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Security Sector Reform in Liberia: Mixed Results from Humble Beginnings

Authored by Mr. Mark Malan. | March 2008

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After 14 years of civil war in which human rights were widely and seriously abused by all sides, there is a clear and urgent need to comprehensively reform Liberia?s entire security sector. Outside of Europe, a whole-of-government approach to security sector reform (SSR) may be conceptually valid, but it seems to be unworkable in practice. In Africa, donor countries have not had the fortitude to see comprehensive processes through, and recipient countries have not had the financial and human resource capacity to implement or sustain ambitious, overarching SSR programs. Where United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions are deployed, SSR continues to slip into a systemic funding vacuum, with the Security Council mandating missions to conduct SSR and hoping that a ?lead nation? will step forward. The lead nation for Liberia, because of its ?special relationship? with the country, is the United States.

Responsibility (including financial support) for the reconstitution of Liberia?s security sector is shared among the U.S. Government, which is leading the reform of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the Liberian government (Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Justice), and the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which is implementing police reform. Both the UN and the United States have made a promising start with police and military reform, but they have not done nearly enough towards accomplishing the SSR goals laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 1509 and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Liberia.

Since 2004, UN Police officers (UNPOL) have assisted the Liberian National Police (LNP) in trying to maintain law and order, at the same time as they were mandated to restructure, retrain, and reequip the police service. However, UNMIL had no money to fulfill its mandate to rebuild the police from scratch. Instead, UN police vetted and recruited a few hundred new police officers from the dismantled LNP to work alongside them. The United States subsequently provided $500,000 for training 3,500 new officers at the Liberian National Police Academy. By August 2007, 3,522 officers had graduated from the National Police Academy and are being deployed country-wide. But the LNP remains ineffective, largely because of critical shortages of essential police equipment?from vehicles and radios to handcuffs and raincoats (it rains 50 percent of the time in the country). Donors have provided assistance to the LNP in dribs and drabs, and invariably very late. Improving funding and addressing urgent leadership and management challenges will improve the present low morale and poor discipline of the LNP.

Progress with military reform has also been relatively slow. Liberia still has no operational army. What remained of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) after the war was effectively a force constituted of loyalists to deposed President Charles Taylor. The United States pledged $210 million to the task of creating an effective 2,000-strong Liberian army, contracting DynCorp and PAE to help dissolve the old army and recruit and train a new force. While the DynCorp-led recruiting, vetting, and training process is ongoing and some recruits have completed a basic training course, they are not yet integrated into units under effective command. Weak and erratic funding from the U.S. Department of State is the main cause of the slow pace of AFL development. Liberia needs an operationally proficient army. In a region ?awash with small arms,? there is a constant need for effective patrolling to deter the cross-border movement of weapons and recruitment of mercenaries. The 14,000- strong UN force should therefore not be reduced below a strength of 9,000 until the AFL is operational.

Moreover, the UN should ensure that future benchmarks for the drawdown of UNMIL police officers and military forces are determined by qualitative criteria, not based on numbers trained. This will require enhanced efforts to produce reliable crime statistics and the conduct of victimization surveys among the population of Monrovia and the rural areas. It should also entail a shift in mindset from quantity to quality of human resources, including the development of personal performance appraisal systems.

It is further recommended that the UN and the U.S. Government, in close consultation, robustly advise and support the Government of Liberia with the process of drafting and adopting a comprehensive national security strategy and policy?as a matter of utmost priority within the wider governance reform agenda. This would provide a legitimate policy framework within which to get the AFL fully operational without further time slippage so that it can conduct operations alongside UNMIL before the final drawdown and exit of the UN force. It is also essential that the U.S. Congress provide sufficient funding to the SSR Program to keep the buildup of the AFL, UN planning for the draw- down of UNMIL, and ultimately the peacebuilding process in Liberia all on track. At the same time, Congress should insist on more credible measures to ensure that civics and human rights become a central element of the U.S. training program for the AFL.

Ultimately, the U.S. Government should move beyond the current short-termism of the SSR Program; it should transform it into an approach that embodies a ?sustained injection of technical and financial support? and includes the integration of active duty U.S. military advisors into the AFL, as well as closer coordination with and support to UNMIL and the LNP. To consolidate democratic gains and avoid a relapse into armed conflict, the UN and the United States, as well as other significant donor partners, need to stay the course in Liberia as they have done in Kosovo. SSR is a long-term process, not an ephemeral event.

