In a time of wide-spread and potential growing global conflict, it may be instructive to reflect upon how the Liberian Civil Wars were brought to an end. Leymah Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How sisterhood, prayer, and sex changed a nation at war, and the related documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell describe a different strategy, one led by a woman. After a decade of suffering both war-time horrors and being trapped in a cruel domestic violence situation, Leymah Gbowee emerged from a period of crippling depression to become a mighty leader who played a key role in ending the Liberian Civil War. I argue here that her ability to correctly identify and then relentlessly target the COG was part of why she succeeded.
What is a Centre of Gravity (COG)?
In military strategy, the ‘centre of gravity’ (COG) is a key conceptual tool for planning. It refers to these sorts of questions…
What is the enemy’s most important dependency?…What is the thing that, if taken away, would cause them the most damage, to loose their power or strength?… What does their power pivot upon?
It could be ‘legitimacy’… ‘fuel supply lines’…or ‘support of ally X’… The COG may change from moment to moment… there may be several COG of similar importance… The idea is for the clever military strategist or tactician to identify, and then target, the enemy’s COG…whilst protecting their own…
Context – The Liberia civil wars
The Liberian Wars, stretching from 1989 to 2003 missed much of the world’s attention as they overlapped with the 9/11 attack on the new York World Trade Centre and the resulting US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- 1st Liberian Civil War: 1989–1996
- 2nd Liberian Civil War: 1999–2003
Liberia’s elite and most powerful were the ‘ Americo-Liberians’ who had descended from freed American slaves. They distinguished themselves as superior to the local indigenous Liberian people and held political power continuously from the end of US Colonization in 1847 to 1980. In 1980, Samual Doe organised a violent coup and took over Government; he was the first indigenous Liberian ever to be in power, and was initially greatly supported by the US. Yet his Government was besieged by counter-coup attempts and lost international support after becoming repressive and corrupt.
The Liberian Civil Wars commenced in 1989, when Samual Doe, (below left) the indigenous Liberian was challenged by a member of the previous elite ‘Americo-Liberians’ – Charles Taylor, (below right) and then gradually other warlords.
It became a brutal conflict, with atrocities committed by all sides and the widespread use of drugged child-soldiers. The conflict was devastating to Liberia’s infrastructure, economic activities and people, particularly psychologically. Charles Taylor often declared that his position of power was divinely decreed; that if he wasn’t meant to be in power, God wouldn’t have allowed it.The dominant narrative became that achieving power through extreme and vicious force was normal and legitimate.
Influences on the war and its ending…
There were a range of factors influencing Taylor’s brutal grip on power, including proxy Cold War dynamics; his pivotal role in the Blood Diamond trade with from Sierra-Leone; the resource -curse associated with Liberia having abundant natural resources and ethnic tensions. Of course the UN, International agencies and other countries, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) played a role in ending the war, but one might ask, were any of these powerful agencies the initiator of change? Did they bring the breakthrough, or rather just play supportive and largely mandated procedural roles in response to a larger force, a larger influence, that really kick-started the change?
The initiator of change was a force that effectively identified and targeted the COG, and that was the ‘Women of Liberia want Peace’ movement.
Identifying the COG?
If you were an impoverished citizen of Liberia who wanted to stop the war, what tactics and strategies would you adopt? What options would be available to you?
Leymah Gbowee identified that Taylor often spoke about the divine authority behind his power. As depicted in the documentary, Taylor says to a Church congregation:
I am here because the One that created me, to launch this revolution, and I’ll tell you, if God did not want me.. I’m not here because I wanted to be here.. Because the only person that could have protected me over the past 5 to 6 years is the Jehovah God Almighty!
She also noted that the two main warring parties had different faiths:
Taylor went to Church. And the leadership of the LURD went to the Mosque.
Her comments below show how she and her team started to identify the COG:
Taylor could pray the devil out of hell. And we said if this man is so religious, we need to get to that thing that he holds firmly to. So if the women started pressurizing the pastors and the bishops, the pastors and the bishops would pressurize the leaders. And if the women from the mosque started talking to their imans, they would pressurize the warlords also. (17 minutes, 40 second mark in the documentary)
Gbowee and her team identified that the COG was the prevailing dominant narrative. This narrative, which could also be considered as a hegemonic philosophy, had a few strands:
- Rightful power. Firstly, there was the idea that Taylor had a divine right to rule, and that it was rightful that the elite Americo-Liberians be in power.
- Ontology – Philosophical concept of ‘how to exist’ and ‘be’. Charles Taylor initially promised he would deliver peace and prosperity to Liberia, however, words which he spoke early on assuming power show that he had intent to usher in a new ideology and concept of identity for Liberia:
“we have an opportunity, starting from zero, to reconstruct the minds of our people..” Charles Taylor, (5 minute mark, documentary)
Over the period of the Liberian wars, a new concept of ‘how to exist’ did take hold in Liberia. It is hard to know, however, if the ideological shift was exactly as Taylor initially intended, or if it arose through the process of battling for power. The new way of ‘being’ for Liberian people featured division. Previously, relationships between various tribes and ethnic or religious groups were relatively harmonious, and considered as separate to tensions over indigenous or Americo-Liberian status. However, Gbowee describes how Taylor deliberately brewed suspicion and hatred between tribes. Under his leadership, division and irreconcilable differences between these different groups began to be seen as the ‘new normal.’
- It is normal and rightful to assume power via force. As Taylor and the varying rebel leaders and warlords fought it out over almost a decade, the idea that one assumes power and legitimacy through the use of extreme and vicious force also became a new normal. It was no longer questioned. There were mass rapes, mutilation, and cannibalism. People lost the ‘idea’ that peace was possible.
