Liberia’s Troubled Disarmament Process
By Nim’ne E. Mombo
January 20, 2004
The Liberian disarmament program has been plagued by a number of unexpected problems. By and large these problems appear to have resulted from inadequate preparation and even possibly a lack of the requisite expertise/experience. Below is an outline of the relevant issues along with helpful suggestions for corrective measures:
1. UNMIL asked pro- Taylor combatants to rendezvous at ELWA Junction from all over Monrovia and its suburbs with their guns, but surprisingly with no organized transport provided to enable the fighters to get there. Given their bitter experiences with armed Liberian fighters, civilian drivers (commercial and private alike) generally refused, for good reason, to allow the gun- toting combatants into their vehicles. This basically meant that many fighters had to walk from wherever they were to the ELWA Junction. Anyone reasonably familiar with the Liberian situation knew or ought to have known that asking gun- toting Liberian fighters gather in such a manner was unacceptably risky and dangerous. It is commonly known that Liberian fighters of all stripes, whether pro- Taylor or anti- Taylor, are accustomed to victimizing civilians whenever they have the slightest opportunity to do so. They are just simply not accustomed to being so widely and so openly snubbed en mass by civilians especially when the combatants are armed and drugged. It therefore should not have come as any surprise to the authorities that the combatants were generally disagreeable by the time they reached their ELWA destination.
2. To make matters worse, the UNMIL transport facilities even at ELWA Junction for getting the combatants from there to ultimate destination were, according to news reports, so inadequate that “some fighters, including dozens of child soldiers, trudged to Scheifflin on foot,” while the more brazen ones among them simply “commandeered UN vehicles including a 12- seater bus to speed to the camp, or smashed passing vehicles.” (See Liberian Fighters on Rampage After Gun Cash Offer, by Alphonso Toweh, Reuters, Tuesday, December 9, 2003.).
3. Then came the final blow, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After all of the preceding, and having managed somehow to reach Camp Scheifflin, whether on foot or otherwise, the fighters were then told they would not be getting upfront US $300, as they had apparently expected all along. Instead, they would be paid $75 upon registration, with the balance of the US$300 to come in two subsequent installments. Though unhappy about this unexpected development, many combatants, according to news reports, did nonetheless hand in the guns they had with them. However, “thousands of others, unimpressed by the food rations, offers of psychological counseling and a promised $300 stipend, left Scheifflin and returned to Monrovia to run riot, the guns they had meant to leave behind blazing.” (Thousands of ex-fighters register, disarm in Liberia, World - AFP, December 18, 2003). When these joined other soldiers who had not yet reached Scheifflin and this other group “found out that a promised $300 would not be paid immediately, they went on the rampage.” (Liberian Fighters on Rampage After Gun Cash Offer, by Alphonso Tower, Reuters, Tuesday December 9, 2003). And this sadly is how the rioting, looting and as well as the deaths of December 8 & 9, 2003 appeared to have been sparked.
4. According to news reports, the fighters insist they had not been told, prior to arriving at Camp Scheifflin on December 8 2004 for disarmament, that they would be paid in installments. They had therefore expected to be paid US$300 each on that day. UNMIL has not denied that claim. Indeed, the UNMIL official who spoke to the press on this issue “declined to be named” i.e., he/she spoke to reporters on the issue only on condition of anonymity. (See Liberian Fighters on Rampage After Gun Cash Offer, by Alphonso Tower, Reuters, Tuesday December 9, 2003).
