Armed Forces Of Liberia: Reality Check For A New Military With A Redefined Constitutinal Mission

By: Brownie J. Samukai

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 17, 2004

This article is part of the debate on the future status of the Liberian Military.

The Armed forces of Liberia, was created under the amended National Defense Law of 1956. It was a skeleton brigade of soldiers who were predominantly from the lower economic and social stratum of society. They were poorly paid, and had less than decent facilities for accommodation and care. Generally, they performed ceremonial and guard duties. Many of them came to be called “Nokos”, a local nomenclature with meaning ranging from soldier without rank, guardsman, the least of the crop of professionals, uneducated, among other meanings. Most AFL Officers were graduates of the ROTC Program at the Booker Washington Institute in Kakata.

Since its creation, the AFL has gone through a transformation, intended and unintended; a transformation that has led to its credibility problem: From law enforcement functions, to ceremonial duties, to a military in search of identity and status, to an ethnic shield, an instrument of brutal response, and finally becoming a faction to the Liberian civil conflict by circumstance. Historically, this transformation reflected the dynamics of the emerging political urgency of the 1970’s. It represented how those from the lower strata of society were responding to economic hardships, escaping the destitution of subsistence living in the rural area, taste for urban migration, avenue for education, training and employment, entity for class recognition, and indirectly acquiring thrust of political power through the AFL.

In the 1970’s, the dynamism of the economic and political era of the Tolbert Administration (the legacy of which is left to historian to judge) was caught up in the turbulence of the demand by political movements for change. With an illiteracy rate of nearly 65%, it became strategically evident that the struggling population would seize upon blind faith for better life. Thus, in 1979, political progressives seized upon the emerging frustration and level of illiteracy and miss-understanding on the part of the hungry population, to demand that the government should not increase the price of rice, staple food of the nation. The government was not successful in putting forth its case for price increase, and the ensuing “April 14 Rice Riots” became a matching order for the beginning of the 25 years of our Nation’s nightmare.

In March 1980, progressive elements were again on a collision course with the Tolbert Government. The Tolbert Administration attempted to bring about political reforms; reforms which progressives felt were too slow, too late and not inclusive enough. One of the progressive groups, Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), demanded that the Tolbert government should resign. The Government responded by charging proponents of this demand with acts of treason. Dooms-day was on the horizon.

On the morning of April 12, 1980, elements of the AFL, working as guards within the Executive Mansion Guard Battalion entered the bed-room of President Tolbert, and killed him (Tolbert’s Gold-Cross of Christ was still on his neck in his white suit when he was taken away in the JFK ambulance). Those who killed Tolbert formed the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), and MSG Doe became its Chairman. His Deputy was Thomas Weh Sen. The AFL, led by those from the lower strata of society, “Country People”, became the new political leaders of Liberia. Sergeants from the AFL toke over the leadership of the country, for which there was hardly a precedent (other than Guatemala, where the soldiers called in a retired general to lead the country after their coup). Sergeants are not Generals. They are under the Command of Officers.

As the transformation of the AFL continued, it became apparent, that instead of liberating the Liberian people from the shackles of “Congo people rule”, the Doe regime was cultivating itself into a dynasty of ethnic hegemony, and using the AFL as its power base for control. One year into office, MSG Doe began the consolidation of power. Student leaders became prime targets and were chased out of the country. Progressives were falling out with the regime. The era of attempted coups began.

Within 18 months of coming to power, power struggle in the PRC became evident. Thomas Weh Sen, Vice Chairman of the PRC and second to Chairman Doe was accused by the government of plotting to overthrow the government. He was arrested on a Sunday, while returning from football practice. Thomas Weh Sen was quoted as saying, when leaving the court after his verdict of death: “When I die I die for justice”. He and some colleagues were brutally executed. It is now known that Thomas Weh Sen disagreed with Doe on prolonging the stay of the PRC in power. He was dissatisfied with the dictatorial tendencies Doe had begun to exercise. Doe became suspicious of Thomas Weh Sen association with political progressives, student leaders and countries like Libya. Others have argued that Thomas Weh Sen was an unwitting victim of cold war rivalry. History will judge the justice of what happened at that time. By the middle of 1982, the transformation of the AFL into a political protectorate of the status quo was taking shape.

