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Too small to succeed? Liberia’s new army comes of age

The U.S. spent millions to rebuild Liberia’s army after civil war; now the force must stand on its own

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MONROVIA, Liberia — Brig. Gen. Daniel Dee Ziankahn stood solemnly in front of a Bible held open by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and swore to defend Liberia’s constitution and fulfill his duties as the first Liberian army chief since the end of this West African nation’s 14-year civil war. A soldier pulled the army’s navy blue flag close to his chest with white-gloved hands before presenting it to Ziankahn to be hoisted beneath the red, white and blue national flag.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presents a Bible to one of the new officers in charge of the AFL on Feb. 11, 2014.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presents a Bible to one of the officers newly in charge of the AFL, Feb. 11, 2014.
Glenna Gordon for Al Jazeera America

As the colors flapped under the overcast sky on this February day, Ziankahn returned to his seat next to Johnson Sirleaf and the outgoing army chief, Maj. Gen. Suraj Alao Abdulrrahman, a tall Nigerian man whose bright green uniform was weighed down by colored medals and other regalia. A lone medal hung from the left breast of Ziankahn’s jacket. 

Ziankahn, 42, joined the military in 2006, three years after the war’s end, and with training from the United States has risen quickly to head one of the world’s youngest armies. Johnson Sirleaf appointed Abdulrrahman amid concerns that a Liberian would be too entangled by the various factions that fought in the war; Ziankahn’s rise marks the latest step in the army’s efforts to reinvent itself. 

Thirty-four years ago, behind the walls of these barracks, on a stretch of sand beside the Atlantic Ocean, 13 top government officials were tethered to poles and sprayed with machine gun fire by soldiers who staged a coup. President William Tolbert was killed in the executive mansion. The executions precipitated the army’s descent into violence, and it was deemed a warring faction during the civil war, which claimed more than 250,000 lives. After the war, the army was disbanded.

In 2005 the United States and the Liberian government called for the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) to be rebuilt from scratch. The U.S. has spent more than $300 million on the effort, relying on the private military company DynCorp to recruit and train Liberian soldiers. In 2009, DynCorp’s contract ended, and U.S. military mentors took over. 

Today the AFL numbers just under 2,000 men and women, a small fraction of its size during the war. Analysts say that while the army is a professional force, it may be too small and weak to protect the country. As the U.S. draws down its financial support, questions remain about whether the money spent to rebuild the AFL has been used wisely.

“In many respects, this long, 10-year process has been successful in creating, I think, for the first time in Liberia’s history, a military that is well regarded, that is respectful of authority, that is popular with the people,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and author of “Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State.” But, he adds, “the military force that Liberians can afford on their own is not likely to be large enough or sufficiently well equipped to do much good should they face a real, conventional threat. However, even a small force, especially if it is disciplined and nimble, can cause mischief.”

Liberia has avoided relapsing into violent conflict, even though many analysts expected it to do so within a few years of the war’s end. Here in the capital, there are visible signs of change: new slick apartment complexes and tall commercial buildings, paved roads, neat rows of trees in the city’s center and new electricity lines that deliver the most expensive public electricity in the world. The country’s security remains fragile, amid reports of endemic police corruption and mob and gender-based violence. A U.N. peacekeeping force of 5,700 still operates in the country. And while there have been changes in Monrovia, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with the majority of the population living on less than a dollar a day.  

As the colors flapped under the overcast sky on this February day, Ziankhan returned to his seat next to Johnson Sirleaf and the outgoing army chief, Major General Suraj Alao Abdulrrahman, a tall Nigerian man whose bright green uniform was weighed down by colored medals and other regalia. A lone medal hung from the left breast of Ziankhan’s jacket.
As the colors flapped under the overcast sky on this February day, Ziankhan returned to his seat next to Johnson Sirleaf and the outgoing army chief, Major General Suraj Alao Abdulrrahman, a tall Nigerian man whose bright green uniform was weighed down by colored medals and other regalia. A lone medal hung from the left breast of Ziankhan’s jacket.

