- Liberian Women Peacemakers: Fighting for the Right to be Seen, Heard and Counted
This book is a remarkable document of the tireless work of Liberian women to bring peace to their tormented country from the start of the civil conflict in 1989 through the most recent resolution of 2003. Collectively authored by a group of six African and American scholars and activists, most associated with the United Nations, it presents a summary of interviews with thirty-three people conducted by six Liberian journalists in 1996 and 1997. Although the authors have updated the presentation through the peace agreement that sent Charles Taylor into exile in 2003 and cleared the way for the elections of 2005, most of the accounts concern the first phase of the war, the period from 1990 to 1997. Those interviewed include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the new president and first woman elected head of state in Africa. Others are unschooled market traders and several are prominent men. Most of those interviewed were based in the capital, Monrovia, during the war, and so the book does not reflect peacemaking efforts that may have taken place in rural areas, except insofar as the urban women's groups attempted to make contact across the battle lines with their counterparts in other regions. A distinctive feature of women's organizations in Liberia, however, is their ability to join women across class lines, grounded in prewar contacts in the market, churches and clubs, and other voluntary associations. Women were able to use these networks to bring food to a city cut off from its hinterland, negotiate with faction leaders, and insist on being heard at international peace conferences.
Part I, which covers the years 1989 to 1997, contains a brief overview of Liberian history and the origins of the conflict. For nonspecialists, this may be too brief: the entire period from the founding of the nation in 1847 to 1980 is covered in three sentences. There is no real explanation or discussion of the emergence and deployment of ethnicity during the war—an understandable omission, since most accounts grossly overplay "tribalism" as the underlying reason for the violence. However, the uninformed reader is likely to remain unclear as to why Liberia descended into stateless anarchy and remained there for so long. Although one map is provided, others showing the approximate territories of the armed factions and the crucial relationship between the central city of Gbarnga and Monrovia, located on the coast, would be useful in helping the reader understand how women's actions preserved lives and promoted peace by keeping trade networks open during the war. Much attention focuses on the Liberian Women's Initiative [End Page 112] (LWI)—a "movement[,] rather than simply an organization or a coalition of organizations" (p. 17)—which successfully organized mass meetings and "stay-at-homes" (strikes) that paralyzed Monrovia in 1994. The goal was to move beyond the stalemate of the "perpetual war" that had left the country divided between a "Greater Liberia," controlled and fought over by the factions, and a weak transitional government in the capital, supported by troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Once the objective of peace talks had been achieved, the women went further by demanding to be part of the process; as the primary victims of war, they argued, they deserved to have a say in its settlement. The story of how six women leaders traveled, uninvited, to the Accra talks in 1994, sat outside the conference room in the hallway the first day, were admitted as observers the second day, and received official participant status on the third is a thrilling testament to their dignified persistence. They would use similar methods to gain access and the right to speak at the summit of ECOWAS heads of state a year later.
Part II continues the story through the second Liberian conflict, from 1999 to 2003, although in much less detail and with the outcome—the election of Johnson Sirleaf...