Reorganizing the Liberian Military for External Defense & Internal Peacekeeping


(A Speech Delivered at the African Methodist Episcopal University, Monrovia, Liberia, March 2005)


By Syrulwa Somah, PhD

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 7, 2005


Dr. Levi Zangai, President, AMEU; the faculty, students, and staff of AMEU, distinguished platform associates, fellow Liberians, friends of Liberia, ladies and gentlemen.

I am humbled by the opportunity to address the faculty, staff, and student body of this great institution. My organization, the Liberian History, Education, and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE) has prepared a proposed curriculum for a Liberian studies program at every higher institution of learning in Liberia. I plan to present a copy of the proposed curriculum to your president for consideration by your university.

In the meantime, members of my delegation and I are grateful to God for giving us the opportunity to visit the land of our birth. We are very happy to be in Liberia at this historic time. Our trip was slightly delayed due to airline problems, but we are glad we could be here to share a few words with all of you - my sisters and brothers. Of course, the moment the news broke that I would be traveling to Liberia with Liberian native and U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Jonah Tarley to conduct a workshop on reorganization of the Liberian military, many persons got the wrong impression that I was stepping outside the area of my professional training. I received written and verbal concerns from some of you, and I appreciate your concerns. But I want to assure you that in everything I do, I usually try to understand the politics of the day so as to guide my steps in my endeavor to contribute to the redevelopment of Liberia. My goal in discussing the reorganization of the Liberian military is not to present myself as an expert on the Liberian military, nor do I aspire to be a military expert on Liberia in the future. I harbor a desire, nevertheless, to share my views with all of you, just as I have done in the past with topics on malaria, the environment, Liberian studies, and electoral divisions.

I believe one of the key issues at the heart of future peace and stability in Liberia is the composition of the Liberian military. The military in any country is the first line of defense against external aggressions and internal disturbances. But once the military is promoted or demoted (your choice) to the status of “warring faction,” as occurred with the Armed Forces of Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil wars in Liberia, then the need to reorganize the military becomes very important in winning back lost public trust and respect. In this context, I believe that in order for the Liberian military to ever regain the trust and confidence of the Liberian people, it would have to be reorganized to reflect an ethnic balance, a professional code of ethics, and a professional public standing in society. I will now invite you to reason with me as together we discuss the history of the Liberian military, its purposes, its goals, and its future viability.

Many of you can remember that prior to 1980, the Liberian military was the least regarded public institution in Liberia. Many persons (Liberians and outsiders) saw the Liberian military not as a viable public institution for providing external security and internal stability, but as an institution deserving only of the least educated and less ambitions people amongst us. But the events of 1980 showed that the Liberian military did have people with great ambitions - persons with personal, political, educational, and cultural ambitions - than we had all imagined. The coup of 1980 therefore transformed the Liberian military into the new powerbrokers in Liberia, while career Liberian politicians rushed back to the drawing board to see what went wrong. And, by way of political miscalculations, our nation and people were consumed by 14 years of two brutal civil wars without any clear winners. However, the Liberian military is yet to recover from its strained relations and poor image with the Liberian people for what it did or did not do during the civil wars.

During the war years between 1989 and 2003, government leaders expected the Liberian military to fight with all its might to crush the invading forces, while the commanders of the invading forces expected the Liberian military to sit back and watch the power-play. And because the Liberian military was not confronting external forces but Liberians fighting among themselves for political power, the command and control structure of the Liberian military disintegrated and individual interests took hold over national interest. The loss of command and control in the Liberian military prolonged the civil wars. As a result, the Liberian nation today lies in total ruins, while the Liberian people now live on handouts from international relief agencies and friends and relatives from abroad.
However, as we prepare to elect new national leaders in October 2005, in the hope of restoring normal life to all Liberians, we need to concentrate our efforts on maintaining internal stability. And the only public institution (to some extent the national immigration, security, and police services) charged with maintaining internal stability and protecting all Liberians against external security threats is the Liberian military. Never mind if the civil wars occurred from within or without because there are always two kinds of operative forces at play in any war situation. One operative force is characterized by patriotism, love, justice, harmony, and the well being of all citizens. The other operative force is characterized by parasitism and works like predatory ants with the instinct to attack and kill everything in its path. This second operative force is also myopic, visionless, and narrow minded, and loyal only to greed and the selfish exploitation of others.

