Today, June 30, marks the end of the security mandate of United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), after which the UN will officially hand back security to Liberian government. This has been a long anticipated event that gripped Liberians with fear and anxiety, though the process began several years ago, with the gradual drawdown of UNMIL’s foreign contingents. The Liberian government will re-assume full responsibility for the protection of its territorial integrity and inhabitants, nationals and foreign residents.
What initially came in August 2003 as the West Africa Stabilization Force (WASF) was later transformed into the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) deployed in every part of the country to ensure security and instill confidence in the people who have been traumatized by the savagery over the course of the 14-year crisis that claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people.
Beginning with a contingent of over 15,000 troops from all over the world including Nigeria, Ghana, The Gambia, Senegal, Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania, Ireland, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan and India, among others, UNMIL has gone down in history as one of the largest peacekeeping operations by the United Nations to a war-zone anywhere in the world.
At their deployment, the Blue Helmets set up checkpoints and patrolled streets and communities across the country, creating the space for normal civilian activities to flourish. Gradually, over the years, the checkpoints disappeared as civilian life solidified. A newly recruited National
Police (LNP), Immigration (BIN) and Armed Forces came to the foreground as UNMIL forces took the backseat, providing support to the LNP.
Thirteen years later, as UNMIL completes its transition, turning over its mandate to the national government, some Liberians remain apprehensive about the prospect of peace without the peacekeepers. The plan has been long in the making and, while many Liberians have voiced their concerns about the preparedness of the national security apparatuses to adequately take over the mandate, the various heads of Liberian security apparatuses, including the Commander-in-Chief, President Sirleaf, have continued to give assurances that her government is ready.
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), which was fragmented among various warring factions and blamed for heinous atrocities during the conflict, was disbanded when the war ended in 2003. Other former security forces were dissolved, and a new police, military and immigration forces were recruited and began training in compliance with the 2003 peace deal.
The official list of servicemen at the time of the disbandment and restructuring totaled 13,770 according to a 2008 reports.
Police training began in 2004, and by 2008 UNMIL had trained 3,662 new police officers. Many of them were trained locally, though some top brass were trained abroad. However, the US government sponsored the restructuring of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), though it out-sourced the training of the force to a private contractor, Dyncorp International. According to the most recent figures available, Liberia’s armed forces stand at 2,050 personnel, along with 5,170 police, according to a UN report.
By contrast, UNMIL had 3,745 uniformed personnel as at March 2016, comprising 2,592 troops, 71 military observers and 1,082 police, though this would drop under 2,000 by June 30, the UN also said.
Though faced with huge logistical problems, Liberian security apparatuses, especially the LNP, still have a poor reputation among locals and they are also hampered by very low salaries and majority are not armed. Another uphill task is for Liberia to ensure security along its porous border with Ivory Coast, which is also emerging from years of civil conflicts.
Authorities and UN experts have blamed armed groups operating from Liberian forests along the border for a string of attacks on western Ivory Coast, while tens of thousands of Ivoirians have sought refuge in Liberia during the years of unrest in their country.
Former combatants, including teenagers who had known nothing other than a life of conflict, continued to pose a challenge for national security forces and the UN long after the conflict wound up. However, many have been assimilated into society with gainful employment, while some of their peers remain on the streets.
Budgetary constraints are severe. While UNMIL has a $344m annual budget, the entire security sector of the country draft national budget 2016/2017 is only about $90m. A UN report described the national coffers as “exceptionally constrained” at a time when “the country faces critical security and democratic transitions”.
There are many concerns, especially from the international community, that the security sector remains stymied by political appointments.
With UNMIL’s departure, many believe that its goals have been achieved, though they question the sustainability of this progress under the government. The challenge for the government, however, would be to improve public perception and confidence in the national security forces while optimizing performance of the latter.
In May 2016 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to lift an arms embargo on non-state groups, the last punitive measure in force, a decision that will be closely watched in Liberia.
Meanwhile an official turnover ceremony marking the assumption of all security responsibilities by the Government of Liberia from the UN Mission is scheduled for July 1, at the Monrovia City Hall.