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Sep 9, 2010 | Commentary

I was thinking caustic thoughts today.

The SSR crowd really do sometimes get up my nose. Which I suppose means I get up my own nose once in a while.

SSR policy wonks and practitioners alike are all full of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to assessments, reports, frameworks, stakeholder meetings and other such useful nonsense. The fact of the matter is that SSR is about politics, and politics is about people, and people are about history. Its amazing how many grand SSR plans have fallen afoul of some bizarre little historical factoid.

For example:

  1. Dude A killed Dude B’s brother 11 years ago.
  2. Dude F stole Dude G’s girl 20 years ago.
  3. Dude H stole Dude K’s girl and cash 8 years ago.
  4. Dude J was once a UN civil servant…

This is the stuff of history and politics. Its the collection of historical factoids that together form a picture, and its against the backdrop of this picture that the politics of SSR flies or dies.

Frankly, most SSR types have neither the interest or aptitude to get into the factoids. [Note to myself – calm down] It requires more than 12-24 months in country, it requires reading, a lot of it, and it means language skills. Ferreting out these little nuggets depends primarily on relationships. In my own limited experience, the best SSR information I ever got was late at night, usually reading, or drinking something potent with people who are complicated, and perhaps even nasty, but who I would call friends. Sharing these factoids with other sources via SMS to verify them seems to have been an addiction once upon a time ago. In fact, I sent over 14,000 SMS in a 5 month period in 2006.  Far removed from the framework sessions I frequently drown in when I go to SSR policy gabfests.

As a result SSR can really be dull. Funnily enough its actually fascinating – but not for the reasons that many SSR mavens bang on about. The obsession with frameworks and the like really turned me off it some years back. The really interesting, and in actually fact the most important, stuff is the micro and macro politics of it  all. This I find is where the SSR mavens fall flat on their face. Generalists are flown in for a year or two and just as they begin to learn the language or makee a few local friends they up and go. Once being such an SSR generalist myself, I realized my worth was not in the SSR gobbledygook that I spoke, but in the factoids I had lodged in my brain.

Anyway so what?  Well a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with friends about a recent SSR meeting they recently attended in Monrovia Liberia. It was of interest to me not only because I was recently in Liberia and intend to go back soonish, but also because of a bizarre little Timor-Leste anecdote.  During the meeting it turned out that the guest of honour, Liberia’s Minister of Defence Brownie Samukai, revealed that he was once upon a time ago a UN Security Officer working with UNAMET in Timor-Leste during the 1999 Popular Consultation.  It was during this period that a lot of bad stuff went down in Timor-Leste, but it also regained its independence.  Brownie, was apparently based in Ermera District, scene of some of the worst violence.

Well upon hearing this little story I thought to myself, who is Brownie?  Wikipedia has some interesting reading, and while some of it is slightly inaccurate it still paints a picture of a man’s history.  Quoting from Wikipedia is always dangerous, but here it goes.

In 1993-94, he served as commander of the ‘Black Berets,’ a paramilitary police force in the Monrovia enclave of Amos Sawyer’s Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU). The International Crisis Group also notes that the Black Berets also fought alongside ECOMOG at times, notably during Charles Taylor’s 1992 assault on Monrovia (‘Operation Octopus’). ‘They and the AFL were accused of killing some 600 civilians in the June 1993 Camp Carter massacre, which, testimony at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has indicated, was perpetuated by Taylor’s NPFL fighters, who may have orchestrated it to put blame on the Armed Forces of Liberia.’

So what I do after reading this? I dug around a bit. One pal of mine who served in UNAMET told me, “oh yes, the African chap, a very affable fellow. Very capable.”

Another friend who served in the mission went further. “… in Ermera he immediately got a good understanding of the militia, but also of the Indonesian and UN military and police. He was clever, always seemed to be on top of things and navigated on how to relate with any kind of people. In the office he looked skilled, useful, joking and cooperative, but of course this is also part of the role…”

In 2009, Timor-Leste’s Vice Minister of Finance, Rui Hanjam, himself a former UN staffer wrote a less than flattering portrait.

“A UN  staff, Mr. Samukai from Liberia  forced the three local staff to squeeze in the back of the car next to piles of baggage, tires and papers while the international staff member had plenty of room in the front seat. I was one of the three local staff and we did not press the matter because of our focus and commitment to help the UNAMET to hold the consultation without constraints. Later I discovered that Mr Samukai held an important position in his country.”

True? Who knows, but all part of the palette.

So what does all this have to do with anything?  I’ll be damned if I know as I have no idea what is going on in the SSR world in Liberia.  But I am sure that it forms a small part of a whole when it comes to understanding the mindset of an important SSR actor in Liberia.  Certainly the Armed Forces of Liberia are an organisation with a history.  I wonder how many UNDP project officers working on SSR have spent time delving into this stuff? Perhaps some, then again perhaps none.