In other words, the civil wars in Liberia were brutal in shape and yielded no positive benefits to the Liberian people. We need to pick up the pieces after the civil wars and start the rebuilding of our country. Perhaps, the senseless nature of the civil wars gave us practical reasons why our forefathers could never welcome violence and warfare as a possible solution to political and economic problems. Therefore, regardless of the magnitude of provocation, regardless of the general public provocation, and regardless of individual hatred, our ancestors saw war as an unwise approach to settling our differences and dissatisfactions. Hence, the slaughtering of our oral historians, musicians, academicians, politicians, civilians, and military leaders and the destruction of our national infrastructures were certainly an indelible national calamity that did not bring about the desired national peace and stability we sought. I hope we have learned a hard lesson.

. Nevertheless, we still have the chance to secure the peace and stability we want in Liberia. We need to reorganize and equip the Liberian military to become a force for external defense and internal peace and security. But the task of reorganizing the military requires the collective effort and undivided attention of all Liberians. I believe reorganization of the Liberian military should be the “real election” that each of us should cast our ballots for in October. It was the uncontrollable “bum-bum” of the guns that sent our fellow men and women to mass graves. Our statesmen and women, our political leaders, our religious leaders, our media executives, and our legislature must ensure that our military is not only reorganized but also that new recruits of the military of the 4th Liberian republic must be our finest, sincerest, nationalist, and patriotic sons and daughters. The new Liberian military and military recruits must be completely insulated against any concept or precept of communal violence and unprofessional activities.

Early this year, during a symposium organized and hosted by LIHEDE on “Civil Liberties, Collective Security, and National Development in Post-Conflict Liberia,” Lt. Jonah Tarley - the gentlemen right here in the audience - presented a paper on reorganization of the Liberian Army, in which he called for the reinstitution of the county militias, a constitutional ban against military coups and mutinies in Liberia, among other topics. Lt. Tarley suggested the following as reflective of the heterogeneous structure of the Liberian society, and what the composition and role of the military should be in the new Liberian society.

· The principle of civil control over the military must be paramount in a democracy [such as the one Liberia is desiring to build].
· The selection rates for promotion should be strictly controlled to the levels permitted by the rank structure of the military, for example a company of 150 Personnel will compose of one Captain, 2 Lieutenants etc.
· Measures should also be taken to maintain the quality and morale of the [military] leaders at the highest pitch.
· Every conceivable step should be taken to ensure that military officers rise above their regional, religious, and tribal origins and acquire a truly Liberian personality. Thus only can the military succeed as the laboratory for the national integration of Liberia.

· Liberia needs to move toward a system of military organization that combines a very small standing military with a somewhat larger reserve force…In colonial times, militaries were more likely to impose the government's will on the people than to defend the nation from external aggression. A reserve system would also facilitate military downsizing.

· The Liberian Constitution should have zero tolerance for forceful seizure of power. The military usually suspend the Constitution after a take over. One approach, therefore, could be to draft a section [of the constitution] that emphasizes that the Constitution is not suspendable.

· Further, we need to strengthen the language of our 'anti-coup' clause with a Ghanaian type quotation. In its 1992 constitution, Sec. 3 (4) declares that: "All citizens of Ghana shall have the right and duty at all times- (a) To defend this constitution, and in particular to resist any person or group of persons seeking to commit any of the acts referred to in clause (3) of this article; and (b) To do all in their power to restore this constitution after it has been suspended, overthrown, or abrogated as referred to in clause (3) of this article". The constitution goes on in sub-section 5 to say: "Any person or group of persons who suppresses or resists the suspension, overthrow or abrogation of this constitution as referred to in clause (3) of this article, commits no offence" (LIHEDE Symposium Archives, 2005)

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I think Lt. Tarley made a compelling case for reorganizing and strengthening the Liberian military to promote internal peace and stability in Liberia. But I think we could go a step further. First I think we must appreciate that the Liberian military has come a long way since 1839 when the first militia forces - the forerunner of the Liberian Frontier Force and the Armed Forces of Liberia - were organized at the county and regional levels to protect the territorial integrity of Liberia. Under Article IX of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Liberia, adopted on January 5, 1839 by the Board of Directors of the American Colonization Society, the goals and objectives of the Liberian militia were as follows:

1. The Governor and Council shall have power to provide a uniform system of military tactics and discipline: to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the Commonwealth:
2. To declare war in self-defence
3. To make rules concerning captures on land and water:
4. To make treaties with the several African tribes, and to prescribe rules for regulating the commerce between the Commonwealth of Liberia and such tribes; except that all treaties for the acquisition of lands shall be subject to the approval of the American Colonization Society:

5. To prescribe uniform laws of naturalization for all persons of color. All persons now citizens of any part of the Commonwealth of Liberia shall continue to be so, and all colored persons emigrating from the United States of America, or any District or Territory thereof, which the approbation, or under the sanction of the American Colonization Society, or of any Society auxiliary to the same, or of any State Colonization Society of the United States, which shall have adopted the Constitution of the American Colonization Society, shall be entitled to all the privileges of citizens of Liberia; except the same shall have been lost or forfeited by conviction of some crime.

