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African Human Rights Law Journal

On-line version ISSN 1996-2096
Print version ISSN 1609-073X

Afr. hum. rights law j. vol.8 n.2 Pretoria  2008




Religion, law and human rights in post-conflict Liberia



Gwendolyn Heaner

Department of the Study of Religions, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, United Kingdom




Liberia has had a turbulent recent history, and today deals with extreme poverty, high crime, ethnic tensions, widespread impunity and corruption. In addition to this, there is a complex and contradictory relationship between law and religion, which further complicates the ongoing efforts towards peace building and reconstruction. This paper aims to highlight the fundamental question of whether certain laws and human rights - in this case, religious or cultural freedom - can or should be actively promoted by the state and by society in such a unique scenario as fragile, post-conflict Liberia. The paper first addresses this question with respect to the country's contradictory dual-justice system, highlighting the problems that arise when the weak state struggles to enforce statutory and human rights law, while much of the population still sees legitimate justice to be rooted in traditional mechanisms, such as trials by ordeal, which oppose these laws. The second section of the paper considers the extent to which all Liberians enjoy religious freedom. It is shown that, while Liberia is de facto a secular state, it is essentially de jure a Christian country. Although there are historically and presently few indications of unrest based strictly on religion, it is argued that there is underlying religious tension that makes it dangerous for the state or society to suggest any major integration of Islam into public life. Some of this tension can be attributed to the growing number of Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which are especially vocal about the encroachment of non-Christians. However, because of Liberia's fragility, it might be the case that promoting religious equality and actively eliminating the Christian bias might cause more harm than good in Liberia today.