Fourteen years of civil war displaced nearly one-third of Liberia?s population and took the lives of approximately 250,000 people. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1989, Liberia?s rulers had developed systems of parallel and informal governance that marginalized and hollowed-out state institutions. They virtually subcontracted the management of state security and revenue resources to an informal group of presidential associates?which led inevitably to the collapse of the state bureaucracy and security services. By the 1990s, the Liberian state no longer maintained a monopoly over force, and did not collect revenues or administer territory. Rather, Liberia had evolved into a nonstate oligarchy, which?under the Presidency of Charles Taylor?became the most extreme and pernicious form of privateer governance in West Africa.

The results of misrule, combined with civil war, are evident. Nearly 85 percent of the adult population is unemployed, and 80 percent live below the poverty line. Public and private institutions as well as infrastructure have been destroyed, all but eliminating foreign investment and confidence. Water and electricity are urgently needed for the urban areas. The capital city Monrovia has grown from a city with a prewar population of 300,000 to well over a million people. There are only an estimated 25 Liberian medical doctors in the country to care for a population of approximately 3 million people.

The international community is now supporting a multidimensional transition from war to peace,from militant misrule to rule of law. This support has coalesced around the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Established in September 2003 by Security Council Resolution 1509, UNMIL has helped to restore relative calm to the country by supporting and overseeing a Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration (DDRR) process entailing the disarmament of over 100,000 combatants, the disbanding of the former armed factions, partially restoring state authority in the counties, and launching a security sector reform (SSR) program.

Despite this progress, there is little room for complacency. The incidence of armed robbery?often involving gangs?and of rape and gender-based violence is still unnervingly high, and by all accounts on the increase. There have been violent protests by disgruntled groups and incidents relating to land disputes, as well as several violent demonstrations involving university students. Former combatants continue to stage demonstrations to protest delays in the payment of subsistence allowances.1

With so many disaffected former combatants on the streets and out of work, Liberia remains vulnerable to acts of subversion. On July 17, 2007, George Koukou, a former Speaker of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly, and Major General Charles Julu, a former Army Chief of Staff and commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit during President Doe?s administration, were arrested and charged with treason for planning to destabilize the Government. Julu had led a coup attempt in 1994. The arrests were made after local authorities in Côte d?Ivoire detained a third Liberian, Colonel Dorbor, who had allegedly attempted to purchase and transport arms to Liberia. According to Information Minister Lawrence Bropleh, there is ?hard evidence? that Julu was planning a coup.2

This type of incident underscores the need for effective policing of the border areas ? a task currently fulfilled by UNMIL ? to deter the possible cross-border movement of weapons and recruitment of mercenaries, as well as to reassure the local populations and foster better coordination among security agencies deployed in the border areas. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Côte d?Ivoire have been notoriously unstable, and there is always a threat of cross-border incursions from these countries.

Beyond security concerns, there are pressing priorities that were not addressed as part of the transition process?including constitutional reform, economic recovery, and poverty reduction. Moreover, the weak institutional base for the rule of law has resulted in major human rights issues that require priority attention, including poor detention conditions and high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.3 There are also major residual tasks remaining from the UN-led transition period, including completion of the reintegration of war-affected persons and excombatants,4 consolidating state authority throughout the country, rehabilitating the judicial system and ensuring access to justice, and carrying forward the security sector reform program.

Responsibility (including financial support) for the reconstitution of Liberia?s security sector is shared between the U.S. Government, which is leading the reform of the AFL, the Liberian government (Ministry of Defense [MOD] and Ministry of Justice [MOJ]), and the UNMIL, which is implementing police reform.


The discrepancy between the conceptual framework for SSR and the practical realities in Liberia, among other reasons, is due to the framework?s emphasis on perfecting the governmental process rather than producting a tangible outcome. Ridding citizens of their sense of insecurity and providing them decent law enforcement seem to get lost in the shuffle, when what is truly needed are resources. Grand holistic approaches to SSR, as in Europe, may be conceptually valid but unworkable in Africa. Donor countries have generally not had the persistence and will to see comprehensive processes through, while recipient countries have not had the financial and human resource capacity to implement or sustain ambitious, overarching SSR programs. Nevertheless, much more can be done to actually mitigate insecurity within a more practical and modest program that focuses primarily on military and criminal justice reform. It is clear that both the UN and the United States have made a start with police and military reform, but they have not done nearly enough towards accomplishing the SSR goals laid out in Resolution 1509 and the CPA respectively.

