Liberia: Fears, anxiety as peacekeepers handover to government –will the state thrive in their absence?

UN sBy the 30th of this June, the Liberian government will re-assume full security responsibility for its territory and citizens, as the United Nations Peacekeepers end this aspect of their 13-year-old mandate to the country.

In August 2003, the West Africa Stabilization Force which was later transformed into the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was deployed to salvage a 14-year-old civil war which resulted to the death of an estimated 250,000 people.

The mission, comprising of more than 16,000 peacekeepers at the time of deployment, has gone down in history as one of the largest peacekeeping operations by the United Nations to a war-zone anywhere in the world.

However, as the peacekeepers withdraw, questions remain over the preparedness and capacities of state security institutions to takeover.

Adolphus Mawolo examines the vulnerabilities of the state (internal and external threats), challenges and the ability to thrive.
Many Liberians are edgy over the UN’s handover of full security responsibilities to the Liberian government on 30th June 2016. This plan has long been in the making.  However, it’s easy to understand why some Liberians are uncomfortable and wary about the withdrawal of the blue helmets.

The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) which fragmented and played loyalty to various warring factions blamed for heinous atrocities during the conflict was disbanded when the war ended in 2003. The official list of servicemen at the time of the disbandment and restructuring totaled 13,770 according to a 2008 report by Malan.

Even at this strength and the material capabilities it had, AFL could not prevent a rebel movement from invading the country from outside.  Liberia’s borders are porous and that makes it even more difficult to effectively mend them.
When the UN intervened in 2003, it deployed more than 16,000 troops on the ground to ensure its presence was felt across the entire country.

But as the peacekeepers handover to the Government, there are only 1,800 active military personnel or less up from 2,100 due to desertions and dismissals for misconduct. This figure of active military personnel includes the Coast Guard. The Air Force Division which ceased to operate at the outbreak of the conflict was squashed out completely by the New National Defense Act of 2008 which repealed the National Defense Act of 1956, the Coast Guard Act of 1959, and the Liberian Navy Act of 1986.

Before the conflict, military personnel were deployed across the country with sub-barracks in all of the political sub-divisions of the country. But currently, only a few barracks are operational  including Camp Ware in Careysburg, rural Montserrado County, Edward Beyan Kesselly (EBK) Barracks on the Roberts Field Highway, Camp Tubman in Gbarnga, Bong County, Camp Todee in Todee District, upper Montserrado and the Barclay Training Center (BTC) in Monrovia have been re-constructed and occupied by servicemen with the help of friendly governments including the United States and China.

The New National Defense Act of 2008 spelled out the functions of the military as –to defend the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Liberia, including land, air and maritime territory, against external aggressions, insurgency, terrorism and encroachment.  In addition, the AFL shall respond to natural disasters and engage in other civic works as may be required or directed.

How can a country mend its air defenses when its army is without an air force division? How can a country protect its territorial waters when its army has fewer than five inflatable boats that hardly sail out in the waters?

While there are no doubts about the ability of the servicemen to perform, concerns remain over the inadequacy of manpower and equipment. This has in effect made not only the army but all of the security agencies in the country to become reactionary forces instead of being preventive forces. Therefore, in the short to medium term, Liberia may perhaps have to rely on external help from its immediate neighbors and traditional ally –the United States to protect its territory from external threats.

But the danger about this is that, in the case where neighbors fail to detect an external threat to Liberia, it is highly unlikely that incident will be prevented from occurring.

Internally, the Government has had to occasionally deploy armed police personnel or the military to trouble spots and immediately withdraw them after the tensions quell.  This explains how volatile the security situation is and how reactionary security institutions are.

Just about two months to the peacekeepers’ handover, an abandoned tanker ship, TAMAYA, washed ashore in the coastal city of Robertsport, some 75 kilometres west of Monrovia.
Security officials have yet not been able to explain to the public the presence of the ghost ship. However, they remain reassuring.