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* BA (Northampton), MA Study of Religions (SOAS, London), PhD candidate, Department of the Study of Religions (SOAS) researching the socio-political role of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in post-conflict Liberia, in-country for field-work from September 2007 until July 2008;
1 J Witte Jr 'Law, religion, and human rights: A historical Protestant perspective' (1998) 26 Journal of Religious Ethics 257.         [ Links ]
2 The concept of 'culture' and 'religion' and how they relate to one another, is a contentions topic which has received an enormous amount of scholarly attention. See especially T Masuzawa 'Culture' in M Taylor (ed) Critical terms for religious studies (1998) 70-93;         [ Links ] J Smith 'Religion, religions, religious' in Taylor (above) 269-284. For the purposes of this paper, 'religion' will be used to describe any belief system that specifically has to do with spiritual, cosmological or metaphysical issues and includes all forms of African traditional religions and monotheistic religions. 'Culture' will refer to the broader idea of the 'means of adapting to the physical world and creating systems of meaning through which experience can be interpreted; all human beings, by definition, are rooted in culture', as defined in M Moran Liberia: The violence of democracy (2006) 19.         [ Links ]
3 S Ilesanmi 'Human rights discourse in modern Africa: A comparative religious ethical perspective' (1995) 23 Journal of Religious Ethics 293-295.         [ Links ]
4 A An-Na'im 'The contingent universality of human rights: The case of freedom of expression in African and Islamic contexts (1997) 11 Emory International Law Review 30 53-54.         [ Links ]
5 Although the explanation given by the ACS for repatriation of African slaves was that the freed slaves would benefit, another key reason is probably that the US simply wanted a way to get rid of black freedmen as the institution of slavery was becoming more controversial. J Levitt The evolution of deadly conflict in Liberia (2005) 31-33.         [ Links ]
6 S Ellis The mask of anarchy: The destruction of Liberia and the religious dimension of an African civil war (1999) 41.         [ Links ]
7 By 1865, when colonisation stopped, there were only about 12 000 settlers in Liberia in total. Of these, 4 500 were freeborn, 7 000 born in slavery, and 5 700 freed from transport ships that never made it to the US (known as Congoes). S Hale cited in P Gifford Christianity and politics in Doe's Liberia (1993) 9-10.         [ Links ]
8 C Clapham 'Liberia' in D Cruise O'Brien et al (eds) Contemporary West African states (1989) 99-111.         [ Links ]
9 Clapham (n 8 above) 103-5.
10 Gifford (n 7 above) 235.
11 S Ellis 'Liberia 1989-1994: A study of ethnic and spiritual violence' (1995) 94 African Affairs 165-197.         [ Links ]
12 Ellis (n 11 above) 167.
13 W Reno 'Reinvention of an African patrimonial state: Charles Taylor's Liberia' (1995) 16 Third World Quarterly 112-113.         [ Links ]
14 Ellis (n 6 above) 104-105.
15 MA Sesay 'Politics and society in post-war Liberia' (1996) 24 The Journal of Modern African Studies 397-405.         [ Links ]
16 Ellis (n 6 above) 109-110. See also D Harris 'From "warlord" to "democratic" president: How Charles Taylor won the 1997 Liberian elections' (1999) 37 The Journal of Modern African Studies 431-432.         [ Links ]
17 D Nilsson & MS Kovacs 'Breaking the cycle of violence? Promises and pitfalls of the Liberian peace process' (2005) 7 Civil Wars 399-400.         [ Links ]
18 M Moran & M Pitcher 'The "basket case" and the "poster child": Explaining the end of civil conflicts in Liberia and Mozambique' (2004) 25 Third World Quarterly 506.         [ Links ]
19 This only resulted in the collection of 27 000 weapons, most of them small arms, strongly indicating that there are still armed individuals, arms caches, or export of weapons to other countries. Nilsson & Kovacs (n 17 above) 405. The World Bank reports that only 70 000 ex-combatants were disarmed by this time. P Richards et al 'Community cohesion in Liberia. A post-war rapid social assessment' in 'Conflict prevention and reconstruction' The World Bank and Reconstruction/Social Development Department Paper 21, Washington DC, January 2005 2.         [ Links ]
20 Government of Liberia (GOL) Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) 2008 25.
21 n 20 above, 15.
22 GOL Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy (IPRS) 2006, xiii.
23 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 15-16.
24 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 13.
25 E Pajibo 'Traditional justice mechanisms. The Liberian case' International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm, 2008 10.         [ Links ] The latest census published preliminary results which confirmed the population of Liberia to be 3,49 million, and the population of Montserrado County (where Monrovia is located) to be 1,14 million. Government of Liberia '2008 Population and National Housing Census Provisional Results', LISGIS, June 2008.
26 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 31-32.
27 See International Crisis Group 'Liberia: Resurrecting the justice system', Africa Report 10, April 2006 1-2.         [ Links ]
28 In the last two years, there has been a 44% increase in school enrolment; 350 heath facilities, 20 clinics and several hospitals and health centres have been restored. GOL PRS 17-19.
29 World Bank Institute, Worldwide Governance Indicators, 2007.
30 91% of Liberians were found to trust religious institutions, far more than all other institutions the poll tested, as with most countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa. M Rheault 'Liberians give high marks to their government' Gallup Poll, February 2008.         [ Links ]
31 GOL Liberian legal codes revised 15: 3.40.
32 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 20.
33 UNMIL Report on the Human Rights Situation in Liberia, November 2006-January 2007, 16-18.         [ Links ]