Internally, the AFL began to affix itself as the prime protector of Doe’s Presidency. The 4th Infantry Battalion of the AFL, which was headquartered in Zwedru, was without doubt under the command-influence of Doe and the PRC. The command structure of the 4th Infantry Battalion was from Grand Gedeh, with few others from the Southeastern region, and foot soldiers were predominantly from Grand Gedeh, especially Tuzon, hometown of Doe. There is overwhelming evidence that the ascendancy of Doe and clique to power was the beginning of the unaccountable process of swelling the ranks and file of the AFL on the basis of ethnicity (be it Gios, Manos, Krahns, Sapos, etc.).

As Doe and the AFL continued their purge and consolidation of power, uncovering coup plots became a notorious fashion (1981 – 1985): The Nimba Raid, Major Jebo the early rebel (Commander of Doe’s Commando Strike Force unit), the Flazamington conspiracy, Kolonkuo Luo confession, the University of Liberia Six Students death verdict, etc. The purging of any further challenge to Doe’s dictatorial tendencies and hold unto power was completed when AFL Commanding General (BG) Thomas Quiwonkpa was sacked and removed from the AFL (1983-1984). One year later, on November 12, 1985, Quiwonkpa returned to Liberia from Sierra Leone, with Bible in one hand and a rifle in another hand, and a handful of others to shoot their way into power. They nearly did. The rest is history – they lost. Quiwonkpa’s failed invasion led to the most brutal reprisals within the rank and file of the AFL in history, before the arrival of Charles Taylor.

After the elections of 1985, when it became embarrassingly clear that Doe was about to lose the elections, Doe turned to the AFL for assistance. Dozens of boxes containing empty ballot papers were taken to AFL Camp Schiefflin on Robertsfield highway for markings, to ensure that Doe would win the elections during the recount. The results of the recount saw Doe winning with a slight majority. Thereafter, the AFL and Doe sealed their marriage of perpetuating themselves in power.

Towards the end of 1986 and the middle of 1987, arrangements had been concluded between the Governments of Liberia and Romania for the purchase and shipment of an unprecedented array of weaponry. It took the Ministry of Defense two weeks to haul this shipload of weapons from the Freeport of Monrovia (the author was in the G-4 Shop at the time). Test firing of the newly acquired MRL (Multiple Rocket Launcher) at the Schiefflin Barracks elevated the confidence of Doe and the AFL leadership of their consolidation of power and their preparedness to ‘deal’ with any coup or uprising!!!! The legacy of the 1989 rebellion has demonstrated that weapons without effective leadership, defined mission, cohesive military, and support of the population among others, cannot win battles or conflicts.

Taylor’s rebellion of 1989 further shattered the cohesiveness of the AFL. The AFL became so tribalised that command instructions were issued in Southeastern vernacular. Many southeasterners saw the AFL as their refuge for survival. The AFL saw themselves against the entire population, except those within the walls of the BTC, Executive Mansion and the surrounding areas of Camp Johnson Road, UN Drive and Sinkor. The AFL became a political tumor and lost the sacred trust of the population.

When the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) came to office in 1991, the public demanded that the status of the AFL be revisited. Thereafter, the Interim Government set up a Cabinet Committee, under the Chairmanship of the Defense Minister (Dr. Edward Beyan Kesselly) to recommend modalities for demobilizing and restructuring the AFL. Several months into its work, the Committee found that there were glaring discrepancies in the actual number of AFL forces being claimed on the payroll as compared to those really accounted for. The Committee treated figures from the AFL with circumspect. The argument presented to the committee at the time, due to discrepancies of numbers and available persons, was that “soldier die soldier takes his place”. Such response brought into question the professionalism and credibility of the AFL command leadership. Allegiance was a lost cause!!! When it came time for pay, the payroll had countless names. When it came time to send men to battle against the NPFL, you could hardly count a brigade of men available.

Based on available data and information obtained from the AFL, it was discovered that individually, citizens from Grand Gedeh, Lofa, and Bong Counties had higher percentages of personnel as members of the AFL than other counties. Personnel from Grand Gedeh were nearly two times (25.2%) the percentages of Lofa and Bong Counties (13.4% and 11.2% respectively). Grand Bassa, Rivercess, Grand Kru, Sinoe and Maryland Counties had a combined average of about 9.4% of the force structure. Nimba County had less than 6%. Collectively, the Southeastern Region represented nearly 60% of the composition of the AFL.

