interventions just as safety, mental health and all sort of other health problems would need public health interventions. Lot things need to be fixed in Liberia even the very human resources need to be fixed. I hope the authority in the country will read the article, understand it and act on the recommendations that you put forward. Thanks
Johnson Sendolo at 02:08AM, 2015/10/26.
Sylvester Moses
As neat as the psychological explanation for post - conflict violence, the frequency of riotous conducts we have been witnessing in the past three years is more persuasive as physical expressions of citizens' dissatisfaction, and sense of betrayal. For example, after well - reported funding, the government has failed to achieve even a modicum of the UN - mandated "confidence building" through jobs for ex - combatants, and security sector reform. Moreover, in spite of the fact that government is perceived to be unresponsive to citizens reasonable demands, there are endless reports of waste, graft and corruption. May be, government should try ethical accountable governance; take care of the stomachs and welfare of the people, and leave their generally sound and healthy minds alone.
Sylvester Moses at 01:18PM, 2015/10/26.
Lee T. Williams
Mr.EmmanuelDolo, you should be honest or man enough to look into the face of your boss Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and tell her that her total disregard for law,order,justice,and honesty,are exactly what has FORMENTED and even are the causes and sources ofthe "Escalating violence in the country jeopardizing peace and stability"!!!!

Look my friend, you and other advisers to this VERY VIOLENT,CRUEL,SELFISH,AND CORRUPT WOMAN are DOOMED to be accused TOMORROW by her,her children,relatives,and cronies that you advisers were the cause of EVERYTHING which went WRONG during her tenure as president.

The objective of this write-up by you is soley to create the FALSEHOOD that the citizenry is the problem WHEN the truth is that VERY VIOLENT,CRUEL,SELFISH,AND CORRUPT ELLEN Johnson Sirleaf IS THE MASTERMIND AND CULPRIT FOR THE "Escalating violence in the country jeopardizing peace and stability"!!!!
Lee T. Williams at 02:52AM, 2015/10/27.
sylvester moses

Today's "Daily Observer" editorial carried another pandering to bad governance on the subject of instability in the vein of Dr. Dolo's misdiagnosis and wrong prescription. So since the subjects are similar, I thought readers of " should know that the Ellen PR machine has escalated a multi - pronged hype, hence the following response:

In This Child Will Be Great, EJS writes, "The Tubman style of patronage was no longer sufficient to keep people from being dissatisfied ... the lead of dissent was threatening to blow and that he was beginning to feel vulnerable was evident…" If one deletes "Tubman" and types ‘Sirleaf’, it would seem that she foresaw the present predicament of popular discontent. But Daily Observer prefers to indulge in the false equivalency of comparing an NCO’s led - PRC martial law rule, and a Harvard economist – led "democracy". The fact remains that after nine years, plus billions in donor support, EJS failed to achieve the UN – sponsored postwar “public confidence restoration”, hence the rising indicators of instability, and this no purchased orchestrated propaganda offensive can debunk.
sylvester moses at 06:17AM, 2015/10/28.
Amos Frank
Don´t mind these "fly By night" write-ups By the likes of Emmanuel Dolo. Just the other day when he DESPARETLY wanted to put an end to his being jobless and was crying for government job he had all the acrimonious criticisms against this very criminal empire of Ellen untill she "found something for him too"!

This is the case with Lewis Brown and Isaac Jackson who untill they were employed By Ellen saw nothing good about her government. But today, they (Lewis Brown, Isaac Jackson, Emmanuel Dolo etc. etc) are the defenders of the evils, misrule, incompetence, corruption, killings, and criminalities of Ellen.

The Liberian people saw this in the cold-blooded-wicked murder of Cllr. Michael Allison By a Representative, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Speaker Alex Taylor.

This reminds us of the police brutality when they jumped through the Windows of classrooms while students were in class and dragged the students out and brutalized them, and the massive killings of CDC´s voters during the elections.

With all of these high profile violence, Emmanuel Dolo "closed his mouth". But when students protests against the illegitimate and maladministrative expulsion of their school mate who fought a just cause, Emmanuel Dolo tries to shift blames from Ellen who is the perpetrator to the students who are the victims.

This is precisely what this boy´s (Emmanuel Dolo) nonesense above is about - shift the blame from Ellen to the victims. SHAME ON YOU EMMANUEL DOLO!!!!
Amos Frank at 05:22AM, 2015/10/29.
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