Sadly, the combined effects of these errors were widespread indignation among combatants that eventually resulted in 12 deaths (including two civilian deaths) and large- scale looting in the Paynesville suburb of Monrovia. One of the civilians “was shot point-blank eight times for refusing to hand over her car to fighters.” The other was “felled by a stray bullet, one of thousands of rounds of automatic weapons fired to strafe the city, sending panicked and war-weary residents fleeing.” (See At Least 12 dead in Liberia riots against UN disarmament program, AFP, Wednesday December 10, 2003). The other dead include “nine soldiers of the Armed Forced of Liberia of former President Charles Taylor [who] were killed in overnight clashes with UN peacekeepers” plus a tenth “fighter [who] was killed by UN peacekeepers Tuesday afternoon as he was trying to steal a vehicle.” (Ibid). The UN has “acknowledged there had been deaths in the rioting but refused to confirm that any were the result of gun battles with …peacekeepers.” (Ibid, Supra).
No doubt these horrific disasters, the deaths and the widespread looting (from civilians who are already dispossessed and traumatized) could have been easily avoided with better planning. One human life saved, one more needless death avoided (even in Liberia, a country so now accustomed to the wanton destruction of human lives) would have been well worth the modest cost and the little investment of time that the requisite arrangements would have entailed.
Why Was the Process Suddenly Suspended?
Barely one week after it began, the UN called a temporary halt to the disarmament program claiming that both they and the “meager resources at…Camp [Scheifflin], which had been equipped to register 400 fighter each day for a three- week demobilization process” had been “severely overtaxed” very quickly. (Thousands of ex- fighters register, disarm in Liberia, World-AFP, December 18, 2003). According to UNMIL’s chief Information officer, Margaret Novicki, Camp Scheifflin, where pro- Taylor forces were scheduled to be disarmed, “was meant for 1,000 combatants for the three- week demobilization.” The Camp “had been equipped to register 400 fighters each day for a demobilization process to include psychological counseling and preliminary vocational counseling” [All emphases supplied.] (Ibid, supra.)
With that number of fighters being processed there each day, says Novicki, “there is no way to service, feed and provide sanitation for 9,000 combatants in a camp intended for 1,000 combatants.” (UN postpones Liberia disarmament campaign after problem- filled first week, AFP, Monday, December 15, 2003). [All emphases supplied.] “We targeted 1,000 combatants at a time. That is exactly the facilities we have at Camp Scheifflin. But the Camp now is overstretched,” Novicki told reporters. (“UN Gives Reasons For Suspension of Disarmament in Liberia, But…” by I. Solo Kelgbeh, The Inquirer, Posted to the Internet by The Perspective, Atlanta, George, USA, December 17, 2003.)
Explanation Does Not Hold Water
The explanation attributed to the UNMIL, per above, if indeed it is UNMIL’s official explanation regarding the suspension of the disarmament process, simply does not hold water for the following reasons:
a) the demobilization process at this camp was scheduled to last three weeks;
b) the Camp “was meant for 1,000 combatants for the three- week demobilization;
c) the camp “had been equipped to register 400 fighters each day of [the] process;”
d) At that rate the Camp would have reached 1,200, and thereby already exceeded its scheduled capacity, within the first three days of the disarmament process.
Question: So, what arrangements did UNMIL have in place to accommodate the rest of the pro- Taylor forces for the remainder of the three- week disarmament process? What plans did they make to process more pro- Taylor fighters after the first three days? Or did they estimate government forces at only 1,000? Hardly. The UN has estimated the number of fighters to be disarmed at 40,000 to 45,000. Pro- Taylor forces probably account for more than a third of that number easily. So why did UNMIL limit its preparation to readying facilities for just one thousand fighters, if that indeed is what they really did?
As with the $300 and the ELWA rendezvous situations, this looks, smells and sounds suspiciously like another case of sheer failure to do the obvious, basic and commonsense things - i.e., secure and prepare the requisite facilities and provide skilled personnel in numbers sufficient to man the process. Be that as it may, one can only hope that whatever the real explanation for this decision, adequate steps will now be taken to ensure that the kind of needless disasters already experienced so early in the disarmament process will not be repeated.
