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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Liberia > Liberia: Uneven Progress in Security Sector Reform

Liberia: Uneven Progress in Security Sector Reform

Africa Report N°148 13 Jan 2009


Since independence and for fourteen years of war, Liberia’s army, police and other security agencies have mostly been sources of insecurity and misery for a destitute people. The internationally driven attempt to radically reform the security sector since the war’s end in 2003 is a major chance to put this right and prevent new destabilisation. Security sector reform (SSR) programs have been unprecedented in ambition but with mixed results. Army reform, entailing complete disbanding of existing forces, has made significant progress despite lack of proper oversight of private military companies (PMCs) and of consensus on strategic objectives. But police and other security reforms are much less satisfactory. The bold approach to army reform was possible due to strong national consensus and the presence of a large, liberally mandated UN presence. Government and donors must sustain their support to maintain hard-won momentum in army reform and, once clear benchmarks are set, give a floundering police force more resources. The drawdown of the UN force, begun in the second half of 2008, underlines the urgency.

SSR began in 2004 with the first reforms by the UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIL) of the Liberian National Police (LNP) and exploratory missions by U.S. officials and private military contractors, one of which, DynCorp International, was subsequently awarded the army contract. Specific planning for army reform began with a calculation of what was economically viable (the number of soldiers to whom Liberia could afford to pay monthly salaries) and moved forward from there. While such an approach had obvious limitations, it made sense in the context of the post-war transitional government. Much donor money and Liberian revenues were being lost, and few actors appeared committed to the country’s long-term stability and well-being. There was little trust between donors and government representatives, many of whom were subsequently indicted for stealing government funds.

Even under such difficult circumstances, economic discipline should have been considered in tandem with a thorough assessment of the probable threats to which the security forces would have to respond. The lack of clear strategic vision is most evident in the confusion surrounding the biggest security threat to the nation: there is no consensus about who, if anyone, would respond to any new outbreak of insurgency warfare. Such an insurgency could arise from discontented groups, possibly drawing on support from outside Liberia, as has occurred in the past, or from a spread of unrest with numerous root causes, including land disputes and violent crime. The newly formed paramilitary police Emergency Response Unit (ERU) may be best placed to take on this task, but recruitment and training continues to be delayed, and its role is still not fully clarified. Better strategic planning and clear division of roles and principles for communication between different intelligence and security bodies is vital.

Private military companies are key players. They have been subcontracted by the U.S. government to train and vet the new military as well as the ERU. The Liberian experience is instructive about both the advantages and disadvantages of using PMCs for such work. The oversight structures employed by the U.S. State Department have been shoddy, but the results so far have generally been good. One explanation is that a few key oversight personnel have been able to exercise inordinate influence to keep the relatively small SSR project on course.

Army reform appears to be a provisional success. Liberia now has a pool of nearly 2,000 rigorously vetted and well-trained privates. The vetting process in particular has been a notable success – the best, several experts said, they had witnessed anywhere in the world. The challenges ahead, however, could prove overwhelming for an army that presently has only 110 officers (98 Liberian and twelve from other Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries). The new soldiers are trained only at individual and small unit levels and will not be prepared to act as unified companies, much less a brigade, until late 2010. There is still much to be done (including specialist, company and brigade-level training) before the army can work together. The development of a capable managerial and leadership core within the military is an organic process that must be nurtured by both the Liberian government and its international partners.

More worrying, the police are still widely considered ineffective and corrupt. Both ordinary citizens and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have blamed a recent spate of armed robberies on their poor performance. They have been recruited, vetted and trained to a far lower standard than the army. Training of the paramilitary ERU may address some problems, but others have more to do with basic issues of poor management, lack of equipment and dismal community relations. There also appears to be inadequate realisation that successful police reform can only be sustained if it is linked to an effective judiciary that enforces the rule of law fairly and effectively to protect individual rights and assure citizen security.

This has led to the growth of vigilantism and disrespect of police in Monrovia and elsewhere. The police desperately need a combination of managerial expertise, strategic vision and (only then) a major increase in budget. The challenge facing the government and donors is the transition from external partner to sovereign state responsibilities. To this point, the Johnson-Sirleaf government has been largely happy to leave the reform of its army and police to others, occupied as it is with economic recovery. Domestic ownership of the reforms has become urgent, but it must not entail the overly hasty exit of international partners. Unless in particular U.S. and UN efforts to make Liberia more secure and stable are sustained over the next few years, the investment made since the end of the war could easily unravel.


To the Government of Liberia:

1.  Clarify the division of roles between the newly reformed security bodies, define the principles and rules for their interaction, including information exchange, and define strategies to deal with the full range of security issues, including low-level criminality, organised crime and insurgency.

2.  Rein in abusive and unprofessional behaviour by the Special Security Service (SSS).

3.  Deploy the Liberian National Police (LNP) over the entire national territory, imposing sanctions against officers who do not report for duty at appointed places and times; hold those within its hierarchy fully accountable for management deficiencies and infractions of law when adequate management structures are in place; dedicate money and morale-boosting attention to it and improve human resource management, including for recruitment.

4.  Clarify issues surrounding the feeding of army personnel, now being paid for temporarily by the U.S.; work with U.S. personnel and Liberian civil society to ensure recruits receive adequate gender-sensitive human rights and rule-of-law education; and work with the U.S. and other partners to ensure that the good practices established in army vetting are continued, preferably through a thorough vetter training program.

5.  Take concrete action to ensure proper civilian oversight of the new military and national security policy, including building capacity in the defence ministry and creating civil-military district oversight committees involving local community and women’s organisations, as in neighbouring Sierra Leone, or similar structures appropriate to the Liberian context.

To the Government of the United States:

6.  Eliminate indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts for security support to the State Department and make bidding for security-related contracts as transparent as the U.S. and other donors have required Liberia to be via the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP).

7.  Develop comprehensive budgetary and management oversight training for all State and Defense Department personnel likely to oversee any aspect of PMC activities and develop a comprehensive strategy for the transition from PMC training to uniformed military mentoring.

8.  Commit, if requested by the Liberian government, to long-term mentoring of the army by embedding uniformed U.S. military personnel in the army and defence ministry.

9.  Commit to providing gender-sensitive human rights and rule-of-law instruction for all army recruits trained by DynCorp and fund the DynCorp vetting team’s training of a Liberian inter-agency team to carry on the vetting work with future army, police and other recruits.

10.  Allocate the necessary funds for completing the training of 500 ERU personnel as soon as possible, both to address pressing law-and-order issues and to help boost police morale.

To the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL):

11.  Maintain sufficient numbers of peacekeepers on the ground to ensure adequate security until the Liberian forces are able to take over the responsibility.

12.  Expedite the publication and dissemination of the recently completed Liberian National Police Duty Manual in conjunction with LNP officials and ensure that its provisions, especially those relating to evaluation, promotion and review of officers, are properly enforced.

13.  Coordinate and increase donor funding for police logistics, infrastructure and communications equipment – with other international partners and in support of the new LNP strategic plan – but only when clear benchmarks for its use and management are forthcoming.

To the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS):

14.  Facilitate training and exchange opportunities for Liberian officers, non-commissioned officers and army specialists in member state militaries and at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana.

15.  Enter into dialogue with the government of Liberia with a view to providing comprehensive, ongoing support to the security sector, possibly including, in liaison with other partners, an “over the horizon” emergency guarantee, and seek a U.S. commitment to provide financial, logistical, airlift and intelligence support for any such guarantee.

Dakar/Brussels, 13 January 2009

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