Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Liberia: The Violence of Democracy

Mary H. Moran
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 200
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Liberia, a small West African country that has been wracked by violence and civil war since 1989, seems a paradoxical place in which to examine questions of democracy and popular participation. Yet Liberia is also the oldest republic in Africa, having become independent in 1847 after colonization by an American philanthropic organization as a refuge for "Free People of Color" from the United States. Many analysts have attributed the violent upheaval and state collapse Liberia experienced in the 1980s and 1990s to a lack of democratic institutions and long-standing patterns of autocracy, secrecy, and lack of transparency. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy is a response, from an anthropological perspective, to the literature on neopatrimonialism in Africa. Mary H. Moran argues that democracy is not a foreign import into Africa but that essential aspects of what we in the West consider democratic values are part of the indigenous African traditions of legitimacy and political process. In the case of Liberia, these democratic traditions include institutionalized checks and balances operating at the local level that allow for the voices of structural subordinates (women and younger men) to be heard and be effective in making claims. Moran maintains that the violence and state collapse that have beset Liberia and the surrounding region in the past two decades cannot be attributed to ancient tribal hatreds or neopatrimonial leaders who are simply a modern version of traditional chiefs. Rather, democracy and violence are intersecting themes in Liberian history that have manifested themselves in numerous contexts over the years. Moran challenges many assumptions about Africa as a continent and speaks in an impassioned voice about the meanings of democracy and violence within Liberia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0284-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Liberia, Violence, and Democracy
    (pp. 1-26)

    Violence and democracy are words that do not sit easily together in the same sentence. Indeed, our tendency as Westerners is to see them as opposite ends of an evolutionary scale; the successor to widespread violence, we often imagine, is democracy, a system in which rulers are freely chosen by their people and in which everyone is allowed to voice their opinions and concerns. If such conditions exist, what need is there to resort to violence?

    In the 1990s and into the current century, war and genocide in the Balkans, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been attributed...

  4. Chapter 1 The Case for Indigenous Democracy
    (pp. 27-52)

    The scholarly literature on democracy is, like that on war and violence, voluminous and at times contradictory. That portion of it dedicated to Africa has come primarily from political scientists, who have devoted much time and care to constructing typologies and definitions (although anthropologists have contributed important insights to the study of democracy worldwide; see Owusu 1992, 1997; Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Karlstrom 1996; Schaffer 1997, 1998; Snyder 2001; West and Kloeck-Jenson 1999; Gutman 2002; Paley 2001, 2002; Greenhouse and Kheshti 1998, among others). In what follows, I address only a fraction of that literature, and only in terms of...

  5. Chapter 2 Contested Histories
    (pp. 53-73)

    Few other nations in Africa have been so relentlessly represented as the victim of their own “peculiar” history as Liberia (for a classic example, see Tim Weiner, “Of Liberia’s Many Sorrows, and Their Roots,” New York Times, September 3, 2003). Indeed, many other African countries are viewed as having little history at all, beyond the dates when they were “conquered” by European powers and, again, the dates they gained independence. Liberia’s unusually early founding as a national state, its “preemptive” declaration of independence in 1847, and its representation as the prime example of “black misrule” in Africa are all cited...

  6. Chapter 3 Civilization and the Liberian Nation
    (pp. 74-100)

    When the young, rurally recruited fighters of Charles Taylor’s NPFL entered Monrovia in the summer of 1990, it was the first time that many of them had seen their capital city. Ellis writes that these young men reserved particularly vicious retribution for members of their own ethnic groups who were long-term city residents, because “they regarded anyone who had lived in Monrovia for too long as having betrayed the moral values of the village” (1999: 117). The violence unleashed by the civil war is framed in this account and others as a conflict over which set of moral values, those...

  7. Chapter 4 The Promise and Terror of Elections
    (pp. 101-123)

    In Chapter 1, I argued that a number of longstanding indigenous institutions might be characterized as democratic, if we broaden the definition of that term to include multiple means of direct participation in decisionmaking for people in a range of unequal social positions. In the Western world, however, it is undeniable that the institution most associated with democracy is the competitive election. While many commentators insist on viewing elections as recent importations into Africa, Liberians of all backgrounds have had a comparatively long history with this means of granting political legitimacy. The central government introduced the practice of confirming the...

  8. Chapter 5 The Lock on the Outhouse Door: Discourses of Development
    (pp. 124-139)

    What do people expect, in practical terms, of living in a democratic state? While political theorists may focus on elections, transparency, and good governance, for most poor, rural people in nonindustrialized countries, “democracy” is measured in more mundane amenities like clean running water or reliable electrical current. The close conceptual linkage between democracy and “development,” which has become the catchall term for any form of economic diversification and the provision of what the West considers to be “basic services,” grounds most neoliberal economic theory and a great deal of foreign policy. Only with democratization, it is assumed, can the incentives...

  9. Chapter 6 The Crisis of Youth and the Promise of the Future
    (pp. 140-155)

    For most of the sixteen months that I lived in Liberia in the early 1980s, I lived in an extended household of “civilized Glebo” in the community of Hoffman Station, outside Harper city, Maryland County. The male head of the household, the kai bua or “house father,” was an ordained Episcopal priest and pastor of St. James Church, the original “Glebo church” of Cape Palmas. His wife, from a prominent family in the town of Waa (Fishtown), his mother-in-law, four sons, nephew, granddaughter, and several foster children or “servants,” along with the resident anthropologist, completed the household. At the time,...

  10. Chapter 7 Conclusion: A Wedding and a Funeral
    (pp. 156-164)

    I began this book with three broad goals: to “denaturalize” the violence taking place in Liberia and elsewhere and, in so doing, to challenge the “New Barbarism Hypothesis”; to argue that a democratic tradition exists in the political institutions of indigenous communities as well as in the cities of the nation-state; and to posit that violence and democracy are not opposite ends of a continuum but may be part of the same general understanding of political legitimacy. In the course of working through the events of my fieldwork and of the last twenty years, I have found myself questioning many...

  11. References
    (pp. 165-178)
  12. Index
    (pp. 179-188)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 189-192)