November 18, 2003
Professor's New Book on the Failure of Liberian Politics
As the war-torn West African country Liberia anticipates a Dec. 7 United Nations-led disarmament and rehabilitation program at three sites under U.N. control, armed rebel groups continue their looting rampages and clashes with government soldiers, thousands of displaced Liberians seek shelter and safety, and the presence of U.N. peacekeepers dispatched around the capital of Monrovia is set to triple, to 15,000.
Liberia expert and social scientist John C. Yoder, professor of political studies at Whitworth College who was a Fulbright scholar in Liberia during the 1980s, charges that contrary to what most people -- including a majority of Liberians -- believe, Liberia's deepest problems cannot be solved by establishing order, removing dictator Charles Taylor, offering humanitarian aid, and holding elections.
In his groundbreaking book, Popular Culture, Civil Society, and State Crisis in Liberia (2003, The Edwin Mellen Press), Yoder contends that the sources of tragedy in Liberia -- a country that has been shattered by two civil wars in 14 years -- are multiple and cannot be pinned on individual tyrants such as Samuel K. Doe or Charles Taylor. More treacherous than any dictator is the internal political culture that has long influenced all government policies and actions in Liberia, says Yoder, who was asked recently to prepare a policy paper for an advisory group of senior Diaspora Liberians in the United States who are working with the Governance Reform Commission to chart a new course of government in Liberia.
"Before the destructive events of the 1990s, Liberians took pride in their propriety, respectfulness, civility, and orderly behavior," Yoder states in the book's introduction. "Today, they ask how social norms could fail so completely that, during the 1997 elections, the country's youth danced in the streets of Monrovia chanting, 'He kill my ma, he kill my pa, I will vote for him.'"
In his book, Yoder addresses the most compelling issues raised by the 1989 civil war, the 1997 elections, and the conduct of the Taylor government. "These are issues of failure and tragedy," Yoder states.
In addition to drawing from the fields of political science and history, Yoder's book includes anecdotal material on popular political culture and civil society - from wedding showers, pop songs, disciplinary practices in schools and folk tales, to the constitution of a village soccer club. Using tools and methodology from anthropology, theology and folklore, Yoder interprets deep cultural values found in all segments of Liberian society.
Yoder's conclusion -- that Liberian politics failed because of civil society's illiberal overemphasis on stability and order at the expense of tolerance, accountability, and adaptability -- challenges much of conventional scholarship about Liberia and about Africa in general.
"This particular conclusion is compelling, as it generates interesting hypotheses about the prevalence of violence in other societies widely regarded as 'polite and orderly,' such as Rwanda," says Sandra F. Joireman, a political-science professor at Wheaton College, in Illinois.
"If Yoder is correct in his analysis of the Liberian context, we have reason to look at other civil societies differently as well, asking how well deeply democratic values permeate all levels of society, rather than just the elite, and questioning the societal capacity for criticism and conflict," Joireman says. "These are important questions that have long-term implications for peace and security around the world."
Yoder holds a Ph.D. in African history from Northwestern University. His research and writings have focused on African mythology, history and politics. In 1987-88, he held a Fulbright fellowship to teach African history and politics at Cuttington University College and the University of Liberia. In 1999, he conducted research in Liberia under a grant from the Pew Foundation. Yoder's op-ed piece "Analysis of the U.S. Mission in Liberia" appeared in July 2003 issues of The Seattle Times and The Spokesman-Review.
Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private, liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The college enrolls 2,200 students in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.
John C. Yoder, professor of political studies, Whitworth College, (509) 777-4432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Julie Riddle, public information specialist, Whitworth College, (509) 777-3729 or email@example.com.