Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace and the Logic of Political Survival
Political Use of Social Media
Women have been an essential part of bringing peace in the Liberian history. All throughout the duration of civil war, Liberian women faced horrible atrocities under the regime of President Charles Taylor who took over control of the government in a coup in 1989. Women were raped, physically assaulted, and had to go through the pain and violence inflicted by men in the armed combatants on a regular basis. These women saw their young sons snatched away and enrolled into armed rebellions while their daughters were sexually violated in turns by different men right in front of their eyes (“Saying Yes to Peace”, 2). They were drugged and trafficked from one place to another while bearing through the pain of losing all their loved ones. After going through all this trauma, Liberian women belonging to different background and class, as well as different religious affiliations came together under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee to form Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace and challenge the patriarchy to restore peace.
Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace were united as women who have had enough and were unable to take more. As the situation deteriorated everyday, the number of women joining the movement grew exponentially. They all stood together not for a political cause, but to find a peaceful resolution that may end the conflict and lead to deployment of international peacekeeping forces to restore balance. Gbowee shared a powerful message saying that “Giving up wasn’t an option. Peace was the only way we could survive. We would fight to bring it” (“Saying Yes to Peace”, 5). They only wore the color white and removed all the jewelry and makeup to hide their diverse background and represent a united group.
The Logic of Political Survival would classify Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace as a part of the selectorate, but never a part of the winning coalition. It is interesting to note that these women had always been a disenfranchised group under the rule of Charles Taylor. The needs and necessities of these women were constantly ignored while the power dynamics always favored Charles Taylor. After growing “increasingly and systematically marginalized” (“Saying Yes to Peace”, 4), Liberian women organized themselves as Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace to become a part of the selectorate. There was a transitional period where these liberian women started supporting the challenger, Ellen John Sirleaf, who went on to become the first female presidential candidate. It was their combined efforts and the logic of political survival that led these women to ultimately elect the first women president of Liberia and thus becoming a part of the winning coalition.
Before the 2005 elections, Charles Taylor intentionally did not build the telecommunication infrastructure as a means to keep a check on flow of information from one person to another. This was a systematized strategy to stop people from coordination and organization, which could have possibly lead to a rise of coup against Taylor. Christopher Kedzie classifies this strategy as a part of dictator’s dilemma in his dissertation The Case of Soviet Union: The Dictator’s Dilemma. Kedzie further elaborates on this conservative dilemma that an authoritarian government faces, whether to build the infrastructure for new media such as cell phone network and the internet, or to censor and limit this new media for a better control over the population.
Development of new media infrastructure would have lead to an increase in flow of information amongst the people, giving them an opportunity to organize and synchronize that may result in a decrease in authoritarian control over the people. Kedzie highlights this point by stating that “Interactive media, like telephones, can approach universal access, but the number of recipients per message is rarely more than one. Influence increases as more people get the word and autonomy increases with the percentage of the society that can originate and share its own ideas” (Kedzie). Limiting or banning this new media could lead the people to protest and radicalize against the otherwise authoritarian government that has managed well to keep their people in control and silence. Kedzie further explains that a dictator’s task is “to maximize influence while limiting autonomy”. Technological improvement makes it hard for a dictator to maximize this influence while giving them a platform for free speech and easy flow of information. Ideally, it is best for a dictator to be in a position where “everybody receives all of the leader’s dictates and none from anyone else” (Kedzie).
Since the liberian women did not have access to cellphones and the internet they used conventional tools such as megaphones, blackboards and word of mouth to share this information. Mobile phones and televisions were considered to be a luxury that only a few people enjoyed, who were part of the then winning coalition under Charles Taylor. Nonetheless, Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace were not deterred from achieving their goal.
Liberia is a very religious country with traditional values. It is interesting to observe how the Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace united women from diverse religious background and included them in leader representation so that every woman’s voice could be heard. They used prayer as a tool to attract more women and religious institutes became a place to meet other women for discussion. Logic of Political Survival iterates that “Religious beliefs and powers, for example, have sometimes facilitated clerical leaders in their efforts to coerce the civilian society into accepting the political leadership”, but it is interesting how Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace reversed this use of religion to exert pressure on Taylor’s government. Liberian women would take their message first to bishops and church clergy members and then enlisted support of the imams to hold influence over the warlords. They would hold regular meetings after friday and sunday prayers to engage the imams and bishops in dialogue. Religion also became a tool for these women to cover themselves from criticism as a protection against a harsh fallback, as well as an important tool of interaction to facilitate conversation.
After gaining major support and momentum from Liberian women, Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace quickly mobilized themselves and occupied the room where the peace negotiations were taking place. They blocked the room and physically barred anyone from entering or leaving the room until a peace negotiation was signed. When the authorities tried to arrest the 200 women part of the sit-in, “Gbowee and the women threatened to strip off their clothes” (“Saying Yes to Peace”, 11) and did not let any delegate leave the premise either. They also threatened to break into the room through windows if the peace negotiations do not reach any conclusion. The chief mediator at first requested the Liberian Women Mass Movement for Peace to stop, but after being turned down he told the delegates that “if those women out there continue… because they are angry, they will come in here and they will do just what they please, so please, we have to do something so that those women can leave the place”(“Saying Yes to Peace”, 11). These men knew of the mistreatment against the Liberian women and they felt humiliated for the pain and sorrow that these women had to go through on a daily basis. After two weeks of negotiation, the peace talks finally culminated by signing of the ceasefire and the UN agreeing to send their peacekeeping forces maintain peace until first ever democratic elections in November 2005.
Liberian women realized the importance of becoming a part of the selectorate. “The important aspect of being in the selectorate is that membership conveys the opportunity to become a member of a winning coalition” (Logic of Political Survival, 64). Since the “[m]emebership in the selectorate is a necessary condition for membership in a winning coalition”(Logic of Political Survival, 66), liberian women helped the challenger, Sirleaf, to gain momentum in fierce presidential election against the popular soccer star, George Weah, and defeat him to become the first female president of the Liberia.
All throughout the recent history of Liberia, it is incredibly inspiring to see a disenfranchised group transition into selectorate, and then to the winning coalition after electing a female president. After having seen and been through it all, these women united themselves in an organized and synchronized manner using bold tactic. They relied on centrality of the group’s network that was highly connected with each other to share a common goal. Through this high connectivity, they were able to attract more women from diverse background and religion to organize and synchronize to restore peace in Liberia.
Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce et al.; The Logic of Political Survival; Chapter 2
Kedzie, Christopher; The Case of the Soviet Union: The Dictator’s Dilemma (1997)
Saying “Yes” to Peace. How the Women of Liberia Fought for Peace