From Instrument of Oppression to Civic Protective Duty: Challenges of the New Liberian Military

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 2, 2006


Ministry of Defense
During his recent official visit to Washington, DC, the first such visit by any Liberian Minister of Defense in the past 20 years, Mr. Brownie Samukai spent much of this time explaining to officials of the US government what type of military Liberians were hoping to get at the end of the current restructuring program. From the States Department to the Department of Defense and DYNCORP the training agency of the new army, Mr. Samukai emphasized that Liberia wanted a military that understands its role as that of protecting and serving rather than terrorizing, a military that knows that it has no command over the civilian authority and definitely, an army that just doesn’t sit I idly, playing cards and planning military coups. The military in Liberia has had a very checkered past and the prospect of creating a new one raises more questions than it brings assurances.

As a former Colonel of the Armed Forces of Liberia and former director of the national police, Minister Samukai was the best-suited interlocutor to discuss the restructuring of the Liberian military.

Creating a new military and changing its image in the psyche of Liberians is a daunting task that would require a multi-layered approach that must include – beyond basic military training – a good dose of civic education and much public relations to change the perceptions of the public towards the military and the vision of the military regarding its own role in a new Liberia.

In the 1980s, the United States government, in the heat of the Cold War, provided close to $500 million to the regime of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. Most of that money went strengthening the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), for training and purchasing hardware. However, when the ragtag army of Charles Taylor launched is rebellion, it quickly put the soldiers on the run. By the time Samuel Doe was captured and tortured to death by Field Marshall (now senior Senator) Prince Y. Johnson, his “mighty” American-trained army was reduced to a few loyalists, mostly from his ethnic group who had turned into death squads that carried out summary executions in the darkness of Monrovia.

After Charles G. Taylor ousted Doe and outmaneuvered other warring factions in the 1990s, he clothed his former child soldiers with flashy uniforms and they became the new AFL. Having reached power through the barrel of the guns, Taylor believed in the mightiness of the military. He created what he thought was a strong protective military that should have kept him in power at least until 2020. But under attacks from rebels of the Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and MODEL, Taylor’s military superstructure crumbled and he had to seek refuge in Calabar before being celled in Freetown.

The forerunner of the AFL was called the Frontier Force, set up in early days of the Liberian nationhood, to protect the borders of the new republic from the marauding British and French colonial powers. But instead of protecting Liberia’s borders, the Frontier Force became an instrument of intimidation and oppression in the hands of the settlers’ oligarchy. When it was not carrying “notables” in hammock around the country, it was beating tribal chiefs who could not amass enough money to pay the Hut Tax, forcing young men to tap rubber or having them shipped into forced labor camps in the sugar cane plantations of Fernando Po.

It was certainly against this background that the former Special Representative of the UN in Liberia, Mr. Jacques Klein said that Liberia, instead of an army, only needed a police force. His comment was made in the aftermaths of the Accra Peace talks where Liberians had agreed to disband completely the AFL and set up a new military. Klein added that African armies do not but played cards and carry out coups. Indeed, very few armies in Africa ever resisted rebel incursions, be it in Congo, Uganda, Chad, Sierra Leone, Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire. But over the years, African armies have successfully carried out at least successful 120 military coups.

Against this background and the history of men and women who bore arms in the past 20 years in Liberia, recreating a new army, with new ideals and a new image is a bigger challenge than expected.

Are the people of Liberia ready to trust any military personnel besides peacekeepers? Can anyone instill a sense of discipline and civism in Liberian youth and turn them into soldiers, after so many have been affected by the war? Does the contractor – DYNCORP - have the time and the means to uncover and resolve the deep-seated social and psychological problems that the whole citizenry holds against the military within the time frame and budget allotted?

The issue about funding and timeline in forming the new army must not be brushed aside easily. According to Dr. Peter Pham, a law professor at Georgetown and author of several articles and a book on Liberia, both the number of 2,000 soldiers and the duration of the training were reached upon because of the amount of money allotted to the program. In other words, things are done to fit a budget, instead of the other way around. The Liberian army is being trained to fit a budget. Does anyone see a problem down the line?

Liberia needs a new army, that can not only defend its borders, on land, sea and air but also take part in the reconstruction process, rebuilding the national infrastructure destroyed by men-in-arms and restore confidence between civilians and the military, destroyed by men-in-arms, from the Frontier Force to the AFL, SATU, ATU and others.

Minister Samukai believes the requirements put in place for the recruitment would lead to the creation of a professional army that would protect the nation against outsiders and insiders. “We are talking about at least a four year training process. In the past, we have had these crash courses but now, we must realize that that caused some of the problems we encountered.” Starting a program is one thing, but carrying it out to maturation is a whole different thing.

Although the conflict in Liberia had its sources in the social and political inequities of the past, the nature of the security forces, how they were trained and their political orientation have greatly contributed to the gravity of the war. A professional army would have allowed Samuel Doe to repel the rebel attack and a re-structured military under ECOWAS would have spared Taylor exile and jail.

According to plans under way, the army would only accept for the rank-and file young men women who have graduated from high school. Those vying for the corps of officers must be all college graduate. According to Minister Samukai, the president is “looking for an army that would have least a 20 percent female component.” After the basic training, the contractors will train a group of trainers. At the end of 2008, the new Liberian military should become operational. But again, one must ask the question: is it possible to train a totally new military in just two years? Against the background of the recent national political turmoil with its military implications, one could presume that it could take at least four years to turn young civilians into professional soldiers, the same time it takes to turn a high school graduate into a young professional coming out of college.

The number of soldiers to be trained – 2,000 – could be acceptable if the formation was thorough and carried out long enough to create a real professional army with all the means at its disposal to carry out its duty. Professionalism goes beyond the possession of sophisticated weaponry; it includes foremost a state of mind that will make the new soldiers respectful of life and property. The new Liberian military must break with its rebellious and gang-like mentality, prone to looting and killing and to perceive themselves as instruments of peace and stability, respecting and protecting civilians and taking orders from the civilian authority?

The interaction of Minister Samukai and American sponsors is a new beginning in forging what the president has termed “a responsible partnership with donors.” Although Liberia may not yet possess the means to provide all it now stands in need of for the reconstruction process, it certainly has a clear view of what it needs. That vision and the long-term national interest must serve as basis of any venture. Telling our partners what is good for us is the first step in building responsible partnership.

Security is an important aspect of the national recovery process and it must be done with much care to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

If a new conflict were to break out somewhere in the world and the UN were forced to draw down troops, Liberia could be in a very dangerous and vulnerable position.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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