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Liberia: Confusion about the cause of violence in Lofa County

Violence erupted in the towns of Voinjama and Zorzor in Liberia last week. There are conflicting reports about the cause of the conflict in which four people died. While the mainstream media reports seem to attribute the violence to religious tensions, blogger Johnny Dwyer argues that “Liberia is not a place fuming with religious tension. At least based on my experiences there.” The head of The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) Ellen Loj says that the clashes had ethnic undertones.

Shelby Grossman says that the confusion in the media reports about the cause of the conflict seems to be “more about journalists trying to frame the story in a way that fits into people’s ideas about fighting in Africa.” Shelby Grossman is a first year graduate student in the Department of Government at Harvard University. She recently worked in Liberia and Nigeria.

What was really the cause of the conflict that resulted in deaths and destruction of property?

Ceasefire Liberia reports, “Violence rages in Lofa County”:

The cities of Voinjama and Zorzor in Lofa County have been engulfed with violence resulting in the deaths of four people and the destruction of property, including the burning of churches, schools and a mosque.

Lofa County is located in the north-western tip of Liberia and has several tribes and religions. It was also one of the hardest hit areas during the country’s 14 years of civil war.

The incidence which occured Friday was sparked by the discovery of the body of an eleventh-grade female student named Korpu Kamara, who had gone missing for days and was found dead a few days later next to a mosque in Zorzor.

As a result, dozens of students staged a protest as they suspected that their colleague’s death may have been carried out by the Muslims, a situation that turned the protest into religious violence that left many churches and Christian schools burned.

The Superintendent of Lofa County, Galakpai Kortimai, told a local radio station Friday night that misinformation from Zorzor of a mosque being burnt down rapidly spread to Voinjama, which led angry Muslims to go on a rampage, reportedly burning down churches and Christian-run schools with the Catholic and Lutheran schools in the provincial capital being reportedly burnt down as well.

Ceasefire Liberia is a blog bridge between the Liberian community in Liberia and the rest of the Diaspora. Its mission is to create a dialogue between Liberians who remained in the country during and after the war and those who fled.

Shelby explores events that lead to deadly attacks on people and property:

On Friday a woman was killed in Konia, a town in Lofa. I don’t know why. The woman was either 14 or 21. I think she was Loma and Christian, and I think her body was found near a mosque. The killing sparked revenge attacks between two ethnic groups in the region: Mandingo and Loma (aka Lorma). Attackers targeted people (including local political elite), mosques, and churches. UNMIL restored order (or, perhaps more likely, they showed up after things had settled down). Some are accusing UNMIL of siding with Mandingos (who are usually Muslim), as the UN peacekeepers in Lofa are mostly Pakistani. 4 people were killed and probably more than 14 wounded as a result of the clashes, mostly in Voinjama, the capital of Lofa. Simultaneously, taking advantage of the tension, maybe 60 people escaped from the Voinjama prison. Hundreds of people fled from Konia and Voinjama. (As Johnny explains, both towns were hit hard by Liberia’s war.)

The confusion

First, I can’t figure out the exact name of the town. It is alternatively spelled Konia, Kornia, and Konica. (Sometimes different spellings within the same article.) Also, based on 15 minutes of Google-ing, I can’t find the town on any map. As best I can tell it is on the main road in Lofa, about 55 miles in some direction from Voinjama. [Update: It's between Zorzor and Voinjama. Thanks Viktor.]

These points of confusion are not insignificant, but more important is whether or not the fighting should be characterized as religious.

Is Liberia sitting on a time bomb and that the violence was premeditated?:

MONROVIA – A Lofa County Senator has proposed that the violence that took place in Lofa County over the weekend, leaving at least four persons dead and several others injured, was premeditated.
On Tuesday, March 2, Sen.Sumo Kupee told the Senate Plenary, the highest decision-making body of the Upper House, that the mêlée, in which hundreds of people, including women and children, were displaced, had been planned by some individuals.
The Lofa County Senator did not name the masterminds of the violence but called for an independent probe into the incident.
Professor Kupee, who is also former Chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Liberia (UL), in his briefing to the Senate, said the hostility, which, he said, involved ‘Muslims and Christians’, clearly showed that Liberia is on a ‘time bomb’.
“The incident in my county, to me, clearly shows that Liberia is on time bomb – to discover someone dead and later see churches burnt and mosques attacked – I am confused [as to] how such a thing happened. But it tells us that an investigation needs to be conducted by this plenary,” Kupee suggested.
The Lofa County Senator told Plenary that a total of four persons, including a 13-year-old child, were killed in the mêlée, while 18 persons were wounded as a result of the violence.
So far, he said, about 30 persons have been rounded up in connection with the incident by the Liberian National Police (LNP).

Is Liberia enjoying “fragile” peace?:

The situation in Lofa County has caused more attention to be drawn to the fragility of not just the county, but of Liberia as a whole following the end of the disarmament and demobilization processes, which many doubted ever yielded the intended result.

