Following years of human rights violations and large scale losses of life, when the second Liberian civil-war ended in 2003 under the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Liberia began an extensive security sector reform process. This internationally-driven process has since seen dramatic changes to the Liberian security apparatus. Following the end of the civil war, the United Nations took the lead in disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating (DDR), irregular forces consisting of both those loyal to the Taylor regime and the chief opposition groups, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). According to the United Nations, when the DDR phase ended in 2004 over 100,000 ex-combatants had been demobilized.
However, perhaps the most dramatic changes have occurred within the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Liberia is the only country in the world to have completely dissolved its national military following such a conflict. The Liberian Security Sector Reform (LSSR) program sought from 2006-2009 to train a much lighter and more professional army from scratch. In 2010, this was supplemented by a Defence Sector Reform (DSR) program under USAFRICOM known as ‘Operation Onward Liberty’ (OOL), with the overall plan to develop the AFL’s ability to independently train and sustain its own forces.
Establishing public trust in state security forces was among the primary goals of the AFL’s reform process. To accomplish this, in the selection process candidates went through an extensive screening process which included detailed examinations of their human rights record, education and age. Under the 1956 National Defence Law, the minimum age for military recruitment was 16, however, with the restructuring of the AFL as a professional force a new minimum age of 18 has been strictly adhered to. The AFL has also made a conscious effort to recruit and promote educated personnel with many recruits holding at least a high school education, while others have gone on to complete bachelors and masters degrees.
On June 9 2012, the Government of Liberia launched Operation Restore Hope. In operational terms the mission is intended to secure the porous border comprised mostly of dense forest which is increasingly being used by rebel groups in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. However, for the AFL and the Liberian people, the aptly named operation represents much more. As David Dahn, Assistant Minister of Public Affairs at the Ministry of National Defense noted, “apart from field training exercises, this is the first major operational deployment carried out by the AFL” since its reformation. In early October of this year, the first wave of troops participating in the operation were replaced and rotated back to their barracks. Initial reports by both domestic and international observers have all hailed the performance of the AFL under Operation Restore Hope as security along the border has improved since their deployment. However, and perhaps more importantly, to date there have been no reports of intimidation, harassment or extortion by the AFL in the operation. In the wider picture the performance of the AFL has gone a long way towards improving their image among the Liberian people, and has reportedly won great admiration among the local population in the border region.
However, the news is not all positive. While the performance of the AFL under Operation Restore Hope has been lauded, there have been sporadic incidents involving AFL personnel over the past years that have led others to charge that the Army may be reverting to its old ways. Furthermore, there are also indications that the reform of the Liberian National Police (LNP), which is being directed by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), has stalled in certain areas. The LNP still suffers from basic problems such as lack of personnel and equipment. Because of the AFL’s history and its involvement in both Liberian civil-wars, the new mandate of the AFL orients the military to mainly deal with external threats to national security. This means the provision of internal security primarily falls to the LNP, which to date remains dependent on the nearly 1,200-strong police component of the UNMIL.
Jonathan Blackham is a Research Intern at the SSR Resource Centre.