Dismantling and rebuilding Liberia’s security services was a priority when its 14-year civil conflict ended in 2003. All parties to the war, including the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), had been implicated in serious human rights abuses. Outside Monrovia, there had been virtually no civilian police presence since 1990.
Formal security sector reform (SSR) began soon after disarmament and demobilisation of ex-combatants in 2004, with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the US government leading the reorganisation of the police and military respectively. UNMIL has around 1,300 police and 7,770 armed troops with helicopters and armoured vehicles under a Chapter VII peace enforcement mandate. As well as back-stopping the fledgling Liberian security forces, UNMIL is mandated “continue to develop national security and the rule of law institutions that are fully and independently operational”.
In contrast to many post-conflict countries, SSR in Liberia has not privileged ex-combatants. The emphasis has been on creating small, financially sustainable and professional forces with recruits screened against past rights abuses. Not engaging the huge numbers of unemployed ex-combatants has particularly rankled with the 14,000 former members of the AFL who were laid off in 2005.
This approach has meant that re-establishing security institutions has been slow, with UNMIL filling the vacuum, especially outside Monrovia. At the time of writing, UNMIL still greatly outnumbers, outguns and outspends Liberian forces.
UNMIL re-launched the Liberia National Police (LNP) in 2004 and over the following year dissolved or consolidated many irregular security forces that had been established during the 1990s. Police stations have been constructed or refurbished, and some 4,200 police recruited, vetted, trained and deployed with UNMIL support. Larger posts now include specialist Women and Children Protection Units (WCPUs).
Despite these positive steps, police presence is barely felt in much of rural Liberia, where national police are vastly overshadowed by the presence of UNMIL troops and riot police. The informal security sector is also significant, including vigilantes and the authority of chiefs and elders. Many areas, particularly in the isolated interior or border regions, remain volatile, as shown by high incidence of lynching and arson, or the deadly inter-communal violence that erupted in Voinjama in February 2010.
The 2,100-strong AFL remains a work in progress and is unlikely to be fully and independently operational at least until 2014, the envisaged date of becoming ‘mission capable’ (ready to protect Liberia’s frontiers, for example). Limited numbers of armed Emergency Response Unit (ERU) and Police Support Unit (PSU) personnel reinforced the sparse LNP presence in Liberia’s hinterland counties, notably Grand Gedeh, in 2011.