Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Marginalization and Inequality in the Justice and Rule of Law Systems in Liberia


Liberia’s history of governance from 1847 to the fall of the True Whig Party oligarchy in 1980, and to the fall of the military dictatorship in 1990 has been characterized by marginalization and inequality in the distribution of the nation’s wealth. Even after those two periods, the years of crisis also witnessed similar governing arrangements. Indeed, warring factions found eloquent justifications in using the terms ‘marginalization and inequality’ as a means of rallying mass support for their factions. Membership of a warring party became a prerequisite for participating and/or benefitting from the country’s wealth. Ironically, however, only selective members of these factions were able to benefit from the distribution of the state resources, leaving most of the foot soldiers and citizens excluded from the spoils of the crisis.

Given the above history, the perennial challenge of the country remains limited or no participation of the majority of the people in the political direction of the state – or lack of good governance. This is generally underscored by the poor quality of the law, or no effective system for addressing grievances in the country. It is within this corridor – the interaction between the citizens and the state – that needs focused attention.

Marginalization, Inequality, Poverty and Conflict in Liberia

In the past, political marginalization through which the majority of the people were excluded or limited from the state formed the basis for establishing the two economic classes in Liberia. This is anchored in Jeanne E. Arnold’s (1995) definition of marginalization and how it builds social inequality. Arnold (1995) defines marginalization as a process by which established or emerging elites create socio-economic relations of superior versus subordinate/dependent through manipulations of labor and distributions of social services (See Jeanne E. Arnold (1995): Social Inequality, Marginalization, and Economic Process: Chp. III Foundation of Social Inequalities). In Liberia, this socioeconomic arrangement thrives because the political system had been structured to marginalize and systematically impose on majority of the people. For example, schools, hospitals, public utilities and recreation centers were limited to only selective few of the population nestled in urban enclaves like Monrovia. Consequently, the relationship between handfuls of elites (mainly senior public servants) to that of the majority has been that of superior-to-servant; and in some cases, low level government workers, including military officers, drivers, and office assistants have been used as house helps by their superiors.

On the basis of this structural arrangement, the majority saw the state and the functionaries of government as ‘personal’ properties of senior officials, until lately in the 1970s when a group of ‘progressive’ Liberians mainly from indigenous communities mounted a challenge to the status quo and demanded participation. This challenge and demand for a wider democratic space was preempted in 1980 when the military unseated the ruling oligarchy at the applause of the marginalized masses. This euphoria was short-lived as the military regime became infested with ethnic rifts, and assumed a character of repression and dictatorship. Nonetheless, the new government officials, mainly illiterate soldiers and their cronies, and members of the ‘progressives of the 1970 suddenly became Liberia’s new elites.

Under this arrangement, military officers took senior positions in government and civilian employees were given military ranks and uniforms. Leaders from the three frontline advocacy groups against the True Whig Party autocracy – the Progressive Alliance of Liberia, Movement for Justice in Africa, and the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas – were all incorporated into the military government, thus giving them status in the class of elites.

Reflections on these historical patterns of class and elite constitution in Liberia form the premise of this article: access to political positions has defined the class divide in the country, and has also determined who deserves full justice and who does not. In other words, the dominance of one class (elites) in one sector of Liberia - its politics - empowers that class to spread its influence to other sectors. Consequently, Liberia’s political elites have always formed its economic elite as well. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its final report clearly indicated that the exclusion of the majority of the people from the affairs of the state, and the foundations on which the state was established as a separatist state to ‘civilize, and Christianize’ were part of the causes of the civil war, and have further contributed immensely to poverty in Liberia.

The struggle for participation by the marginalized groups in Liberia, and the insatiable desire for everyone to be part of the governing class, which may subsequently give him/her membership to the economic class is another succinct explanation for the intractability of crisis in Liberia.

Resolving these issues must be through a systematic process of institution building, particularly in governance and the rule of law. An effective governance system that will promote equal participation and efficient service delivery to every part of the country is critical to addressing the issues of marginalization and inequality. Also important is the opening of economic corridors that for private sector development that will facilitate the growth of an economic middle class.

The right of every citizen before the law and the availability of means to get access to justice at any given point in addressing grievances cannot be overemphasized. The strengthening of public institutions that will provide services in a way that individuals are left to blame for their own progress or failure can properly address structural violence in Liberia.

Judiciary and Rule of Law Reforms

The Rule of Law is a concept that represents the ideal function of the modern state in addressing the interests of the community and the general population of its territory (See Swiss Agency for Development Corporation: The Rule of Law Concept: Significance in Development Corporation). Basic indicators for a functioning rule of law system include: An adequate functioning judiciary, equality of all citizens in legislations and the application of law; the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and the judiciary; the respect of human rights (both civil and political rights); the primacy of the constitution; the principle of the legitimacy of the administration; and the human security of every citizen etc.

The above are very relevant to present day Liberia, particularly during this post-war recovery era. The Government of Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy generically addressed all in separate ways, and some cut across the four pillars.

