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Inter-Ethnic Relations

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Ethnicity and ethnic lineage have had an important role in the Liberian conflicts, and continue to contribute to tensions and occasional violence in the country (see “Background”). Although 40% of the respondents identified ethnicity and ethnic divisions as one of the causes of the civil wars, few respondents (4%) identified ethnic divisions or tribal violence as current sources of insecurity. The survey covered a series of questions to understand better Liberians’ relations and interactions with the community at large, and with members from other tribal and religious groups.

A large majority of the population described its relationship with other ethnic groups as good or very good (89%), and 71% said they had daily interactions with members of other ethnic groups. An overwhelming number of respondents (95%) said they would have no problems with relatives (son, daughter) marrying someone from another ethnic group. Despite these positive results, 8% of the population reported having problems along ethnic lines. Such problems were most frequently reported in Lofa (16%) and Grand Gedeh (10%).

Table 13: Ethnic Relations

Table 13 - Ethnic Relations

The survey further asked the surveyed adult Liberians with whom they had problems, and the sources of those problems. The objective is not to attribute blame or single out any particular group or individual, but rather to understand the complex dynamic of ethnic tensions. Out of 332 respondents who reported ethnic problems, 178 reported problems with the Mandingo ethnic group (5% of the respondents), 70 reported problems with the Gio (1% of the respondents), and 55 reported problems with the Krahn (1% of the respondents). Problems with any other ethnic groups were reported by less than 1% of the population.

Respondents attributed ethnic problems to (1) perceived inherent violence of the opposed group, (2) pre-existing hatred from the other group, and (3) perceived unfair treatment by the opposed group. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents who reported problem with the Mandingo also mentioned their different religion. 

Sources of tension can also be inferred by analyzing the ethnic group of respondents against their responses on which ethnic groups cause problems:

  • Among the Loma, 19% reported ethnic problems, the highest proportion in any ethnic group. They almost uniquely associated ethnic problems with the Mandingo (17%).
  • The Mandingo had the second highest rate of reported ethnic problems, but the problems were associated with 11 other groups, including the Loma (7%), Gio (4%), and Kpelle (4%).
  • Among the Krahn, 12% reported ethnic problems, and 11% mentioned problems with the Mandingo.
  • Similarly, 10% of the Gio reported ethnic problems, and 8% associated these problems with the Mandingo.
  • Among the Kissi, 12% reported ethnic problems, including 7% that mentioned problems with the Gio.

The Loma, Mandingo, and Kissi are mostly located in Lofa County, where they account for respectively 38%, 15%, and 23% of the population. These results confirm that this county is more likely to be impacted by disputes along ethnic lines. The Krahn on the other hand account for 78% of the population of Grand Gedeh. The Gio are primarily in Nimba, where they account for 48% of the population. In that county, the Kissi account for 11% of the population. These results highlight the potential risk of renewed ethnic conflict in Lofa, Grand Gedeh, and Nimba counties.

Community Interactions and Group Membership

Earlier research in Liberia suggests that traditional social structures and cross-community activities, such as voluntary groups, associations, and traditional societies are common across villages or groups of villages, and may be a source of social cohesion and stability. Accordingly, the study explored membership in these groups, associations, and societies by county and gender. [1]

In respect to family and community relations, most adult Liberians viewed their relationships with family members, neighbors, and the community in general very positively. They also indicated high involvement in community groups. Two-thirds of the respondents (64%) indicated being a member of a group or association: 27% were members of one group or association, 17% indicated two groups or associations, and 20% indicated three or more. Membership in such groups or associations was least frequent in Bomi, Margibi, Monrovia, and Rural Montserrado, with just 52% to 55% of the respondents in these counties reporting any group membership.

Religious associations were the most frequent type of group mentioned (32% of all respondents), followed by farming groups (13%), sports teams (13%), women’s groups (12%), and youth groups (12%). Over 40% of the population belonged to a religious group in the counties of Grand Kru (42%), Maryland (45%), River Gee (50%), and Sinoe (41%). Inversely, such groups were least frequently mentioned in Grand Cape Mount (12%) and Bomi (22%). Farming groups were especially frequent in Lofa (30%), Bong (28%), Nimba (25%), and Gbarpolu (23%). Bong, Lofa, and Nimba also had the highest proportion of individuals that belonged to three or more groups and a significantly higher proportion of individuals who were members of a Susu (rotating credit group) and/or Koo (farmer’s self-help group).

Traditional societies such as the Poro (for men) and Sande (for women) are also known to have a powerful role in community life and dispute resolution in the center and north of Liberia. Nationally, 6% of the respondents reported being a member of such societies. In Bong, however, the percentage was as high as 23%, followed by Grand Cape Mount (10%), Lofa (10%), and Nimba (8%). Given the traditional secrecy of the Poro, as well as similar societies, their membership may have been underreported by respondents.

Overall, adult women were significantly less likely than men to be a member of any group or association with just over half the women reporting such membership (53%), compared to three out of four adult men (76%). Women tended to be members of religious groups (27%) or women’s groups (23%) almost exclusively. Men reported more, and a wider range of, community involvement, including religious groups (36%), sports teams (24%), farming groups (19%), youth groups (19%) and town/village committees (15%). Notably, membership in youth groups was mostly limited to young male adult Liberians. Among those who reported membership in a youth group, 80% were men.

Table 14: Groups and Associations

Table 14 - Groups and Associations

[1]For the purpose of analysis, a wide array of groups, associations, and societies (such as the Poro or Sande) have been grouped in this section. Clearly, their purpose, level of involvement, nature of membership, or even rules for sharing information with non-members differ greatly, especially among traditional solidarities such as the Poro. For further details on this subject, see Sawyer, A. (2005).Social capital, survival strategies and their potential for post-war governance in Liberia. UNU-Wider Research Paper No. 200515; See also Joint Programme Unit for UN-Interpeace Initiatives , Liberia Programme (2008), Nimba County Reconciliation Project.