Defense Minister Brownie Samukai
With similar questions being raised now about the contracting of military services by the US in Iraq and other places, the topic was a hot one and attracted a vast and varied audience from the US legislature, the US Administration and non-governmental organizations. For months, the future of the training of the Liberian army had become uncertain, due to a possible gap in funding. Signatories to the 2003 Liberian peace accord in Accra decided to scrap and rebuild the Liberia military and the US accepted to fund the project. The training was contracted to a private entity, DynCorp.
Just as Minister Samukai arrived with his delegation to kick off his speaking tour that was to take him to various US government institutions and Liberian community meetings in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, among others, US President George Bush signed to release $11 million in funding for the training of another 500 troops of the prospected 2,000 troops strong army. Currently, and according to the Defense minister, the private contractor has completed the training of about 105 men and women for the new army. By this time, the army should have been half-way in completion. Funding gap is to be blamed for the slow pace and interruption in the program, something that would be corrected by the recent allocation.
Minister Samukai found himself in a very delicate position. The contractor, DynCorp, did not report to him or to any Liberian institution. They received their funding and orders from Washington, channeled through the embassy. The Defense ministry knows very little, if anything of the terms of the contract. Last February, USIP conducted a discussion on the Liberian security sector reform that brought on the podium Jacques Klein and two formers employees of DynCorp. After hearing about the panel and its composition, Minister Samukai sent a note to the organizers, saying that although he was not invited, he thought necessary to gives his input, which he limited to pointing out that two of the speakers – the guys from DynCorp – had no understanding of the issue at hand may not be the best people to discuss security reforms in Liberia. Dr. Bekoe, who had organized the panel through the Liberian Working Group at USIP decided to invite the minister at a later date to present his case. And he did.
Minister Samukai took a most unusual approach in addressing the issue on his plate. He never mentioned the name of the contractor. He did not talk about what they did right or what they did wrong. He made the case by bringing into the picture a group of active military medics who came to Liberia to train combat medics.
Minister Samukai went on to compare the two processes of training. The army was being trained by contractors and the medics were being trained by US active duty personnel (ADP). Minister Samukai laid out the case and allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions. He however said that if given the choice, the government of Liberia would definitely prefer to have its military trained by active duty personal rather than contractors.
In his presentation and drawing parallels between the two instances, Minister Samukai said that the ADP who trained the medics were focused on their mission rather than the terms of their contract. They did not look into their bank account every day to find out if funds had been made available or not to undertake the next level of activities. They consulted with local institutions and worked closely with the Ministry of Defense at every step. They reported to an entity that was visible and to whom they were accountable. They were transparent in their dealings with the Liberian government and they showed respect for local authorities, customs and laws.
Minister Samukai did not speak of DynCorp directly. However, in his opening remarks, he lauded the contractors for their efficient work in the vetting process and the subsequent training of the first badge of soldiers. Minister Samukai described in detail the recruitment process. He said candidates had to be at least high school graduates, and after passing a physical fitness exam, had to go through a vetting process where members of the community could come forward and speak of the character of the candidates.
Fielding questions during his many discussions both at USIP and with Liberian communities in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, DC, Samukai said that the new soldiers will learn professional skills while in the army. He said these new skills will give soldiers a brighter outlook on life after the military. Addressing the issue of tribal balance in the new force, Samukai said that according to statistics from the recruitment, no single tribe or region account for more than 16 percent of the total number, with Grand Geddeh and Nimba providing the lowest numbers. Recruitment was done on a voluntary basis; therefore nobody could really influence the process. Women comprise about 3 percent of the total.
Security remains the most important issue in Liberia recovery process. For the past 30 years, the country has come to be known as one of the most instable places on the African continent. From 1979 Rice Riots to the civil war launched by Charles Taylor in 1989 and during the 14 years that followed, the country lost all form of security net. Companies fled, embassies shut down and the country became the poster child of failed statehood, second only to Somalia. The rebuilding of Liberia will rely in great part on the private sector and the return of thousands of Liberian professionals in the Diaspora and this will depend on a safe environment. The question both investors and Liberian asked is always: “How safe is the country?” This makes the security reform a major priority.
As Samukai noted during his talk at USIP, this is not the first time that the US is training the Liberian military. It has done so numerous times in the past. However, the Liberian military has always failed to live up to expectations. In the early 1980s, the US spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Liberian military. However, a ragtag army of child soldiers overran them in less than 6 months in 1989. The greatest resistance rebel groups ever faced in their multiple attempts to take over Monrovia during the many years was through the actions of the Black Berets, a para- military group trained in guinea by the Interim government of Dr. Sawyer and led by the same Brownie Samukai, at the time Deputy Minister of Defense. Currently, a new rapid deployment contingent with elements from the police and the military is also being trained.
Security and safety constitute the cornerstone of Liberia’s emergence from its recent chaotic past. If the US wants to help and provide the logistics, it must involve the Liberia government and its institutions in the process. It will be interesting to see if relations between the government of Liberia and the contractors move to another level in the future for a better coordination and transparency. After all, it is the Liberian army that is being trained. Samukai made a case before the US State Department, the Pentagon as well as at the Congress where he met with professional staffers. One does not look in the mouth of a gift horse but when your life and security depend on that gift, you have every right to raise questions.
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