A group of women said to be wives of personnel of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) residing at the Edward Beyan Kesselly Barracks (EBK) yesterday staged a protest before the barracks in demand of their husbands’ benefits before President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leaves office on January 22 this year.
The women, numbering close to a hundred, blocked the Robertsfield highway and prevented vehicles from plying the highway for nearly three hours. Their action, which caused some travelers to miss their flights, prompted the swift intervention of the Police Inspector General and his deputy for operations, Col. Gregory Coleman and Col. Abraham Kromah respectively, as well as the Chief of Staff of the AFL, Daniel Ziankahn.
One of the women, who preferred to be called Siah, said her husband is one of the AFL personnel who sustained major injuries in Mali on a peace keeping mission but has since been abandoned by the Defense Ministry.
“My husband, up to now, has some particles of bullets in him but is yet to receive better medical care. There is no water, no electricity in this barracks,” Siah said. She added that snakes bite their children and even some adults due to the darkness that envelops the barracks at night.
The protesting women are said to be seeking tens of thousands of United States dollars deducted from their husbands’ monthly income allegedly with the provision that the money will be refunded before President Sirleaf leaves office.
“The Defense Minister, Brownie Samukai, compelled our husbands to do compulsory savings from their salaries since 2007. The least amount collected from each, depending on his or her salary, was US$20. But today they do not want to account for the money. We are suffering here,” she said.
Siah pointed out that she and her colleagues were threatened by authorities of the Defense Ministry each time they tried to let the public know of what they are going through at the EBK barracks. “This time around we told them that we are tired and could no longer bear it in silence,” she said, noting that it is their hope that yesterday’s action will bring them relief.
For her part, Hawa Joshua said government owes them rice for four months and that they are short of safe drinking water. “We are not slaves to be treated like this. We have to borrow rice and other food items from friends before we eat sometimes. We are tired of empty promises. Ellen’s time is over and if we don’t fight for what belongs to us now we may not get it,” Mrs. Joshua said.
According to her, Defense Minister Samukai went to the barracks and told them and their husbands that the money was used for the welfare of soldiers who sustained wounds in Mali as well as those that died on active duty, particularly those assigned on peace keeping duties in Mali.
“He lied to us because we have some of those wounded soldiers here without any proper care from government. How then is he saying they have used the money on wounded soldiers? It is a big lie; and we will not rest until justice is served,” she promised.
Responding to the women’s action, Chief of Staff Daniel Ziankahn said the Government is looking into their concerns, but it requires time.
“They just have to be patient as we consult amicably with all stakeholders concerned. We are aware of the challenges and wish the right thing is done to take care of each of them,” Ziankahn said.
Although he did not say exactly what will be done, but he noted that there is a policy that the Ministry of Defense takes care of the military’s financial issues. “We are just trying to know what we have in the bank. The Minister of Defense will soon be letting us to know where it stands, and we will discuss with our people in arms here what will be done about it,” he said.
He pointed out that the MOD will figure out how much Samukai is leaving in the AFL account and review the records to know exactly how much money was collected from each AFL personnel over the years in an effort to help them have a decent living condition after President Sirleaf.
He said the lack of 24 hour electricity is nothing to shy away from as it is not only unique to the barracks but the whole country. “We go short of fuel and current runs out but it does not mean we are intentionally interested in seeing them suffer. We care and mean well for everybody serving the country through the military,” Ziankahn noted.
Earlier on Monday, Defense Minister Brownie Samukai told the Daily Observer in a phone interview that the Ministry established what he referred to as a Welfare Fund intended to cater to the needs of soldiers. He said the fund was established because soldiers are not covered under the National Social Security pension and welfare benefit scheme, and more importantly because government does not have the money to take care of soldiers’ welfare as is the case with civil servants.
He added that to date, the fund has a total of US$700,000 in its current account. It is from the fund, he stressed, that money was provided to the families of wounded soldiers as well as those who got killed in combat. He cited the case of the soldier whose leg was amputated after sustaining injuries in an accident which occurred on the S.D. Cooper Road.
That soldier, according to Minister Samukai, is being sponsored at the University of Liberia where he is pursuing higher education. He further added that as a beneficiary, the individual soldier stands entitled to payment of benefits upon completion of 25 years of active service or in case of injury or death, but not before then, as is wrongly being construed.
But just when the concerns of the women will be addressed remains uncertain. Their protest action caused the closure of nearby businesses and halted traffic along the highway leading to the airport. Later, order was restored by the LNP with the removal of the roadblock and the resumption of normal traffic to and from the airport.
The police were assisted in their duty by some AFL personnel.