A new generation

Brigadier General Daniel Dee Ziankhan
The new head of the AFL, Daniel Ziankahn, left, watches as the Liberian flag is taken down to indicate the change in command.
Glenna Gordon for Al Jazeera America

The day after the ceremony, Ziankahn, a tall and physically imposing man with a friendly manner, sits behind his dark wooden desk. He wears military fatigues and a thick silver ring with a blue stone from U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he received a master’s degree in military art and science. He came of age during the civil war but did not participate in it; he is part of a new generation of Liberian soldiers who do not carry the baggage of their predecessors.

Ziankahn was 19 when armed men believed to have been from the AFL committed one of the worst atrocities of the war, storming a church compound in Monrovia and shooting and hacking to death more than 600 people. Many of those killed were from the Gio and Mano tribes and were suspected supporters of the rebels fighting the regime of then-President Samuel Kanyon Doe, who succeeded Tolbert.

Until the 1980 coup, Liberia’s military, government and economy were dominated by Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed slaves who founded the nation. After a 1985 coup attempt, analysts say, the army became tribalized, with Doe placing his fellow Krahn tribesmen in high posts; they targeted the Gio and Mano tribes. Then in the late 1990s, during the early years of Charles Taylor’s presidency, the AFL was led by a Mano man, Lt. Gen. Prince C. Johnson II, who fought alongside Taylor’s faction, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Johnson’s son Col. Prince C. Johnson III is the new brigade commander of the 23rd Infantry Brigade and third in command of the army.

Ziankahn is Bassa, an ethnic group not affiliated with the factions that participated in the war. He grew up in a poor family, one of 19 children. His mother sold palm oil and dry goods for a living, and his father held a midlevel job with the civil service.

Ziankahn says the atrocities committed by the army during the war — his cousin, for example, was shot dead after he was captured by rebels from the Liberian Peace Council, a proxy force of the AFL — are a thing of the past. In arguing that the army can be a force for good, Ziankahn speaks of the role of the soldiers in Plato’s “Republic” and quotes American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Today army members must hold a high school degree, and officers must have a university degrees That’s in sharp contrast to Doe, the illiterate noncommissioned officer who became president.

US role

American military trainers hang around with Liberian military officers at Todee, a base a few hours outside of the capital Monrovia. After Liberia's brutal civil war, the army was disbanded and rebuilt from scratch under American leadership.
American military trainers and a Liberian officer at Camp Todee, a base a few hours outside Monrovia.
Glenna Gordon for Al Jazeera America

The U.S. has longstanding ties to Liberia’s military. More than 5,000 U.S. troops were stationed here during World War II, and the U.S. has been training the Liberian military since the 1950s.

U.S. funding to rebuild the Liberian military peaked in 2009. The military mentorship program now has 30 people, half the number at its start, and the program may conclude this year.

Not all U.S.-sponsored military training missions in Africa have yielded positive results. Amadou Haya Sanogo, a captain in Mali’s army who received military training in the United States, led the group of soldiers who overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in 2012.

And there are questions about the U.S. strategy in rebuilding Liberia’s army. One 2010 study found that DynCorp’s military training program failed to train the Liberians in “basic infantry skills, such as the proper use of security patrols, noise and light discipline” and other techniques. According to the study, DynCorp purchased the wrong types of equipment and spent too much on subcontractors’ salaries, at the expense of training on international law and other programs. Observers, though, say training has improved with the arrival of the U.S. military mentors.

We are doing good here, but this is over seven years, and after a while, you’ve got to let go of the bike, and if they’re going to crash, they’re going to crash.

a U.S. military mentor

But analysts and insiders worry the Liberian army might not be able to stand on its own. U.S. military mentors and officials from the Economic Community of West African States continue to sit in on high-level meetings and influence decisions. The mentors largely planned the Liberian military’s first mission since the end of the civil war, in late 2012, to the country’s border with Cote d’Ivoire, and its first peacekeeping mission since the 1960s, to Mali, in June 2013. Meanwhile, mercenaries from Liberia have been involved in cross-border raids into western Cote d’Ivoire, including one on Feb. 24 that killed four Ivorian army officers, according to Cote d’Ivoire officials. An AFL official said the army had planned to conduct more border patrols in December and January but couldn’t because it lacked the money. 

