Time once again to rebuild a nation

In 1995, the United Nations asked native Liberian Al-Hasan Conteh (Gr’93) to return to his native land to help rebuild its shattered society and university.

Five years later, he was back in Philadelphia, as civil war once again ravaged the country.

Now, with that war over, Conteh once again sees hope for stability—if…

“Reconciliation will depend on three things,” says Conteh, a research fellow at Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. “It will depend on the capacity Liberians themselves have for peace-building. It will depend on the willingness of civil society to work with government to bring about peace, and it will also depend on the resources the international community can provide to promote peace.”

Liberia, Conteh says, is now a failed state, its government in shambles after the forced departure of former ruler Charles Taylor. He also holds Taylor responsible for ruining the society he was helping to rebuild in the spring of 2000.

“I had been asked to go to Liberia to restart the demography program at the national university,” he says. (Conteh’s doctorate is in demography.) “Because of the success of that program, the interim government at the time appointed me as vice president for academic affairs at the University of Liberia.

During his stint as the university’s chief academic officer, enrollment doubled from 5,000 students to 10,000. “The fact that the university operates during [wartime] is something many people on the outside don’t understand, but the concept was that one effective way to take the guns from the youth was to keep the university open.”

The strategy of using university students as peacemakers was slowly working. Then things went south in 2000.

“Taylor failed to implement the [1996] Abuja Accord that brought him to power,” he says. “Under that accord, there was a strategy to demobilize the fighters, restructure the army and rebuild government institutions. After Taylor was sworn in as president, he refused to do that. He brought in his own militia, sidelined the army and drove his enemies from the country.” From there, his opponents restarted the guerrilla war the accords sought to end.

Conteh decided he needed to leave Liberia to reflect on all that had happened. The product of that reflection is the forthcoming book “Population, Identity and Group Dynamics as Factors in the Liberian Civil War: An Analysis of Some Causes, Consequences and Transformation in Africa’s First Republic” (Edward Mellen Press).

Though he is not descended from freed American slaves, Conteh agrees that the United States has a special role to play in restoring stability to Liberia. But he bases his argument in American national self-interest. “Liberia is now a collapsed state, and such states are havens for terrorists seeking to attack the United States,” he says. “[Non-intervention] could be very costly.

“There’s evidence al-Qaeda was operating in Liberia and that they met with Taylor and some of his people, who helped facilitate the buying of diamonds from Sierra Leone. And all of this was after Sept. 11. If that doesn’t threaten the security of the U.S., what does?”

Conteh argues that the United States needs more than a token force of 200 troops stationed offshore. “Only a U.S. troop presence can restore confidence in the multilateral accords.” In addition to stationing troops, he says the U.S. should also provide financial support for peacekeeping and efforts to rebuild infrastructure and government institutions.

If offered the chance to return again to help with rebuilding, Conteh would accept. He has already hosted a workshop on peace and democracy in Liberia at the Asch Center and hopes to use the event as the launching pad for a Liberia-based institute.

Originally published on September 4, 2003