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LIBERIA: Fledgling army dogged by indiscipline

Incidents in recent weeks involving members of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) have placed the spotlight on one of the challenges which, observers say, Liberia faces: tackling indiscipline in the military. On 22 March, the west Liberian village of Damballah near the Sierra Leonean border was looted by AFL soldiers, local media reported. On 27 March, soldiers who were being relocated from the Barclay Training Centre (BTC) in Monrovia protested by looting zinc sheets, cupboards, doors and other installations there. The AFL High Command reacted by arresting 16 soldiers, as well as two officers, including the commander of the military police, who were held for not stopping the looting, according to Star Radio. The High Command also ordered the military to shoot any looters on sight, Star Radio reported the assistant minister for public affairs at the Defence Ministry, Philbert Browne, as saying. Now people in the town of Zwedru in Grand Gedeh County near the border with Cote d'Ivoire are demanding the rearrest of four soldiers accused of burning villages in the county. Grand Gedeh's superintendent had had the four arrested but they were reportedly released by an AFL officer, Star Radio reported on 5 April. Asked at the weekend about the events in Damballah and Monrovia, a Liberian human rights advocate told IRIN they could not be seen as isolated incidents since Liberia's armed forces have historically been "poorly trained, highly underpaid and irresponsible". "There are numerous incidents in Liberia where members of the military have looted items from civilians," said the rights advocate. "The Liberian civil war and periods that followed showed how the military preyed on the civilian population - looting, raping, murdering etc," he recalled. "This will not change unless there is a new political will to train the military and imbue it with a deep sense of national duty, responsibility and accountability." Peace accords that brought Liberia's seven-year civil war to an end provided amnesty for faction fighters. Those "responsible for committing some of the most unimaginable atrocities during the war were neither punished nor effectively demobilised," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 1999 annual report. "Former faction fighters -particularly those of (president Charles) Taylor's faction, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL)- continued to act with impunity and remained a serious impediment to continued peace," the report noted. Under the peace accords, Liberia's army and police were to be restructured by the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, but Taylor rejected this after his inauguration as president in July 1997, HRW noted. "Instead, former NPFL fighters were placed in the security and police forces without serious efforts to provide training or to meet pledges to incorporate members from the other armed factions," the report added. An official of an international organisation contacted by IRIN said he, too, felt that training was crucial although he considered that the looting at the BTC was also "anchored in poverty and depressed salaries". "If you do not give security personnel proper training you are going to have violence of this sort," the official said. He said that while the police were being trained by the United Nations, to his knowledge the AFL had received no such training. A significant factor, according to the human rights advocate, is that "most of the members of the security forces and the army are still products of factional loyalty to the NPFL". HRW, too, noted in its report that the "wholesale enrolment of fighters from Taylor's former faction into the country's security forces posed a major threat". During the 1989-1997 war, the factions were to a large extent divided along ethnic lines. Star Radio on Monday 1 April quoted a retired AFL lieutenant as warning that enlisting soldiers in the AFL on the basis of ethnic origin would not guarantee stability.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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