By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph.D.
Following the end of nearly two decades of civil conflict, in 2003, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was established. The goal was for UNMIL to support the ceasefire agreement and the peace process. UNMIL would provide protection for UN staff, facilities, and civilians as well as support humanitarian and rights-based activities. UNMIL also has responsibility for facilitating national security reform, coupled with training the national police force, while restructuring the military (UN Security Council Resolution 1509).
In successive years, the mandate has shifted slightly based on the socioeconomic contexts. The most recent occurred during the Ebola outbreak in September 2014 when the disease was mounting. However, in March 2015, the Security Council authorized resumption of the UNMIL drawdown. Government of Liberia is expected to resume full responsibilities for national security by June 2016. Within Liberian civil society, debate is raging with many constituents expressing worries, even trepidation, as to the feasibility and possible consequences of the drawdown. The pending presidential election scheduled for 2017 has heightened fears that the nation’s security situation is too fragile for UNMIL, which has been the staple, if not the foundation, of Liberia’s peace process to suddenly exit at such a crucial time. Truthfully, the ultimate decision on UNMIL’s departure will be made following a Strategic Review in September, possibly in December. And even if the drawdown occurs, residual capacity will remain to protect UN assets and personnel, which could be activated if required to support national security and justice actors.
While the national debate has focused on the readiness of the Liberian national security and justice actors in the wake of this decision, I believe strongly that this attention is misplaced. The issue should not be whether the national security agencies are ready to assume full responsibility for the security of the state. Instead, it should be whether both the citizens and security and justice sectors are jointly ready for UNMIL’s departure. How will community actors or civil society cope? Like a patient being admitted in hospital for treatment and care, right at that juncture, a discharge plan is often commenced at admission. Hence, when UNMIL was slated for its mission, it is my feeling that a withdrawal plan was started and aligned progressively with the strengthening of the Liberian security apparatuses. It would be normative to assign monitoring benchmarks and indicators to such a process, thus, ensuring that drawdown howbeit farfetched not coming as a surprise to stakeholders.
For ordinary Liberians, the worry expressed might be emanating from two sources: fear for their physical security and psychological security. The former comes from the fact that ordinary Liberians still mistrust the national security agencies amidst high levels of infighting, violent crimes, operational lapses, and sexual abuses toward vulnerable populations, sometimes committed allegedly by some of the same law enforcement agents who have sworn to protect the citizenry. Relative to their psychological security, UNMIL has been akin to a medication, perhaps a psychotropic drug which regulates a patient’s “mind, mood, and behavior” and even their day-to-day functioning. They might be either legal or illicit. Indeed, UNMIL’s presence has offered Liberians emotional security alongside physical security. Liberians believe that if the national security apparatuses were to run amok, UNMIL would intervene and prevent illicit incursions. That confidence and contentment has grown stronger over the life cycle of UNMIL. This does not mean that the national security forces have not arrested, detained, and even abused some citizens illegally and with impunity, while UNMIL is present. But somehow, UNMIL’s presence has brought some level of ease particularly in rural parts of the country where national security presence is sparse.
As one who spent some part of my academic and professional life working on issues of refugee mental health, it has been noticed that fear of the unknown, is considered the gravest threat to human security in post-war situations. In post-war societies where peace is fragile and democratic institutions have yet not matured or being tested to determine if they can function within the contours of rule of law, fear of the unknown has a dampening effect on people’s hope and security. That sporadic violence have occurred in Liberia and some national security apparatuses have been implicated including violent crimes cannot give citizens, especially vulnerable people: women, youth, children, pen-pen boys, etc any assurance. UNMIL’s departure instills paralyzing fear that conditions could get worse. When a group of people feel unprotected, that translates into a progressive feeling of being unworthy of protection. And within a democracy, no citizen should feel unworthy of protection by the state. That is certainly the catalyst to vigilante or mob justice.
If any belief system makes it difficult for ordinary Liberians who cannot afford to procure personal security guards to accept UNMIL’s departure, it is the sense of uncertainty that a large void is about to be created and they have no clue what will occur as a result. Unfortunately, neither UNMIL nor the government have devised a systematic process for allying these fears. Yes! UNMIL has initiated community forums in locations from which its staff are departing whereby in collaboration with government functionaries they seek to explain the implications of the departure and the possible alternatives that government would offer.
