In May this year Margaret Loj, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative to Liberia heralded the training of 47 new officers of Liberia's Emergency Response Unit (ERU), the elite wing of Liberia National Police (LNP). That puts the total number of ERU officers trained so far at 344, of a planned 500. Set up in 2008 in response to a wave of armed robberies in the country's capital, the excruciatingly slow pace of the ERU's build-up exemplifies much that is wrong with Liberia's UN-supervised transition.
Thousands of UN troops were deployed in the country in 2003 after President Charles Taylor was forced by international pressure, as well as an escalating civil war, to relinquish power. Seven years on, there are still thousands of UN troops - as well as hundreds of police - deployed in Liberia; and these international forces man the country's borders and airport and are mobilised in cases of mob violence and even armed robbery. Their presence, in other words, remain vital for overall stability and even regime and human security. They will remain so, Loj noted recently, until the Liberian government's ability to provide internal security significantly improves - not at all a promising prospect in the short run. UNMIL, the UN mission, still maintains a total of 10,427 uniformed personnel, including 8,982 troops, 127 military observers and 1,318 police, at a cost of about $600 million per annum.
Loj attributed the lack of traction in building Liberian national security apparatuses to financial constraints: Liberia's annual budget is just about half of that of the UN mission's - a little over $300 million. That is a factor, but clearly not the most important.
The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) that ended Liberia's wars in 2003 called for the restructuring of the Liberian Army and Police. Both institutions came out of the war utterly degraded. But there was no money set aside to build a new police force. The UN police (UNPOL) began a programme of assisting what remained of the Liberian Police to maintain law and order, as well as recruiting and vetting new officers. The targeted strength of 3000 was achieved by 2006/7. The number, of course, is ludicrous; and so a new 500 elite special force, the ERU, was mandated. At the moment, there is hardly any Liberian police presence in rural areas, and the Liberian Police's lack of basic equipment has meant that the UN continues its policing duties even in the capital Monrovia.
The creation of a new army has had a similarly disappointing trajectory. The American private security company, DynCorp, and Pacific Architectural and Engineering (PAE), also an American company, were given the contract by the US - which had pledged $210 million for creating a new AFL (Armed Forces of Liberia) at the signing of the CPA - to recruit and train a new army of 2,000. This has now been achieved; but command and control of an army built from scratch remains an issue, as is sustainability. Early this year, the Liberian government took formal responsibility for the new army, but a Nigerian officer still commands the army. Adding to the confusion, the army's weapons and ammunition remain under US command.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the attrition rate has been unsettling: by the end of last year, about 90 soldiers had left the army. Relations between the army and the police are bad to the point of hostility: since 2008, according to UN sources, there have been 8 violent clashes between soldiers and police officers; and last year, two civilians were stabbed by soldiers. In this kind of atmosphere, general lawlessness is almost a matter of course: when in January this year police arrested a number of people for violent action during an election for officials of the Liberian Youth Federation, about 70 irate youths stormed the police station to free them.
The UN reported in February that in the previous quarter, there were 17 violent incidents targeting UN personnel, and two involving international Ngo staff - though no fatalities involving international personnel was reported.
All of this contrasts rather sharply with the experience of Liberia's neighbour, Sierra Leone, which also hosted thousands of UN troops after a devastating war. In 2000, the UN deployed over 20,000 troops there, which, in a record one and half years, disarmed murderous militia fighters and stabilized the country enough for peaceful nationwide elections to be conducted. Three years later, the UN withdrew all its forces.
A comprehensive process of retraining of both the Sierra Leone police and army was launched, with the British taking the lead. A few years later, in a stunning reversal of fortunes for a country once dismissed as beyond salvage, Sierra Leone itself sent out its first batch of peacekeepers to the UN-AU mission in Darfur. The military training school that the British set up in Sierra Leone as part of the International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT) is now training officers of the nascent Liberian army.
No one can claim that Sierra Leone is a model of good governance, but where security and peace-building are concerned, it probably can make strong claims.
Liberia heads for legislative and presidential elections in October 2011. Anxieties are high. The high esteem in which President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is running for re-election, is held internationally is evidently not widely shared in Liberia. Last year the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) listed her among 50 or so political figures whom it blames for fuelling Liberia's 14-year war, recommending that the 71-year old steps down from political office for 30 years - in effect a ban for life.
The TRC's recommendations are unlikely to be adopted by the legislature. One of the candidates for a Senatorial bye-elections late last year was recommended by the TRC for prosecution for war crimes, but was allowed by the Electoral Commission to contest nonetheless, but they have damaged the President in the eyes of many Liberians. In November last year her governing Unity Party's candidate for a major senatorial by-election, in Montserrado County (the largest in Liberia, with 35% of Liberia's registered voters), was soundly defeated by the candidate for the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, headed by ex-football star George Weah (who was defeated by Sirleaf in 2005).
A defeat for the progressive and respected Sirleaf - which is not at all inconceivable - will likely damage the country's prospects, both in terms of political stability and economic growth, as there is no guarantee that her opponents will stick to her agenda for reform and state-building. Crucial international confidence and support will also be severely undermined. The stakes of the 2011 elections, in other words, are unusually high, bringing into sharp relief the issue of whether periodic elections in a post-war country so prone to ethnic and other polarisations are in anyway helpful. But this is another issue altogether.
For now, international and national attention ought to be urgently focused on Liberia taking over internal security responsibilities fully and effectively. It is particularly urgent that the regional bodies, ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), become actively engaged with Liberia's transition ahead of the elections of 2011. Both bodies maintain offices in Liberia, though the AU seems to be focused mainly on humanitarian issues, and ECOWAS now seems to maintain a largely symbolic presence. While the Sirleaf administration is competent and forward-looking, the demands of the President's re-election campaign will be such that much of the government's strategic thinking will be focused on electoral politics from on to the elections about a year away.
Maintaining Liberia's fragile peace has implications way beyond the country's borders, and should in any case be deemed by the international community as primarily important. There are thousands of unemployed ex-combatants, including many from Sierra Leone, in Liberia; and on several occasions UN officials have discovered arms hidden in parts of Liberia where ex-combatants remain a fairly coherent community.
ECOWAS, which sacrificed troops and billions of dollars to bring peace to Liberia, has a lot of moral authority to be assertive; and the West African regional body should be fully backed by the AU in any such engagement. This is certainly a most urgent issue - engaging with the Liberian authorities to expedite the country's effective takeover of its internal security by making the security agencies more operationally effective and coherent ahead of the 2011 elections.
Written by: Lansana Gberie, senior researcher, Africa Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa