By. J. Lyndon Ponnie
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) trace its origins to a militia that was formed by the first black colonists in what is now Liberia, it was founded as the Liberian Frontier Force in 1908, and retitled in 1956. For almost all of its history, the AFL has received considerable materiel and training assistance from the United States. For most of the 1941–89 period, training was largely provided by U.S. advisers, though this assistance has not prevented the same generally low levels of effectiveness common to most of the armed forces in the developing world.
For most of the Cold War, the AFL saw little action, apart from a reinforced company group which was sent to ONUC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1960s.
This changed with the advent of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989. The AFL became entangled in the conflict, which lasted from 1989 to 1996–97, and then the Second Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1999 to 2003.
The Accra Peace Agreement which brought about an end to the bloody civil crisis, called for disbandment of irregular forces, reforming and restructuring of the Liberian Armed Forces. The agreement says “the Armed Forces of Liberia shall be restructured and have a new command structure.”
The New Army is born
After Liberia’s brutal civil war ended in 2003, the U.S. assumed responsibility for dismantling the tattered, factionalized national army, and under the auspices of the Pentagon’s AFRICOM, built a new force from scratch. For up to $250 million the U.S. has planned, recruited, strenuously vetted and trained the 2,000-strong AFL, hiring commercial military trainers from DynCorp International, and Lockheed Martin’s Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE).
And at the end of the process, a US Embassy in Liberia official simply said: “Dyncorp create a new state-of-the art army, trained to international standards and composed of soldiers who were carefully recruited, vetted and trained to be subordinate to the rule of law.”
“Liberia is building a new army and we are very strict regarding its standards,” says Lieutenant Eric Dennis, who taught international humanitarian law to recruits.
The AFL consisting of two infantry battalions, a Service Support Company, a Military Police Company, a Logistics Command, and the Liberian National Coast Guard was established, with a Nigerian army officer, Gen. Suraj Alao Abdurrahman, as its first Command Officer-In-Charge (COIC).
A Liberian has been made the head of Liberia’s army for the first time since civil war ended more than 10 years ago. After a few years, a Liberian Chief of Staff, Daniel Ziankahn was named to replace the Nigerian. This is the first time a Liberian has taken command of the country’s military since the former army was disbanded in 2003.
After President George Weah was elected, Prince C. Johnson III, another Liberian became Chief of Staff, promoted to the rank of Major General, and Geraldine George elevated as Deputy Chief of Staff, promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
The appointment of Liberians to head the army is a great source of pride, “I would say, for the Liberian military in terms of concretely showing how far they have come and what the army represents and who makes up their army, said one expert.”
The U.N. Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, took charge of security in the country since August 2003, following a ceasefire that ended Liberia’s second civil war. UNMIL drew down its military presence in 2007, and has completed handing responsibility to Liberian security forces.
Today, the new army is generally well-liked and respected. One military expert said Liberia has come a long way and added that having Liberians heading its army once again was good for the country.
Atlantic Council Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham sometimes ago, said new leadership of the army face several challenges. “One is [that] the size of the Liberian military is relatively modest compared to neighboring states. So when you look at the security [situation], Liberia, although the West Africa region is certainly much more peaceful today than in the ’90s, it’s still not yet the safest neighborhood in the world. And the question is going to be, and we will never know until the moment comes, whether it is sufficient for the security needs of Liberia.”
But top AFL officials who preferred not to be named said, there are plans to boost the number of the army, however indicated that in the meantime, “It’s not how big but how well.” According to them, the new AFL of the present size is capable of nipping any security threat to the country.
Liberian Army in Peacekeeping
The last time Liberia took part in International Peacekeeping operations was over four decades ago in Congo. But after rebranding its army, a ‘new force for good’, the Government of Liberia on June 23, 2013, dispatched the first platoon-size of AFL troops to form part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA)-an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) organized military mission sent to support the government of ECOWAS member nation Mali, against Islamist rebels in northern Mali.
A formal agreement between Liberia and the UN to supply peacekeeping personnel to serve in the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), marks an “immensely significant” transition for the former war-torn West African nation, Liberia UN Ambassador said in New York last year.
Ambassador Dee-Maxwell Saah Kemayah, was speaking after signing a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the UN’s head of Operational Support, (DOS) Atul Khare, acknowledging Liberia’s contribution of a Force Protection Company to MINUSMA.
The 105-strong contingent, consists of 105 peacekeepers who have been serving in the key base of Timbuktu, since October 2016.
For decades, Liberia was a host nation for ‘blue helmets’ rather than a provider of peacekeeping troops, beginning in 1993, including a Peacekeeping Mission that was based in the country between September 2003, and 2017.
Under-Secretary-General Khare said during the signing ceremony that “Liberia’s path to peace demonstrates the clear positive impact of UN peacekeeping as a country that moved from conflict to stability and today is a key partner in assisting other countries in need”.
At the signing, the UN also paid tribute to the service and sacrifice of Liberian peacekeeper Ousmane Ansu Sherif, who lost his life in an attack on a MINUSMA camp in Timbuktu, in May 2017.
Ambassador Kemayah said the signing was “immensely significant, as it mutually reinforces the commitment between the Government of Liberia through the Armed Forces of Liberia and the United Nations to the peacekeeping initiatives in MINUSMA.”
He further stressed that the MoU would “enhance the capacity of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) to adequately provide personnel, equipment and services in support of its Military Mission in Mali; and to be better prepared to contribute more fully to the concerted and collective peacekeeping objectives of MINUSMA.”
Liberia contributes 118 uniformed personnel (of which 10.6% are female) who serve in MINUSMA, and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).