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Liberia: Battle Fatigue- A Nation in Transition

MASU FAHNBULLEH ~ (March 09 2006)  

"...Today, we find a Commander-in-Chief, in person of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who too is bent on revisiting this historic past-her display of egregious judgment in appointing a uniform Nigerian military officer on February 11th, 2006 (General Luka Nyah Yusuf) in charge of the Restructuring process. This is a further denigration of the role of those men and women who served honorably and played...”

The Stage- the torrential rainfall of unrest and civil disturbances that poured upon the world in the 1980’s, equally created an avalanche of landslides in Liberia and the erosions that followed created different landscapes. One noticeable of those land formations was a political cliff-a jump-off point into the sweeping demands for social change and political dissent. As a student at St. John’s Episcopal High School in Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, I witnessed my country in turmoil, over a proposed increased in the price of a 100 pound-bag of rice (Liberia’s stabled food), by the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. This proposal by the government set into motion the formulation of political movements and civic organizations, with the desire to pressure government in reconsidering its decision. With alarming economic instability, dramatic decrease in revenue, limited foreign assistance and an imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, all the more increasingly made the shift in government policy a volatile issue. International donors joined calls by citizens and political organizations for greater openness and accountability. One of the political movements on the horizon during this time was the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). This movement (PAL) charged that the proposed increased in the price of rice, was one of many issues facing the country and particularly one that was unfair and unattainable for many Liberians. PAL had a counter proposal to the government, whereby their organization would import rice and have it sold for $10.00 a bag, compared to the government’s proposed price increase of $20.00-$25.00 (difference of $10.00-$15.00).

Moreover, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), noted that the country’s development issues could be traced to “a crisis of Governance”, citing illegitimate leadership, abuse of authority, lack of official accountability, the control of information, and a failure to respect the rule of law and human rights. This newly formed political movement gave currency to a people desperate for change. The discourse over the increase in Liberia’s stabled food, led to a riot in April of 1979, first of its kind in the history of our country. Many observers believed that this was the beginning of the democratic process for Liberia, while others maintained that the leadership of the True Whig Party (the party that ruled the country since independence) should make some cosmetic changes and everything will be all right.

Liberians from all backgrounds will certainly agree with me that changes within the True Whig Party and policy direction were not going to solve the overly alarming problems that have been in existence, before the rice riot of 1979. Part of the problem lies within the engines of institutions that were structured to enhanced democracy, which the one party system deliberately failed to turn-on. Secondly, the deep-rooted hatred, bigotry, lack of compassion, ill treatment that marked the natives (country people), especially denial of education and the national wealth, to me became the divide that destroyed the very oneness that should have been established, upon the arrival of the settlers in 1822. The residue of these circumstances flowed through the Army Forces of Liberia (AFL); an institution mainly comprised of natives who had no formal education.

At the same time the great engine of our respective towns, villages and cities sputters, there were around us evidence of a new and nearly inexplicable cultural corrosion manifested in everything from schools for certain children, government scholarship programs for the chosen few, government jobs set aside for a particular class of Liberians, imprisonment of native Liberians with hardly any trial, hardship, and alienation. We were surely a long way from the elaborate policy of William V.S. Tubman: The Unification Policy-a one Liberia for all- or even from the poor but hopeful streets of Robertsport neighborhood I grew up in.  In my generation, all of us, no matter what our political philosophy, felt that distance, and we felt it as a pain. In honest moments we felt it as a shame too.  

A year later, April12, 1980, the AFL, under the aegis of The People’s Redemption Council (PRC) carried out a military coup d’tat and over threw the True Whip Party government. The president, along with several members of the national legislature, the cabinet and a dozen other officials were given a summary execution by firing squad in an opened-air-ceremony. This break from the past caused newly formed political parties to move to transform old regimes and to reinforce the institutions that made government accountable to the citizens. The call for political change in the Liberian capital-Monrovia thus involves more than simply adopting standard operating procedures and other tools of rational-legal bureaucracies. In the first place, many of the institutions were difficult to transform. Bureaucracies, courts, military, and so forth, were deeply rooted in a local culture that had reached a level of complexity and inefficiency that made them completely unable to support effective state action. But even more fundamentally, institutions of democracy were absence. As a result of the absence of functioning political institutions, the transition to a vibrant democracy became challenging and a very difficult process especially for a developing country like ours. The leaders [most] of the political movements who joined with the military regime had absolutely no working knowledge in government-making the transition even more a daunting task.                                                         

The Weariness- given the falling apart of the military regime and a re-awakening of civil life, the return to democracy appears guaranteed. But the political leaders (Fahnbulleh, Sawyer, Tipoteh, Matthews, Quiah, Mayson) have been hard hit by the repression of the 70’s, and their subsequent affiliation with the PRC-and by their inability to deliver on the many slogans that aroused the consciousness of the poor. It is also worth noting that their association with the military dictatorship discredited the leftovers of Liberia’s political class (Tubman-Tolbert). When the repression was at its peak, many politicians oscillated between silence and open collaboration, especially during the failed 1985 Quiwonkpa coup.

