INTERVIEW: as Liberia moves past Ebola ‘nightmare,’ security and political challenges still ahead, UN envoy cautions

UN Special Representative to Liberia, Karin Landgren (left), is blessed on arrival to Gbarbo Village near Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County, Liberia, on 14 April, 2014, during a visit to discuss the Ebola outbreak. UNMIL Photo/Staton Winter

6 May 2015 – As Liberia bounces back from the “national nightmare” of a devastating Ebola epidemic which claimed more than 4,000 lives, the country must also prepare for a series of future challenges – from the build-up of its security sector to the undertaking of critical presidential elections in 2017, according to Karin Landgren, the head of the United Nations Mission there (UNMIL).

On the heels of her presentation of the Secretary-General’s latest report on UNMIL to the Security Council, Ms. Landgren voiced optimism that the West African nation had weathered the worst of the Ebola crisis as the number of confirmed cases has now dwindled to zero and the nationwide panic has stabilized.

The UNMIL head spoke with the UN News Service earlier today about her hopes and fears for Liberia ahead of the UN Mission’s impending drawdown.

UN News Service: Thank you for speaking to us. First off, would you say the Ebola epidemic is under control in Liberia?

Karin Landgren: As we speak, we’re just three days away from the anticipated announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that Liberia is Ebola-free. And [the agency] will make that announcement if no new case is confirmed by Saturday. So this is so eagerly anticipated. It’s been 14 months of a national nightmare, at times. Especially last August, when the country felt like it was teetering on the brink and panic was rising; anger was rising. And no one had seen an epidemic like this before. It was very hard to know what to do.

So, at this point, it does appear to be under control in Liberia but WHO has also been careful to say that until it’s gone from the region as a whole, there are still risks – there are risks that it can come back. So we await Sierra Leone’s and Guinea’s conquering of Ebola as well.

UN News Service: The [Secretary-General’s] report underlines how Ebola ‘threatened to reverse all that Liberia had achieved since the war ended in 2003.’ To what extent did the UN prevent this from happening?

Karin Landgren: The UN and other partners recognized quite early on that this was more than a public health crisis. Certainly, health services collapsed almost immediately. But there were immediate risks to public security. Commodity prices grew and people became restive about that. There was a state of emergency; the army was called out. I’m convinced that the continued presence of UNMIL was reassuring for the population and the fact that we have offices all over the country actually contributed to convening the actors who needed to come together.

But I have to pay tribute to the extraordinary non-governmental organizations (NGOs), beginning with MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières], who contributed to reversing this and all the partner governments, particularly the [United States], who threw resources at it. It was a real collective effort recognizing that no one had seen a problem on this scale before: Ebola in an urban centre where it spread like wildfire.

UN News Service: The report mentions an ‘erosion of public trust’ in the Liberian Government. Does the UN have a role to play in helping Liberians regain that trust?

It’s been 14 months of a national nightmare, at times. Especially last August, when the country felt like it was teetering on the brink and panic was rising; anger was rising.
Karin Landgren: The top responsibility for building confidence in the Government and Government institutions lies with the Government. People need to see the Government present all over the country, which it’s not. It’s a very centralized Government. And they need to have adequate service delivery – whether we are talking about justice, security or health care. It’s going to be a long road for Liberia to establish all these services and give the population confidence in them. UNMIL can certainly help and is working very hard on the security sector in particular but this is a national challenge which will be longer in duration than the life of the peacekeeping mission.

UN News Service: UNMIL is preparing to withdraw over 1,200 military personnel from the Mission by September. This drawdown of staff had been suspended while Ebola presented a threat to peace and security. Is the Mission ready for this?

Karin Landgren: This is part of a drawdown that was planned in 2012. We need to remember that when UNMIL began in 2003, it had an authorized strength of 15,000 troops. When I came to head the Mission in 2012, we were down to 8,000. So there had already been a significant drawdown. This phase, which will take us down to about 3,600 military [personnel], was planned and is absolutely timely and appropriate. What the Security Council will be discussing in September is what comes next, including the exit strategy for the Mission.

Having surmounted Ebola, Liberia has some other challenges [ahead of it]. In October, two of the neighbouring countries are holding president elections – Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. And it will be very important for Liberia’s stability that those elections pass off peacefully. Liberia’s own next political watershed moment is its presidential election in 2017 when President Johnson Sirleaf will step down after two terms. A lot is going to be at stake in 2017 and I have encouraged the Security Council to maintain a steady engagement and assess what is appropriate based on the facts on the ground. One Council member assured me that they would take this step-by-step.

UN News Service: You are serving in Liberia until July. What is your main priority for the next couple of months?

Karin Landgren: I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of serving in three successive peace missions, so as I get ready to leave Liberia, I’ll be doing a lot of reflection on what I’ve learned across these experiences. My immediate priority is to give maximum support from the Mission to two excellent initiatives that the Government has thrown its weight behind. And the number one priority is in strengthening Liberia’s own security sector to take over responsibilities from UNMIL. The Security Council has told Liberia that they expect a complete transition of security responsibilities from the UN to the Government by 30 June 2016. And, although at this point UNMIL only performs half a dozen tasks on behalf of the Government, it will be challenging for the Government to take over full responsibility for those. And that has to be my first priority.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Security Council hears Liberia briefing as country anticipates being declared ‘Ebola-free’

Related Stories






Photographing Ebola, the 'invisible enemy'. Credit: UN Photo


In-depth Interviews