Over the last three decades, Africa has experienced many challenges, ranging from those caused by natural disasters, diseases and pests to man-made disasters caused by civil wars. Tackling these challenges has produced unprecedented pressures for the entire region and beyond, affecting individuals, communities, national governments and the international community.

This article will examine specifically the challenges facing countries trying to recover from civil war or civil strife, in particular those where the civil war affected the whole country, including the capital city or the center of power. For example, in Liberia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo the conflict resulted in the collapse of governance institutions and virtually all national and local support services, not to mention countless thousands of deaths and injuries. This article will focus on how the experiences of Liberia during the critical period of 1997 to 2001contributed to the follow-up to the civil war before the resignation of then-president Charles Taylor. The years between 1997 and 2001 were seen as a period when there was a semblance of peace. For example, Monrovia and the surrounding areas had no security problems. This article looks at what lessons can be learned when a country is coming out of war and people’s expectations are too high to be met and offers some suggestions for post-conflict and post-crisis countries.

Some of the Challenges of the Post-1997 Election

In 1998, the government of Liberia, with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), organized the Conference on the Future of Liberia: Vision 2024, which brought together 3,000 Liberians representing all political parties, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and professional bodies as well as religious, youth, women and student organizations from within the country and abroad to discuss the future of the Liberia nation. One of the products of the Conference was the adoption of Vision 2024, with its emphasis on genuine national peace, social justice and human rights, national identity and nationalism, economic development and democratic governance. Therefore, there was a need for a dynamic leadership to translate this vision into reality through an operational framework that would guide national energies, commitment, resources and partnership in a structured, systematic and focused way.

To implement the main elements of Vision 2024, the government was faced with several challenges. These challenges included determining the level and magnitude of destruction of physical infrastructure, assessing and determining the priorities of the new government after the general elections of 1997,and establishing the institutions of governance to direct and manage humanitarian and reconstruction program. They also involved convincing former civil servants to return and recruiting new ones to manage the ministries to be re-established, mobilizing funds to pay the civil servants as well as cover the costs of basic government priorities, reintegrating and resettling returning refugees into their former local areas, including internally displaced persons, and instilling a sense of political and internal security to address the psychological insecurity in the country.

There were no quick fixes to any of these challenges, but several attempts were made to address them with varying degrees of success; for example the needs were many and each one was considered a priority.  Most of the actions were simultaneous to such an extent that the few poorly paid government officials in place were overstretched.  Among the first actions that the elected Government had to tackle was to convince donors and development partners that the country was in the process of recovery and that it needed financial resources to maintain the post-1997 election commitments. Less than one year later, a donor meeting was organized in Paris in 1998 on behalf of the government by the UNDP and other development partners. The presentations made by the Government during the meeting were well received, resulting in the international community pledging some $220 million to be released over a two-year period.
A number of baseline studies were funded by UN agencies and others to address the baseline data that continues to be a challenge in Liberia even to this day. UNDP, for example, funded the poverty mapping and the First Liberian Human Development Reports, which were completed in 1999 and 2000, respectively. The preparation and completion of the two reports faced considerable challenges; specifically, some parts of the country were remote and impossible to reach, especially during the heavy rains, while other parts of the country were generally underdeveloped, even before the civil war. Meanwhile, other places were still insecure and there were not enough staff and funds to carry out the above studies and other related activities.

Despite these problems, the above reports were able to include some data that have been used by all stakeholders. For example, reports confirmed both unemployment and poverty levels that were about 80 percent. However, these figures should be viewed with caution.

Once UNDP agreed to support a few key ministries, it was inundated with so many requests that it was unable to cope because every request was seen as an immediate priority by the government. This was due to the fact that, when the UNDP country office in Liberia and the government designed the country program (1998-2001), there was little realization that capacity-building should go beyond human resource development to include the provision of an enabling environment, e.g., the provision of equipment and electricity (for government counterparts within the various ministries). It was assumed at the time that these items could be provided by the government without realizing that in a post-crisis country where most of the facilities had been destroyed, it would be a challenge for the government to provide them. For instance, once UNDP had assisted the government to carry out the basic renovation of destroyed or damaged ministry buildings, it then had to provide basic furniture, including small generators and other related equipment. Moreover, some of the generators would not function unless UNDP assisted further with diesel fuel. In some cases, within a few months, some of the generators were overstretched or overused and broke down. During the inter-ministerial planning meetings, each minister would argue that if his/her ministry did not respond to a specific problem, it would affect the others. The Department of Corrections, for instance, needed to renovate the old existing prison building to take criminals off the street who were killing and stealing from citizens. These crimes were creating insecurity and scaring investors who wanted to invest in the country. On the surface, the Minister had a very valid point, but every ministry –education, agriculture, transport and others – could make equally valid arguments.

