Liberia: Why Demilitarization Makes Sense

By Ezekiel Pajibo


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 19, 2003

The nomination of Daniel Chea as the Minister of Defence by the former Government of Liberia was greeted with opposition by some members of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Newspapers reported that when the Minister appeared at the Defence Ministry to take up his assignment, pending confirmation by the National Transitional Assembly, he was jeered and heckled by the men in uniformed. Mr. Chea was accused of neglecting the Army, who has not been paid for the past three years, while he served as Defence Minister. According to them, Mr. Chea was more interested in seeking and protecting the interests of the Anti-terrorist Unit (ATU), Charles Taylor’s brutal and criminal private army, which terrorized the Liberian people. Well, if the AFL was not paid for the past three years, how did they earn their living, how did they function and what were they doing? More importantly, what is the relevance of the army in the current Liberian context?

Since 1989 when the Liberian war began, the Armed Forces of Liberia has been largely in disarray. Following the 1997 elections, the Armed Forces were to be reconstituted. This did not happen. Mr. Taylor transformed his war machine into the national security apparatus thereby rendering the national army and other agencies of state security hapless. At the time, a number of Liberian lawyers including Messrs Charles Brumskine and Benedict Sannoh strenuously argued that it was Mr. Taylor’s responsibility to reconstitute the national army since he was the sovereign leader of the country. Never mind the fact that the Abuja Accord, which resulted in the election of Mr. Taylor, had also called for the reintegration/reconstitution of the national army under the supervision of ECOMOG.

For, at least, the last 13 years Liberia has had no effective national army, needless to say a national security apparatus duly constituted and interested in safeguarding the democratic liberties of all Liberians. Instead Mr. Taylor’s thugs represented themselves as security agents while raining terror and mayhem on an other wise vulnerable population. Yet, the visitation of terror and mayhem on Liberians is not a monopoly of the Taylor regime.

In 1980 when the People Redemption Council Government came to power, they too bastardise the national security architecture. In fact under the PRC, and at the beckon and instruction of Mr. Samuel Kanyon Doe, the Armed Forces of Liberia was ethnicized. When on November 12 1985, former Brigadier General Thomas Quiwonkpa failed in his attempt to violently overthrow the Doe government, the military was so polarised that it became quite easy for some sections of it especially non-Krahn speakers, to be dismissed or worse, killed. The ethnicization of the military came on the heels of a poorly trained and severely unprofessional military establishment. Prior to 1980 members of the Armed Forces of Liberia were derisively referred to as “NOKO” to which they would respond “government gimme gun, government non gimme English”. A stark revelation of the fact that the army was largely an amalgamation of mostly unlettered men and women, whose primary function included being maids, drivers, messengers and bodyguards to Liberian government officials and their hanger-ons. Perhaps except for the top brass military leaders and some non-commissioned officers, there was no pretending that our national army was ever a professional one.

In the years preceding the Coup d’etat of 1980, a major function of the Liberian army was its deployment into the hinterland as escorts to tax collectors. In many instances, those who were unable or unwilling to pay their taxes, were severely beaten up, their properties confiscated, and quite often, their wives, daughters or other female relatives raped. The historic animosity of the national army towards the Liberian people is well documented. Perhaps except for members of the Liberian armed forces deployed to the former Belgium Congo in the 1960s, our men in uniformed have never ever done us proud. Even that mission, part of the UN failed attempt to resolved the Congolese crisis at which time the legitimate leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba was arrested and killed, did not earn them any laurel.

When the military came to power subsequently in 1980, Liberians went into the streets and sang “Country woman born soldier, Congo woman born rogue” – the polarization of Liberian politics had deepened. What is more, Liberian politics became militarised. Ever since, the country has continued to suffer, decay and degenerate and now lies in utter ruins and wretchedness.

As the nation returns to life, it is burdened by many competing needs. Our schools, hospitals, electricity, water and roads have to be rebuilt and or repaired. Our people are desperately poor and either displaced or refugees in foreign countries where they are increasingly unwanted and undesirable. In our attempts to respond to these needs, priorities have to be established. In the absence of adequate funding and other resources, it is wise to ensure that those sectors which will contribute to economic revival and renewal be the priorities areas for investment. Certainly, the military, as a non-productive sector cannot be one of them.

True, the country needs stability in order to begin to set the basis for prosperity. However, given the history and nature of the army as well as those who brought war and destruction to the country, we cannot allow a new army to be created. We have been presented with a historic opportunity to once and for all get rid of our national standing army. Costa Rica, in Latin America, where wars and rumours of wars abound has no standing army, why not Liberia.

In terms of how our territorial integrity will be protected, the following comes to mind. I stand corrected but I venture to hazard the guess that Liberia has non-aggression treaty with all of its neighbours – I know for sure we do with Guinea and perhaps among the Mano River Union (MRU) members - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. We can enter into one with La Cote d’Ivoire, if we don’t already have one. Such treaties can be guaranteed by the MRU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Africa Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). Liberia could begin to set a trend by becoming the first African country without a standing army. The funding and human resources could then be deployed in other areas that would contribute towards improving the material conditions of our people.

After all each and every Liberian can use all the help they can get to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

As for those who will say what we do with the part of the DDR (demobilization, disarmament and reintegration) program that calls for the reintegration of the Liberian army, our respond is simply deploy them into public works activities. Let them become the casual labourers who can assist in the rebuilding of our destroyed and decaying infrastructure not least because they either destroyed them or funding directing towards their benefit resulted in the neglect of these infrastructures. If not, they can become part of an expanded police force that is well trained and equipped to put a check on criminality in the country. Indeed, as the problem child of West Africa, Liberia can re-assure its neighbours that by ridding itself of its standing army, it would pose no future threats to them. Let us debate this issue informally and soberly.

Note: Ezekiel Pajibo is currently visiting Liberia, where he will write from regularly.