Playing with the ‘Enemy’: Football offers Peace chance in Liberia

Op-Ed: Jasmine R. Linabary, PhD, is the Associate Director of Research and Operations of the Purdue Peace Project (PPP), Purdue University. Stacey L. Connaughton, PhD, is the Director of the PPP and an Associate Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University. Grace Yeanay is the Liberia Country Director of the PPP, based in Monrovia, Liberia. Jennifer Ptacek, MA, is a graduate research assistant with the PPP.

Football players from across the globe have gathered in Russia this month for the 2018 World Cup, where they are competing for the chance to be named world champions. Although Liberia isn’t fielding a team in this World Cup, the country’s current president is a former professional footballer, and across the country players have been taking to the field with a different goal - peace.

Leading up to the 2017 presidential and legislative elections in Liberia, citizens working for peace across four counties in Liberia organized a series of football tournaments to encourage their fellow citizens to say no to violence. On these fields were the unlikeliest of pairings: pen-pen riders (motorcycle taxi drivers) and police officers playing each other in friendly football matches.

The two groups have often been seen as “enemies.” Many pen-pen riders are ex-combatants from Liberia’s civil wars (1989-2003), who during disarmament used funds received from trading in their guns to purchase motorcycles and create livelihoods for themselves as taxi drivers. Unfortunately, over time pen-pen riders have been perceived as perpetrators of violence within their communities, known for the “rough” behaviors with both passengers and police. They had also reportedly been hired by politicians during political campaigns to intimidate or harass. These actions have put them at odds with law enforcement. Police officers, some of whom also played a role in the wars, have been known to engage in the harassment of pen-pen riders, including reports of the confiscation of motorcycles, unfair arrests, and harsh treatment. As a result, the relationship between the two groups, and between pen-pen riders and their fellow community members, has been tense.

But now that’s changing. Since 2013, a group of local citizens calling themselves the Pen-Pen Peace Network (PPPN) has worked to improve relations between pen-pen riders, police, and community members. The PPPN, which emerged from an effort by the Purdue Peace Project to bring together stakeholders in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, around these issues, includes representatives from the Liberia National Police, the Ministry of Transport, pen-pen rider unions, market women, and community members working together to prevent violence. The PPPN has since expanded from the capital to three additional counties -- Bong, Margibi, and Nimba. The PPPN was also among the first to spread Ebola prevention messages during the 2014 outbreak and most recently worked to prevent violence related to the 2017 elections.

Football, widely considered the national sport of Liberia, has been one of the key peacebuilding strategies mobilized by the PPPN. Leading up to the 2017 elections, the PPPNs in the four counties held a series of multi-day tournaments involving teams of male pen-pen riders, police, and community members with the goal of targeting groups that have often been in conflict. They describe football as a “unifier”, a way to bring people together around a shared activity and lay the groundwork for open and peaceful relationships. The shaking of hands prior to the start of each match came to symbolize reconciliation between the groups.

These tournaments have contributed to changes in the relationships between pen-pen riders and the police. Pen-pen riders and police in the four counties report having developed a new collegiality, laughing and joking together when they see each other, as well as forming friendships that have continued beyond the tournament. The familiarity built through the tournaments is helping to slowly change perceptions and break down stereotypes. This has also translated into action. Both pen-pen riders and police report a reduction in violence among them and that their interactions have become more respectful. Police also say that their own perceptions of pen-pen riders as violent have changed. Community members have expressed surprise at seeing pen-pen riders now giving rides to police officers, working together, and socializing with each other.

Undoubtedly, more work is needed to further strengthen these relationships, but these changes, which are lauded by community members, have helped reduce violence among these groups in significant ways. In the past, the injury or death of a pen-pen rider on the road could result in pen-pen riders taking the law into their own hands, with instances of rioting, physical violence, destruction of property, and even the burning of police stations. Since the start of the PPPNs work in the four counties, police and pen-pen riders are now visibly working together and report that now when similar situations occur they do not result in the outbreak of violence. Further, given the violence that had marred these relationships in the past and that had the potential to be exacerbated during elections, the improved relations also contributed to preventing electoral violence.

Once named the FIFA World Player of the Year, current Liberian President George Weah represents possibilities, particularly through sport, for many young Liberians. Football represents not only opportunity, but a chance to come together and build peace, across the country, in post-war Liberia.

As people around the world tune in to watch the World Cup over the coming weeks, including across Liberia, it’s worth remembering that football can be more than just a competition – it can also represent the possibilities of peace.

Photos: Supplied

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