“We are doing good here, but this is over seven years, and after a while, you’ve got to let go of the bike, and if they’re going to crash, they’re going to crash,” says a U.S. military mentor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The mentor expressed concern about leadership at the Ministry of Defense and the “lack of incentives” for soldiers. He highlighted huge pay disparities between political leaders at the ministry and the soldiers on the ground. Officers in the AFL cited worries about corruption at the ministry.

Most soldiers make $210 per month, far more than most Liberians but still not enough, many say, to support a family. Some soldiers say they’ve been offered opportunities that haven’t materialized. One man in his early 30s who joined the force in 2007 and asked to remain unnamed says he was told by the Ministry of Defense that he would receive a university education in exchange for military service, but that hasn’t happened. A plan to provide pensions to soldiers has yet to be approved.

“It isn’t enough, but that is the situation we find ourselves in,” says the soldier. 

But analysts and insiders worry the Liberian army might not be able to stand on its own. U.S. military mentors and officials from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) continue to sit in on high-level meetings and influence decisions. The mentors also largely planned the Liberian military’s first mission since the end of the civil war, in late 2012, to the country’s border with Ivory Coast, and its first peacekeeping mission since the 1960s, to Mali, in June 2013. Meanwhile, mercenaries from Liberia have been involved in cross-border raids into Western Ivory Coast, including one on Feb. 24 that killed four Ivorian army officers, according to Ivory Coast officials.  TK SAY the AFL planned to conduct more border patrols in December and January but couldn’t because it lacked the money. 

“We are doing good here, but this is over seven years, and after a while you’ve got to let go of the bike, and if they’re going to crash, they’re going to crash,” says a U.S. military mentor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The military mentor expressed concern about leadership at the Ministry of Defense and the “lack of incentives” for soldiers. He also highlighted huge pay disparities between political leaders at the defense ministry and the soldiers on the ground. Officers within the AFL cited worries about corruption at the ministry.

Most soldiers make $210 per month, far more than most Liberians but still not enough, many say, to support a family. Some soldiers say they’ve been offered opportunities that haven’t materialized. One man in his early 30s who joined the force in 2007 and asked to remain unnamed says he was told by the Liberian Ministry of Defense that he would receive a university education in exchange for military service, but that hasn’t happened. A plan to provide pensions to soldiers has yet to be approved.

“It isn’t enough, but that is the situation we find ourselves in,” says the soldier.

But analysts and insiders worry the Liberian army might not be able to stand on its own. U.S. military mentors and officials from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) continue to sit in on high-level meetings and influence decisions. The mentors also largely planned the Liberian military’s first mission since the end of the civil war, in late 2012, to the country’s border with Ivory Coast, and its first peacekeeping mission since the 1960s, to Mali, in June 2013. Meanwhile, mercenaries from Liberia have been involved in cross-border raids into Western Ivory Coast, including one on Feb. 24 that killed four Ivorian army officers, according to Ivory Coast officials.  TK SAY the AFL planned to conduct more border patrols in December and January but couldn’t because it lacked the money. 

“We are doing good here, but this is over seven years, and after a while you’ve got to let go of the bike, and if they’re going to crash, they’re going to crash,” says a U.S. military mentor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The military mentor expressed concern about leadership at the Ministry of Defense and the “lack of incentives” for soldiers. He also highlighted huge pay disparities between political leaders at the defense ministry and the soldiers on the ground. Officers within the AFL cited worries about corruption at the ministry.

Most soldiers make $210 per month, far more than most Liberians but still not enough, many say, to support a family. Some soldiers say they’ve been offered opportunities that haven’t materialized. One man in his early 30s who joined the force in 2007 and asked to remain unnamed says he was told by the Liberian Ministry of Defense that he would receive a university education in exchange for military service, but that hasn’t happened. A plan to provide pensions to soldiers has yet to be approved.

“It isn’t enough, but that is the situation we find ourselves in,” says the soldier.

