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The UN had to go, but is Liberia really prepared for peace?

Now that UN peacekeepers have left Liberia, the country has much work to do. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Liberia has had more than a decade to plan for the day when international peacekeepers in blue helmets and their civilian counterparts would eventually pack up and leave.

So it was with a mix of uncertainty and resolve that this small sliver of a country bade farewell to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) on June 30. Its departure came nearly 13 years after UN Security Council Resolution 1509 was passed. This called for 15,000 military personnel to maintain law and order in the West African nation.

Back then, Liberia and its people were war weary and battle scarred. Today, in the wake of an Ebola outbreak, the country is just beginning to piece together the remnants of normalcy in the midst of a region wracked by extremism. It remains vulnerable ahead of the presidential and legislative elections slated for October 2017. If they’re successful, they could mark the country’s first ever peaceful regime change.

But for all the uncertainty, there’s no doubt that UNMIL had to go. Liberia could not rely on external support forever. It is time for the country to stop looking outside and start building its own internal systems.

Expense and secrecy

History has proven that multi-billion-dollar peacekeeping missions like UNMIL produce mixed results. They can be politically problematic, financially costly and unviable. They also operate with impunity and under a shroud of secrecy. This is evidenced by the alarming number of sexual abuse cases involving UN personnel across the globe. These operations tend to be marked by a lack of transparency around funding streams.

As a case in point, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the total amount spent on Liberia’s security sector reform. Donors like the US, UN, European Union, Ireland, UK, Australia, Germany, Nigeria, Netherlands, China, Sweden and Norway have all contributed to several aspects of the UNMIL exercise at different intervals.

Peacekeeping missions also create a false sense of permanence and security, especially when you consider that their role is temporary and largely symbolic. They cost a fortune to maintain, too. The cost of training 2,000 soldiers in Liberia has been estimated at between US$95 million and $200 million to serve a population of four million people. Other donors also contributed to professionalising various elements of the security sector. There is some suspicion that much of that money was spent on exorbitantly paid international security experts, and overhead and administration costs.

Positive steps

The good news is that UNMIL’s withdrawal seems to have pushed the Liberian government to focus less on external intervention and more on building a holistic security system.

There’s been a recent boost of government attention to the country’s bureau of immigration, drug enforcement agency and national security. That has come alongside continued state support of the more conventional institutions of the police and army. This branching out into other security systems can only be a good thing, as the Liberia National Police and Armed Forces of Liberia have a chequered recent past.

During an official programme commemorating the end of UNMIL’s mandate on July 1 in the capital, Monrovia, National Police Inspector General Chris Massaquoi declared:

We are ready, capable and committed … our security institutions are very prepared to provide the security as needed and are keen on building on the level of work we have started in securing the peace we all enjoy today.

Admittedly, Liberia’s government has taken some positive steps in this regard. Though it requires revision, a national security strategy was adopted in 2008. It shifts attention from a narrow focus on state security to human security and emphasises “efficiency, transparency, accountability, democratic and civilian oversight … respect for rule of law and human rights”.

In March 2015 the government approved a security transition plan, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council. Between 30% and 35% of the plan has already been implemented; Liberia’s government aims to increase this to between 60% and 65% by the end of 2016.

The country’s security legislation has also been updated and, by June 30, three of the outstanding acts involving police, immigration and firearms were submitted to the president for consideration. So in terms of security legislation and policies, Liberia is far ahead of most – if not all – other countries in the West African sub-region.

Gaps remain

There are still too many gaps to inspire complete confidence.

The Security Transition Plan estimates that the country will need a whopping $104 million to fill holes left by UNMIL. After some work on the plan, the cost was reduced to $38 million. The national government allocated $20 million towards plugging those holes in the last fiscal year. But it’s only disbursed half of that amount.

It also isn’t clear which institutions will take over the different functions that UNMIL has fulfilled for more than a decade. Liberia’s security forces will have to step up to provide VIP protection, aerial surveillance for border patrol and management, maritime and prison security, and bomb disposal. Only time will tell whether these priorities are met.

Liberia also hasn’t yet fully tackled the protection of civilians, intelligence gathering, and the investigation and prosecution of crimes like rape, trafficking and corruption. The country’s 6,000 police officers cannot provide effective frontline security services. They’ve had only limited training and face logistical challenges involving communication and infrastructure.

Now that UNMIL has withdrawn, Liberia’s peace will continue to be fragile if it focuses exclusively on security while neglecting the rule of law – particularly public defence and legal aid.

The country must confront soft security issues as well: poverty, unemployment, health pandemics and demographic changes like rural-to-urban migration and the youth bulge. These challenges will become increasingly important since UNMIL supported the livelihoods of hundreds of Liberians across the supply chain – from formal-sector UN personnel to informal semi- and low-skilled employees.

Access to medical care, education, electricity and clean water do not require soldiers or the police. Other state agencies must handle basic social services and infrastructure, which are fundamentally developmental in nature.

Everyone must get on board

A “whole of government approach” is the only way forward in the post-UNMIL era. It is clear that Liberia cannot continue to broadcast its security and development needs outwards. Instead, it must look inwards to manage what could be the most important transition in its 169-year history.

This article was co-authored by Thomas Jaye, a Liberian academic who works on post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding. He is also Deputy Director for Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana. This article is based on a longer piece that first appeared on openDemocracy.

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