As Liberia’s 24th President, soccer legend George Manneh Weah is expected to be inaugurated on January 22, 2018 in the presence of dignitaries from around the world, a local daily quoting ‘credible information’ has reported that some soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) are threatening to stage a peaceful public protest should the Ministry of Defense fail to reimburse what they claim is money “compulsorily” deducted from their salaries.
According to the aggrieved soldiers the Ministry of National Defense (MoD) has been deducting money from the soldiers’ paychecks since the force was restructured in 2006, even up to present. However Defense Minister Samukai has dismissed the claim stating that the deductions began in 2009 and not in 2006 as claimed; and they are paid into a WELFARE FUND created with the intent to cater to the needs of soldiers.
But, according to the soldiers, the deductions were done in keeping with an agreement between the them and the Ministry, of which US$20 monthly was deducted from salaries of rank and file soldiers, while US$25 and US$30 monthly were compulsorily deducted from wages of officers,” the soldiers said.
“This money which has summed up to over hundreds of thousands of dollars was to be held in savings accounts and be given back to the soldiers, at the end of the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” the soldiers indicated.
“Defense Minister Brownie Samukai is about to leave the ministry and there has been no details about paying back to us the compulsory deduction and we don’t even know the whereabouts of the money, since 2006,” the defense source explained.
Other soldiers who spoke with this paper on condition of anonymity said, the ministry has refused to tell them if they are entitled to the money that was cut from their salaries as compulsory deduction, while others claim that they have not been told that there were accounts opened for them regarding the monthly deduction that were made to their salaries and when will they get the money back.
According to the soldiers, up to present, at least several thousand United States dollars has been withheld from the wages of the soldiers.
“I don’t even know for a fact that anybody got their money back,” said a soldier, “If you add the 12 years we’re easily talking about hundreds of thousands of United States dollars.”
But when contacted for comment, AFL Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Daniel Ziahnkahn referred the matter to the Minister of Defense who he said is clothed with the authority to discuss such matters with the press. He however acknowledged that he was aware of such concerns being expressed by soldiers but affirmed that modalities are being worked out to find an amicable solution to the problem.
For his part, Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, confirmed that his Ministry has since 2009 established a WELFARE FUND under which deductions are made from the salaries of soldiers based on rank. He clarified that such deductions are placed into a WELFARE FUND for soldiers and it is intended to cater to the welfare of soldiers who may suffer injury or to the families of soldiers who may die on duty.
He cited the case of a Liberian soldier killed in the line of duty while serving with the United Nations Mission in Mali as well as another soldier who was involved in an accident on the S.D. Cooper Road and sustained injuries that led to the amputation of his leg.
He said in the case of the former, the Ministry of Defense made payments to the family to underwrite burial and other expenses and in the case of the soldier whose leg was amputated, the Ministry is currently sponsoring his studies at the University of Liberia in addition to covering the cost of his medical expenses.
Minister Samukai further said the establishment of the fund was based on the reality that the Government of Liberia does not have money to cater to such welfare needs of soldiers, although their line of work involves exposure to hazardous conditions and risks.
He said payment is intended to cover a 20 year period following which benefits are to be paid to the individual soldiers similar to what is done to civil servants who complete 25 years of service to country.
Currently, according to Minister Samukai, the fund has an accumulated balance of a little over US$700,000 in its account and it is intended to be used for no other purpose than that of catering to soldiers’ welfare.
He said he has provided this information to President Sirleaf and to President- elect George Weah as well in separate briefing sessions. He however said going forward, decisions about what to do with the funds remains the prerogative of the incoming Minister of Defense.
It can be recalled that since the restructuring of the military in 2006, there have been media reports of desertion due to allegations of poor working conditions in the country’s military. Low salaries and poor housing conditions for soldiers and their families are alleged to be push factors behind the attrition rate.
It can also be recalled that during the tenure of former Finance Minister Amara Konneh, several government officials expressed concern that they were being kept in the dark by Minister Konneh because they had no idea what was allocated in their respective budgets, something which they claimed was impeding progress.
Prominent among those officials expressing such concerns included Defense Minister Samukai, Deputy Civil Service Director-General Puchu Bernard, and former Lofa County Senator Kupee.
Defense Minister Samukai was particularly outspoken on this issue and at a point virtually accused the Finance Ministry of keeping them in the dark and withholding approved budgetary allotments which he said was delaying ongoing renovation work on housing facilities for soldiers.
Whether the MoD’s establishment of the WELFARE FUND for soldiers was indeed driven by such concerns remains unclear. It is however clear that soldiers are not covered under the welfare scheme operated by the National Social Security and Welfare Corporation (NASSCORP) although the displeased soldiers say they are unaware if they are covered.
When contacted, a NASSCORP official spokesperson David Q. Beekeh confirmed that soldiers are not covered under its insurance and pension program for civil servants and other public service employees.