Brief Historical Background and Role of the Armed Forces of Liberia
By Rabbi Prince Joseph Tomoonh-Garlodeyh Gbaba, Sr., Ed. D.
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) was originally called the Liberia Frontier Force (LFF). It was established 1908 during the administration of President Arthur Barclay. He established the national army for three basic reasons: (1) to prevent the British and French from illegally occupying Liberian lands because the British and French illegally encroached upon Liberia’s frontier borders with French and British colonies on the east by Ivory Coast, Guinea in the north, and Sierra Leone in the west, due to the absence of a national army at our frontier borders ; (2), to expand the authority of the Monrovia-based government into the hinterlands with the aim to include and interact with Africans living in the interior and to eventually naturalize them as citizens of Liberia; and (3), to protect Liberia’s borders as a sovereign African nation against foreign invasion or illegitimate encroachment on Liberia’s territories.
It was for this reason the AFL was initially called the Liberia Frontier Force because it was originally established to protect our frontier borders. That was also the reason the Barclay Training Center (BTC) military barracks, my birthplace, was named in honor of President Arthur Barclay because it was during his administration the national army was founded. In 1956 the army was retitled the Liberia National Guard (LNG) and in 1962 it was called the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Thus, the AFL over the past one hundred and thirteen years has undergone a lot of metamorphoses as a national institution. Congratulations to the Commander-in-Chief, President George Manning Weah, the military brass and men and women in arms! Happy AFL Day!
The Birth of GI Joe and Childhood Experience in BTC
If you like, call me “GI Joe”, Gardeyh. or “Big Eye Bumpy Joe”! Those were my army and BTC names!
My encounter with the Armed Forces of Liberia began prior to my birth. I was born in the Barclay Training Center (BTC) military barracks because my late uncle, Brigadier General George Solah Wiles, Sr., was a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia. My mother had gone to visit with him from Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County when she gave birth. Besides, I began my early education under the adept tutorage of two wonderful army wives and mothers, Mrs. Anna Whisnant and Mrs. Margaret Karpeh-Koffa. Both ladies advocated for poor native children whose parents served in the military to have access to quality education. So, my love for education, love for country and fellow countrymen and women, children and youth, took root from the BTC military barracks. I grew up as an army brat right from the beginning. And, as the old saying goes: “Old soldier never dies!”
Therefore, the soldiers and their wives were my first role models outside of my immediate family—mother and stepfather. The BTC was my initial world where I felt most secure and comfortable. I grew up surrounded by men and women in arms who were willing to die and create a safe Liberia for you and me.
During those days, the Armed Forces of Liberia was comprised of a few ethnic groups. They were mostly Americo-Liberians, Kru, Krahn, Lorma, Kpelle, Bassa. There was more Americo-Liberian top military brass than there were those of indigenous backgrounds who held lower ranks or none. Later in the sixty’s other ethnic groups from the hinterland (Dahn, Mandingo, Bandi, Kissi, Vai, etc.) were recruited to give the National Army an ethnic balance. Also, the AFL was regarded as one of the best trained national armies on the continent of Africa. They received combat training from the U.S. Military Advisors and the AFL gained international prominence when Liberia contributed troops as part of the United Nations intervention force during the Congo war. My uncle, General George S. Wiles, Sr., was a member of the Liberian peacekeeping contingent. I recall my mother praying day and night for the safety of our soldiers and their safe return home. We and Aunty Meally had a great party for Uncle George upon his return from Congo.
Growing up among soldiers was a very fascinating experience. The first observable characteristic was their daily routine. We were awakened early in the morning by the sound of the bugle and the soldiers doing their daily drill exercises. You could hear bass voices chanting “Oh you soldier boy, walking down the avenue…” Interestingly too, one of my mother’s cousins named George Gbain, was the bugler. At the sound of the bugle the soldiers assembled near the flagpole to hoist the Lone Star Flag. They did so with reverence and with great details.
The flag bearer held the national emblem like chicken egg, and he made sure it did not drop on the ground. At the tender age of six or seven I could not understand why the soldiers revered the flag of Liberia. They stood attentively when hoisting and lowering the flag every day, six in the morning, and six in the evening. It was a spectacular sight to watch. I stood still and gave a right-hand salute myself when the soldiers hoisted or lowered the flag, pretending I too was an AFL soldier. The event was so solemn and very quiet that you could hear a pin drop in the BTC military barracks and from afar!