A group called “Concerned Youth of Ganta for Reconstruction and Development” has condemned ‘hooligans’ involved in the crisis:

A group calling itself the “Concerned Youth of Ganta for Reconstruction and Development” has condemned the recent destruction of life and property in Lofa County by those it calls hooligans.

The group in a release said, the destruction of religion edifices and symbols has the propensity to undermine national security and should be condemned by all peace loving Liberians.

According to the group, which has a branch in Monrovia, the recent violence in Lofa County indicates that the peace in Liberia is still fragile and could easily be undermined.
They want the government to take drastic and appropriate actions both in the Lofa violence and the land conflicts in Nimba County.

There are rumours that UN solders who are predominantly Muslims from Pakistan protected only members of the muslim community. However, the The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has described the rumours as misleading:

UNMIL soldiers were accused of protecting the Muslim community during the crisis because the soldiers are predominantly Muslim, something the mission described as false.
According to UNMIL boss, Ellen Loj, the soldiers swiftly responded to the crisis and protected all parties regardless of religious affiliation.

Madam Loj also attributed the crisis in Lofa to what she described as unfunded rumors and noted that the violent situation, which started in Konia had ethnic undertones.
She described the situation as unfortunate and said an investigation into the crisis is ongoing.

Land is the source of power and bread in Liberia and Lofa is seen as the nation's breadbasket:

Liberia is not a place fuming with religious tension. At least based on my experiences there. The civil war split the country along tribal lines–in some cases, these splits corresponded to religious divisions. LURD and ULIMO-K were widely seen as Mandingo/Muslim forces, though whatever politics they espoused were distinctly secular.

Kornia, where this week’s violence began, was the site of fighting in 2001. Taylor’s Anti-Terrorist Unit retook the town from LURD and allegedly executed more than a dozen people.

All of this fighting displaced thousands of locals. They have returned slowly since Taylor left power. Many returnees have found their familial land occupied by someone else–often, from a different tribe. Land is not only power in Liberia, as Taylor noted before the Special Court, but it also bread. Lofa is seen as the nation’s breadbasket.

According to Shelby since the end of civil war, land disputes have characterized ethnic relations in the area:

Land disputes between Loma and Mandingos in Lofa have been a big issue since the war ended. Mandingo laid claim to land Loma had fled from during the war. When the war ended, and Loma returned, land disputes arose. (Similar dynamics have taken place across the country. Sometimes these disputes have become violent.) Mandingo tend to be Muslim, and Loma tend not to be Muslim. Does this make the conflict religious? Calling the revenge attacks religious, as VOA first did (h/t to Jina) seems akin to a guy who happens to work at a supermarket mugging a guy who happens to be a banker, and then saying that clashes have broken out between supermarket workers and bankers.

Why are media reports about the situation in Lofa County confusing and full of inaccuracies?:

This misrepresentation cannot just be attributed to VOA not understanding the historical context. I saw a wire report (not the one shown above) co-written by two people, including one Liberian, that also characterized the clashes as religious. The issue seems to be more about journalists trying to frame the story in a way that fits into people’s ideas about fighting in Africa.

Something happens in Liberia. Even days later, the international and local reports are confusing and riddled with inaccuracies. This story line is not new, nor, I would imagine, isolated to Liberia. But the consequences are always important. Inaccurate stereotypes–in this case religious antagonism–get reinforced.

As mediation efforts are taking, the Liberian government has refuted allegations of “religious conflict” and has called upon all residents of Lofa Country to remain calm.

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  • James Mulbah

    The creation of a Maya Mandingo legislative district in Lofa County is troubling for Liberia.

    The Maya Mandingos in Lofa County wants power and land. They want it by force. And any mistake in giving them power and land through fear will be a disaster for Lofa County and Liberia.Lofains have to stand up against these war mongers: Mandingos. Most Liberians know what they are capable of doing.
    In Guinea, for instance, they attacked, killed, and intimidated the Fulas in order to rub them of victory in recent a presidential election. In Guinea Bissau, General Ansumana Mane, a Mandingo, who claimed to have brought democracy to country, attacked every elected government for trying to re-structured the malitary as if the malitary was his personal property. He fought until he got killed in a shot-out near the capital Bissau.The Mandingo district in Lofa County will in my opinion, bring more trouble for Liberia. The Mandingoes believe they are the only people who can give a better leadership to Liberia and this leadership must be achieved by force. Lofa has to stand up against the Mandingo aggression. The Fulas are cowards, but Lofains are not.

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  • Losene Sayon

    Liberia sweet Liberia she has endured 14 year of brutality which engulfed a blend of tribal skirmishes sinistering the mandingos’ and the krahn communities.This civil war personally targeted the mandingos which led thousands of mandingos massacred and properties demaged.Now there is full stop to annihilation yet some hooligans claim the mandingos lands and oppose to mandingo leadership in Liberia,if we all Liberians are sceptical about what happened in 14 year of civil war this is time we put everything behind us and reconcile.The mandingos are called warriors,foreigners,attackers,insurgents and all the sorts let’s this end and we reconcile and build a better LIBERIA again noone is ready to repeat his/herself anymore.

  • sekou dulleh

    Muslim and Christian have to be united in lofa county

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