Something happened in Lofa County, Liberia last week. I don’t completely get what, but I think the confusion is important. Below is a “least-common denominator” overview of what I think happened, and then some quick comments about the confusion.
What probably happened
On Friday a woman was killed in Konia, a town in Lofa. I don’t know why. The woman was either 14 or 21. I think she was Loma and Christian, and I think her body was found near a mosque. The killing sparked revenge attacks between two ethnic groups in the region: Mandingo and Loma (aka Lorma). Attackers targeted people (including local political elite), mosques, and churches. UNMIL restored order (or, perhaps more likely, they showed up after things had settled down). Some are accusing UNMIL of siding with Mandingos (who are usually Muslim), as the UN peacekeepers in Lofa are mostly Pakistani. 4 people were killed and probably more than 14 wounded as a result of the clashes, mostly in Voinjama, the capital of Lofa. Simultaneously, taking advantage of the tension, maybe 60 people escaped from the Voinjama prison. Hundreds of people fled from Konia and Voinjama. (As Johnny explains, both towns were hit hard by Liberia’s war.)
First, I can’t figure out the exact name of the town. It is alternatively spelled Konia, Kornia, and Konica. (Sometimes different spellings within the same article.) Also, based on 15 minutes of Google-ing, I can’t find the town on any map. As best I can tell it is on the main road in Lofa, about 55 miles in some direction from Voinjama. [Update: It’s between Zorzor and Voinjama. Thanks Viktor.]
These points of confusion are not insignificant, but more important is whether or not the fighting should be characterized as religious. Land disputes between Loma and Mandingos in Lofa have been a big issue since the war ended. Mandingo laid claim to land Loma had fled from during the war. When the war ended, and Loma returned, land disputes arose. (Similar dynamics have taken place across the country. Sometimes these disputes have become violent.) Mandingo tend to be Muslim, and Loma tend not to be Muslim. Does this make the conflict religious? Calling the revenge attacks religious, as VOA first did (h/t to Jina) seems akin to a guy who happens to work at a supermarket mugging a guy who happens to be a banker, and then saying that clashes have broken out between supermarket workers and bankers.
This misrepresentation cannot just be attributed to VOA not understanding the historical context. I saw a wire report (not the one shown above) co-written by two people, including one Liberian, that also characterized the clashes as religious. The issue seems to be more about journalists trying to frame the story in a way that fits into people’s ideas about fighting in Africa.
A related point: Was the violence planned? Did the murder of the Konia woman provide an excuse for people to carry out attacks based on personal, unrelated, grievances? These are also important questions raised by Lofa County senator Sumo Kupee. “This thing, to me, was planned by some counterproductive individuals, who were only looking for a space to carry out such action,” Kupee said. On a similar note, I would like to know how the clashes spread from Konia to Voinjama.
Something happens in Liberia. Even days later, the international and local reports are confusing and riddled with inaccuracies. This story line is not new, nor, I would imagine, isolated to Liberia. But the consequences are always important. Inaccurate stereotypes–in this case religious antagonism–get reinforced.
(Please let me know if I made any factual errors in this post.)