The soldiers were very strict about everyone honoring the Liberian flag and being law-abiding as they did. On several occasions many children and I were disciplined and sometimes chased by the Nokos when they found out we moved an arm or leg while the flag was being hoisted or lowered. If you got caught the military police (MP) would lock you up in a tiny cell at the MP Quarters in BTC. They never really beat us, but they made us to understand that not respecting the flag meant we were also disrespecting the government and people of Liberia as well as the Constitution of Liberia.
The tiny cell had a small window from where you could see people passing outdoors. It also provided an opportunity to breathe in some fresh air because the cell had a stink pee-pee stench that gave you fresh cold after several hours. The stench in the tiny cell also served as a deterrent not to disrespect the Liberian flag. The MPs never kept us in for more than an hour or two but it depended on how soon our parents got the message so they could come and beg for our release.
On one occasion, I got caught sitting on the grass instead of standing up while the flag was being hoisted. The MP saw me and as soon as the flag was lowered, I saw him running towards me. I ran as fast as my feet could carry me, but that damn MP was very athletic! He caught me and jacked me up like a tow truck lifting a broken-down vehicle. My feet hung as he ferried me to MP Quarters while my playmates followed to see what would become of me. Oh, one thing, before I forget. We were very nosy at that age. We wanted to learn and know everything and that sometimes got us in trouble. So, we also learned to “MYOB” (Mind Your Own Business!)
However, I was lucky to spot someone I knew. It was Kolubah, the Buzzi boy (never said the word “Lorma” because we did not know the difference.). He lived near Ma Korlu. I shouted his name: “Kolubah!”. He turned around but he could not see me. “Bah, dat me, GI Joe, Gardey. I inside the MP cell. Please tell Ma Garh to come for me!” Kolubah nodded his head and went in the direction leading to my uncle’s shack. In a split second, Ma Garh, my mother, was there to bail me out with, “My peopo, your non mind yah. He will nat do ay ness time.”
From that moment onwards, I learned the Lone Star Flag of Liberia is a sacred national emblem. I learned it is not just a piece of cloth or a ‘flag’, but the symbol of our nationhood and that it binds us together as a nation and people. Nonetheless, it took the good example and discipline of the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia to teach me how to respect the Lone Star Flag of Liberia and to respect the nation for which it stands. Their determination to serve their country with great devotion, and the high level of respect they demonstrated for national emblems rubbed off on me as well. This is the reason I attribute my patriotic zeal to the gallant men and women of the AFL. They are the reason that I love everyone who is a Liberian and believe in the rule of law.
Discipline and Love for Country, Fellow Countrymen and Women: Giving Back to Society
Another quality I learned from the AFL soldiers was discipline and devotion to Liberia. The Holy Bible tells us: “No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for another…”
The soldiers’ deep love for Liberia and Liberians was manifested in their daily lives. The “Nokos” or non-commissioned officers did not complain, and they did not mutiny either. Even though most of them lived in BTC with their wives and children in squeezed up shanty and make-shift shacks and earned meager wages while their superiors lived in the “Married Quarters”, in more modern structures. Instead, the AFL soldiers were very disciplined: they exercised self-control, followed orders from their superiors, and they were respectful and dutiful.
Due to their disciplined and dutiful nature, many politicians back in the day abused the soldiers. They made the soldiers perform household chores as if they were their houseboys or cooks. Liberian big shots and the ordinary people denigrated the soldiers so much that they called them “Noko”, an abbreviated acronym for “noncommissioned officers.”
The Nokos did laundry for their superiors and government officials to whom they were assigned. Sometimes they served as cooks, babysitters, bodyguards, watchmen, drivers, and often they worked on the farms of big shots. On other occasions, the soldiers were coerced by Liberian government authorities to carry out atrocities against the people for the selfish gains of Liberian politicians during national upheavals, such as the Sass Town-Liberia War, the Nana-Kru Rebellion in 1915, the Fernado Po Crisis in the 1920’s.
Thus, the military coup that took place in 1980 was a culmination of ill-treatments the masses received at the hands of an oligarchy that claimed sole ownership of the Republic of Liberia. Further, those who were overthrown and that planned the insurrection did so with revengeful hearts. They used the same guns that ousted them from power to regain political and economic power by force. They connived with the United States and other European and African nations to undermine Liberia’s democracy.
