By Michael J.M. Keating
The United Nations military mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is no small endeavor. It is one of longest UN missions in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the largest, and one of the most widely supported—with 42 countries contributing military forces and 35 contributing police personnel.
After ten years, though, the need for armed troops has decreased, and the number of foreign soldiers has shrunk to around 5,000. By 2015, the end of the current drawdown phase, there will still be about 3,700 military personnel. In contrast, while the current police presence holds at 1000, there are plans to increase the number of officers to 1700.
The questions to be asked are: why, after ten years with no significant outbreaks of violence, do so many troops need to remain? And,why is the number of international police increasing?
To answer the second question, just talk with the people of Liberia. They will tell you that they have no confidence in their own police forces, whom they view as corrupt and inefficient. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on security-sector reform in Liberia, the national police are looked upon as little more than an armed gang. The fledgling army is seen as an expensive joke.
One distinctly troubling sign is the growing number of informal police ‘roadblocks’ springing up around Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. These seem to have no purpose other than to intimidate and shake down motorists for a little ‘something for the weekend,’ which in the vernacular is asking for a bribe.
Even the UN personnel, who usually bend over backward to be positive, say that the professionalism of the police needs to be ‘enhanced,’ that police management needs ‘training,’ and that the police need to be ‘deployed effectively’ throughout the country. In other words, UN personnel on the ground share the Liberian public’s point of view.
To understand the concern behind the planned continuing presence of so many UN troops, one has to look to Liberia’s border areas, particularly those with Cote d’Ivoire. Recent turmoil in Cote d’Ivoire has made the border region unstable. It is a prime destination for haven-seeking Ivorian militants looking for a rear base of operations, and Liberian mercenaries ready to pick up a paycheck from the chaotic next-door neighbor. In addition, during the height of the Ivorian crisis, there were more than 250,000 Ivorians pouring across the border into several Liberian counties. Well-funded resettlement schemes have allowed many people to return home, but tens of thousands remain. Many of them are supporters of the former, deposed President Laurent Gbagbo and may refuse to return to a country where they might be viewed as outlaws.
So what can Liberia do to help UNMIL successfully leave – and to continue on its seemingly positive course of stability?
The first step is for Liberians themselves to play a larger role in tackling the country’s pressing problems, most notably the abysmal educational system. This year, shockingly, not one single high school student passed the entrance exam to the national university. No one appears to be taking concerted action on educational reform. Indigenous policy think tanks are few and far between, while international support for Liberian universities has been almost non-existent. How will Liberia ever break the bonds of dependency without producing an annual cohort of trained technicians and managers? When will ‘sustainability’-obsessed donors come around to recognizing this issue and address it directly?
The second step is for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to appoint a team to take over the security sector. That team must lower the boom on the corrupt and lazy officers who now make life miserable for local residents. Judicial reform needs to be advanced to ensure that courts recognize the legal rights of business owners and investors who are so critical to the creation of desperately needed jobs.
Third, the agriculture sector needs to be entirely rethought. Liberia’s farmlands must be developed to support the hundreds of thousands of rural Liberians who are currently buying imported food because they lack the means to grow and sell their own. Liberia could certainly feed itself – and export a wide range of products to neighboring countries and beyond. But none of that will happen unless land rights are protected, and people feel safe.
Finally, the next generation of Liberian leadership needs to emerge well before the next elections in 2017. The ‘old guard’ who still run the show in Liberia have been able to keep the peace and make a few dollars in the process without necessarily opening up political space for the next generation. Nor have they managed to think their way into a positive future for the majority of Liberians – a future that does not include needing billions more in foreign aid. There is much discussion of the problem of Liberia’s largely uneducated, unemployed, and disaffected youth. But these young people include Liberia’s future leaders. UNMIL would do well to help identify and support these young leaders well before it turns out the lights on its mission.
Some recent UN peacekeeping missions have gone wrong or grossly underperformed. Liberia is not such a case. UNMIL has managed a delicate situation and has comported itself with professionalism. It will likely leave with its head high if nothing dramatic transpires in the interim. It’s up to the Liberians to take the stability they have been left with and turn it into a functioning, inclusive society.
Michael Keating is the Director of Operations at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
[Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal]