Liberia: The Real Danger is Not Spending Enough

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After four years of being considered the beacon of hope for the entire West Africa region, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is about to be tested like never before.

Last month, a massacre in neighboring Guinea erupted, threatening Liberia's fragile peace. Claims were made that it was actually former rebels from Liberia that committed the atrocities. Whatever the case may be, the international community is going to need to pay attention. Th solution: Pour even more money into education and jobs in order to keep Liberia's citizens from picking up a gun.

Several years ago I traveled to Liberia to examine the rehabilitation of Liberian youth following Liberia's 14-year civil war. On my first night in Monrovia I sat outside St. Peter's Lutheran Church, where the Rev. Katurah Cooper preached to a group of women. She ended her sermon by reminding the women that, "Liberians always were the leftovers."

Since that night I have been struck by the idea of what it means to feel like a leftover, like an afterthought in the ongoing global conversation. If Sirleaf is to make Liberia's 3.3 million citizens feel like they are front and center, she will need to focus on what is called human security. This means providing for each individual's basic needs of food, shelter, healthcare and schooling, not to mention strengthening the justice system and rooting out corruption in the country. By changing the way we view security -- spending more dollars on education and job development, instead of solely beefing up a country's military -- we can better keep civilians from turning against each other and their neighbors.

The fear is that if Liberia does not strengthen its military might, it will be at risk. Yet the real danger is that if security is solely seen as the physical security of the state, and the buildup of armies is given priority over providing shelter, healthcare and food to civilians, we may end up arming the next generation of combatants.

The atrocities in Guinea speak to this. Just weeks after the first post-war generation began primary school in Liberia, Guinea erupted in violence on Sept. 28. Soldiers of the military ruler Colonel Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on protesters and raped women in broad daylight, killing 157 people and wounding 1,200 more. The worst part is that the violence in Guinea, like that in Liberia prior to its conflict, was predictable and possibly preventable. Camara had promised he would not run for president, and then rumors began spreading that he changed his mind. When pro-democracy supporters rallied, bloodshed ensued. We can only hope that unlike in Liberia's conflict, the U.S. intervenes in Guinea instead of sitting on the sidelines.

Yet the story doesn't begin and end in Guinea. Camara, along with some of his military sources, claim that Liberian soldiers from two rebel factions committed the massacre. Both rebel groups fought in Liberia's civil war, resulting in the death of 250,000 Liberians and the displacement of over half the population. Ironically, it was Guinean president, Lansana Conte, who supported the creation of one of the rebel groups blamed for the recent violence and oversaw the training of its soldiers. Now those same forces have turned against Guineans. As they say, what comes around goes around.

While it is not clear whether Liberians were involved in the atrocities in Guinea, it would not be surprising to hear they were. During my visits to Liberia over the last several years I interviewed dozens of former child soldiers. Amputees, who lost limbs during the fighting, have told me all they want is to return to school and work. Instead, they are limping through downtown Monrovia begging for change to feed their families. Despite Liberia's progress, former combatants are still waiting to attend the rehabilitation programs promised to them at the end of the war in 2003. Many now live on the beach or in abandoned government buildings, finding it difficult to get jobs in the defunct economy. Or they have found the rehabilitation programs inadequate -- too few teachers, resources, or opportunities to be of any use at all. The end result is a whole generation of Liberians left not only with a broken country, but with a shattered future as well. That these same Liberians, who are unemployed and homeless in Monrovia, or languishing as refugees in Guinea, are now fighting as mercenaries, does not shock me. Because where there is poverty, there is always someone willing to fight.

Conservative critics will ask why during an economic recession should we spend even more money in Liberia. My answer: for the security of Liberia and the entire West African region. By providing employment and education, we are taking idle youth off the streets, which in turn keeps them off the battlefront. If we instead turn a blind eye with the whole "it's-not-happening-in-my-backyard" mentality, instability in West Africa will continue. It's a global backyard -- a war in a far-flung corner of the globe one day is a refugee crisis in your backyard the next.

Earlier this year Sirleaf told me that she considers the fact that she has restored hope one of the best successes of her administration. There is a lot that still needs to be done, but once those women I met outside St. Peter's Lutheran Church feel the reconstruction process begin to touch their lives, they will no longer feel like leftovers and Liberia will be on an irreversible path. But new conflicts are erupting faster than we can repair the old ones. And if violence rolls back Sirleaf's gains, all her work, and that of the international community, will be in vain.