Judicial and rule of law reforms are addressed in Pillar Four of the PRS: Strengthening Governance and the Rule of Law in which the GOL‘s goal is ‘to work in partnership with all citizens to build and operate effective institutions and systems that will strengthen peace and promote and uphold democratic governance, accountability, and justice for all’ (See Republic of Liberia (2008): Strengthening Governance and the Rule of Law; Poverty Reduction Strategy). A broader focus in this pillar is placed on increasing participation of all citizens in governance and public policy decision-making processes. The remaining sections speaks of justice and rule of law, but with little details. This is also stated in the 2009 -2011 Strategic Plan of the Judiciary. Realizing that the GoL placed little emphasis on judiciary and rule of law reforms in the PRS, the plan contends that ‘even though its (the GoL) major contribution will focus on governance and the rule of law, the effective functioning of the Judiciary is also a necessary prerequisite for success in the remaining three pillars of the PRS’ (See The Judiciary of the Republic of Liberia (2009); Strategic Plan 2009 -2011.


The justice system and the Judiciary in Liberia have faced many challenges that can be traced as far back as the founding of the country. The Judiciary has been manipulated by the Executive Branch of Government in many instances, and most of its dispositions in both lower and upper courts have supported and further explained the inequalities in the dispensation of justice in Liberia.

However, the challenges face by the judiciary and the enforcement of the rule of law are not limited to its manipulation by the Executive Branch, but also extend to its huge technical and professional deficiencies to function effectively. Many cases are left unaddressed; and many persons are accused and detained for very long periods before or without trial. These and many more have eroded its confidence in the eyes of the very people it is serving. As a result many persons or communities have resorted to mob actions or violent uprisings as a means of settling grievances. In February 2010, angry citizens burnt to death an officer of the Liberia National Police, after he allegedly killed a resident of their community. This reaction of the citizen was in response to the slow process of justice delivery in the courts, which has caused extreme lack of confidence for the judiciary and rule of law systems among the people.

In rural communities trial by ordeal or traditional means, mainly through the application of magical ‘science’ is used by local people as alternative to statutory judicial process. This justice process has numerous ways for its trial process. One example is the laying of a very hot iron on the foot of suspects, with the belief that only the guilty person can be burnt in this process. Verdicts from such trials are usually highly contested like in courts, but there is no source of last appeal.

Since the launch of the PRS the process of judiciary and the rule of law reforms has been a daunting one for the government of Liberia, and it is observed that the three-year implementation period as set within the PRS is too limited for such a herculean task. The following are still major issues to ensuring equal access before the law as a means of dealing with the long system of marginalization and inequality in Liberia: Limited number of court houses in most parts of the country; Limited number of law enforcement officers around the country (particularly rural communities) – in most rural communities police officers are hardly seen, and in some parts individuals volunteering as community police erect checkpoints on main highways, and lack capacities to arrest or enforce any laws. Magistrates, public defenders, prosecutors, and even judges in courts in the rural communities are under trained. An observation at a magisterial court hearing in the Cestos City Hall (Rivercess County) in April 2010 further convinced me that the state is not fully functional at the level of the counties, and the local people are left to survive their own way. Yet, they look up to that system, despite its conspicuous faults. In some counties, County Attorneys are lords unto themselves. In Bomi County for example, a County Attorney used his title to intimidate people for a contested farmland in which he has vested interest.

Political influence on law enforcement officers- Liberia is yet to establish an effective system of rule of law to which every citizen must account. Public officials constantly interfere with the work of the police, particularly in cases of their interest. In July 2010, an officer of the Liberia National Police was badly flogged on order of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. This situation became a heated political issue when member of his political party rallied at his gate to stop his arrest by the LNP. Additionally, the following challenges are still in the judiciary; Unresolved cases on courts’ dockets; Limited or no action against corruption – even with a professed anti-corruption agenda, there is still a class system in the ruling administration on which the rules for accountability are compromised. Prosecution or dismissal for corruption in the government remains selective, and the president in some instances will publicly defend officials indicted by audits and special investigative committees; Lack of adequate legal representation for indigents litigants and accusers.

In the midst of the numerous challenges faced by the judiciary and the justice system, some progresses are however noteworthy. The problematic issue remains whether the progresses made can be institutionalized and distributed equally across the country. Carving out a national strategy for sustaining these reforms will go a long way in assuring equal opportunities to justice in Liberia, and enhancing popular participation of Liberians everywhere. Some notable progress made thus far include, the establishment of the James A.A. Pierre Judicial Institute; The deployment of public defendants and county attorneys in the counties; The establishment of the judicial budgetary independence; The building of modern court houses in some counties; The building of new police stations in some counties; The recruitment of college graduates to be trained as magistrates for lower courts.


The Poverty Reduction Strategy represents a well defined program for post-war development in Liberia provided its implementation is well articulated and sustained and its vision pursued forward beyond 2011. Despite the numerous inadequacies of resources, and the challenges face by the current administration, significant progress is being made in reaching out to communities with public goods and service, particularly justice. The most problematic issue remains the delivery of services to rural communities, particular security and the enforcement of the rule of law.
The judiciary needs a well carved out program of de-concentration in the country to ensure that people everywhere, no matter their social or economic statuses, have access to institutions of legal remedy to settle grievances.

Citizens have resorted to mob violence in Liberia because of the slow pace in addressing their grievances through the court system. Informal sectors are left on the fringes of the state creating alternative power and authority independent of the state. Additionally, corruption and parochial interests are gravely undermining the rule of law system. In most cases the sale of justice begins with law enforcement officers at the expense of indigent people. This has continuously led to distrust for the system, and has increased cases of crimes and mob actions. The best way to address these (mainly mob violence) is to build a system of integrity in the judiciary, and build the capacity of law enforcement and judicial officers, not only through education and training, but also through pay and incentives reforms that will motivate staff and improve integrity and professionalism.