All the major political movements, and virtually all their leaders, joined in the media cover-up which hid the truth of the disaster from the Liberian people right until the last moment. In the churches, high school campuses and on university acres around the country, the military regime eliminated a whole generation of public servants, and left only a corrupt leadership, already discredited under the scandal-ridden government of the People’s Redemption Council. In addition, these political movements –leaders- were  deeply divided among themselves-the division still remains today. Thus, it was no surprise that the electoral campaigns (1985, 1997 and 2005) took place in a climate of general skepticism. Even though everyone agreed that the Military and Taylor governments must go, yet, there was little faith in the Transitional alternatives-countless Transitions have been tested and failed. This, however, does not mean that the Liberian people were inactive. Their eagerness to get rid of the military regime overcomes their dislike of the politicians and their insipid drive for change. Neither the Doe, Taylor, Sawyer’s Interim Government of National Unity ( IGNU) and all of the Interim Administrations has succeeded in putting forward credible agendas for governing the country. In an attempt to gain the support of the illiterates, all of these administrations have preferred fanciful promises for the Liberian people, rather than concrete propositions, combined with a cautious respect for the military.

The Structure- the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), National Security Agency (NSA), Liberian National Police (LNP) and Special Security Services (SSS) assumed added prominence as a result of the People’s Redemption Council military coup d’ tat of 1980-and with an empasse of Sawyer’s IGNU, the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) and Taylor’s Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU). These organizations shared certain characteristics while simultaneously differing from one another in various respects. The AFL, unlike the other National Security assets was anchored down in illiteracy. The burden of lack of education bequeathed to them since the name change from Liberia Frontier Force- by past administrations made it extremely difficult for them to get a running start on becoming a dynamic and professional institution. Equally too, NSA, LNP, and SSS reflected a greater number of college graduates than any of the security organizations named. Yet, they too became havens for Human Rights abuses, false arrests, and prolonged imprisonment without any legal redress. As for the RRU and ATU, both were somewhere in left field with no defined command structure- a free for all attitude.

Today, we find a Commander-in-Chief, in person of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who too is bent on revisiting this historic past-her display of egregious judgment in appointing a uniform Nigerian military officer on February 11th, 2006 (General Luka Nyah Yusuf) in charge of the Restructuring process. This is a further denigration of the role of those men and women who served honorably and played by the rules. In her recent remark on BBC, the Commander-in-Chief stated, “we do not have qualified Liberians to lead this effort.” The President’s remark clearly shows disdain for the Liberian people and an indifference to the Constitution. We need to take a page out of the Strategic National Security decision of the Bush administration, when General Tommy Franks (Commander-Central Command) retired from the Iraqi Theatre and was replaced by General John Abizazz. Even though General Abizazz is an American, but he is of Middle Eastern decent. And so too, is the current US Ambassador to Iraq Zahmay Khalilzad. Putting a Liberian face on this restructuring process will help to forge a sense of purpose and unity within the ranks.

A very simple tool, yet a very profound example. This example provides a meaningful standard when it comes to restructuring of the Armed Forces of Liberia. That only through dialogue and meaningful discussions that we as a nation will understand the bitter hatred and disdained of the military that has been enshrined in our society. To sidelined Liberians from heading this Institution will further deepened the already divide that exist.

The March- as a government, to be fair to our obligation, to make intelligent decisions about how to go about this restructuring of Liberia’s armed forces, we need to agree on some basic ideas of what our Armed Forces should be and what we want it to do for us. For an example the creation of specialize training-Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) for our citizen soldiers-trained them as Medical Doctors, Nurses, Engineers, Computer Specialist, Lawyers, Mechanics, Cooks, Small Engine Repairman, Finance Specialist…Infantryman of course, the foundation for every serviceman. Provide them with useful skills that long after their military careers, that these fine soldiers can transition into other public and private enterprises-yet very productive contributing members of their respective communities.

To avoid the incompetence environment that exerted significant influence in all State Institutions in the 1980s, particularly the Armed Forces were increasingly ‘Tribal Patronage’ superseded National Allegiance in creating a professional army-the need to diversify the capacity of the AFL is paramount. Liberia must look at creating two different components of the Armed Forces-Active and Reserve. Structure and area of influence different but share some similarities.

  1. The Reserve component of the AFL-those men and women (former AFL soldiers) who do not meet the requirements set forth by DynCorp International and our Security Sector Reform partners to undergo ‘Train-the Trainer Program’-the Ministry of Public Works, Liberia Water and Sewer and Liberia Electricity Corporation …these are just few places that primarily focus on hands-on training to enhance their capacity to contribute to nation building.
  2. The Reserve component of the AFL, apart from learning how to operate earth-moving equipment, maintaining power generators and water purification, they can assist in humanitarian aid and in disaster management. 
  3. Creation of Reserve Officer Training Course (ROTC) in all public institutions, as well as those subsidized by government (high schools and universities)-Recruitment starts here-and- this is were the transformation for a new professional Armed Forces takes root.

And to explore the means to improve coordination among the two components-a view to enhance cooperation and optimize the implementation of a modern Armed Forces-small, educated, trained, yet highly professional. This truly will be a pioneering move for Liberia, that upon retiring our men and women who served in uniform, can still be productive citizens. Stigma removed-no more will they be called NOKOS. For these citizen soldiers will be the finest that Liberia has to offer.

What is more, the idea of a military take over of a Constitutionally elected government will greatly reduce-for the challenge now will be on developing an enriched human capacity-the crossroads to a vibrant nation.


About the author:

Masu Fahnbulleh served in numerous Combat and Contingency Operations in the US Army as a Paratrooper. He is a war Veteran of over 11 years of military service. He recently served as a Logistics Coordinator for KBR-a Halliburton Company in support of US Military and Coalition Forces Operations in Iraq. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from The University of North Carolina @ Charlotte. He can be contacted at

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