Liberian Security Sector: Unprepared and Unable to Fill in the UNMIL Gaps

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“Despite marked improvements, numerous grievances that plunged Liberia into bloody wars from 1989 until President Charles Taylor left in August 2003 (originally for exile in Nigeria) remain evident: a polarized society and political system; corruption, nepotism and impunity; a disheveled security sector; youth unemployment; and gaps and inconsistencies in the electoral law. The November 2011 election was the country’s second successful postwar voting exercise but exposed its deep fault lines. The re-elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, needs to use her relatively weak mandate to focus on reconciling a divided nation.”

– Policy Briefing, International Crisis Group, Time for Much Delayed Reconciliation and Reform, June 2012
Since the International Crisis group sounded this warning in June of 2012, not much has been done to fix a deeply divided nation or bridge the economic and social chasms caused by corruption, nepotism and impunity. Even after more than twelve years of postwar peace, the country appears to be gliding on auto pilot and moving in the same direction that caused the bloody wars. Liberia is ill prepared and thus unable to fill in the gaps to be left in June of this year, when the country’s international peacekeepers surrender most internal security to Liberian officials.

Adding to Liberia’s woes are the lingering effects of Ebola and the deteriorating terms of trade due to the drastic reduction in the prices of the country’s two primary export commodities, rubber and iron ore. Resultantly, the financial resources required to fill in the gaps will be difficult if not impossible to come out of current expenditure. With a budget shortfall projected to exceed 70 million dollars in this fiscal period and with no political will to cut spending across the board as is reflected in the battle between the executive and the legislature, which ended up at the Supreme Court, it does appear Liberia may not meet its commitments to fill in the financial gaps left by the drawdown of United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) forces.

If money was the only obstacle challenging the state’s security apparatus from filling in the gaps, Liberians might be optimistic, but there are more reasons for citizens to be uneasy. Vanishing morale among security officers due to low pay, limited logistical support, when combined with the lack of political will by officials, fight for resources and unbridled corruption, it is clear that the country’s state of insecurity will be compounded after the turnover in June 2012.

The scheduled turnover of internal security by UNMIL is causing ripples among Liberians, with many expressing anxiety. Civil society groups, political parties and other stakeholders are gearing up for a demonstration to beg the international community to keep UNMIL at current strength and to be fully engaged in the country until after the 2017 elections.

Recent acts of insecurity in the country have led to anxiety among the population. Three unsolved deaths of prominent individuals, with two of the dead, Michael Allison and Harry Greaves, having expressed frustrations with official corruption at the state owned oil company, NOCAL, are increasing fears that the dark days of politically motivated murders might be returning. The lack of official aggressive efforts to solve the deaths and the outpouring of caustic rhetoric from the Ministers of Justice and Information are not providing comfort to an uneasy populace.

Moreover, armed robberies and other criminal acts, including mob violence, appear to be increasing. Dozens of police stations and depots have been burned to the ground over the last few years owing to mob violence, while robbery suspects have been killed by citizens acting as jury, judge and executioner. High ranking police officials say no police officer is armed at any depot outside of the National Police Headquarters manifesting the high vulnerability of the safety of ordinary police officers.

A special police committee created to investigate official misconduct discovered the direct involvement of several high ranking police officers in armed robberies. In some cases, police weapons were allegedly rented to notorious armed robbers and the loot was divvyed amongst the perpetrators. Although the official report has been turned over to the Ministry of Justice, it has been over a month now and nothing has been heard about the status of the investigation. Many citizens have voiced frustrations that the matter could end up like other investigations of official wrong doings by committees that were turned over to authorities without further action.

Despite attempts to assure an anxious population that the security sector has the means and will to fill in the gaps, yet anxiety exists. Authorities say UNMIL is not leaving, but core security functions are being left to Liberian officials. The Minister of Justice says UNMIL’s military force strength will be reduced from 4637 to 3416 by last September. He also said “further reductions will take place between September and June 2016 but leaving at least 1500 soldiers in place by June 2016. In other words, there will still be some military presence in Liberia after June 2016 pending a determination by the Security Council as to the nature of the Post UNMIL presence in Liberia. By 2016, UNPOL will be reduced from 498 to 127 officers while Formed Police Unit (FPU) will be reduced from 1005 to 385. UNMIL’s presence will be consolidated in four regional area sites: (i) Monrovia; (ii) Gbarnga; (iii) Zwedru and (IV) Harper.”
What authorities have not disclosed is how the government intends to fund the drawdown through the fiscal budget by cutting expenditure and prioritizing spending. As it now stands, even ordinary police expenditure have been cut to the bare bones, with no money for intelligence gathering, a major tool to fight violent crimes such as armed robberies. Police brass say they have limited operational capacity in vehicles and they scramble for fuel. The PSU cannot be adequately supported and be speedily dispatched to crimes in progress, emboldening hardened criminals who are taking advantage of innocent citizens. The police are hungry, disheveled and unkempt, and are vulnerable to the temptation of bribery. The public has no respect for the police.

Compounding the country’s security woes are outstanding economic issues such as youth unemployment, corruption, cronyism and nepotism. These scourges have debilitating effects on security with longer term impacts on social cohesion and stability. The drawdown of UNMIL is coming at a critical period in the country with projected decline in economic activities due to mismanagement, overreliance on the extractive industries and slowness in tackling the country’s huge infrastructure deficit. When combined with the challenges in educational attainment and the breakdown in the healthcare system due to lack of resilience, uncovered by Ebola, then it shows the fragility of the country’s peace.

The drawdown of UNMIL will have severe economic consequences, affecting the services industry such as telecommunications, restaurants and hospitality as a result of the reduction in consumer spending, with projected decreases in several categories of government revenues, including General Sales Tax (GST), import duties and real estate taxes. The impact on fiscal space will be severe, putting at risks government spending on long term development, potentially obstructing investments in social infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, and further exacerbating the lack of resilience.

What can be done to accelerate support to the drawdown of UNMIL forces? Drastic measures such as cuts in spending will mean clashes within the body polity with officials in both the executive and legislative branches unwilling to make sacrifices. Already, the executive and legislature are clashing publicly and the previously incestuous relationship is seemingly on the rocks, portending for inertia and a stalemate. The one common denominator that bound them together, use of our money to fund their lifestyles, seems at odds today and thus the public fight. There is something that Liberian stakeholders, who will bear the brunt of any lapses in security, can do. They must join together to send a warning to the government and its international allies that the country cannot afford indecisiveness on something as basic as Post UNMIL Security. I am not sure the politicians can put away petty partisan politics in order to achieve this objective; but with time running out, and so much riding on their collaboration, ordinary Liberians must take the lead…And so it goes.

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