By contrast, assignments on the General and Special Staff levels of the AFL appeared balanced among the various counties. Despairingly, on the units’ level, there were more Colonels, Lt. Cols, Majors, Captains, and Lieutenants from the Southeastern Region in the AFL than at any time in its history. There were more commanders and officers than men and units to command. This was clear evidence of the total collapse of the regimented formation of the AFL and its Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E).

There was undisputable evidence that the AFL was unprofessionally large, tainted with accusations of abuses, poorly commanded, and blotted with officers. Through caucuses in BTC, the AFL top brass designed their own political agenda for survival and took on bargaining positions. Subsequently, what emerged was an AFL whose actions could only be described as a warring faction and party to the civil conflict.

Nevertheless, there existed a skeleton core of professional officers and men of the AFL (who were also in other factions), trained by the best military institutions in the US including France and Israel. Several of these individuals were motor vehicle technicians, finance and personnel specialists, medics, small arms repair specialists, and the remainders were infantry and special operations personnel. It is unfortunate to recall that one of these very fine officers was caught on tape shoplifting in the States, while attending a training program some years back.

Consequently, a logical conclusion was reached calling for the AFL to be demobilized, not only those who were conscripted after Taylor launched his rebellion, but also those brought into the AFL without being recruited through the G-3 shop, and successfully completing the required training at Tubman Military Academy (the recognized initial military training institution in the country), or those recruited through the Army Student Training Program (ASTP). The late Col. J. Maxwell Weah (of the G-3 Shop who was executed in 1985) along with Brig. Gen. Brapoh (also of the G-3 Shop who was executed at the executive mansion in 1990) were very strong advocates of an educated, trained and professional officers corp. To suggest that new recruits took their training at battalion headquarters, is to accept the known fact that such action was outside of the TO&E (Table of Organization and Equipment) of the AFL, and mission assignment of these units and institutions. AIT (Advanced Individual Training), after completion of initial training at TMA, could have been done either at TMA or as part of continuous training program and preparation at Brigade, Battalion or Units level.
To avoid a blurred distinction of the composition of the AFL as it was, it was recommended that the AFL be disarmed, demobilized and a restructuring process begin for the training and reconstituting of a new military.

The rational expectation was that the constitutional authority for the new military would be rewritten, taking into account the historical failure of the constitutional mandate and intent of the AFL as constituted and amended in 1956, so that it becomes an integral part of the rebuilding process of the country, utilizing the concept of a civic-oriented Military with a rapid deployment component. It was further argued that the AFL be reconstituted with a new constitutional mission, subject to irrevocable civilian authority. The Chairman of the Cabinet Committee, Dr. Kesselly was an unflinching proponent of the concept of a civic-oriented military whose TO&E would also comprise an Agriculture Battalion (engaged in helping to revamp national self-sufficiency and environmental growth), an Engineering Battalion (engaged in national reconstruction and training), and a Medical Corps (offering Medical services to the community as well).

The Committee felt that as part of the process of restructuring the new military with a redefined constitutional mission, military cooperation is sought with the US MILMISH (Military Mission), and some ECOWAS countries to provide the initial command leadership with the mission of training and developing a professional officer corps of the new Liberia military. There are historical precedents to changes in composition and mission of military organizations. The Japanese constitutional change of pacifism was based on its historical military experience. The Costa Rican model of non-obvious military environment has its own historical antecedent. Liberia’s historical nightmare must be a lesson for adapting to the reality for a change concept. The Committee felt that ideas had to be conceptualized in line with reality and developed, and must have a constitutional bearing, as well as international support. The death of Dr. Kesselly in 1993, and other political developments overshadowed these efforts.

Nevertheless, in 1997 immediately after taking over as President, Charles Taylor also constituted a Committee for ‘restructuring’ the AFL. More than half of the members of this Committee were from the AFL, who were evidently interested only in very big payoffs by the Government, but with a surreptitious intent of going nowhere. During the Committee’s presentation during the infamous ‘National Conference in 1998, it was also recommended that the AFL go through a process of restructuring, retraining and the development of a new officers corp. However, Taylor had his own plans for the AFL: “Cut it and kill it” - Total neglect and duplicity, until the AFL collapse as an institution without a penny spent. The AFL has all but collapse in name.

