Top United Nations officials generally wait until they leave their jobs before they speak candidly about the conditions they faced and the problems that remain. So Ellen Margrethe Loj, who has ended her four years as UN special envoy in Liberia, did not mince words in New York about Liberia’s painful recovery and challenging elections, reflecting on a job she relished. She has taken a post at a nonprofit group.
Wearing an African cloth like a scarf at a speaking engagement sponsored by the International Peace Institute on March 13, Loj, a 63-year-old Dane, explained her demanding job as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, from 2007 to 2011. She was previously Denmark’s ambassador to the UN and had been her country’s ambassador to Israel and the Czech Republic.
Loj became chairwoman of the charity Plan in Britain on Feb. 1 but is working from Denmark doing fund-raising, advocacy and campaigning.
Back in Liberia, she arrived as the country was rebuilding after a 14-year civil war that left 150,000 people dead and generated 850,000 refugees and happened because “some screwed [up]leaders who had a lot of money paid young people to commit atrocities,” Loj said. (Liberia’s president then, Charles Taylor, is awaiting a verdict for accusations of war crimes and other serious acts in Sierra Leone by a special tribunal in The Hague, which will announce a decision on April 26.)
Loj was also present during Liberia’s second presidential election, in October 2011, since the civil war, and she was there when the 2010-2011 crisis in neighboring Ivory Coast created a spillover effect in Liberia, a result of Laurent Gbagbo’s refusing to cede power to the winner, Alassane Ouattara, in a presidential vote.
Conflict up north spills south
The UN mission in Liberia, called Unmil, sent troops to the Ivory Coast to help stabilize the country as 200,000 Ivoirians escaped into Liberia during the fighting between the presidential parties, slipping through the border’s rain forest, creating an influx of refugees and a constant daily battle for humanitarian agencies to manage. Many refugees have returned to Ivory Coast, but 80,000 to 90,000, former Gbagbo supporters, have stayed in the refugee camps on the Liberian border.
The Ivoirian tangle, which simmered down once Gbagbo was arrested and is now held by the International Criminal Court, returned to haunt Liberia during its own presidential and legislative elections in October 2011, as armed mercenaries streamed in from the Ivory Coast, their intent unclear.
“It sure is early that so many people get up interested in Liberia,” Loj said at the recent 8:15 breakfast event in the blond-paneled meeting room of the International Peace Institute. Her impeccable English sounds as if she learned it in Ireland.
In 2005, Liberia elected a president who was not only a woman but also Harvard-educated. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won again in 2011 to another six-year term. Although Sirleaf won the Nobel peace prize with another Liberian, Leymah Gbowee (and a Yemeni, Tawakkol Karman), her reputation is mixed in the country and beyond.
It’s a long list of troubles plaguing Liberia, a country founded in the 19th century by ex-American slaves and supported along the way by the US government. Yet Loj was upbeat about the problems, which include little work on truth and reconciliation, sexual violence against women and girls (even babies, she said), not enough jobs and schooling for youths, paltry infrastructure and a stumbling economy despite being a country rich in timber, diamonds, farmland and, most recently discovered, oil.
The UN mission in Liberia, set up in 2003, is beginning to “reconfigure” its presence as well, most likely scaling back militarily, although the country depends on it to ward off chaos. The mission consists of about 10,000 personnel operating with a budget of $524 million.
“The Liberians get scared every time they talk about the UN leaving,” Loj said.
Oct. 11, a beautiful day
Last year was particularly rough for Liberians and for Loj. The Ivoirian crisis threw a ringer into the volatile situation of Liberia preparing for a presidential election. The 2005 one was handled by the UN, but last year’s was done mostly by Liberians, Loj said, whose UN mission provided logistical and technical support for the election.
The election came off, she added, calling it “my most beautiful day” in her four years in Liberia.
Besides worrying about the mercenaries, the country held a referendum to amend the Constitution, basically a “dry run” for the real election. The election process itself was also fraught with obstacles, like getting ballots to polling stations in the rainy season and areas accessible only by helicopters (supplied by the UN).
“You cannot comprehend when you’re sitting here in New York the challenge of getting the elections material to all the polling places in a country like Liberia in the middle of the rainy season, OK?” she said, as if still surprised it happened. Ballots had to be delivered to 19 places countrywide, including spots unreachable by car.
“You use pickups as far as the car can go; when it can’t go any longer, then you use motorbikes, and then in some areas of the country when the motorbike can’t go any longer, then you use porters who are walking on their two feet with the ballot box on their head to the final polling place.” When the pickups get stuck in mud, a canoe is used to cross rivers.
Yet the mission kept pushing Liberians, telling them “you have to try because six years from now we might not be there,” Loj said.
Sixteen candidates in a country of about 4 million people complicated logistics. The UN mission also helped raise international money to shepherd the election along and bring in outside observers during the vote, a crucial element in young, poor democracies.
“Over the summer we felt very strongly the world was losing their attention,” Loj said. “There was not sufficient international attention on the elections in Liberia.” When pre-election violence erupted, world media covered it, however.
Some political candidates and others were also close to inciting violence in their remarks, Loj said, and concern flared again about the mercenaries. Election observers discouraged the candidates from acting up, reminding them that “there’s something called the ICC today.”
On Election Day, Oct. 11, the votes were cast; Sirleaf was inaugurated on Jan. 16 and Loj left.
Besides the moribund truth and reconciliation process to deal with war traumas (“Liberia has never been an inclusive society,” Loj said), it must build up its police and military forces and address long-term development needs and Constitutional reform. Female-genital cutting is rampant (it is one of about five African countries that has not banned the practice) and teenage pregnancies run high. Government institutions are weak and small, nepotism is abundant; and women’s rights are scarce. Governance has to improve, which requires good policies, carrying them out and managing resources, Loj added.
“I refuse to call Liberia a failed state,” she responded to a question about the country’s status. “Because if Liberia was a failed state, what have I been doing there for four years? I’ve been wasting my time, huh?” She prefers to call it a fragile state or post-conflict state.
“Everything we have been doing is actually training to give them a push to move forward.”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.