After the re-establishment of some ministries, the challenge was to recruit or reassign the civil servants who had persevered during the crisis, but the salaries were negligible, ranging from US$20 to US$30 for a senior government official, including cabinet ministers, to US$5 for junior civil servants. These salaries would not enable anyone to buy even a bag of rice (costing US$35) to feed her/his immediate extended families. The senior civil servants took advantage of international seminars, workshops and meetings outside the country.  They did so because these meetings or workshops paid for their tickets and per diems, which gave them some financial flexibility to support their families, the majority of which were living outside the country. By and large, various strategies were adopted to encourage some of the nationals who were outside the country, especially in North America, Europe and other parts of Africa, to return through theUNDP Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN)program, but they would not do so because of the lack of remuneration and the lack of basic equipment including medical supplies. On the other hand, there were a few nationals who wanted to return and assist for a short period but who were still not sure whether the situation had stabilized in terms of security. A number of these national expatriates declined to come back and help the country during that critical period. The first group of TOKTEN participants was paid their return tickets and daily subsistence allowance (DSA) for three months. After that, for those participants who wanted to stay, the financial figures of the remuneration were revised downwards as the program could not afford the higher amounts. Some of the participants decided to leave. Moreover, the DSA paid at the UN rate caused resentment on the part of the government officials who were at the Ministries doing the same work and making literally nothing. Between 1991 and 2001, UNDP ran out of funds to support the TOKTEN program because of other competing priorities.

The national reconstruction program prepared in 2000 faced many challenges. For example, the villages in rural areas had been burned down or destroyed. To return the people to their village areas, the international community promised to provide them with start-up funds to assist them to build their villages, including schools for their children. However, this funding was not forthcoming and the people who returned either stayed with relatives in Monrovia or decided to occupy empty government buildings. In short, the integration and resettlement program required a great deal of funds that, unfortunately, were not available in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Generally speaking, to move from insecurity to security psychologically was a very slow process. However, most of the people who lived through Liberia’s civil war were used to the daily noise of weapons. Unfortunately, for the returnees and the international staff, however, every sound, whether accidental or intentional, was associated with an indicator of insecurity. Moreover, another simplistic indicator that people used to determine whether or not the situation was temporarily stable related to the foreign traders, especially Lebanese and others. For example, if a shop was full of basic commodities, this was interpreted as a sign that the situation was temporarily stable. However, if the stocks in the store were going down, this indicated that the situation was shaky. By and large, the post-crisis environment in Liberia in the late 1990s and early 2000s was governed by wild rumors, which resulted in constant insecurity, forcing people to leave the country temporarily from time to time.

Humanitarian aid workers continued to play a key role in the Liberian crisis from the mid-1990s through 2000 and beyond. However, from time to time, when there were outbreaks of fighting, the UN staff, international NGOs and other aid workers were evacuated and their properties were either looted or destroyed. This pattern of instability continued up to the end of 2003. Over time, there were changes in the thinking of people who were receiving humanitarian assistance, especially food aid.  Accordingly, the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations came under very harsh criticism that they were becoming wealthy and isolating themselves socially from the rest of the society. Therefore, they were suspected of profiting from the war. This criticism was not expected by UN agencies and international NGOs and it sent out wrong signals, especially to the donors that were contributing the food aid and the medical supplies. The negative impact of the criticism was a challenge as some of the aid agencies were not in a position to respond effectively or refute these allegations.  