Of course, some of the functions of the militia forces, as defined under the 1839 constitution, may be outdated and may no longer be applicable to the modern Liberian military. However, the general goals of the militia forces in preparing at all times to promote internal peace and security, and protect and defend the territorial integrity of Liberia remained the same for the Liberian military today. Some of the militia’s functions have since been transferred to selected cabinet entities and legislative bodies, but the coast guard and other national security duties remained key functions of the Liberian military. In fact, up to 1980, Liberia still had militia forces that participated in public parades every Armed Forces Day, although the Liberian national militia was replaced by the Liberian Frontier Force in 1908, and subsequently by the Armed Forces of Liberia in the 1950s.

In “Liberia: A Country Study,” author Harold Winson writes, “The organization of the Hinterland and the effort to establish effective control there through indirect rule had come as a direct response to British and French intervention in the region. Another product of Liberia's territorial disputes with the two colonial powers was the formation of the Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) in 1908. The mission of the 500-man force was to patrol the border in the Hinterland but, more important, it was organized to prevent the sort of disorders that invited intervention. The LFF was placed under the command of a British officer, who recruited most of his troops in Sierra Leone. The French initially regarded the LFF as a "British army of occupation," but their demand that French officers and colonial soldiers be assigned to it as well was disregarded.” Similarly, according to Global Security, “The Liberian Frontier Force (LFF) later evolved into the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The Liberian Frontier Force was the agency for tax collection and the enforcer of government fiat. The idea for collecting taxes was for the Americas to not get bogged down in the dirty work of extracting forced labor. Therefore, members of the Liberian Frontier Force were mainly from the tribes, initially the northern tribes. First there was a language barrier…” (

By the 1980s, the Armed Forces of Liberia boasted of six infantry battalions, one engineering battalion, one field artillery battalion, and one support battalion. Of the six battalions, the First Infantry Battalion at Camp Schieffelin and the Second Infantry Battalion at Camp Todee, both in Montserrado County, along with the Sixth Infantry Battalion at Tubmanburg, Bomi County comprised the tactical or fighting forces intended to deter outside aggression, while the Third Infantry Battalion at BTC, Montserrado County, the Fourth Infantry Battalion at Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County, and the Fifth Infantry Battalion at Gbarnga, Bong County comprised auxiliary personnel who usually performed extensive police, customs, immigration, and tax collection duties. Many Third Infantry Battalion personnel were also used in the “Monrovia area to guard installations or to serve as cooks, drivers, or aides to officers and other officials” ( “The Support Battalion, also based at the BTC, was composed of the Medical Company, the LNG Brigade Band, the Brigade Special Unit (a parade formation), and the Military Police,” Global Security said.

Before 1980, the Liberian military served in various domestic roles such as tax collectors and security guards. The ruthless manner by which the Liberian Frontier Force collected the Hut Tax from rural Liberian peasants or put down the Kru revolt in 1915 and the Grebo revolt in 1910 are painful reminders of the need to reorganize the Liberian military to play its role as protectors of the Liberian homeland against outside aggression and the enforcers of internal peace. And I know the Liberian military is capable because Henry Koboi Johnson proved that the Liberian military was a capable fighting force during the Congo war in the 1960s. But there is need for improvement. “In 1984 plans had been drawn up to standardize the tactical units. It was proposed that the First, Second, and Sixth Infantry battalions would all operate at a uniform strength of 580 men (39 officers, two warrant officers, and 539 enlisted men). These units were to be equipped with trucks to facilitate their mobility, and each was to be organically equipped with weapons and other materiel to enable it to conduct sustained operations as a mechanized infantry force” according to Global Security.

While the tactical improvement of the Liberian military took root in 1984, President Tolbert did take steps to reform, if not to reorganize, the Liberian military from a domestic errand corps of “inherent problems of divided, uneducated, poorly trained” national force to a sophisticated and equipped military force. It was therefore no mistake that President Tolbert wrote an official letter to the University of Liberia and Cuttigton University College asking students at those institutions to enlist in the Liberian army. However, the universities had been radicalized so the president’s vision to have educated sons and daughters of Liberia to enlist in the Liberian military fell on unfertile ground. Only few college educated Liberians responded to the president’s letter, but we can only imagine what the outcome would have been.