Bad Formula, Poor Results
Meanwhile, there are other important disarmament- related problems to consider. The first of these pertains to UNMIL’s guns- for- cash arrangement, which basically works out to shelling out US $300 per combatant. The problem with this procedure is that it places unbalanced emphasis on the combatants and not enough emphasis on the guns in consideration of which they are to be paid this amount. The payment plan, as currently structured, does not contain enough incentives to encourage fighters to hand in all or even most of their guns. On the contrary, it will effectively encourage them to hand in the barest minimum they can get away with, collect $300 each and still keep a significant quantity of serviceable arms with which they may subsequently commit armed robbery or otherwise further victimize the civilian population at a later time. Even worse, a number of them may well be able, under the current structure, to collect $300, as “disarmed” combatants without actually surrendering any weapons.
Soldiers Without Guns?
There are already disturbing signs and suggestions that this trend may already be underway. For example, per THE INQUIRER, as reported on the Internet (December 9, 2003), government fighters at Camp Scheifflin have “turned in to UNMIL several AK 47 riffles, RPGs, M- 1s and G- 3s…most of which were rusty.” [Emphasis supplied.] As another example, per the WASHINGTON POST, “more than 11,0000 Liberian fighters have given up their weapons including 8,555 guns, since the start of a disarmament scheme meant to end 14 years of war…”
Eleven thousand fighters but only 8,555 guns? What happened to the other 2,445 guns? The difference calculates to 22 percent (or nearly one quarter) of those so far processed for disarmament. Were there that many fighters without guns? How could that have been? And if so were these really bona fide fighters? How about the possibility that a number of them may have registered more than once under different names and/or at more than one location? Indeed, are there really any bona fide fighters who do not have guns? Is it not more likely that many fighters will have more than one gun each? These and many other questions quickly come to mind regarding the current disarmament process. It is important that adequate steps are promptly taken to overcome these emerging difficulties.
In view of the preceding, and considering that some combatants have already been paid $75, it would seem best to modify the current formula thus: $75 at registration (as already done for some) plus an additional per- item amount ($75 or $100 or such other amount as the authorities may consider appropriate) for each serviceable weapon surrendered. Though doing so will definitely be quite tedious, it might be useful to also consider similar per- item payments (e.g. 25 cents, 50 cents, $1, $2, etc.) for ammunition or sets of ammunition surrendered. To push the basic idea even further, it might even help greatly to suitably classify the guns and their related ammunition and then price them accordingly. This way, members of a faction’s hierarchy can be paid a stipulated amount for, say, each artillery piece, surrendered by his/her unit. I assume that the leadership of each faction is likely to have much greater control over artillery units and other “big guns” than they do over riffles and various small arms that are carried and maintained by individual soldiers. Even if for valid reasons the per- ammo payment and/or payment according the class of weapon surrendered are not considered practicable, it would still be best to pay combatants on a per- gun basis in keeping with the format suggested above.
What is important is that the amount payable for each item should be sufficiently attractive to encourage all fighters to surrender as many weapons and as much ammunition as each can get hold of. Or where applicable to provide actionable information that will lead to forcible seizure of hidden weapons. This way, those who surrender more guns and/or more ammunition, will get paid more than those who either surrender just one gun (with or without ammo) or none at all.
A Well Publicized No-Questions- Asked Policy
Going along with the preceding should be an official no- questions- asked policy, which should also be very well publicized. Such a policy, taken along with the cash- per- weapon formula will encourage some fighters/ex- fighters not only to hand in their own weapons but additionally to bring all other weapons and ammunition they can lay their hands on - even if they have to steal them from others to do so. On this basis, those who might otherwise be tempted to hold on to their guns will see reason to turn them in promptly, out of fear that by keeping them they risk loosing the guns as well as the accompanying cash benefit to others.
