Taylor's Liberia Army: "Papay Doc's Tonton Macoutes"?

A major obstacle to the realization of peace, and therefore stability in Liberia, is the arrogant decision by the NPP after its victory to shelf all brokered peace agreements that made its victory possible. Once in office, Mr. Taylor and company proceeded to do what they all along had planned to do: rule without any regard for the organic law of the land, the Constitution. Ironically, the grueling war was waged on the altar of accusations against the late Samuel Doe for resisting democratization and being a dictator. Now, there are all indications that the accusers themselves have squarely fallen in the dangerous traps of the accused.

Without notice, Mr. Taylor and entourage have completely abandoned the Abuja Accords that provided the framework and instrument which brought together the various warring factions in the civil war and influenced them to accept the agreement to end the carnage and horrors waged for the presidency and control of national resources. It is now certain that these agreements have become relic of the elections, although Taylor would have never sat in his coveted seat at the Executive Mansion without them. These accords were a culmination of various botched agreements which never saw the light of day, or succeeded because of efforts contrived by the principal warring faction, the NPFL, to undermine every agreement that was crafted to bring peace to Liberia.

The accords defined the parameters for political participation in a war-ravaged country, agreed upon by the various warring factions and civil elements. There were four major elements in the accords: (a) disarmament, (b) demobilization, (c) restructuring and retraining of the Liberian army and security forces by ECOMOG, and (d) elections and installation of a civilian government. This was the framework in which the legitimacy of any government could be considered or respected. Moreover, it was also considered as the defining limits within which the building of security and the search for reconciliation would take place.

From the very beginning, these agreements represented the best hope for permanent peace and reconciliation. But the accords were never comprehensively enforced by ECOMOG due to pressure from ECOWAS regional leaders and the international community to have a quick-fix solution to the Liberian problem. The accords were implemented in a piecemeal fashion on the false premise and faulty logic that elections would eventually lead to peace and reconciliation.

But this has proven to be a false start and the prevailing realities have shown otherwise. The reality today is that those who hold power in Liberia have completely abandoned the legal framework, which would have established their legitimacy. In blatant disregard of the accords, and hiding under the cloak of "national sovereignty," the ruling National Patriotic Party government - led by Mr. Taylor - found a very sneaky, clever but dangerous way to give the appearance that they are still committed to the accords.

In one of its very first acts of chicanery, the Taylor government using July 26, Liberia's national independence - as a symbolic backdrop - almost a year ago, invited ECOWAS regional leaders, the United Nations and the presence of western governments such as the United States and Great Britain, to witness a "burning exercise" of arms and ammunitions collected from the warring factions. Mr. Taylor, using the presence of international observers,(ostensibly to woo donor money for the purchase of more luxury cars and item) proclaimed that Liberia was "free of arms." What was not announced however, was how many arms were burned, and where did they come from? There are still reports of tons of arms buried around the Liberian countryside, the area controlled by the NPFL, which are yet to be unearthed. Needless to mention, the secret training of terrorists going on in Gbatalla, Bong County, and other places and the use of Liberia as a transit point for the supply of arms to the rebels in Sierra Leone.

It should be noted that during the tenure of General Victor Malu, the Nigerian Field Commander for ECOMOG, who spearheaded the disarmament exercise before the 1997 elections was held, reported that ECOMOG recovered only a third of the arms of belonging to the armies warlords. The problem is that no one, not ECOMOG, not Abacha who masterminded the elections for his own designs, knew how many arms were proliferating in the country. This was made clear when Malu, after disagreement with the new President Taylor over the completion of disarmament and restructuring the army, regretted that his task was far from complete. He wondered where Mr. Taylor was getting all the thousands of arms that appeared in the streets and in rural areas after he told the world disarmament was a success, a success that Abacha needed to prove his world statesmanship. A disappointed Malu left Liberia knowing that his statistics were a farce and with warnings that the refusal to complete the implementation of the Abuja accords would pose problems for Liberia. It was a warning nationalistic Liberians did not need because the Nigerian was fully aware of the effects of his decisions, actions and plans for disarmament. One wonders what is the state of the remaining arms since the GOL has not issued any report or made a public statement to this effect. Furthermore, the issue of demobilization should not be overlooked as well. There is a need for public information on the number of fighters and ex-combatants who have been demobilized.