The old barracks at Todee still stand in sharp contrast to the new barracks. Todee was once home to hundreds of soldiers and officers and much of the old infrastructure remains though is in disrepair.
The old barracks at Camp Todee stand in sharp contrast to the new ones. Todee was once home to hundreds of soldiers, and much of the old infrastructure remains but is in disrepair.
Glenna Gordon for Al Jazeera America

But he is optimistic that with a Liberian chief of staff, there will be improvements in pay and living conditions at the barracks. Today the Edward Binyah Kessely barracks, the main barracks just outside Monrovia, house 3,500 people, roughly five times its capacity, because of the families of soldiers living there.

Pham and other analysts have questioned the heavy spending to rebuild Liberia’s military as other government institutions languish.

“The reform of the military has to go hand in hand with reform of civilian institutions,” he says. “Otherwise, you have an imbalance where the military is actually the institution that is well regarded while people look at the civilian governance institutions and see them as corrupt or illegitimate or both.” 

Former soldiers

Ziankahn faces some opposition from former soldiers. In the dimly lit rooms of an office in downtown Monrovia once occupied by Liberian military trainers, disgruntled former members of the AFL and other security agencies meet regularly. Widows of former servicemen say they have not received financial compensation they were promised, and policemen and former AFL troops say they were unfairly dismissed and are owed pay. Most soldiers in the disbanded AFL, which by the end of the war stood at about 13,000 members, were forced to retire. They received a one-time payment of US$550.

Col. Richard Boye, national chairman for the Disbanded Armed Forces of Liberia (DAFL), a group formed to contest the government’s decision to disband the army, says the move was unconstitutional because the national legislature never approved it. In late 2012 the DAFL sued the government for $70 million, saying it had illegally disbanded the army and failed to pay them adequate compensation. A judge dismissed the case in November. Talks between DAFL and the government fell through this week, said Jerry Kollie, a former army captain and the group’s spokesman. He threatened to “take over” military installations in Liberia.

Boye, who served in the army for more than 25 years, says he welcomed the government’s decision last month to appoint a Liberian army chief. But he calls the current army an illegitimate “militia.”

“The army needs a general, a long-serving general, a well-experienced general, not a small, little 40-year-old boy who joined the army in 2006,” says Boye. He sits in a dim powder blue bunkerlike room with two other aging servicemen as Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” plays from a large speaker on the street.

Sean McFate, a former paratrooper who worked for Amnesty International before joining DynCorp to oversee the army’s redesign, says the army was so broken, it had to be disbanded.

Ziankahn agrees. “They put themselves in the situation that they are in. It was their making. It was not us. They were taking sides during the war,” he says, adding that he hopes his troops are never in their shoes — disgraced and unemployed. “All the guys you see talking, it’s just out of jealousy and envy.”

New recruits

Liberian army base
Troops at Camp Todee practice shooting.
Glenna Gordon for Al Jazeera America

Deep in the bush at Camp Todee, abandoned during the war and recently renovated, new recruits are for the first time being trained by Liberian soldiers. The recruits’ chests are pressed to the ground as they practice aiming their rifles. Their faces are stiff as they conduct drills led by Liberian instructors who punctuate their speech with swearing in English. Inside a large hall nearby, uniformed U.S. Marines who have just arrived in Liberia for the next rotation of Operation Onward Liberty, the military mentoring program, stand and watch as the recruits clean and dismantle weapons.

Korpu G. Kennedy is in her seventh week of training at Camp Todee. One of about 200 females in the army, she is a shy young woman who speaks in clipped sentences and peppers her speech with “yes, ma’am.” Before she was recruited by the army, she studied agriculture at the University of Liberia and lived with her brother in the seaside shantytown of Bernard’s Beach. She supported her schooling with a scholarship and the money she earned waitressing.

To her parent’s dismay, she decided to quit in her junior year. But Kennedy says she looked forward to the order and discipline of the army and thought it would offer greater opportunity. The training and drills are difficult, she says, but she is fit and confident. 

 “This is my country,” she says softly. “I love my country and would love to serve the people of my country defending it.”

 

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