To minimize the effects of any possible adverse reaction to a policy change in line with this suggestion, it would be best to discuss and agree relevant particulars with the Interim Government sufficiently in advance. Then UNMIL and the Liberian Government should JOINTLY announce that following a detailed consideration of all relevant factors, both have concluded that this is the most effective course of action. It will help to strategically position peacekeepers prior to such an announcement being made. The intent is to dissuade those who might otherwise be so tempted, to refrain from any disruptive behavior. If properly handled in this manner, any adverse effects resulting from such a change are likely to be minor and short- lived and therefore need not be a matter of undue concern. All in all, what matters most and should of greater concern to all is that the program will be a great deal more effective. When that is done, the people of Liberia will have greater confidence in UNMIL’s work and be that much more grateful to the peacekeepers for it.
Rehabilitation of Ex- combatants
Getting guns out the hands of combatants is without doubt an important aspect the disarmament process. But that is only one side of the equation for long- term peace. The other half requires that those disarmed be effectively rehabilitated psychologically, adequately retrained with practical skills and then properly reintegrated into normal society. Among other things, this will require qualified psychological counselors, suitable facilities for practical skill training as well as trained and experienced instructors to provide that training. It is doubtful that that the required facilities or trained personnel are available or, even if these were already available, whether the levels of skill training and the extent of psychological counseling required can be properly provided to ex- combatants within the three weeks provided for the rehabilitation/reintegration aspects of the current program. Therefore, this should be properly reviewed and workable solutions put into effect.
The rationale for these supplementary programs is that it is not enough to simply take guns physically from the hands of fighters, particularly the child soldiers among them. It is also just as important, perhaps even more important, to psychologically wean them away from a mentality of violence (with or without guns) as a way of life.
Unless there is already in place an ironclad procedure to prevent them from doing so, some fighters may well be able to register for disarmament in more at than one place and/or under more than one name and thereby get paid a good deal more money than they would otherwise be entitled to. Except for the money that would thereby be taken from other important aspects of the disarmament program, this by itself would not be a particularly serious issue provided those concerned do actually surrender serviceable guns each time. However, as already mentioned above, there are signs and suggestions that some combatants are either handing in non- serviceable weapons and/or are “disarming” without actually turning in any weapons.
If this were to actually happen on a large scale, assuming it has not already happened to that extent, it could vastly inflate and severely distort the number of fighters disarmed (and correspondingly distort the cost of the program) far beyond the level of actual disarmament. This may well undermine the effective implementation of other aspects (e.g. skills training and psychological counseling phases) of the broader disarmament program. Unless an effective procedure is promptly put in place to prevent this before the program is resumed on January 20th 2004, it could well lead to and result in a colossal failure of the current disarmament process. Outlined below is a suggestion that could prove highly effective in dealing with that prospect. It involves a user- friendly high-tech application that has already been effectively used in Liberia.
Use Existing Technology That Worked in Liberia
Before leaving Liberia recently, I worked part- time at the Don Bosco Polytechnic. Its main campus, located on Capital Hill, next door to the University of Liberia, is what used to be St. Patrick’s High School. In the Library there, we used an amazing computerized device that was donated to the School by the Salasians of Don Bosco in the United Kingdom.  Its principal features are a digital camera and an electronic fingerprint reader both of which are connected to a desktop computer with appropriate software. To be able to borrow a book from the library you must first register as a qualified student. To do this you simply place the print face of your thumb on the fingerprint reader, and face the camera. The operator makes a click or two and both your face and your thumbprint are promptly recorded. The operator then inputs appropriate particulars about you - your name, age (date of birth, if available), your address, college, etc.
Thereafter, each time you go to checkout a book, or simply want to see how you stand with the library, you again place your thumb on the device’s fingerprint reader and presto your face is flashed on the computer screen along with the appropriate particulars - your name, home address, etcetera as well as a history of your library transactions, comprising a listing of books (title, author, publisher, etc.) that you have previously checked out, when they were returned, if returned, books you still have outstanding, if any, and overdue penalties, if any, that may apply. This worked rather well for the library at the Polytechnic in Monrovia. Perhaps, with suitable adaptations, it could also work well for the disarmament program. Properly used, it should, within certain limits, be foolproof in a particular location against fraudulent attempts at multiple registrations.