34 UNMIL Report on the Human Rights Situation in Liberia, May-October 2007, 10-11.         [ Links ]
35 Human Rights Watch Country summary: Liberia (2007) 2.         [ Links ]
36 n 27 above, 3.
37 UNMIL (n 34 above) 15-21.
38 Between May 2006 and August 2007, UNMIL trained 336 magistrates, 220 justices of the peace, 226 prosecutors, 147 magistrate's court clerks and 53 circuit and Supreme Court clerks. UNMIL Fifteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia, August 2007, 9.
39 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 90. See also P Banks 'Reforming Liberia's legal and judicial system: Towards enhancing the rule of law' Republic of Liberia Governance Reform Commission, December 2006, 36-41.         [ Links ]
40 One obvious constitutional violation allows for only people of 'Negro' descent to be a citizen of Liberia and enjoy the benefits given to citizens, such as owning land. Constitution of Liberia, 1984; US State Department Report on Human Rights, 2007.
41 OHCHR 'Liberia 2008-2009' (accessed 29 July 2008).         [ Links ]
42 This can often be quite vague, and many Christian churches stay away from active involvement with human rights altogether. At best, they might pray against FGM, rape or child abuse, especially within the newer Pentecostal and charismatic churches that are rapidly expanding in number and influence. Based on author's own fieldwork.
43 See President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Annual Address, 28 January 2008. INHCR is currently campaigning against mob violence and rape, but for the most part they are quite inactive. See 'Don't see human rights advocates as enemies' The Analyst 3 April 2008.         [ Links ]
44 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, 1984 ch VII art 65.
45 n 27 above, 7.
46 n 27 above, 6-7.
47 n 27 above, 8.
48 n 27 above, 7.
49 GOL Liberian legal codes revised, Judicial Code 3:4, 1986.
50 n 27 above, 7.
51 GOL Rules and Regulations Governing the Hinterland, Ministry of Internal Affairs, 17.
52 Pajibo (n 25 above) 16. See also V Fuest 'Reflections on participatory approaches to "peace building" in Liberia' unpublished draft paper, AEGIS European Conference on African Studies, 11-14 July 2007, African Studies Centre, Leiden 7-8.         [ Links ]
53 Pajibo (n 25 above) 18-22.
54 Tenteah v Republic of Liberia 7LLR63 (1940), cited in ICG (n 27 above) 9.
55 GOL Hinterland (n 51 above) art 73, 39.
56 UNMIL (n 34 above) 22-23.
57 n 27 above, 9. In June 2008, the Ministry claimed to have stopped issuing such licences and claimed that notice of the mandate had been sent to government officials around the country. 'Internal Affairs Bans Issuance of Licenses' The News 25 June 2008.
58 US Dept of State, Religious Freedom, 2007.
59 'Justice Minister bans sassywood practice' Daily Observer 8 February 2007.         [ Links ]
60 n 27 above, 9.
61 n 59 above; 'Trial by ordeal declared illegal' Informer 8 April 2008.
62 BBC News The World, Interview with Jesse Graham, 22 February 2007.         [ Links ]
63 GOL PRS (n 20 above) 92.
64 Poro and Sande societies were originally found in the border regions between Guinea and Liberia, but in modern times they have spread throughout Liberia, in various forms. Ellis (n 6 above) 226-229.
65 See especially RP Fahey 'The Poro as a system of judicial administration in Northwestern Liberia: Its intraclan and interclan functions' (1971) 4 African Legal Studies 1-25;         [ Links ] RM Fulton 'The political structures and functions of Poro in Kpelle society' (1972) 74 American Anthropologist 1218-1233;         [ Links ] JL Gibbs 'Poro values and courtroom procedures in a Kpelle chiefdom' (1962) 42 Journal of Anthropological Research 279-288.         [ Links ]
66 Ellis (n 6 above) 278-279.
67 Ellis (n 6 above) 231-237.
68 C Hojbjerg 'Masked violence: Ritual action and the perception of violence in an upper Guinea ethnic conflict' in N Kastfelt (ed) Religion and African civil wars (2005) 156-157.         [ Links ]
69 Ellis (n 6 above) 232-235.
70 US State Department report on human rights, 2007. It is likely that such killings happen far more than is reported.
71 Ellis (n 6 above) 261-265.
72 GOL Hinterland (n 51 above) art 68-69 38. About Leopard Society, see Ellis (n 6 above) 235-237.
73 Based on personal fieldwork and interviews.
74 See eg 'Equip-Liberia aborts sassywood in Nimba, victim explains ordeal' Daily Observer 5 October 2007;         [ Links ] '"For killing my mother I have no regrets" says 24 year-old disabled' Daily Observer 23 October 2006;         [ Links ] 'Casket beats woman' Daily Observer 1 November 2006;         [ Links ] 'UN urges Liberia to outlaw trials by ordeal' Reuters 17 May 2007 idUSL17103867 (accessed 3 August 2008).         [ Links ]
75 'UN puts witchcraft center stage' The News 4 April 2008.         [ Links ]
76 S Ellis & G ter Haar Worlds of power: Religious thought and political practice in Africa (2004) 144-147.         [ Links ]
77 Further, 'Traditional justice mechanisms ... need to be seriously, rigorously interrogated so that a dual justice system - one for the rural poor and one for the urban elite - does not become entrenched ... this would inevitably polarise citizens and residents and sow fresh seeds of discord, possibly even violence.' Pajibo (n 25 above) 24.
78 n 27 above, 9-10.
79 Constitution of Liberia, art 5.
80 An Act to Govern the Devolution of Estates and Establish Rights of Inheritance for Spouses of Both Statutory and Customary Marriages, approved 7 October 2003, published by Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1 December 2003.
81 UNDP Press Release, 'UNDP empowers AFELL' 23 May 2006.         [ Links ]
82 As above. State Department, Human rights, 2007. This issue is given absolutely no mention in the entire final draft of the PRS, while other issues, such as rape and GBV, are given ample attention. GOL PRS (n 20 above).
83 'Female circumcision sparks debate' Daily Observer 20 February 2006.         [ Links ]