Consequently, managing the dilemma being faced with the AFL today, during this DDR process should be a priority. The composition of the AFL, as is its, may be divided among former forces of the AFL, NPFL, INPFL, ULIMO J, ULIMO-K, LPC, MODEL, Black Berets, Lofa Defense Forces, LURD forces, and the list could go on and on. Any attempt to reconstitute the AFL in its present form will be a disaster, even with the presence of the UN Peace Keeping Force, and catastrophic after elections. Pension should also be a nonstarter. The DDR package is the best option for beginning the disarming and demobilization process of the AFL. There are sufficient lessons to learn from neighboring Sierra Leone.

The DDR process must invoke a caveat that armed elements of the AFL who are being disarmed and demobilized will not return to be another part of remnants of the AFL who were not combatants but technicians, nurses, finance, personnel and non-combatants specialists The DDR process should be data-retrievable with photos scanned to ensure non-duplication during the process of demobilizing the remaining elements of the AFL prior to the restructuring process. A core element of professionals and specialists may be immediately identified to ensure the center hold, and those peripheral elements of foot soldiers are completely demobilized.

As our nation emerges from its long nightmare, it becomes a national emergency to invoke the debate for the fate of the AFL, during this transitional process and begin the road to recovery. The Transitional Legislative Assembly should not be relied upon to initiate this process. It would be unrealistic to expect that factional elements within the TLA, whose base also happens to be within the regional segment of the AFL, will authorize the dissolution of their power base.

The AFL must be disarmed, demobilized, reconstituted and retrained with a redefined constitutional mission. A Mission that will ensure that never again will our future military be used to kill its own citizens; never again will one ethnic group nor region control this new military; never again must this new military be the butcher house of the Executive Mansion. Never again must it be a sanctuary of one ethnic element/nor region of our country Never again must the nation be held hostage by the military because their power base is the ethnic presidency. Never again must the military be used in the process of ethnic cleansing. Never again must we have a military that will enter and shoot in churches, mosques, and displaced camps to kill civilians; never again must we have a military that is so feared by its civilian population, even though it is the tax payers who pay the military salaries and should be protected from external aggression. Never again must our military be a source of leadership for rebel movements, and coup plotters. Never again, must politicians for their selfish political ambition, manipulate our military.

With the presence of an overwhelming UN International Peacekeeping Force, and the focus of the international community, it is timely that the AFL be disarmed and demobilized and the process of reconstituting a new army is initiated. Handlers of this process should avoid the temptation of seeking to apportion the recruitment process on the basis of proportional representation among former armed factions. There should be clear distinction between regional representation and regional balance. Geographic balance is not the same as geographic representation. Achieving balanced representation should not be a requirement for the recruitment process. Neither should a quota system be allotted towards any county. Nearly the entire populations of Liberia have been displaced and have shifted during the last 14 years. As such, on what basis would apportionment be made – on the basis of size, or the last census over 25 years ago? Remember, it is proportional representation that has also brought this political mess of lack of accountability since elections 1997.

Wherein a constitutional argument is brought upon in defense of maintaining the AFL as it is, the burden of proof should be placed on the AFL to demonstrate the exercise of is constitutional responsibility, as well as its neutrality from all existing factions (we went for rat we got elephant???? Akosombo Peace Talks 1995).

The demobilization and restructuring of the AFL should be undertaken during the Bryant’s administration. The experience of Sierra Leone suggests that it will take at least eighteen months to D&D the AFL and begin the process of developing a reasonable Officers Corp, to lead the new military with its redefined mission. A new military should be ushered in as part of the process come elections 2005.

Regarding payment of pension benefits, the AFL should be no exception from other civil servants whom the Government has owed for a generation, specifically during the last quarter century. It will be a strategic mistake for the government to negotiate the process of disarming, demobilizing the AFL, and restructuring the new military. The AFL has demonstrated it has factional status, and thus is very prone to influences representing ethnic and regional interest (whether from Lofa or Montserrado or Nimba County or elsewhere). To do so, the AFL will create a political block of threats and hold the process hostage.

Let us take heed that failure to demobilize the AFL, and reconstitute a new military for the people of Liberia prior to elections 2005 will be a strategic disaster of chaotic proportion. The newly elected government after 2005 will be undermined and subsequently dethroned by the AFL in its present form. Don’t trust the faith and allegiance of the AFL as it is presently constituted. The best that has happened to the AFL has remained its matching band of dedicated musicians.

The author is a retired officer of the AFL, who briefly served as Special Assistant to the Minister of Defense, and later Deputy Minister of Defense for Operations. He presently resides in Tanzania. The views expressed herein are personal and not of his employer.