The UN Had to Go, but Is Liberia Really Prepared for Peace?

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By Robtel Neajai Pailey

Liberia has had more than a decade to plan for the day when international peacekeepers in blue helmets and their civilian counterparts would eventually pack up and leave.

So, it was with a mix of uncertainty and resolve that our small sliver of a country bid farewell to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) on June 30—nearly 13 years after UN Security Council Resolution 1509 was passed, calling for 15,000 military personnel to maintain law and order.

Back then, Liberia and its people were war-weary and battle-scarred. Post-Ebola, we are just beginning to piece together the remnants of normalcy in the midst of a region wracked by extremism. Whether this is our lucky or unlucky 13th year remains to be seen.

For all the hemming and hawing about how fragile Liberia still remains ahead of feverishly contested presidential and legislative elections slated for October 2017—in what could be the country’s first ever peaceful regime change—UNMIL had to go. And while some UN personnel will remain in their posts—1,240 military and 606 police officers with a limited number of civilian national and international staff—total withdrawal is not only foreseen, but also necessary.

History has proven that multi-billion dollar peacekeeping missions like UNMIL have produced mixed results. For example, they can be politically problematic, financially costly and unviable. They also operate with impunity and under a shroud of secrecy, as evidenced by the alarming numbers of sexual abuse cases involving UN personnel across the globe, and the lack of transparency around funding streams. As a case in point, it is nearly impossible to gauge the total amount spent on Liberia’s security sector reform, with donors like the US, UN, European Union, Ireland, UK, Australia, Germany, Nigeria, Netherlands, China, Sweden and Norway contributing to several aspects of the exercise at different intervals.

Moreover, peacekeeping missions create a false sense of permanence and security, especially when their role is temporary and largely symbolic. And they cost a fortune to maintain. For instance, the cost of training 2,000 soldiers in Liberia has been estimated to be between US$95 million and US$200 million to serve a population of 4 million; other donors also contributed to professionalizing various elements of the security sector. Much of that money, we suspect, was spent on exorbitantly paid international security experts, overhead and administration costs.

UNMIL could not remain in Liberia forever, nor did we want them to. Instead, their withdrawal has urged the Liberian government to focus less on external intervention and more on building a holistic security system by investing in the bureau of immigration, drug enforcement agency, and national security agency as much as it does the more conventional institutions of the police and army. And this can only be a good thing since the Liberia National Police (LNP) and Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) have a checkered recent past.

In 2014, riots in mining enclaves occupied by foreign multinationals tested the capacities of the national police, whose slow response and lethal use of force sparked domestic and international censure. And when 15-year-old Shaki Kamara bled to death in August 2014 after being shot in the limbs during an army scuffle with civilians in Liberia’s largest informal settlement, West Point, we all began to wonder about the readiness of the AFL—previously relegated to the barracks on the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia. Surely, the modalities of private security firms DynCorps International and Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E)—subcontracted to train the army alongside US military personnel—should have been investigated.

Amidst all the hysteria, some Liberians remain justifiably skeptical about UNMIL’s exit. Matthew Ngombu, a 43-year-old administrator, questions his country’s ability to handle looming elections: “[Liberia]…is highly politicised, in a way, and the security apparatus will be used by government to intimidate opposition politicians come 2017. Security forces will be used to the advantage of government, which will ignite conflict.”Others offer more measured hopefulness, like 30-year-old Anderson D. MIamen: “Even if UNMIL were to leave ten years from now, there will still be gaps; all of the issues will not be addressed. Preparedness is about whether or not Liberians are prepared to preserve the peace. Yes, we are.”

Ngombu and Mlamen demonstrate that the verdict is still out about Liberia’s readiness for UNMIL’s departure, despite the assertions of international actors and domestic political leaders alike. During an official program commemorating the end of UNMIL’s mandate on July 1 in Monrovia, national police chief Chris Massaquoi declared: “We are ready, capable and committed…our security institutions are very prepared to provide the security as needed and are keen on building on the level of work we have started in securing the peace we all enjoy today.”

Admittedly, Liberia’s government has taken some positive steps in this regard. Though it requires revision, a national security strategy was adopted in 2008, which shifts attention from a narrow focus on state security to human security emphasizing “efficiency, transparency, accountability, democratic and civilian oversight…respect for rule of law and human rights.”

In March 2015, the government approved a security transition plan, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council. While 30 to 35 percent of the plan has already been implemented, it is anticipated that 60 to 65 percent will be completed by the end of this year. The country’s security legislation has also been updated and by June 30, three of the outstanding acts involving police, immigration and firearms were submitted to the president for consideration. So, in terms of security legislation and policies, Liberia is far ahead of most, if not all, the countries in the West African sub-region.

In response to high attrition, the AFL has trained more soldiers to replace those who defected. The 2,000-person force continues to receive professional training and seems bent on remaining apolitical. Moreover, security councils have been established in five of Liberia’s 15 sub-political divisions.

Despite Liberia’s gradual progress, however, there are too many gaps to inspire complete confidence. The Security Transition Plan estimates the country will need a whopping US$104 million to fill holes left by UNMIL. After re-prioritization of the Plan, the cost was reduced to US$38 million with the national government allocating US$20 million in the last fiscal year. It has only disbursed half of that amount, however. UNMIL’s provision of VIP protection, aerial surveillance for border patrol and management, maritime and prison security as well as bomb disposal could all be undertaken by Liberian security forces, but this is largely speculative.

Furthermore, Liberia has yet to fully tackle the protection of civilians, intelligence gathering and the investigation and prosecution of crimes including rape, trafficking and corruption. The country’s 6,000 police officers cannot provide effective frontline security services because of limited training and logistical challenges including communication and infrastructure. Now that UNMIL has withdrawn, Liberia’s peace will continue to be fragile if it focuses exclusively on security while neglecting the rule of law—particularly public defence and legal aid.

The country must confront soft security issues as well, including poverty, unemployment, health pandemics and demographic changes such as rural-to-urban migration and the youth bulge. These challenges will become increasingly paramount since UNMIL supported the livelihoods of hundreds of Liberians across the supply chain. Because access to medical care, education, electricity and clean water do not require soldiers or the police, other state agencies must handle basic social services and infrastructure, which are fundamentally developmental in nature.

A ‘whole of government approach’ is the only way forward in the post-UNMIL era. It is clear that Liberia cannot continue to broadcast its security and development needs outwards. Instead, we must look inwards to manage what could be the most important transition in our 169-year-old history.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute (IMI). Thomas Jaye is a Liberian academic who works on post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding; he is also deputy director for research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Accra, Ghana.
*Gerald Yeakula contributed to reporting from Monrovia.

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