UNMIL/UNPOL rightly point to the lack of resources as an inhibiting factor in the accomplishment of their policing mandate. Such resource starvation is unacceptable because progress on development in Liberia will not be sustainable if there is no rule of law. However, UN doctrine for peacekeeping operations (DPKO) has a standard cop-out caveat that can be applied to all missions, as set forth in its draft Capstone Doctrine:

Given their relatively short lifespan and limited access to program funds and specialist expertise, UN peacekeeping operations are neither mandated nor resourced to engage in the long-term peace-building activities required to achieve the objectives identified above. Other actors, both within and outside the UN system, normally undertake the bulk of this work.131

However, the doctrine also acknowledges that UN peacekeeping operations are nonetheless ?frequently mandated by the Security Council to support Security Sector Reform.?132 Again, this acknowledgement is qualified: ?As a general rule, while a UN peacekeeping operation may be required, in the short term, to engage in capacity and institution building, its role should be limited to preparing the ground for those actors who are able to support such activities over the long term.?133 The most important section of the Capstone Doctrine related to SSR is as follows: ?Where peacekeeping operations are mandated to engage in such short-term institution or capacity building activities, it is essential that they are adequately resourced to do so.?134

This sage recommendation has been ignored by the UN time and again; SSR continues to slip into a systemic funding vacuum, while the Security Council continues to mandate missions to do SSR work, hoping that a ?lead nation? will step up to the plate and provide both the leadership and resources to fulfill what it has prescribed as an essential task of UN peacekeeping (UN Charter, Chapter VII).

Unfortunately, there is no such ?lead nation? for Liberia, and the country is in many ways less fortunate than neighboring Sierra Leone, a former British colony, which faced similar if not much larger and more urgent SSR challenges. Here, the United Kingdom took a clearlead, supporting the enhancement of short- and longer-term security in Sierra Leone through a program aimed at training, equipping, and advising government security forces. This program involved the actual integration of UK military advisors?serving British officers?into Sierra Leone forces; close coordination with the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and the Sierra Leone Police; and the enhancement of the combat effectiveness of the forces through ongoing advice and training. The UK advisors made sure that the armed forces were operationally proficient and capable of conducting effective joint patrols with UN forces before UNAMSIL withdrew. The UK also provided a senior British police officer, Keith Biddle, to take charge of the police as IGP; it set up an effective Office of National Security, and helped to produce a comprehensive national security strategy and defense policy.

In Liberia, the American contribution to the SSR Program is provided through private contractors. While contractors may be good at providing basic and even advanced infantry training, they answer to private sector bosses whose bottom line is profit and are therefore not the ideal role models to instil in the AFL the notion of duty to country and military subordination to a democratically elected government. Indeed, in a country and region where recent history has been shaped by warlords and mercenaries, the U.S. Department of State has shown remarkable insensitivity by sending in contractors to shape the new army.

It may be accepted that U.S. Federal Acquisition Regulations determine that the details of the contracts with DynCorp and PAE may not be revealed to the Liberians or otherwise made public. However, the remuneration of contractors on the U.S. Government payroll is surely the concern of the American taxpayer, and these concerns should be addressed though the democratic congressional oversight process. Congress should also be concerned with the potential power of a well-trained and well-equipped Liberian army to usurp the democratically-elected government if true army professionalism does not take root. Finally, Congress should be prepared to support a long-term program of assistance to SSR in Liberia.


1.The initial estimated case load of ex-combatants to go through the DDRR process was 34,000. The program ended with 103,000 having been processed. While the UN Development Program (UNDP) provided training and schooling opportunities for 75,000, 9,000 former combatants have yet to benefit from skills training programs promised as part of DDRR; they are still awaiting training opportunities. The UNDP has long since closed the DDRR program, and it is unclear what training programs are now envisaged, and who is going to fund and present them.

2. Paul Ohia, ?Coup Scare in Country, Ex-Army Chief Arrested,? All Africa, July 20, 2007.

3.During the period September 9-29, 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) supported Liberian transitional government efforts to carry out sexual and gender-based violence surveys in four counties. The preliminary findings indicated that 91.7 percent of 1,216 women and girls interviewed had been subjected to multiple violent acts during Liberia?s conflict.

4.More than three times the number of ?combatants? initially assessed by UNMIL were demobilized, creating consequences for safety and security in the country. The reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-combatants are acknowledged as a necessary condition for security in Liberia.

131.United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines, Capstone Doctrine Draft 3, UN DPKO, June 29, 2007, par. 54.

132. According to Decision No. 2007/11 of the SecretaryGeneral?s Policy Committee, ?The objective of a UN approach to SSR is effective, accountable, and sustainable security institutions operating under civilian control within the framework of the rule of law and respect for human rights. . . . The focus should be on executive security agencies, armed forces, police and law enforcement agencies, relevant line ministries, and judicial and civil society oversight bodies.

133. United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Principles and Guidelines, Capstone Doctrine Draft 3, UN DPKO, June 29, 2007, par. 56.

134. Ibid.

135. According to calculations made by the ODC Chief, the amount required to keep the program going until FY09 funding arrives is U.S.$44 million.