A Girl's Murder Sparks Riots

Some Pakistani troops of the United Nations patrol Voinjama2

*Some Pakistani troops patrolling Voinjama (photo by Ceasefire Liberia's staff reporter)

By: Ruthie Ackerman

Article originally published on The Daily Beast

When the body of a young girl was found outside a mosque in Liberia, vigilante justice took over and fanned the flames of religious hatred.

Fourteen-year old Korpo Kamara has become a symbol of everything that is wrong in West African nation of Liberia.

The young girl was reported missing by her parents last month after she didn’t come home from picking cassava. She was found dead the next day near a mosque in the town of Konia, 55 miles from Voinjama, capital of Lofa County, one of the hardest-hit areas during Liberia’s 14-year civil war.

In a country with a strong justice system, the police would have acted swiftly to apprehend any suspects in the girl’s murder and courts would be called upon to deliver a verdict.

But in Liberia, as in many post-conflict nations, the justice system has failed the people. While much money has been poured into security-sector reform, very little has been focused on reforming the judicial sector. A lack of qualified personnel, and unpaid salaries for judges, prosecutors, and court staff, hampers the judicial process. To make matters worse, the police are poorly equipped, questionably staffed, and certainly ill-prepared to deal with the lack of rule of law. One insidious result is that a majority of Liberians distrust the justice system, which leads to a complete breakdown of law and order.

That is why, when the young girl of our story was found dead, vigilante justice took over. Witnesses said the girl’s parents became angry when the owners of the mosque claimed to know nothing about the incident. In a country where citizens are confident that justice will be done, communities don’t need to take the law into their own hands. Instead, outrage over Kamara’s death sparked riots between the Lormas, who are mostly Christian (Kamara was Lorma), and the Mandingos, who are mostly Muslim. The towns of Voinjama and Konia have felt the brunt of the violence, which left four dead, hundreds displaced, and houses, churches, and mosques burnt. During the chaos, more than six dozen inmates escaped from the local prison, although some were re-arrested.

Reports said U.N. peacekeepers arrived, but Christian residents felt that because the peacekeepers were Pakistani—Muslim—they were biased. Many national and international media outlets jumped to the conclusion that the violence was religious or ethnically based. Even the chief of the U.N. Mission in Liberia, Ellen Magrethe Løj, said at her weekly news briefing that it had “ethnic undertones.” Meanwhile, Løj also said that cellphones helped spur the violence by making it easier to spread rumors. “Let me say that I wish there were not many cell hones in this country, because it is the unfounded rumors that were circulated that caused the violence,” she pointed out, according to a story in The Daily Observer. In a press release put out by the executive mansion, the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, expressed her “grave concern and regret” about the violence in Konia and Voinjama, which she emphasized was not a “religious conflict.” Sirleaf did not specify the root of the conflict though.

Nevertheless, the knee-jerk reaction is to pass the violence in Lofa County off as ethnic or religiously based, or spurred by technology, without taking into consideration the anger many feel over the ineffective justice system which lets many criminals, including some in the government, walk free. In a petition from residents of the Zorzor District, which includes the town of Konia, where Kamara lived, residents expressed concern over the murder of three children in the district, which have remained unresolved. “Our people live in constant fear as the culprits of these crimes roam about in our District with impunity,” the Zorzor residents said in their statement.

It is important to remember that Lofa County was one of the hardest hit during the war and many tensions in the area still exist. Land disputes are common as displaced Liberians return home to find others now living on their land. So, what on the surface may look like religious or ethnic violence may in fact be caused by disputes over land and brewing anger over a lack of justice.

In fact, the U.S. State Department recently released its 2009/2010 human-rights report on Liberia, highlighting the fact that the judicial system is ineffective and corrupt and that corruption and impunity is rampant in all levels of government. The report raised the issue of politically motivated killings, like one that took place on June 29 of last year in which Senator Sumo Kupee from Lofa County was accused of the ritualistic killing of a boy in Bong County. The report said the ministry of justice did not prosecute the senator because of lack of evidence.

The report went on to point out that mob violence and land disputes still exist in Liberia and have resulted in deaths.

Liberia, which has received millions of dollars in aid money since its civil war ended six years ago, and whose president, Sirleaf, is an international darling and symbol of democracy, should be held up as an example of just how difficult nation-building and peacekeeping actually are.

One minute a country is on the road to recovery and the next minute it looks like it could slide back into war. But what seems like a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is actually low-grade anger that has been simmering for years and exploded after the death of Kamara.

The challenge for Sirleaf since she took office in 2006 has been to gain the trust and maintain the confidence of the Liberian people, despite the tattered justice system and the fact that many in government, including former warlords, want to see her fail.

The recent violence is just what Sirleaf’s opponents need to cast a shadow on her tenure. Charles Brumskine, the leader of the Liberty Party, who ran against her in the 2005 elections, never misses an opportunity to criticize her. He recently published a piece in The Liberian Journal claiming that outbreaks of violence five years after Sirleaf took office “confirms that not much has been done about reconciling our people….”

He also reported that a member of the Police Special Unit was burnt to death, as a result of mob violence. The violence was in retaliation for the killing of an unarmed civilian by the officer on January 16, when an emergency response unit wounded 17 unarmed university students and other young people without any punishment from the president or the government, Brumskine said. “While the Liberty Party condones neither mob violence nor vigilante justice, the obvious conclusion is that the people are once again beginning to take the law in their own hands, seeking to protect themselves against security units created by the executive branch of government.” Separately, Senator Sumo Kupee, who was accused of the murder of a young boy but not prosecuted because of a “lack of evidence,” told the Senate Plenary that Liberia is a “time bomb” waiting to explode.

More danger seems to be on the horizon after Liberia’s Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization revealed that it is traveling to neighboring Guinea to search for the perpetrators of the violence in Lofa County. Guinea borders Liberia to the north and is just a few kilometers away from the capital of Voinjama. Looking to “outsiders” or “foreigners” as the culprits of violence is nothing new in the region. When violence broke out in Guinea last year, the government pointed the finger at Liberia. The problem is that by making foreigners the scapegoat of the violence, anger toward anyone deemed an outsider continues to brew. This is particularly troubling for Mandingos, who, although Liberian, are considered by many to be foreigners.

Given the crisis of confidence in the government’s ability to maintain law and order in Liberia, concerns are mounting that the 2011 elections will not go as smoothly as hoped. Sirleaf’s opponents, including Brumskine, were already enraged after the “Iron Lady” announced in January that she would seek a second term—after saying she wouldn’t run again during her campaign in 2005.

While the fragile Liberia is beginning to show cracks, Sirleaf is trying to stay focused on the task ahead. In her press release after the violence in Lofa County, she reassured Liberians that “an investigation into the incident will be undertaken, while those identified as the perpetrators will be arrested and prosecuted in keeping with law.”

Despite the government’s shaky track record of prosecuting crimes, I believe Sirleaf is serious about cracking down on violence and impunity, which has run rampant in Liberia. But the Liberian people must believe it. Their futures and the future of Sirleaf’s presidential campaign depend on it.