Anything Galtung

Galtung’s Negative Peace Concept applied to Liberia by Robtel Neajai Pailey

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    Liberia must mark 10th anniversary of Accra accord by pursuing positive peace
    A decade on from civil war, Liberia has achieved much – now it must build lasting peace by tackling poverty, inequality and graft

    Although the guns have fallen silent, Liberia is experiencing what social theorist Johan Galtung called negative peace – that is, peace derived from the absence of physical violence.

    A decade has passed since Liberia began moving towards peace. It was 18 August 2003, and I was in Caux, Switzerland, one of 23 participants on an applied peace studies course.

    The irony of that coincidence was not lost on me. While I learned about the theoretical trappings of violence and peace – two sides of the same coin – Liberians around the world cradled phones to their ears and huddled around their televisions and radios. All were awestruck that, after 14 years, a seemingly interminable armed conflict could come to a halt with a simple flourish of a pen.

    Although our civil war was fought at home, our peace was etched on foreign soil, in a luxurious resort in Ghana. The Accra peace agreement would usher in a two-year period of transitional government followed by democratic elections in 2005. It all seemed surreal.

    Ten years on, we are reminded of what we lost. Approximately 250,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands of Liberians fled to other west African countries, while others escaped across the Atlantic. Our roads had holes the size of bomb craters, and our electrical grid was destroyed. Children of school age missed out on a basic education. Economic activity waned, and Western Union became a household name.

    Ten years on, we are also reminded of what we have gained. We have held two democratic elections, hailed by observers as essentially free and fair. Our $4.6bn (£3.1bn) debt has been waived, and our national cash-based budget has increased from $80m to nearly $600m. We have attracted more than $16bn in foreign direct investment, and sanctions on our diamonds and timber have been lifted.

    With the assistance of donor dollars and our national revenue, essential infrastructure – electricity, roads, and ports – is being restored. Children are back in school, and some of their parents can boast of a steady income. We have restored our place in regional bodies such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, and we’ve even served as mediators in conflicts in Guinea and Ivory Coast.

    We Liberians may not agree on a lot of things, but we’re unanimous about why we do not intend to shun peace. The costs are too numerous to contemplate.

    However, a decade on, we are reminded of how far we have left to go. A raised voice, threats of riot and protest, and overall disillusionment remind us that peace is the mask we wear to hide our fears of violence. Although the guns have fallen silent, Liberia is experiencing what social theorist Johan Galtung called negative peace – that is, peace derived from the absence of physical violence. Over the next decade and beyond, Liberia must strive for positive peace: the absence of indirect, structural violence manifested in poverty, inequality, and impunity.

    When Liberians publicly rebuke corruption, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians lament that a third of their land is being leased to concession companies without local consultation, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians scorn the pay disparities between those who come from abroad and those who remained in the country during the war, they are calling for positive peace. When Liberians call for a war crimes tribunal and full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations, they are calling for positive peace.

    Positive peace requires a movement away from marginalisation and economic deprivation, two key causes of Liberia’s uncivil wars. It requires local ownership, agenda-setting, and – above all – a commitment to transformation for everyone. In the decade ahead, Liberia should eschew lofty goals, such as achieving middle-income status by 2030, and avoid lengthy roadmaps and ad-hoc committees.

    Instead, the government should form a pact with its people similar to the Accra peace agreement, this time focusing on a positive peace agenda. By identifying five structural reforms that it intends to pursue – decreasing aid dependency by 10%, ensuring quality education through university, instituting a living wage system, renegotiating unfair concessions, and making inroads on public and private sector corruption – Liberia should focus on achieving these goals in a systematic fashion.

    This is a clarion call for Liberians, and those committed to Liberia’s development, to focus on setting and achieving benchmarks for positive peace. Merely moving towards peace is simply not enough.

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