Best To Check for A Multi- User Version
However, the program I am familiar with was used on one computer at a single location for every user of the system. Chances are very good that, as is standard for most popular software, a multi- user version is already available. In that case, it should be even easier to suitably adopt that version for use in the Liberian disarmament program. Otherwise, to be of maximum benefit in this case, the system, should UNMIL decide on using anything similar to it, would have to be suitably modified either for simultaneous use in multiple locations or alternatively for procedures to promptly amalgamate databases from multiple units in multiple and distant locations. In that case it would be necessary to contact the designers of the underlying software and agree suitable business arrangements with them for the Liberian operation.
A Suitable Business Arrangement Required
If approached on this matter and made a good enough business offer, say one millions USD or so, the program developers are likely to be more than happy and willing, even at very short notice, to suitably customize adaptations of their application for use in the Liberian disarmament process. When making such an arrangement, it would be best to also contract the program owners to staff its operation in Liberia. Because their reputation would clearly be on the line in this case, it will be in their business interest to make sure that the system works properly and reliably. This will also eliminate or minimize the risk of system failure, because others, who have reason to see it fail, might seek to deliberately sabotage the system in order to make it look impractical and unworkable in Liberia.
Also Useful for Voter Registration and Elections
If the suggested adaptation proves successful, it is easy to see how, with or without further changes, the modified program can then be additionally used for voter registration and then again for actual voting, not only in Liberia but wherever else there might be a need. This would be killing three very important birds with the same stone. Clearly it should be worth considering. What is required is the willingness to do the right thing at the right cost. Unless UNMIL already has in place satisfactory mechanisms and procedures to adequately address the issue of multiple and otherwise false registration of combatants, it would seem best that they promptly take steps to acquire the system outlined above or a satisfactory alternative. If necessary, the restart date of the program should be suitably extended to enable such a program to be properly put in place.
My suggestions for dealing with the various problems facing the disarmament program are already incorporated in the relevant preceding sections. They are summarized below:
1. Reformulate the payout scheme so that combatants are paid a base amount of $75 at registration plus an additional sum ($75, $85, $100 or such other figure that the authorities might consider appropriate) for each weapon surrendered. If considered appropriate and workable, pay them similarly for ammunition surrendered. Otherwise simply pay per gun and leave it at that. Then too, to thwart the machinations of various warlords, consider an appropriate Cash- For- Information program as a means of gaining prompt access to hidden weapons. Going along with these should be a well- publicized no- questions- asked policy. It is best to suitably involve the leadership of interim Liberian government in discussing, agreeing and announcing the relevant changes.
2. Identify and select strategic locations to serve as rendezvous points, making sure that combatants, when carrying guns, can readily reach them on foot from their residences without having to trek long distances.
3. On rendezvous days, strategically position peacekeeping troops along and between the routes to gathering sites. Also provide adequate transportation to pickup combatants from rendezvous locations to disarmament sites. This way, Liberian combatants, when carrying guns to rendezvous sites are not tempted, out of habit, to victimize civilians.
4. Ensure to properly educate combatants and the general populace on important details sufficiently in advance of event days, ensuring to employ communication media (e.g. oft repeated radio announcements/dramas, handouts, etc.) that all, regardless of age and education will clearly understand. It is particularly important to do this whenever critical details such as payout formulas and their timing are changed for any reason whatever.
5. Make adequate preparations to prevent multiple registrations. Consider possible adaptation of the electronic fingerprint- reader system used at Don Bosco Polytechnic. If considered useful, make appropriate business arrangements with owners of the system. Then additionally consider applying the adopted system to voter registration and elections. If need be, consider rescheduling the restart date of the disarmament process.
6. Ensure adequate skills training and psychological rehabilitation for all ex- combatants. This, if successfully done, will make them less likely to see and wand to use violence (with or with guns) as their means of livelihood.