84 In addition, a Pew survey is currently being developed in order to determine, very specifically, religious affiliations in Liberia and other sub-Saharan African countries. Results for this, though probably not available for years, will be extremely helpful.
85 US State Department, Religious Freedom, 2007. Based on other sources, these percentages vary widely - eg, in 1986 it was estimated that the percentages of Muslims and Christians was 5% and 15% respectively. At the same time, many Muslim leaders claimed that 50% of Liberia was Muslim. Gifford (n 7 above) 262.
86 Gifford (n 7 above) 55-56.
87 In 1989, according to estimates, there were 67 109 Methodists, about the same number of Baptists, 75 000 Catholics, 30 000 Lutherans, 20 000 Episcopalians, 3 000 Presbyterians; all of which were claiming to be growing substantially at this time. Gifford (n 7 above) 51-57. Baptists in 1998 numbered 60 000 members according to the Baptist World Alliance,; Roman Catholics in 2004 numbered 170 000 members according to diocese counts reported on UMC claims 168 300 members,
88 Based on author's own fieldwork.
89 Gifford (n 7 above) 287.
90 Based on e-mail correspondence with John York, head of the Inter-Religious Affairs desk of the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC), 20 July 2008; Mohammad Sheriff, Vice-President of the IRCL, 14 July 2008. See also Gifford (n 7 above) 261-263.
91 Ellis (n 6 above) 224.
92 When being initiated into Poro or Sande, individuals take an oath of secrecy; they are told that to reveal anything about their initiation will result in death. Many born-again Christians will talk about their initiation in detail, claiming that although they still believe in the power of the societies (controlled by Satan), Jesus Christ is strong enough to fight the evil forces. Many varieties of Christianity, especially those with Pentecostal and charismatic learnings, are very active in attempting to eradicate the influence of these societies in members' lives, in addition to any other 'traditional' beliefs. Based on fieldwork and personal interviews.
93 A recent study on mental health in Liberia measured religious affiliation and found that 89,6% of respondents identified as Christian, 9,1% as Muslim, and 1,3% as African traditional religion or other. K Johnson et al 'Association of combatant status and sexual violence with mental health outcomes in post-conflict Liberia' (2008) 300 Journal of the American Medical Association 681.         [ Links ]
94 Ellis (n 6 above) 245.
95 Gifford (n 7 above) 265.
96 Based on personal interview with John York, 19 January 2008.
97 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, 1847.
98 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, Preamble, 1984.
99 n 98 above, art 14.
100 'The Liberian Christian church and political salvation' The Perspective 21 June 2002;         [ Links ] 'Bropleh plays with fire!' The Analyst 7 January 2008.         [ Links ]
101 Liberian Codes Revised, vol III, ch XIV, 94, 216.
102 However, nobody was able to show me any documentation of such changes. Personal interview with attorney Zeor Daylur Bernard, 8 April 2008; personal interview with Rev P Tehnesse Brohdonyeu, Bureau of Curriculum, Ministry of Education, 2 April 2008.         [ Links ] See also 'Bropleh's call for religious tolerance is the right call, but patronising to gain political advantage is wrong' The Liberian Dialogue 8 January 2008.         [ Links ]
103 'Muslims adopt 5-count resolution' Daily Observer 17 January 2008.         [ Links ]
104 Personal Interview with Rev P Tehnesse Brohdonyeu, Bureau of Curriculum, Ministry of Education, 2 April 2008.         [ Links ]
105 Based on personal interviews.
106 US State Department 'Religious freedom' 2007.         [ Links ]
107 S Tewroh-Wehtoe 'Bropleh's call for religious tolerance is the right call, but patronising to gain political advantage is wrong' in Online Newspaper The Liberian Dialogue 8 January 2008 (accessed 30 September 2008).         [ Links ]
108Analyst (n 100 above).
109 As above.
110Daily Observer (n 103 above).
111 Based on author's own fieldwork.
112 US State Department (n 106 above).
113 Based on author's work with them from January to July 2008; personal interviews with ICRL leaders Mohammad Sheriff and Rev Boimah Freeman throughout.
114 The author witnessed an impassioned hour-long debate regarding religion in Liberia, brought on because the agenda did not include an opening prayer, in a workshop for women's leadership in Liberia, sponsored by an INGO and attended by at least 60 influential women in government, business and civil society, 20 February 2008.
115 Interview with J York, LCC, 30 March 2008.
116 Personal interviews in Medina, GCM, February 2008. Also based on interviews with Africa for Jesus, a Christian missionary organisation focused specifically on entering Muslim areas to open churches.
117 'In praise of the Almighty God or the almighty dollar?' The New Democrat 15 October 2007.         [ Links ]
118 See especially the recent US Senate investigation into six prominent evangelists: 'Senator questions ministries on spending' The New York Times 7 November 2007;         [ Links ] 'Televangelist preaches prosperity - and relatives gain it' Chicago Tribune 27 July 2008.         [ Links ]
119 US State Department (n 106 above).
120 Personal interview, June 2008.
121 J York 'A study of the events leading to the October, 28 2004 violence in Jacobstown, Paynesville' June 2007,         [ Links ] unpublished paper in author's possession.
122 York concludes that the Jacobstown violence 'has therefore gone way ahead in justifying these suspicions of Christians in Liberia about Muslims and obviously worsened the relations of Christians and Muslims in Jacobstown in particular, to the extend [sic] that people in the community do still entertain the fears that any little discord has the propensity to cause a flare-up between the two groups'; n 121 above, 64-68.

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