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.
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