As Liberia’s security forces take over today from UN peacekeepers for the first time since civil war ended 13 years ago, national pride is mixed with fears the underfunded police are not up to the task.
Government forces and rebel groups raped, massacred and maimed hundreds of thousands of people during two conflicts between 1989 and 2003, and the highly politicized police and army were disbanded after committing some of the worse abuses.
Since then UN peacekeepers have largely ensured the country’s security, though their numbers have dwindled from 15,000 in the aftermath of war to just under 4,000 today, as the nation’s re-trained forces were assimilated.
From this week the peacekeepers will have a small supporting role only.
“Everything I know about policing, I learned from UNMIL,” said Dao R. Freeman, Liberia’s national deputy police commissioner, using the mission’s UN acronym.
Freeman, a product of training that has attempted to instill an anti-corruption ethos and respect for human rights, believes the country has “quality not quantity” when it comes to keeping order on the streets.
“If we continue to build that capacity and also provide the resources that are needed, I believe that we can take responsibility of our country’s security,” he told AFP.
But citizens are far from convinced, scarred by the memory of forces loyal to former president Charles Taylor who razed whole villages and hunted down those who fled into the bush.
On the eve of UNMIL’s drawdown, the implications have set the country on edge, with radio and television talk shows buzzing with talk of little else.
“I would prefer UNMIL to stay forever,” John Gweh, a 56-year-old farmer, told AFP at his rubber plantation, flicking through a newspaper whose front page was dominated by the same story.
Aware of the high costs of the UN mission, Gweh said he was thankful for the international community’s long intervention, but added he was still wary of the Liberian National Police (LNP) despite years of reform.
“My greatest fear is how trustworthy our security forces are. Will they go back to the same old thing we were used to, treating civilians like animals? I am worried,” Gweh added.
– No cars, no uniforms –
Liberia’s police force is chronically underfunded, like many state services, with basic equipment in short supply, salaries paltry and the number of armed officers in the low hundreds of a 5,170-strong corps.
“We need cars, we need communications and we need other items like uniforms,” said Freeman.
UNMIL has a $344-million (311-million euro) annual budget, while the government’s draft national security budget for 2016/2017 is only about $90 million, pending approval from the legislature.
This will likely worsen a situation in which three-quarters of Liberians reported paying a bribe to police in the last year, according to the most recent survey conducted by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“When we say we are worried that UNMIL is leaving, people say they have trained our security (forces),” market seller Catherine Gayflor said at her stall in a market, in a suburb north of the Liberian capital.
“But even with the presence of UNMIL we see how our police can be beating on us,” she added, referring to officers’ arbitrary confiscation of goods from vendors, an abuse long-documented by rights groups.
The ratio of police to citizens will be around 1:1000, in a country with dire transport links and regions that remain under the influence of former warlords.
“Yes there are challenges,” Information Minister Eugene Nagbe told AFP, downplaying concerns as “gaps that we still need to fill”.
Nagbe underlined that the military and police had worked alongside UNMIL for years, arguing that the core of the country’s security was assured.
“The national apparatus is ready to assume this great responsibility,” he said decisively.
“What we continue to do is to strengthen our apparatus in the areas of logistics, the areas of training, in the areas of compensation to the security forces.”
– Terrorism, elections pose challenges –
Liberians, like many West Africans, are increasingly concerned about the threat of terrorism in the region, although no groups have made particular threats against Africa’s first democracy.
Neighboring Ivory Coast was hit by its first-ever jihadist attack in March, when Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militants killed 19 people in Grand-Bassam, a beach resort town.
Minister Nagbe said the appointment of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the head of regional grouping ECOWAS had “put national security and regional security at the top of her agenda,” and the issue will hover in the background of the handover.
However, experts say the greatest challenges remain domestic, with some perceptions of the police unchanged since the war ended.
In an interview with AFP, Saah R. Gbollie, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Liberia, said favoritism based on political affiliation still dogs the force.
“The security sector has got to be depoliticized if we should move forward and be able achieve security sector reform,” said Gbollie.
“We should be sure that there is an independent complaints commission,” along with an arbitration body for appointments, added the former top cop and ex-head of the Liberian parliament’s security commission.
This will be especially important ahead of next year’s presidential election, he said, when the broadly unifying figure of Sirleaf will be absent.