The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) has a mandate to protect the territorial integrity of the country and also ensure the maintenance of peace. But these sacred duties are not commensurate with the level of logistical, technical, financial and moral support that soldiers receive from the state.
This conclusion took center stage for public deliberation at the Monrovia City Hall on Thursday, February 7, 2019, where stakeholders gathered to observe an important event of the AFL’s 62nd anniversary, and called on the government to live up to its commitment to the soldiers, who are under oath to defend and protect the country.
Stakeholders at the symposium organized by authorities at the Ministry of National Defense (MoD) unequivocally stated that the maintenance of peace and security in the country are on the shoulders of the AFL. As such, the army must be adequately supported to carry out its functions.
Many of the speakers at the event said the welfare of AFL must be a national priority.
Beyan Kota, head of the Christian Association of the Blind (CAB) and who served as one of seven panelists at the symposium, said: “If we are serious to develop the AFL as a force for good, we should not be cutting so deeply, because it affects their ability to adequately respond to peace and security issues. Rather than reducing their budget, we need to be augmenting it so that our army becomes more vibrant with high morale.”
While lamenting on the deduction of the army budget on an annual basis, Kota, who is visually impaired, said: “In 2013, the AFL budget was US$13.5 million, but by 2015 it was cut down to US$11 million. We need to stop cutting the AFL budget, because they have a little over U$12 million in the 2018/2019 budget.
On the other hand, Mr. Kota called on soldiers to collaborate with the police so as to fight crime as it is done in other parts of the world.
He added that an undertaking by the MoD to provide medical services to the citizenry will boost the confidence and trust between the two. The AFL has been involved in some of these initiatives of late, especially responding to natural disasters.
“We have to adequately build our military capacity to respond in some areas such as the provision of community services, infrastructural development, and protection of the environment. These are areas that we can build our military’s capacity to respond to,” Kota said.
The guest speaker of the symposium Professor Jamal C. Dehtho, Jr., frowned on the poor condition the soldiers and their families are subjected to, and has therefore called on the government and its partners to ensure that the men and women in arms are treated better.
“It is worth noting that by economic theory, humans’ desire for wealth is insatiable, and the argument of sustaining people through the AFL cannot be absolute,” Mr. Dehtho said.
Mr. Dehtho, Associate Dean of the Louise Arthur Grimes School of Law, spoke on behalf of Cllr. Neegbalee Warner, Dean of the Law School.
He said that by logical reasoning, it is understandable that a group of people whose profession requires encampment, total loyalty to the state and without an alternative medium of income generation, better welfare is an indisputable necessity.
“We cannot afford to have our soldiers leaving the barracks in pursuit of alternative means of supplementing their income just to meet the needs of their families,” he said.
He added that there were times in the history of Liberia when the prestige of the army was at its lowest ebb due largely to the lack of better living conditions. This, he said, killed the morale and integrity of the army and breached the trust of the people it sought to protect.
“In recent years, there have been reports of soldiers abandoning their posts and going absent without leave (AWOL)…feeding on mangoes in the barracks, lacking basic housing and medical facilities and not being provided certain benefits due them,” he said.
These reports, whether true or not, the assistant professor added, are undesired and “our country must move away from situations that will undermine the role of the army in maintaining peace and security.”
“We cannot afford to relive our national nightmare by going back to the days when soldiers would move into communities and villages seeking to survive by preying on the lives and properties of the very people they were supposed to protect,” he said.
Another panelist, Eddie Jarwolo, said the citizenry are now beginning to have explicit confidence in the army; therefore more should be done to continually improve the AFL. He added that the current AFL is building a new professional image for the country.
Jarwolo, a rights advocate, also said one of the most difficult professions in life is to be an army officer. “You are frequently separated from your family,” he said.
After decrying the abject conditions the soldiers live in, he rhetorically noted: “We don’t know how many of our soldiers can afford to have their own homes? I don’t know how many of you can send your kids to private schools?”
“Serving in the military is a very dedicated task. The government should make sure that as long as you have signed up to make these sacrifices, you must be happy,” Jarwolo said.