But human emotions are generally regulated in lockstep with their beliefs, and thus, for now, Liberians believe in large numbers that UNMIL’s departure means insecurity. The struggle for the government is to find ways in which it can change the belief systems of its citizens through these scary times, giving them the self-confidence they need from the state. UNMIL’s departure is an event beyond the control of Liberians, and so they will have to accept it grudgingly. But one has to ask: if something goes wrong and UNMIL is gone; and the national security apparatus goes into acrimony with some citizens do we know what the citizens’ actions would be? How prepared are the citizens to take abuse from the national security forces without resorting to reciprocal action? What has been done to truly engage the citizens to not act on their impulses based on the distrust that they have for the security forces?
Equally so, what has the society done to address citizens’ rejection and indifference toward law enforcement personnel? What if a local demonstration occurs and demonstrators view the police intervention as repression, thus leading to confrontation, how prepared is the society to address this likely incident without resorting to vigilante actions? What training and protocols have been developed that are being taught to both police and citizens to prevent the escalation of possible standoffs? Has the message been sent loud and clearly to the law enforcement personnel that they are working for the citizens within a democracy? Unless the breakdown in communication between security and society is addressed proactively with real mutually-beneficial solutions, UNMIL’s departure will continue to produce the fear and trepidation it has caused.
Liberian society will also have to graduate from negative connotation of the security forces as “corrupt, inept, and ignorant” and begin to define them with the same respect that UNMIL has been accorded. Civil society organizations will need to invest in this arena – building psychological resilience within communities to enable better reception and respect for the national law enforcement entities. It is patently false that all police are bad and all citizens are good and vice versa. The truth resides in a happy medium and fostering and facilitating that deliberately through mutual engagement strategies is warranted in times like these. As long as citizens are unable to be outraged and to protect our security actors, the security professionals will not protect the citizens. Liberians, many of them, are incapable of feeling a sense of indignation when faced with scenes of disrespect and violence against the law enforcement agents. Assault against law enforcement officials should never be tolerated by citizens, but in a society steep in a culture of violence and low respect for the rule of law, unless public education is done, the status quo will prevail.
How do we change the poor perception and end the lack of confidence of society towards the national law enforcement agencies? Work is required from government and civil society. What is needed is for Liberians (security sector actors and civil society actors) to build and sustain a culture of respect for laws and strict application of reprimands. The national law enforcement must become representative of who we are as a society and people, if UNMIL’s departure has to occur without leaving the lingering effects of fear. If we have national security apparatuses that are ineffective and corrupt, it is because of what we as a society have failed to accomplish. We have failed to build a civilization that does not respect itself, and the security sector is simply a microcosm.
Clearly, there will be varying trust levels towards different national security institutions depending on geographical, class, and communal differences. Based on the crime ever suffered and the nature of the perpetrator, Liberians of different statuses in society would decide on what level of respect to award their security forces. National state security agencies will continue to have weak regard from the public if they too remain entrenched in corrupt practices or human rights violations with impunity. That the civil war weakened the Liberian state and its institutions and transformed security institutions into mini-arring factions did not help the situation. Security reforms envisaged meant incorporating some of the rights violators into the national security forces. Demobilization and disarmament of the various militias was conducted in piecemeal form and largely allowed sectarian political leaders to retain a place and role in the national security apparatuses.
National security and justice actors in Liberia, like many of our public service providers are strongly affected by the ill-effects of the war. And ten years is a short period to overcome the trauma and negative effects of war fought for a protracted period. As such, there are significant weaknesses at the institutional level, reflecting a lack of capacity and consensus on the role of the security forces, particularly their interaction with the public. It is impossible to not speak of security sector reform without taking into consideration the social and cultural as well as the political context in which they operate. Two decades of war, instability and pillage has continued to play a role in the security provision after the war. State security institutions, after the war argue that they suffer from being underfinanced and understaffed as well as being stifled by political influences of different sorts. In the wake of these societal challenges, and with the forthcoming presidential elections, opportunities for reforming the national security sector institutions might be difficult to do optimally. Though the post-war era brought about peace for nearly a little over a decade, and enhanced the capacity of many state security institutions, bridging the gap between security forces and the citizenry must now become a priority as UNMIL departs. The whole society must find a way to overcome its tyrannical and warring pasts so that we as a collective do not allow governmental and societal failings to undercut the remarkable gains of the last decade or more in peace and democratic institution building.
The Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the President and CEO of the Center for Liberia’s Future (CFLF), an independent think tank, based in Duazon, Liberia.