The Government of Liberia, in collaboration with its national and international partners, has led interventions to contain the spread of COVID-19. While the virus is posing multitudes of challenges to Liberia’s peace and security and undermining social cohesion, it has also provided opportunities to work collectively to address the conflict factors left unresolved by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), including attending to some of the root causes of the conflict. It is in this context that the Liberian Peacebuilding Office (PBO) continues to advocate for backing from its international partners to increase support to address new conflict issues and trauma, as well as women- and youth-related issues exposed by the disease.
COVID-19 has eroded some peacebuilding gains made in Liberia over the last 15 years and poses a risk to peace, unless the GoL and key stakeholders can address food security and SGBV, prevent a constitutional election crisis and strengthen community resilience @pboliberia #C19ConflictMonitorTweet
The PBO has published a series of non-conflict triggers reports (NCTR), which show that in many instances, efforts and resources have been shifted or reprogrammed to combat COVID-19. The reports reveal the following trends:
Sexual and gender-based violence: Lockdown measures have increased the risk for women and girls who are trapped at home with abusive partners/parents. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, reports of rape and other forms of domestic violence have increased and now account for 5.5% of all COVID-19 conflict-related cases reported from communities across all 15 counties. This figure is believed to be under-reported, due to agreements reached between perpetrators and survivors’ families and travel restrictions imposed by the lockdown, which restrict the movement of our volunteers across communities.
Violence: Apart from sexual and gender-based violence, there has been a significant decrease in violent incidents after the COVID-19 lockdown measures were introduced. However, this is likely to increase in the coming months, as a result of the government’s inability to timely and equitably distribute its food stimulus package and other basic social services.
Community’s knowledge and access to COVID-19 materials in the 15 counties: Overall, community knowledge on COVID-19 and access to basic sanitary materials are gradually increasing, with several civil society and community-based organisations carrying out awareness campaigns and the distribution of sanitary materials to empower the resilience of communities against the pandemic. While there are issues of non-compliance and a shortage of supplies for health facilities across the country, the distribution and donation of COVID-19 materials represents 33% of all response activities. This is followed by community-based awareness-raising campaigns, which accounts for 17%.
Misinformation: Denial and non-compliant attitudes are still prevalent across communities, while progress has been made to increase community knowledge on COVID-19 through awareness and the distribution of materials. Many citizens are still in denial mode or in a non-compliant stage, and increasing risks of misinformation have the potential to spike violence and public unrest. Approximately 13% of Liberians are not compliant with the government’s containment measures, which suggests a level of distrust and public confidence between communities or ordinary citizens and their government. This is problematic for an effective response to the crisis.
Potential risk factors for increased local transmission and other non-health-seeking behaviours: Another important factor that ordinary Liberians are worried about is the acute shortage of essential medical supplies at various hospitals and primary health facilities. On this note, approximately 15% of ordinary citizens have reported a lack or shortage of essential medical supplies at health facilities across the country. Some people have reported that they are apprehensive to seek medical treatment, even for other illnesses, because they fear being declared a COVID-19 patient. These issues of lack of essential medical supplies and misinformation need to be followed up with the relevant health authorities, as many citizens die at home and in local communities because of their fear of COVID-19 stigma and discrimination.
Community resistance and resilience: The government plans to provide a stimulus package, specifically including rice and other items, that targets vulnerable communities. Community resilience requires sturdy social capital and robust networks that can facilitate collective and inclusive decisions and actions. Thousands of individual women, men and children need to actively contribute to community resilience based on their individual capacity, so that their collective efforts can contain or prevent the virus from spreading.
Localising response mechanisms and integrating indigenous perspectives for improved community engagements: Crises and epidemics, such as the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak, have long been part of the ecology, and historically, localised community response mechanisms have proven effective. Hence, strategic engagements with and the involvement of local communities in decision-making are critically important for the effective management of COVID-19. However, since the outbreak, there has been limited involvement of local community leaders and integration of indigenous perspectives into the national response plan. The limited community involvement in the COVID-19 response, coupled with the low trust of ordinary citizens in their government, are key factors for increased community frustration and resistance to allowing health authorities to establish and decentralise sample collection and testing centres in pre-identified communities. For example, in May 2020, the establishment of sample collection centres in District No. 6, Montserrado County, was met with stiff resistance by community leaders, because they were not part of the decision-making process and were also not informed about the advantages and disadvantages of having the centre in their community.
Land disputes and boundary harmonisation: While land disputes and boundary harmonisation cases remain under-reported, even a single incident could degenerate into violent conflict and impede local peace and stability. Currently, as reported by early warning volunteers and county authorities, there is an ongoing land dispute and boundary harmonisation crisis between the people of River Gee and Maryland counties, involving the Chedepo–Barrobo land crisis. The PBO has received support from the Government of Ireland to mediate the land dispute before it escalates into violent conflict and undermines the COVID-19 containment measures.
Delayed mid-term senatorial elections and the potential constitutional crisis: The National Elections Commission (NEC) has postponed the mid-term senatorial elections to December 2020 (from October, as required by the Constitution). Most politicians and citizens have expressed their fear that the postponement of the senatorial election may result in a constitutional crisis and could serve as a precedent in the future, where the president could decide at will to change constitutional requirements without a legitimate process. Given that elections are sensitive issues that could lead to conflict, the NEC is engaged in efforts to encourage collaboration between the political parties to promote an inclusive electoral process and to ensure social cohesion in the period pending the elections.
From the data collected and analysis generated, the PBO has recommended that the government should urgently implement its food distribution initiatives across the country without further delay, while ensuring transparency and accountability; integrate and support early warning and social cohesion interventions into the national COVID-19 response plan; adopt a post-pandemic resilience programme and strategy that considers the complexity and systemic risks presented by the virus engrained into its institutional reforms; strengthen capacity for the reporting and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence; convene a roundtable that focuses on the upcoming 2020 senatorial election, involving the NEC and political parties to discuss the constitutionality of the elections and its implications on peace, security and social cohesion; and promote multilateral and south–south cooperation approaches to contain and mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
Edward K. Mulbah is the national executive director for the Liberia Peacebuilding Office, located within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and a focal point for the development of the Liberia Peacebuilding Plan, responsive to UN Security Council resolution 2333 (2016). Prior to assuming this position, he served as senior advisor to the government on peacebuilding and reconciliation for five years. He is a respected figure within the Liberian civil society sector as the individual who established the first civil society organisation in Liberia working on peacebuilding, in 1998.
This think piece is drawn from the data and findings of the Liberia Peacebuilding Office’s Policy Brief on COVID-19 Conflict Triggers and Resilience of May 2020.