Fellow countrymen and women, for nearly 14 years we have been engaged in a war that threatens our people with total destruction. During the upcoming elections we need to pause for awhile and take stock of ourselves, to consider our past, our successes notwithstanding, to consider our future, our aspirations and our fears. The destructiveness of the civil war ought to bring our humanity to a spiritual crisis, borne out of the physical nightmare each of us endured. Greed and hatred finally reached such intensity that everyone became weary of them. And the only alternative left to war and human suffering is for us to stop hating and to love, to stop wanting and to give, to stop dominating and to serve. This is my message to you. This is the hope that I have come with so that you and I will move mountains. War teaches that even the man in the street can rise to the greatest heights of sacrifice for a selfless cause. War teaches that all the mundane things of the world - wealth, power, fame, family and even the very tenor of life on earth - are transitory and devoid of lasting value.

Post-conflict Liberia deserves a military whose codes of professional military conduct would dictate that promotions be determined by ability, expertise, and education. The military, for instance, needs to believe that civilian leaders are selected by legitimate means and that the leaders are fair, competent, and honest. The military needs to be respected, its counsel adequately considered on strategic issues affecting the Liberian nation. The military needs to enjoy its autonomy on matters that are strictly internal to the military, and the military must believe that civilian leaders and society at large will see service in the military as an honorable profession. The military budget must be fair and proportionate to other national security agencies’ budgets, and military service must be adequately rewarded without favor. Members of the Liberian military must as well see their service and allegiance as holistic to Liberia rather than to specific regions, tribes, groups, or individuals.

The military must understand that international businesses prefer civilian rule to military rule, and for purposes of promoting investments in Liberia, the Liberian military personnel must avoid coup d’etats, limit active involvement in politics, and refrain from other activities that may be incompatible with military professionalism or may detract from the promotion of national security. Similarly, civilian officials must believe that military leaders are competent, honest, and effective, and that they deserve autonomy or authority over certain internal issues. Civilians must believe that politicization of the military would detract from national security and political stability even though it might bring short-term gains to civilian leaders who manipulate the military. As Lt. Tarley noted in his presentation at the LIHEDE symposium, "Military intervention into civilian affairs is usually not by military groups. In most cases, civilians turn to the military for political support when civilian political structures and institutions fail, when factionalism develops and constitutional means for the conduct of political action are lacking. The civilians, therefore, begin to indoctrinate the military with their political ideologies.” This passage is so true that the entire Liberian society needs to share these beliefs, and should feel that the military represents the nation as a whole rather than one region or segment.

It is always an exceeding joy to connect with one’s birth land, a land beneath which the ancestral fossils and umbilical cord are buried for eternity. The memory of Liberia, a land that has given me so much of nurturing, a land so enchanting, so fascinating, is always alive in my life no matter where I go and no matter what I do. This land, with its rainforest, jungle rhythms, oceanic tranquility, sea and rivers is my Jordan River. I do not want to see any more civil wars in Liberia, nor do I want to see Liberia at war with its neighbors. I do not want to see a Liberian military that doubles as tax collectors, prison guards, security guards, police officers, cooks, drivers, or immigration officers. I want to see the engineering battalion of the Liberian military building bridges and roads. I want to see the Liberian military away from the public centers into their assigned barracks undergoing basic and advanced military training. I want to see a reorganized military that will win the respect of the Liberian people.
Along these lines, ladies and gentlemen, I want to join Lt, Tarley in making the following recommendations toward the reorganization of the Liberian military:

· Re-establish a militia force nation-wide in each county to serve as first line of defense against outside invaders.
· Establish special schools for children of military personnel.
· The AFL should not be more than 10% of the national population (3 million) and should be ethnically balanced. Such a figure would ensure adequate care and other incentives for our men and women in arms and their families.
· All enlisted personnel must be at least high school graduate beginning the next five to ten years.
· All generals, brigadiers; and other military officers must be first degree holders in military science beginning the next 10 to 15 years.
· Free or subsidized housing and life and retirement benefits should be given to every qualified Liberian military personnel.
· Reorganize the military and hold peace seminars (military for peace program) to be delivered by the military personnel throughout Liberia and via radio.
· Reorganize the military and help all personnel to acquire applied skills as electricians, carpenters, masons, agriculturists, classroom teachers, mechanics, environmentalists, or farmers in order to foster national development.

Ladies and gentlemen,. we all must work harder to make our nation stronger by bringing the government and the military closer to the Liberian people. We must make every national development plan transparent to the Liberian people, beginning with reorganization of the military for internal peace and external security. Thank you.

Dr. Somah is Executive Director, Liberian History, Education & Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), Greensboro, NC, & Associate Professor, Environmental and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC, USA