For an example, up to today’s date it is unbelievable how Charles Taylor ‘broke’ jail in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, never got rearrested but was able to travel freely, organize a rebel faction that attempted to wipe out every soldier, every Krahn, Mandingo, Mahn, Dahn, and every Liberian who stood in their way. Charles Taylor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and politicians who were ousted out of power by the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) in 1980 targeted the men and women in arms during the insurrection they led to destroy and undermine Liberia’s democracy.
The AFL Is and Must Always Be a National Army, Not a Private Army!
The AFL as a military organization was founded to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical, to defend the Constitution and sovereignty of Liberia. Therefore, it is and must always be a national army, not a private army! It was not organized to be politicized, or to be the personal army of any Liberian President or individual. Those who were responsible for its politicization knew they were doing something wrong and unconstitutional. They were committing diabolical and high treasonous acts that would lead Liberia down the drain, but they did it regardless of what the consequences may be for all of us to suffer.
President Samuel Kanyon Doe was a noncommissioned officer who experienced the ill-treatments I enumerated earlier, so he tried to provide good incentives for the members of the Armed Forces to help them regain their dignity they had lost working for elites who treated them less than human beings. Doe raised the standard of living of the soldiers from shanty zinc shacks to modernized homes. And, when all attempts to assassinate or overthrow Doe failed, Sirleaf, Taylor, ex-officials of the True Whig Party, including Jackson F. Doe and other prominent citizens, resorted to creating a deep wound among the top brass of the PRC and those in Doe’s government. The politicians broke through the rank and file of the Armed Forces and made many top brasses to desert their constitutional oath to join the rebels. Also, we also must hold accountable those affiliated with the AFL that orchestrated and perpetrated atrocious acts of violence and mayhem that caused the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent and unarmed civilians who had no fish to fry in the national power struggle.
Innocent Liberian children conscripted to fight a rebel war against combat-trained soldiers. The perpetrators must be brought to justice!
Hence, what transpired during the Liberian genocide was very devastating and unconscionable. I cannot imagine that a mother like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf or a father like Charles Taylor would put Liberian and other people’s children ages eight, nine, ten in harm’s way while their own children were in school in America and Europe. I cannot believe they heartlessly provided minors guns to die just so they could become presidents of Liberia to scoundrel millions of dollars and ultimately abandon the youths who sacrificed their lives and shed their blood for them to gain power.
Also, to seek revenge on the AFL for denying the rebels the opportunity to overrun the Executive Mansion, Mrs. Sirleaf and her likes used their international connections, misinformation, and employed guerrilla tactics to damage the reputation of our men and women in arms. They painted the soldiers as the bukumen and women to make the people of Liberia defenseless so ‘Freedom Fighters’ could slaughter innocent civilians, pregnant women and children like animals and they succeeded!
Nevertheless, little did perpetrators know the truth of the matter would surface when they started slaughtering prominent Nimba citizens who sought refuge behind NPFL rebel lines. If you were here to ‘free’ Liberians, then why did you slaughter the leaders of the people you came to free? Thus, because rebel warlords’ reasons to overtake state power was for their selfish gains, not one of them was or is able to live in the Executive Mansion for which they rained weapons of mass destruction on innocent civilians and gallant soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia. AFL, Kapkoo, your strong oh!
I saw the AFL in action during the insurrection. The rebels had all the weapons they needed to overpower a handful of AFL soldiers holed up in the BTC and Executive Mansion grounds, but they could not because of the tactical prowess of the AFL soldiers! As the constituted army of the Republic of Liberia, you, the AFL insisted and defied rebel warlords that they cannot sit in the Mansion unless they respect the Constitution that you defend and protect, and your word came true. Wow! I see why your retirement money disappeared. Don’t worry. Whoever took it will bring it back!
Today, as we celebrate Armed Forces Day in Liberia, let us remember all the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia who lost their lives defending the Constitution they vowed to protect and defend. Let us give them the respect and dignity that are due them as human beings and as patriotic citizens of Liberia. In conclusion, I request that President Weah, the Commander-in-Chief delves into the matter regarding the AFL retirement funds that disappeared under thin air. It is unacceptable to hear that Mrs. Sirleaf ordered the soldiers retirement funds to be used for something else other than the intended purpose for which the funds were appropriated. She and whoever is responsible must restitute those retirement funds for our veterans. AFL veterans deserve a decent life after serving the nation. Happy Armed Forces Day to all.