In the span of three months, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made visits to neighboring countries –Ivory Coast and Guinea to cement fences with them.

Since the deployment of UN mission to Liberia there have few cross border incidents in the south-east of the country including the one in which seven peacekeepers from Ivory Coast were killed in June 2012.

Although there is currently an atmosphere of peace in Liberia and there is also no imminent threat of the country returning to internal conflict, concerns continue over the possible re-formation of armed groups from the country’s civil war history. Recent terror attacks in Cote D’Ivoire reinforce the anxiety that Liberians have about UNMIL handover.

Some 103,018 people who claimed to have fought for former President Charles Taylor or the rebel movements Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) or the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) had been disarmed and demobilized by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) by March 2005 –one and half years after civil war ended.

According to international organizations, many of the ex-combatants have been without work after completing their DDRR training.

“The groups of former fighters are very closely linked to the prevalence of crime and fear of future violence in the country,” said the International Crisis Group (ICG).

These concerns crystallized in 2010 when former fighters crossed the border to Cote D’Ivoire in droves to join the fighting between former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and incumbent Alassane Ouattara. Some estimates suggest as many as several hundreds of Liberian mercenaries fought for one side or the other.

Besides the concerns over ex-combatants, land disputes are another persistent challenge for Liberians. At the end of the civil war nearly one in four adults were involved in a disagreement over land according to Vinck et al., 2011 report.

“Violent crime has increasingly become an everyday worry for ordinary Liberians. Although not unique in a post-conflict environment, the prevalence of crime nevertheless remains a concern for the country going forward. Armed robberies are a significant concern, as there is a small pattern and larger fear of them escalating into homicides” said ICG.

The group added that the pervasiveness of rape and other forms of gender-based violence are also particularly worrisome, due to their prevalent use as weapons of war during the civil crisis.

Liberia’s justice system is weakened by a myriad of factors, corruption, and a shortage of human capacities rank high among the challenges confronting the sector. The Liberian police, often cited for poor performance, face a number of challenges and constraints in fulfilling their mandate.

The number of police officers 4,417 is insufficient for a population of 4.1million (World Bank 2014 estimate), while officers dispatched lack the basic resources, they need including vehicles and fuel.

 In 2013, Human Rights Watch stated in a report that salaries for line officers are not proportional to the hours they work, and are often insufficient to meet the basic costs of living, tempting many to seek bribes and other kick-backs.  A patrol police officer in Liberia earns at least $ 135 US Dollars.

UNMIL has estimated that Liberia will need 8,000 officers, or nearly double the current LNP force, to adequately serve the population as the UN mission phases out.

Hit by a huge budget shortfall in 2014 due to the Ebola crisis which also slowed down economic activities, the government has taken austerity measures including a cut in defense spending to keep the country afloat.
Amid the multitude of challenges, there is still a window of opportunity through which the government could reassure its citizens and fend-off threats of instability.

Such window of opportunity includes strengthening the justice system to ensure people resort to the courts for redress each time they have grievances.  Address the thorny issue of corruption which is undermining development and threatening the stability of the state.

Take action to address the youth bulge; so that the ballooning youth population of Liberia continues to remain an asset to the country.  Increase access to job and skills development opportunities for young people, to prevent the increasing disillusionment from turning into chaos. Liberia’s youth make up about 75% percent of the population of 4.1 million people.

“These people possess the greatest potential for the development of Liberia but also their lack of access to social and economic opportunities poses the greatest threat to peace and stability of the country,” said Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe.

 It’s important to empower this group of people in our society to consolidate the peace and prevent a relapse of the civil conflict, he added.
One day, one story. Telling it as it happens –the Dakar experience.

Adolphus Mawolo is a Liberian journalist with ten years’ progressive working experience in public relations and main stream journalism. He currently resides in Dakar, Senegal, and works for trans-regional station, West Africa Democracy Radio.

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About Cholo Brooks 17144 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.