Top UN Official in Liberia Warns of Spillover of Violence From Ivory Coast

I had the opportunity to speak with the Special Representative for the Secretary General in Liberia (SRSG in UN terms) following her briefing the Security Council.  SRSG Ellen Margrethe Loj met with a few reporters in the offices of the UN Foundation in New York this afternoon. Her message was clear: the violence over the border in Cote D’Ivoire is posing a very serious threat to the stability of Liberia, which itself is just recovering from years of conflict.

In January and February, some 40,000 refugees from Cote D’Ivoire fled across the border.  These were mostly women and children escaping from escalating violence there. As SRSG Loj tells it, these refugees were welcomed with open arms and open homes by Liberians in border communities—many of whom themselves had fled to Ivory Coast during Liberia’s troubles.

Over the past 18 days, though, as situation in Cote D’Ivoire has taken a more ominous turn some 50,000 new refugees have arrived.  Host communities are struggling to cope with this influx.  To make matters worse, a $55 million an emergency humanitarian appeal in January for 40,000 refugees is only funded at about $20 million. In other words, aid agencies have received less than half the requested money and are providing for more than double the number of refugees than originally expected.

But a refugee crisis is only part of the problem.  SRSG Loj has serious concerns that the conflict itself will stream across the border. She expressed particularly concern about rumors that mercenaries from Liberia are sneaking over the border to Ivory Coast to participate in the fighting there (on both sides).  When they come back, presumably they will bring their guns back with them, threatening to reverse a relatively successful disarmament effort underway in Liberia.

The timing of this all could not be worse for Liberia.  In October, the country will have a new presidential election. The incumbent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is running against an untold number of other opponents.   In countries just recovering from conflict, elections tend to be accompanied by some level of violence; losers tend to not lose gracefully even as they campaign at the point of a bayonet.  Any social upheaval caused by the influx of refugees is likely to be exploited by potentially nefarious actors.

“I am worried,” said SRSG Loj. “I am worried that the civil war in Liberia started in those counties. The ethnic groups involved are the same…I am worried that the tensions in the host communities will have a political spill over. “

It is not hard to see why she is so concerned that the conflict in Ivory Coast poses such a threat to Liberia. Since 2003, the UN’s Mission in Liberia’s top goals have been to restore the institutions of Liberian self governance. This means things like training police and judiciary, improving the physical infrastructure, setting up mechanisms to make sure Liberia’s natural resources benefit Liberia. What makes this crisis over the border in Ivory Coast so potentially devastating to Liberia is that it has the potential to undermine Liberians’ confidence in their own government.  If there is great struggle with the refugees or if well armed mercenaries start causing havoc in Liberian communities—these things have the potential to erode Liberians’ confidence in their nascent governing structures.

The bottom line takeaway I have from my discussion with SRSG Loj is that the longer the conflict in Cote D’Ivoire festers, the greater the danger to Liberia.   Unfortunately, it really does look like Cote D’Ivoire’s crisis will drag on for the foreseeable future. Ergo, Liberia is looking to struggle with some serious challenges very soon.