The UN had to go, but is Liberia ready to keep its own peace?

With thousands of UN peacekeepers leaving Liberia after 13 years, the country could be facing the most important transition in its history.

Liberia has had more than a decade to plan for the day when international peacekeepers in blue helmets and their civilian counterparts would eventually pack up and leave.

So, it was with a mix of both uncertainty and resolve that our small sliver of a country bid farewell to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) on 30 June. This came nearly 13 years after the UN Security Council Resolution calling for 15,000 military personnel to maintain law and order was passed.  Back then, in 2003, Liberia and its people were war-weary and battle-scarred after years of armed conflict.

Today, post-Ebola, Liberia is also in a delicate situation and just beginning to piece together the remnants of normalcy in a region facing threats of extremism. Whether this is our lucky or unlucky 13th year remains to be seen.

Yet, for all the hemming and hawing about how fragile Liberia remains ahead of elections slated for October 2017 – in what could be the country’s first ever peaceful regime change – UNMIL had to go. And while some UN personnel will remain in their posts –1,240 military and 606 police officers with a limited number of civilian staff – an eventual total withdrawal is not only foreseen but necessary.

Is Liberia ready?

History has proven that multi-billion dollar peacekeeping missions have produced mixed results. They can be politically problematic, financially costly, and unviable. And they operate with impunity and under a shroud of secrecy, as evidenced by the alarming numbers of sexual abuse cases and the lack of transparency around funding streams.

As a case in point, it is nearly impossible to gauge the total amount spent on Liberia’s security sector reform, with a dozen or more donors all contributing to several aspects of the exercise at different intervals.

Moreover, peacekeeping missions create a false sense of permanence and security, especially when their role is temporary and largely symbolic. And they cost a fortune to maintain. For instance, the training of 2,000 soldiers in Liberia is estimated to have cost between $95 million and $200 million.

UNMIL could not remain in Liberia forever, nor did we want it to. And its withdrawal has urged the government to focus less on external intervention and more on building a holistic security system, by investing in the bureau of immigration, drug enforcement agency, and national security agency as much as it does the police and army.

This can only be a good thing considering the Liberia National Police’s (LNP) and Armed Forces of Liberia’s (AFL) recent chequered past.  For instance, in 2014, riots in mining enclaves occupied by foreign multinationals tested the capacities of the national police, whose slow response and lethal use of force sparked domestic and international censure. And when 15-year-old Shaki Kamara bled to death in August 2014 after being shot during an army scuffle with civilians in West Point, we also began to wonder about the readiness of the AFL.

After these episodes, surely the methods of private security firms DynCorps International and Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E) – which were subcontracted to train the army alongside US military personnel – should have been investigated.

Leading the region

Amidst the uncertainty around UNMIL’s exit, opinion in Liberia understandably remains mixed.

For example, Matthew Ngombu, a 43-year-old administrator, worries about his country’s ability to handle looming elections. “The security apparatus will be used by government to intimidate opposition politicians come 2017,” he says. “Security forces will be used to the advantage of government, which will ignite conflict.”

Meanwhile others, such as 30-year-old Anderson D. Miamen, offer more measured hopefulness. “Even if UNMIL were to leave ten years from now, there will still be gaps,” he says.  “Preparedness is about whether or not Liberians are prepared to preserve the peace. Yes, we are.”

The verdict is thus still out about Liberia’s readiness despite official assurances. During the commemoration of the end of UNMIL’s mandate, for instance, national police chief Chris Massaquoi declared: “Our security institutions are very prepared to provide the security as needed and are keen on building on the level of work we have started in securing the peace we all enjoy today.”

Admittedly, Liberia’s government has taken some positive steps in this regard.

Though it requires revision, a national security strategy was adopted in 2008, which shifts attention from a narrow focus on state security to human security emphasising “efficiency, transparency, accountability, democratic and civilian oversight…respect for rule of law and human rights”.

30-35% of a security transition plan – approved by government and endorsed by the UN Security Council in 2015 – has already been implemented, with 60-65% set to be completed by the end of the year.

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by Robtel Neajai Pailey & Thomas Jaye

Photo Credits: UN Photo/Christopher Herwig