Efforts to Respond to 1997 Post-election Challenges

There were various measures introduced by the government and its development partners, especially the United Nations agencies and international NGOs, to address the above challenges. One of the of the commitments of the then-President Charles Taylor’s government after winning the general election was to improve the economy in order to create jobs and to reduce poverty. Against the backdrop of the post-crisis, chaotic situation, he had to look for new, good ideas, including the best practices, to galvanize support and commitment from the Liberian people within the country and outside. In doing so, he organized national dialogue conference in 1998 that was attended by about 3,000 Liberians from all walks of life within the country and from abroad. The participants were very committed and they came prepared with new ideas and proposals, which were translated into Vision 2024. The conference participants appealed to Taylor to ensure that he would put together a mechanism to implement the national vision as soon as possible. Despite his promises, Taylor failed to implement the recommendations of the conference and the participants who attended started to speak out openly as well as write to the President to find out what was happening. Similarly, the editor of Perspective magazine in the United States sent out questionnaires to find out from those Liberians living abroad whether they would attend the proposed National Conference to be organized by Taylor’s government in 2002. Most of them declined and those who might have been interested in attending wanted to know what had happened regarding the National Conference on the Future of Liberia of 1998.  From the feedback of prospective invitees, it was clear that no one trusted Taylor.

The mobilization of sufficient financial assistance to support the reconstruction program was the priority of the government of Taylor after the general elections. Most people, including Taylor’s government, were under the impression that, given the special relationship between the United States and Liberia, perhaps a miniature Marshal Plan would be put in place to reactivate the collapsed Liberian economy. The expectations of the Liberian people were too high, especially those relating to the growing unemployment, the high levels of poverty and the problems relating to ex-combatants. Both the Taylor and the Liberian development partners missed the opportunity to work together harmoniously to assist the people in Liberia after the Paris Donor Meeting in 1998.  Although a miniature Marshall Plan was not in the works, the United States’ government was committed to assisting Liberia and it was fully behind the efforts of the UN system and other development partners to organize the Donor Meeting in Paris in 1998. One of the representatives of the development partners noted during the meeting that this was the beginning of a normal relationship between Liberia and its development partners. Similarly, at the conclusion of the meeting, donors urged the government of Liberia to allow for press freedom, proper training of the police and security forces and to hold speedy trials.  

The Taylor’s government’s honeymoon with the international community was short-lived because it was under the impression that the international community was going to release all the funds pledged in Paris to start implementing the planned reconstruction activities. Unfortunately, because of lack of adequate government capacity, the international community decided to route the funds through UN agencies and international NGOs. In this unpredictable situation and in view of the lack of adequate financial support from its development partners, the government decided to adopt its own ad hoc approach of mobilizing funds from other sources. For example, it invited international private companies to come to invest in sectors such as forestry and mining, promising them attractive terms. Most of these transactions were not transparent because they were handled by a few individuals closer to the president and the rest of society was not in a position to question them given the centralized nature of the decisions. Most of the people lived in fear and others left the country as the economy worsened, especially after the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed economic sanctions on timber and minerals. Taylor’s close advisers felt that both the local offices of the United Nations, international NGOs and the European Union had supplied the expert group with the critical information to enable them to put together the report that was approved by the UNSC to impose economic sanction on Liberia. In retaliation, the government of Liberia issued a note that it would not guarantee the security of UN staff and international personnel after 8 p.m. each evening.  Indeed, the situation had become complex and unpredictable, people started praying for miracles. It was not long before their prayers were answered as Taylor was forced out of office.  

Women’s groups were marginalized from the negotiations of several peace agreements that the warlords signed during the Liberian crisis. They realized that their men had failed to agree and that they were not honest in their negotiations. One of the reasons for these failures to reach any durable peace agreements was competition within the warring factions over the control of resource wealth, which made it impossible for some of the warlords to have their own troops comply with the terms of the agreements, lengthening the civil war.  

Significant numbers of women’s groups then insisted, since the war also affected them and their families, on playing a constructive role in the negotiations for the peace of the country.  For example, a group known as the Mano River Women’s Peace Network, which received initial, modest support from UNDP, was instrumental in bringing together the leaders of the ManoRiver Union (MRU) countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) to discuss the conflict within the sub region.  Consequently, their efforts resulted to some extent in Charles Taylor’s agreeing to collaborate with the two other MRU leaders to distance himself from the rebel groups that he was allegedly supporting to destabilize Sierra Leone. Interestingly, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network succeeded (where other groups had failed) because it co-opted the spouses of these leaders, including other key women in government positions from the sub region, to prevail on the three leaders, which helped to soften the hardliner positions that they took towards Charles Taylor.

From 1997 to 2001, only one bilateral donor and the European Union were operating in Liberia. The rest of the donors routed their funds through the UN system and international NGOs based in Liberia. After 1991, the first UNDP formal country program covered the period 1997-2001. The program, which was co-financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government of the Netherlands, focused on consolidation of peace and good governance, restoration of the socio-economic viability of the war-affected communities and the laying of the foundation for long-term economic and social recovery.

