Liberia’s political centralization has only resulted in limited access to basic services in most parts of the country, including justice and security. However, recent efforts at security sector reform in Liberia have entailed a process of decentralizing the national security architecture, involving the establishment of local security councils and regional hubs. This piece provides an overview on security governance in Liberia, and how local councils and hubs are contributing to decentralization in the security sector.
The concept of security sector governance broadly refers to the governance arrangements in which the country’s security sector is organized, administered, and under which personnel operate. In Liberia, the security sector is the collection of the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of National Security, and the Ministry of Justice, and their associated agencies.
Part of the problem in Liberia’s security sector governance lie in the fact that national laws provide for a centralized security governance regime, in which the overconcentration of power at the presidency results in imperial and personalized control over the security agencies. In such a centralized control system, security agencies are used to promote the personal agenda of the president or sitting regime. This pattern of authority relations in the state and army can be described as ‘patrimonial,’ in which networks of patrons and clients dominate the security agencies. Since the end of Liberia’s civil war, not much has been done to reduce such presidential control over military and paramilitary security agencies in the country.
As it stands, overall policy coordination of the security sector in Liberia lies with the National Security Council, headed by the President of Liberia. This council is comprised of key ministries with security and internal political functions like the Ministries of Justice, Defense, and Internal Affairs. The Constitution of Liberia (1986) and subsequent legislation keep the President of Liberia at the center of those agencies, with the power to appoint and dismiss civilian official such as Ministers, Directors, and senior military and paramilitary officials and officers. While key internal security agencies like the Liberia National Police, Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and the National Bureau of Investigation function under the Ministry of Justice, it is still the President that appoints heads of those agencies and retains control over them.
A thorough process of decentralization has not yet taken place in Liberia’s governance reform since the return to civilian democratic rule in 2006. A National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance has been adopted with the aim of devolving some political, fiscal, and administrative powers to local government units. However, decision-making authority and command structures of the security agencies will continue to be centralized in Monrovia.
This will have an impact on local coordination, since the heads of security and law enforcement agencies have no reporting relationships with local county officials. For instance, at a local level, the Joint Security comprises all of the security agencies in a county, including the Liberia National Police, Bureau of Immigration, National Security Agency, National Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. These agencies report to the County Attorney, who serves as Chair of the Joint Security but is appointed by the Ministry of Justice.
But some modest steps towards decentralization are taking place – the most important being the establishment of local branches of central agencies that are limited to administrative or implementing powers, rather than powers to make decisions or even to run autonomous operational budgets. Two of those ‘shadow’ decentralization efforts include the establishment of County Security Councils and the construction of security and justice hubs in the regions.
The County Security Council (CSC) is the local county version of the National Security Council, which has responsibility for overall policy coordination of national security. Chaired by the Superintendent in each county, the CSC is composed of the county heads of the Police, Immigration, the National Security Agency, and the Liberia National Fire Services, as well as other civilian authorities including the paramount, clan, and town chiefs. Unlike the Joint Security, this council reports to the Minister of Internal Affairs who also sits on the National Security Council.
The creation of a CSC in each county is a guiding principle of Liberia’s postwar national security objectives. The local councils are part of the national peace-building efforts to ensure security and peace coordination at the levels of the counties and the districts. The CSC is coordinated through a multifaceted platform with government, civil society, and other local stakeholders acting together, and they are not only responsible for physical security but also act as a mechanism for disaster and crisis management. Through the CSC, civilian players can participate in decision making processes in the security sector. This facilitate a process in which national security policies are informed by both physical security issues and more human-related ones, from socio-economic to disaster management.
Since the launch of the County Security Mechanism in December 2009, only five CSCs have been launched to date in Montserrado, Nimba, Lofa, Grand Gedeh, and River Gee Counties. All of them are gravely constrained by challenges in financial resources, technical capacity and human resources, which have made it difficult to expand into the remaining ten counties.
In 2013, the Government of Liberia also launched a Regional Justice and Security Hub in north central Liberia (Gbarnga), which brings together multiple law enforcement or criminal justice actors in a single location. There are plans to launch additional four hubs in other regions. These centres represent a decentralization of the operational functions of Liberia national security and justice institutions. As justice and security institutions are scarce in rural Liberia, the hubs represent an opportunity for local county residents to access justice and security services. The main objectives of the hubs are infrastructural and logistical support to justice and security institutions, strengthening capacity of personnel, and ensuring a responsive justice and security sector. When fully operational, local county units of security agencies will therefore have additional supports closer to them for reinforcement, logistics, and advice.
The Gbarnga Hub, the only one operational so far, is intended to serve Bong (the host), Nimba, and Lofa Counties. It brings the court, immigration, police and correction and prosecution services in one location, thereby speeding up criminal justice proceedings. While a good model for criminal justice cooperation, it in no way interferes with the separation of power and the system of check and balances between the three branches of government. Each agency functions under its own statutory mandate.
The CSC and regional hubs represent a good model for decentralization of the security sector in the post-United Nations Mission (UNMIL) era in Liberia. Yet more needs to be done in the areas of law and institutional reforms to ensure that governance of the security sector is democratic and under civilian control. The opportunity for this lies in the ongoing constitutional review process, which needs to consider the issue of reducing the powers of the president in appointing key security officials. Civilian oversight boards can do better in overseeing these institutions and ensuring their heads are democratically accountable.
Finally, the challenges of security sector governance in Liberia have been linked to issues of capacity particularly in trained personnel and limited financial resources. For programs like the CSCs and the hubs to be sustained will require full ownership and financial support from the Government of Liberia as the withdrawal of donor funding in the medium or long term might gravely impact their functioning.
Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a Policy Analyst at the Governance Commission of Liberia. His areas of research include governance and democratization, decentralization, regional integration, and international peace and security. The views expressed in this article are solely the views of the author and do not represent those of the Governance Commission. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.