Post-UNMIL Adaptation and Security in Liberia

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has significantly decreased its presence in the country in 2016. The departure of much of the peacekeeping force has left the country with several security issues that it is struggling to resolve during its transition. 

2016, an important year for Liberia, a country that has seen a steady consolidation of peace since 2003. 2016 is the year when the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) formally left, barring a minuscule presence. This is also a time when Liberia’s security sector would be left without a big brother stationed to ward off any potential threats to security. This transition to national responsibility for security will test some key assumptions about security sector reform (SSR). First, what is the effectiveness of SSR as a policy of international development? Second, what is the utility of SSR as a tool for external influence?

Liberia’s political and economic transition


Image by UN Photo via Flickr.

UNMIL’s exit comes at a time of anticipated political contest in the upcoming elections of 2017. Given the potential for politically motivated armed mobilization of security actors in a system that is rooted in patronage and loyalty to the ruling party and elites, one could expect some election centric violence. As a run up to this uncertainty, in 2014, the ruling Unity Party fared poorly in the Senate elections, receiving only 10 % of votes. Large scale corruption, deep-rooted cronyism, and mishandling of the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak that claimed nearly 5000 lives have turned voters against the ruling regime. It is also a time when critics of the political elite and its policies are increasingly being targeted and threatened. Arrests and politically motivated killings have created an uneasy atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

Given this context, the prospect of a post-Ellen Sirleaf Liberia is unsettling because of the limited leadership options and a potential polarisation of domestic politics. The opposition remains divided with few serious contenders. Prince Johnson, from Nimba County, a warlord who led the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) group, and Benoni Urey, a close business associate of Charles Taylor, present less than ideal choices. Other more positive options include George Weah, a renowned international soccer star turned politician. He was recently appointed a Peace Ambassador by the President and is also the chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee. He is widely popular with the youth, who make up an overwhelming majority of the voting bloc. He might be a candidate to watch out for.

On the economic front, Liberia has long standing problems with chronic poverty, high prevalence of informal or vulnerable forms of work and poor physical infrastructure. The Liberian economy’s decade-long dependence on international aid and primary commodity exports has presented weak growth indicators. A weak currency, high inflation and a null growth in 2015, according to the IMF, are worrying statistics. According to estimates, the prices of rubber and iron, two main export commodities have fallen more than 80 % since their peak in 2011. Widespread work layoffs, labour unrest and government instigated austerity measures due to lower revenues and drop in international donor funding have created a less than ideal economic environment for reform.

What about security?

A post-UNMIL security environment presents some gaps that have still to be plugged despite every effort to undertake a responsible draw-down in Liberia. The core issues of transparency, accountability, efficiency, respect for human rights, and civilian oversight will be tested in an environment where the different security agencies continue to struggle for lack of sufficient trained staff and resources.

The Armed Forces of Liberia has witnessed a high attrition rate, and its 2000 strong force remains a token army that is for the most part confined to the barracks. In August 2014, an army scuffle with civilians in West Point, resulted in civilian injuries and some reported deaths that enhance lack of trust towards the national army.

The Liberian National Police, and different immigration, border and intelligence agencies that had been the target of SSR efforts led by UNMIL and donors, remains poorly resourced. A mere 5000 strong force to secure a 4.4 million strong population results in low levels of police presence outside the capital region.

Despite efforts to decentralize the security apparatus through Justice and Security Hubs, across the country, the slow response of LNP to local problems such as the mining riots in 2014, present evidence that gaps remain. There have also been allegations of police corruption in recent investigations by Human Rights Watch.

In reality the transition from a regime centered security sector to a people-centered one is far from complete. It is likely that the security apparatus will be used by the government to intimidate opposition politicians and instigate localized violence as this has been the legacy of the past.

Finally, an ‘unintegrated’ ex-combatant element lingers in the background of externally supported statebuilding. The UNDPled disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation (DDRR) programme in Liberia (2004-2009), did not absorb fighters from the different non-state groups involved in the civil war into the new security sector.

Considerable civilian infiltration in the DDR programme, also meant that ex-combatant continues to live and work within their wartime social networks. Efforts by UNMIL to break command and control chains had limited impact due to neo-patrimonial nature of Liberian society and politics.

Reflections on the SSR

There has been much criticism of the SSR in Liberia. It is accused of causing:

  • high levels of dependency on UNMIL and international donors,
  • a mismatch between international policy and local practice;
  • encouraging European models of security provision in a context of low reliance on formal institutions; and
  • creating self-help forms of security in a context of low public trust/reliance on the national security and justice institutions remain.

Core problems with physical infrastructure, weak capacity of the human resources, corruption and elite control make the prospect of delivering ‘people centered security’ challenging.  The security transition plan of the UNMIL requires nearly 38 million USD to complete the process of handover to national agencies. So far the national government has disbursed only 10 million USD, towards this effort.

Earlier mistakes committed by international advisers on SSR, such as requiring all police officers to re-apply to be vetted for their eligibility as LNP officers has left lingering gaps. As a result, senior officers became patrol officers even though they had many years of experience.

Such a demotion brought serious moral problems to the police. Other policy decisions such as retiring senior officers, and those found ineligible on human rights or qualifications related criteria has created dissatisfied pockets within the security sector.

Citizen security currently remains a low priority as security efforts are geared towards replacing UNMIL duties in the area of VIP protection, aerial surveillance for border patrol and management, maritime and prison security, and bomb disposal.

National adaptation

Given this reality of a less than complete reform process, it will be worthwhile to observe how national models of adaptation fare compared to international or UNMIL led models such as the Justice and Security Hub (JSH) structure.

This model of decentralisation, attempts to build five ‘hubs’ or centres where formal security and justice providers will be stationed in key provincial locations.

To date only the Gbarnga hub is operational; while the government has committed US$1 million over 2014–16, in addition to the funds provided by the Peacebuilding Fund, to support the construction of the Harper and Zwedru hubs.

This model of decentralization and access remains difficult to operationalize because of constraints related to finance, infrastructure and capacity (human and material). Further, the JSH concept did not address the issue of civilian oversight of security and justice institutions or the issue of legitimacy.

In reality, most Liberians continue to trust and turn to local informal security and justice providers. National level adaptation includes setting up of the County Security Councils (CSC) structure. It is part of national peacebuilding efforts to ensure decentralization and access. The CSCs incorporate the paramount, clan and town chiefs, providing much-needed civilian input into security policy making at the sub-national level.

President Sirleaf, the current elected Chair of the Economic Community Of West African State (ECOWAS), has also attempted to beef up the role of the Peace and Security Council apparatus to boost regional security linkages with Côte d’Ivoire, which shares borders with LIberia and has witnessed illicit cross-border farming in the Western front.

In sum, Liberia will need to continue capacity building in a post-UNMIL environment. President Sirleaf’s efforts to gain technical assistance from Israel to train Liberian security forces is one example of this strategy. As such the true test of adaptation will come in the post 2017 election period when a remaining UN presence of nearly 2000 military and civilian staff will finally exit.

In essence the effectiveness of SSR as policy tool remains questionable. Do the peace dividends returned from an enormous time-bound and often poorly targeted investment of resources and technical capacity building create a capable security apparatus? The answer in the case of Liberia remains far from positive.

Sukanya Podder is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College, London.