It is a familiar story: wrenching leadership disputes, waves of refugees, indiscriminate killings and then a final battle for power.
Since Côte d’Ivoire began to unravel following a disputed election in November, Liberians have been gripped by their neighbour’s conflict. With Liberia itself still recovering from a grizzly civil war, its news media have pursued the story as their nation became increasingly involved as the main destination for Ivorian refugees. The usual speculative reporting about political corruption and the upcoming presidential elections moved to the sidelines.
“It’s front-page news on a daily basis,” said Rodney D. Sieh, editor of the daily Front Page Africa. “A lot the papers, including ours, have been giving a lot of time to it because of the impact of the refugee crisis.”
But as a four-month leadership stalemate in Côte d’Ivoire drew to a violent conclusion, Liberians remained concerned about the immediate future. For starters, more than 100,000 Ivorians took refuge in northeastern Liberia, overwhelming border villages already struggling with poverty.
Front Page Africa’s editor went to the border area in late March, as the refugee numbers began to swell.
“A lot of them came with literally nothing, some with a bag on their shoulder,” Sieh said in a telephone interview from Monrovia. “Most of them said that their villages were burned and that they had nothing to go back to. It’s a very difficult situation for a lot of them.”
Liberians quickly welcomed Ivorians who began arriving in December and have since flooded towns and makeshift camps in the remote and impoverished counties of Nimba and Grand Gedeh, where relief agencies have concentrated their efforts.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said the unfolding crisis was putting stress on her country, which is still struggling to recover from its own civil turmoil in the 1990s. Sirleaf met with Antonio Guterres, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, on 21 March to press for more help.
Guterres has vowed more help and praised the Liberian response to the crisis, as well as the humanitarian response to recent turmoil in North Africa that has largely overshadowed the West African crisis in international media.
“In Liberia, and in Egypt and Tunisia, I have seen people opening not only the border, but opening their hearts and their pockets in a way that I think is a lesson in today’s world where we see so many demonstrations of populism, xenophobia and rejection of foreigners,” Guterres told a news briefing in Geneva on 5 April.
Sieh says the crisis is an emotional one for Liberians given that country’s tumultuous past, which is one reason there has been so much concentrated media attention. During more than a decade of civil unrest in Liberia, some 750,000 people fled to neighbouring West African countries to seek refuge from the bloodshed at home.
“They’ve been reciprocating for what happened to them when we had our problems. It has been very, very interesting to see the reaction of Ivorians who are here,” he said, noting that they have expressed gratitude to their hosts. “Even before the UN [came] Liberians were welcoming refugees from Ivory Coast into their hands and helping them to adapt to life in Liberia.”
The Côte d’Ivoire crisis erupted when opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara won 54 percent of the vote in the 28 November election, defeating long-time president Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo ignored the results, triggering protests, a violent police crackdown and an ultimate siege on his heavily guarded outpost in the country’s main city of Abidjan.
Pockets of resistance?
Besides the humanitarian challenges, Liberian authorities are concerned that fighters loyal to the vanquished Ivorian president moved into border areas under the cover of the refugee influx. Some were stopped and disarmed, others could have easily moved across the remote 716-kilometer border.
Liberia’s media have been speculating that if they regroup and resume their fight, their country could be dragged into a regional conflict, bringing back still-fresh memories of former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. Taylor is on trial before a special tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in the neighbouring country’s conflict.
Sieh, a former BBC correspondent who manages one of the country’s leading dailies, is no stranger to conflict. He covered the unfolding civil war in his own country before fleeing to the Gambia in 1992 to work for the independent Daily Observer. The International Press Institute, a Vienna-based media freedom organisation, has described Gambia as having “one of the worst press freedom environments in Africa.” Despite Liberia’s generally tolerant media atmosphere, Sieh was jailed for 48 hours in January for contempt of court after publishing a letter to the editor critical of a high court justice.
Liberia’s press and broadcasters face other major challenges. News media are largely dependent on government advertising, and the print market is oversaturated—there are 26 newspapers for the capital Monrovia’s 1.2 million residents. Most sell only a few hundred copies and are published irregularly. Liberia has no audit bureau, so circulation figures are speculative.
The country’s high rates of illiteracy and poverty crimp newspaper sales, while rudimentary transport makes delivery outside Monrovia costly. Radio is the most important source of news, but is mostly concentrated in the capital and there is scant media coverage outside the capital in this country of 3.6 million people.
Sensationalism also takes its toll on media credibility. But the Ivorian crisis has been a boon to the country’s struggling media, and Sieh says the coverage and radio discussions serve as catharsis.
“I think it’s good because it lets people know that the whole West African region is so fragile, and the more information they can get, I think it helps them know and understand what the situation is,” Sieh said. “I don’t think anyone wants another war in Liberia, and that’s why people are interested to see how quickly this Ivorian situation comes to an end.”
Timothy Spence is an independent journalism trainer, lecturer and freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience as a reporter, Washington editor and overseas correspondent. He has managed and led newsroom training and workshops in post-conflict environments in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caucasus, Middle East, and Balkans. The recipient of two Knight International Journalism Fellowships, Spence also received a U.S. Fulbright Specialists grant to teach in Ghana. He has taught journalism in the Czech Republic, Armenia and Ethiopia. Spence’s articles have been published by the Inter Press Service, Transitions Online, European Voice, Christian Science Monitor, The Vienna Review and numerous trade newspapers.