Disarmament Day One: Lessons Learnt

By: Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 16, 2003


It appears that anything that could have gone wrong on the first day of disarmament did go wrong. A large number of disgruntled militias belonging to the defunct Government of Liberia were seen on the ELWA Road and in other areas including Paynesville, Congo Town and nearby locations menacingly brandishing their weapons and incessantly shooting "into the air." In the Paynesville area, near the red light, the shooting erupted during the daytime and was followed by a lull. At about 2300 hours the shooting began again and continue until dawn when it subsided. There was sporadic gunfire the following day and residents were exercising caution in going about their work. They were not necessarily panicked, not yet anyway.

Some of the militias, who were crowded into a truck and running at break neck speed, were singing "No money, No Gun." On the morning of December 9, the Morning News broadcast reported that the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), Charles Gyude Bryant, said that each militia person turning in a weapon would be paid US$75.00. Why did Mr. Bryant choose to make this statement now and not long before and every other day until December 7?

As well, was there adequate preparation to accommodate those who wanted to be disarmed? Does UNMIL have sufficient resources to attend to its obligations in regards to disarmament? Is the cantonment site, in this case Camp Shiefflein, too small to accommodate all those who turned out to trade in their weapons? An affirmation to any of these questions would give credence to some of the concerns raised by the warring factions. They have complained in the past of the inadequacies of the disarmament process and the fact that the total number of cantonment sites have not been established. This suggests that they may view simultaneous disarmament has a pre-requisite. A MODEL spokesperson has told reporters that there was poor planning related to the implementation of the DDRRP.

Some of us, including this writer have been critical of the warring factions and for good reasons but the conduct of the first day of disarmament needs to be thoroughly examined in light of the concerns raised by the various warring factions. For starter, how much public awareness campaign preceded the first day of disarmament and what were the content of the campaign? To my knowledge not much awareness took place, if any at all. We have seen a lot of public awareness campaigns on the radios and newspapers and public awareness events in select communities regarding the "back to school program" and the observance of World AIDS Day on December 1 but nothing of significance around disarmament. Why?

Since the DDRRP program was released to the public, I have not seen nor heard much public debates and/or discussions about its tenets, relevance and prospects for its effective implementation. Public awareness is an important ingredient in implementing any policy measure. For example, militia members have been heard saying that once they turned in their weapons, they expected to get US$300.00 in return. Little did they know that the amount would have been parcelled out in instalments. Thus when the militiamen/women got to Schiefflein and did not get the US$300.00, some refused to turn in their weapons. Another important aspect to public awareness is to galvanize local communities in ensuring that those who reside in their midst and are armed, would be made to turn in their weapons. No doubt such a method is necessary if indeed Liberia is to be "gun free".

Aside from public awareness is the issue of public participation in the conceptualisation and formulation of the DDRRP itself. As has been noted elsewhere by this writer, the writing of the draft DDRRP did not include any Liberian group and not even the Liberian government. Conceivably, some of the problems that have been encountered could have been avoided. For example, what required capacity should have been developed at Camp Shiefflein to accommodate the combatants and what was the real strength of the combatants in and around the Monrovia area? The warring factions, UNMIL and Liberian leaders and organizations could have held a discussion on these matters. No doubt, the outcome of such a meeting would have had different results than those that have obtained in the recent past.

Another avoidable problem is explained in the following. I am told that at Camp Schiefflein, when a militia person turns in a weapon, a non-Liberian conducts the interview, which takes place. As a result language becomes a barrier. Heh, common sense is not so common after all. This is easily one reason why calls are being made for Liberian to be fully and duly involved in the disarmament process. Liberians know each other. A capable Liberian, and there are many around, especially with high unemployment in the country, are most enabled to conduct interviews with combatants. They know the kind of questions to ask. They know when the responses are untruthful. They know their communities and they know who the combatants in their communities are. They know and can interpret the body language, gesticulations and all. So why is it that we can’t have Liberians conduct these interviews? Public participation in the disarmament process cannot simply be rhetorical or posturing, it must be policy and it should be implemented. We have had enough lip service paid to this issue especially by UNMIL officials and other international organizations including international NGOs as well as some of our own government officials but we have yet to see the deeds of their words.

This may appear to be a trivial issue but it is not. It is a very important issue because it speaks volume about the kind of engagement Liberia currently has with the international community including international NGOs, UNMIL and related U.N. agencies. One Government official expressed his disgust at a statement he attributed to UNMIL Head, Jacque Klein. According to this official, whom I cannot now name, Mr. Klein said at one occasion that he would "bring Chairman Bryant" with him to New York for the Donor Conference on Liberia. One wonders who should be taking whom to where. I believe in something called national pride and a douse of that is in place here. I have also been in the presence of several respectable Liberians who quietly complain about the arrogance of some of our international visitors. We know we are "beggars" and cannot be "choosers" but spare us our dignity and integrity, please.

Ezekiel Pajibo is a freelance political commentator in Monrovia.