Gbowee proposed an alternative narrative for Liberia: the idea that peace was preferable, urgently needed and possible. She focused upon prayer and thus while not overtly saying it, the women’s peace movement challenged Taylor’s narrative that ‘his way’ was divinely decreed and the only or ‘right’ religious way. This was a grass-roots approach aimed at the Liberian people; the fighters; leaders and international community. Gbowee notes that various solutions were developed ‘on the run,’ however, it can be seen that, collectively, all actions worked towards achieving this single point of aim: establishing the idea that peace was preferable, urgently needed and possible – as the dominant narrative.
- One single message: “The women of Liberia want Peace.” This was repeated and reiterated via radio; T-shirts; formal ‘position statements’ presented to Parliament; and mass sit-ins with placards held in prominent places. For example, most notably, the largest sit-in occurred for weeks on end at a rice market alongside the main road which Charles Taylor commuted along each day. These sit-ins brought up to 2,500 women at at time.
- An alliance between Muslim and Christian women. This was forged in many deep and layered ways. The women worked hard to overcome initial religious based hesitations. The slogan, ‘The bullet doesn’t care if you are Muslim or Christian‘ helped create unity.
- Alliances and powerful networks. Gbowee and her various collaborators worked through extensive networks and had alliances with multiple civil and international groups, especially among other West African countries. This allowed them to promote their narrative and vision very widely.
- Forgoing all ‘labels.’ Tribal and religious labels were dropped. Everyone was just a ‘Liberian.’
- Inclusivity. Women of all ‘classes’ were involved, especially those from IDP camps
- Morale. The women’s movement worked to lift the self-esteem and morale of many women who had been demoralized and humiliated. Instead of viewing themselves as ‘nothing’ or powerless, they identified and then celebrated positive acts the women had done, teaching the women to say ‘I am a peace-builder’.. ‘I am a networker..’ ‘I am a leader..’ ..’I am a provider..’ Early on there were night-time candlelight sharing circles where women disclosed painful stories of what had happened to them, (such as being raped by knifes or having had breasts cut off, children killed or maimed in front of them). This semi-ceremony came to be called “the shedding of the weight.” Voicing and sharing these stories became profoundly healing.
- Visual symbols. The women all wore white. They stopped wearing jewelry and make-up. At one stage, Gbowee threatened to strip naked at the stalled peace talks in Ghana. This was a powerful act because some Africans believe it it is a curse to see your mother naked.
- Belonging and Sisterhood. The women were given identity cards showing that they were members of the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement. They developed a sense of pride and were easily identifiable in their communities by their white, plain dress. (See screen shot below from the documentary)
- Dialogue: “We are breaking the silence.” They used multiple, exhaustive and continued methods to start a dialogue on peace and to keep it moving, even after the war officially ended. This included talks with religious leaders; continued requests to fighters to sit down and discuss the issues. Endless appeals for peace talks. At peace talks in Ghana, the woman went back and forth talking to all the warlords and other representatives, acting as ‘middle-people’ and peace-brokers.
- A pivotal moment – A male ally and the issue of manhood. One of the most crucial moments in the peace talks was when the women confronted the warlords about their greed and the lack of serious progress in negotiations. The woman physically barricaded the men in the conference room, by sitting around entrance doors and corridors in a tight bunch, interlinking arms. The women declared they wouldn’t let the men out until they had reached a peace agreement, and also that they wouldn’t allow the warlords food or water, so they could feel what the people of Liberia were enduring. In this confrontation, one warlord lifted his leg as though he were about to kick the women. At this point, General Abubakar, (the former President of Nigeria who’d been tasked to mediate the peace talks, pictured below) stepped in:
General Abubakar’s voice was steely as he turned to the warlord. “I dare you!”
There was a moment of silence. “If you were a real man,” said the general, “you wouldn’t be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that is why these women will treat you like boys.”… The man retreated…
(p. 162 ‘Mighty Be our Powers’)
- Sex ban. Another tactic which – although a minor part of the much larger strategy, but which gained the most media attention – was the idea of a sex ban. Here the women of Liberia declared they would stop having sex with their partners until the men demonstrated that they were helping to move the country towards peace. This brought some humour to a stale situation and also helped create new chances for discussions and dialogue. It also undermined the war-time violent rape narrative as it portrayed women as being in charge of their own bodies and emphasized ‘consent’ as a normal and dignified requirement within sexual relations.
- Making the cost of war visible. Gbowee and her alliance of women continued to draw attention to the war’s human costs – especially on children. Through discussing mass rapes; children being dismembered, drugged and forced to kill parents and other macabre events, these horrors were brought out into full view for public scrutiny.
Impact and aftermath
The war ended in 2003. The women decided to remain actively involved and ‘policed’ all aspects of solidifying the peace. Their motto was ‘peace is not an event, it is a process.’ They pointed out the UN’s disastrous efforts at managing weapons returns and proposed and helped manage a far more workable solution. They mobilized women to vote which undoubtedly contributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf being elected as the President of Liberia; a woman with her own heroic story.
Achieving a peaceful outcome may seem an impossibility in some of today’s seemingly intractable conflict scenarios; however, Gbowee’s success in Liberia suggests pathways can be found. Gbowee recognized that a new story was needed, not just a slogan, but a narrative which addressed deeper issues, like ‘how do we want to be/live/exist?’ ‘who are we?’ ‘What is important?’ The vision mobilized others and was was pursued relentlessly. And it worked.
President Sirleaf; Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karmanand were jointly awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2011.
Charles Taylor is currently imprisoned in the UK, where he is serving a 50 year sentence for war crimes.
- Gbowee Peace Foundation
- Ted Talk, Leymah Gbowee, Unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls
- Choosing the Hero – a book about President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her adviser K. Riva Levinson.