One of the terrifying elements of post-civil war Liberia, is the menacing role of the so-called ex-combatants. These former fighters of the NPFL who are yet to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into mainstream civil society, and have dubiously been referred to as "veterans" - operating their own bureau with a staff and a budget - and paid more than the average civil servant, have become the new tool of terror, used to silence opponents and citizens critical of government.

Taylor's success in using the arms burning exercise to deceive the international community has propelled him to think of other gimmicks. This brings us to a crucial point that is even more troublesome: the announcement by the GOL to restructure the Liberian military. About a year ago, Mr. Taylor announced the establishment of a restructuring commission of the military. Mr. Blamo Nelson, Director-General of the Cabinet was appointed to chair this commission. To date, this commission has operated in secrecy and their work has not been made public.

Unquestionably, the military has been one of the most repressive institutions in Liberian history. Historically, it was used as an instrument of the ruling political class to provide personal security and protection, to quash social unrest, and forcibly collect taxes from poor rural peasants. This was the case with the so-called Liberian Frontier Force (LFF), which later evolved into the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). In today's terms, the Liberian military is worst off with regards to professionalism and leadership. Many, if not all of the officers are poorly trained, badly educated. Although the few professional ones have called for reforms - Taylor has resisted, just as rebuffed calls from the international community, including Washington, to have a restructured, professional army as a safety-valve for stability. He is convinced that the bedrock of his support and strength is the rag tag hoodlums who brought him to power, a fallacy proved by events in Lofa when his troops massively looted equipment belonging to international organizations which led to pullout of these organizations from the country and therefore the absence of basic services for a traumatized population. Nevertheless, whatever the dire consequences for the country, Mr. Taylor believes one cannot bite the hand that feeds.

While there's no question about the need to restructure the military and give it a new mission, the process by which this is being done is of serious concern. Recently, the GOL announced that U.S. $1million was being allocated to the Commission to pursue its restructuring plan; 400 army personnel had been discharged; and another 500 will be retired within the next month, according to Defense Minister Daniel Chea.

Clearly, it appears like those being retired are career soldiers whose experience are most needed in any reorganization scheme (A 6,000 strong army is said to be the goal of this Commission). A central question is: who are those that will constitute this new military? Will it be predominantly NPFL fighters and ex-combatants who lack the rudimentary skills for training? Fundamentally, in the absence of international supervision and oversight - a role ECOMOG should have played - what guarantees are there that this new military will reflect proportional balance? What are the broad general criteria for recruitment? And, what would be the new mission or philosophical orientation of this new military?

On a deeper level, there is the critical issue of regional balance. Upfront, what would be the new configuration or reconfiguration of this new military? How is the issue of ethnic balance going to be addressed? Will the armed forces which predominantly comprised of Krahn elements during the prewar era, now be replaced by the Gio and Mano elements of the NPFL? Or is this restructuring a disguise as a military observer noted for the "de-Krahnization of the AFL?"

Where then do we look for answers amid the unanswered questions and looming concerns regarding the work of this Commission? One place to look would be the statements made by political leaders on matters of national concern. The most recent example is the statement made by the national Chairman of the ruling National Patriotic Party, Mr. Cyril Allen. According to him, Liberia is not prepared for "full-blown democracy," and that the country needs a "dominant party to resolve economic problems and political instability". This raises crucial concern as to whether this extends to the military as well!

By NPP Chairman Allen's pronouncement, it is evident that the reconstitution of the Liberian military with unscrupulous parasites may resemble Papa Doc's Tonton Macoutes of Haiti. Only this time we will end up with (Papay) Doc's Patriotic Macoutes, a military loyal only to Taylor and the NPP.

Undoubtedly, a restructured military under this regime will follow the same, if not, more menacing and dangerous model as its predecessors - the LFF and AFL. And as a scholar on Liberia observed, based on the knowledge of recent Liberian history, "President Taylor heads an apparatus which is dependent less on model bureaucrats than on sub-warlords, NPFL chieftains who do not act at all times in the manner expected of the agents of a modern administration. The record of Taylor's administration in Greater Liberia does not suggest that he is likely to emerge as a champion of what international aid donors call good governance.".