During the mid-term review of the UNDP country program in mid-2000, some modest achievements had been registered including the development of the National Governance Framework; rehabilitation of micro projects in the areas of education, health, agriculture and infrastructure; rehabilitation of the education sector; and establishment of the National Environmental Commission of Liberia. Ironically, despite all the efforts that had gone into the preparation of the National Governance Framework, in practice, the country continued to suffer from poor governance. For example, there were several cases of violations of human rights and nepotism relating to recruitment of personnel in higher positions. Also, the implementation of the UNDP country program was affected by factors such as limited project duration and inadequate funding, lack of government counterparts, lack of national/local ownership, high turnover of the available field project staff and absence of substantial baseline data. Unlike other UN agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund(UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP), it took longer than usual for the UNDP local office to convince its headquarters to cover local costs, especially using funds of its ongoing country cooperation framework to rent office space for its projects. In short, the overhead costs of running UNDP-funded projects were very high and unrealistic.

Given that the information system collapsed owing to the destruction of the National Statistics Office (because the office was destroyed and all the information/data were lost), the United Nations Country Team instituted the bimonthly development forum, among other things, to exchange information on both humanitarian and development aspects of their work, including sharing the best practices on various case studies from not only other parts of Africa but also other developing countries. These bi-monthly forums were chaired by ministers and senior government officials and other personalities from NGOs and the private sector. The presenters were distinguished Liberians working in government, the private sector, NGOs and academia as well as those Liberians who were working with the United Nations or regional organizations and had returned home to assist in the reconstruction efforts.  

At the end of each year, a report was prepared and issued by the UN system. By and large, a number of cross-cutting issues emerged during these forums that were relevant during the implementation of Liberia’s post-crisis reconstruction, with their emphasis on the need for strong political commitment, stakeholders’ ownership of their development efforts, clearly articulated reconstruction goals and objectives, and the need for effective partnership of key players based on mutual trust, confidence, respect, commitment, transparency and honesty.

During the period 1997-2001, there were a number of ongoing adhoc activities that complemented reconstruction efforts. The ordinary Liberians returning home after the civil war started rehabilitating their looted or destroyed properties for their own use or to rent them to various organizations operating in the country to use as offices or accommodations. Also, to fill the capacity gaps especially in the delivery services, a number of national NGOs, community-based organizations and the private sector played a critical role. Some of the NGOs were very vocal in challenging the government, especially in the area of human rights abuses.

In the education sector, most of the schools were looted or destroyed and the teachers ran away as refugees while others joined the warring factions. Through the support of UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and others, assistance was provided to renovate or put up some new classrooms to accommodate the children of Liberian refugees who were returning home. However, the renovated classrooms, especially in primary and secondary schools, had no teachers. UNDP and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) worked closely with the Ministry of Education to put together a crash program to retrain and reorient the former teachers who had returned home to fill the classrooms. In addition, the Ministry of Education introduced an innovative national literacy transfer program known as “Each One Teach One” in 1999, which was replaced by a follow-up program known as “Each One Teach Ten.” Both programs mobilized available Liberians who were literate and willing to help other Liberians to become literate.


It is clear that Liberia’s civil war, which started in the period 1990-1996, was chaotic, complex,and unpredictable and punctuated with many atrocities. There were a number of compelling reasons for the outbreak of the civil war, and all these reasons directly or indirectly hinged on poor governance. Given the large loss of life and property, there were also many factors that ensured that the civil war would come to an end. In short, Liberia’s civil conflict seemed to come to an end more as a result of the country exhausting itself than from diplomacy and mediation by the international community.

From the standpoint of donor involvement in post-conflict Liberia, several lessons can be learned.  These include: (a) the difficulties of doing any credible analyses in the presence of collapsed institutions and information and data systems; (b) the dangers for the international community of a possible repetition of the crisis, especially under prevailing conditions of high unemployment and the increased number of people living in absolute poverty;  and (c) the importance for the national reconciliation process of avoiding poor governance and ensuring the participation of all stakeholders – warlords, civil society, political leaders and political parties, women’s groups, youth, and others.

Overall, there is a clear need for the international community to put in place an early warning system that takes into consideration traditional approaches to detect a potential crisis before a situation veers out of control.