Has Grand Gedeh County become a frontline? Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö on the situation in the Liberian borderlands

Recent weeks in Grand Gedeh following the cross-border attack to Ivory Coast have been interesting. After the arrival of the “Joint security” consisting of the Armed Forces of Liberia, the armed Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the Liberian National Police and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, the city was transformed into an armed camp overnight. While not a new phenomenon, the white United Nations choppers landing to and rising from the airport only enhanced the mood that something was happening.

A police officer stationed in Zwedru spoke his mind about the new forces sent from Monrovia: he was concerned about the possibility of these forces harassing local citizens, which could lead to serious problems due to reasons found in the recent history of the country. Everybody in Zwedru remembers how the security forces of the now imprisoned former President Charles Taylor harassed people in Southeastern Liberia.

On the second day following the arrival of the joint security there was already the sound of wings of history to be heard: the new security was referred to as Taylor’s Anti-Terrorism Unit by people calling the local community radio to complain about harassments.

Despite the fact that the government gave an allowance of $300 per month (with rumors as well as hopes that the amount will be raised to $400 on July) to the new forces, they seem to have gone on to find new ways of making money. The Immigration officers have probably never checked so many cars and passenger documents and the police began to direct traffic by the market, and while doing so fining bikers for rather random traffic violations. Even the recent law that requires bikers to wear a helmet suddenly began to be enforced with previously unseen enthusiasm.

A bigger problem, however, was not the newly rich and seemingly always drunken officers on the streets of Zwedru, but the ERU: with limited options to make money in the city reports began to trickle that they have been engaged in harassment of both Ivorian refugees as well as local citizens outside Zwedru. For instance, a band of Liberian and Ivorian hunters armed with single barrel guns were arrested as they were selling bush meat by the Monrovia highway. Local elders tried to negotiate by vouching for the hunters, arguing that the gun permit was in order and providing a compensation of LD 4,000. The official response was accepting the money but still carrying the arrested hunters to jail. This is only one of several instances of the new security business in Grand Gedeh.

While some of the accusations against ERU are likely exaggerated (such as the one that claimed that it had robbed a commercial vehicle on Monrovia highway), there is a real concern about the powers that the security forces currently employ in Grand Gedeh. As the police officer, previously mentioned, reminded: harassment by state security was the main reason for the revolution against Taylor in Grand Gedeh. This means that in the end it matters little whether the joint security actually commit all the violations or not. More important is that what the people in Grand Gedeh feel and believe to be true. While some violations have been officially admitted, officials have been quick to note that “they are not systematic”. For the time being this is the case.

There was also discussion about a curfew, but it seems that this never became official. Shedding light on the relationship between official and unofficial business in Liberia, at least some policemen began enforcing the curfew, which some citizen took as a fact while others did not. Speaking about the curfew the main response has been disbelief: does the government believe Zwedru has become a frontline?

But yet the presence of the security forces and the few checks and balances placed on their behavior are only some problems facing the southeastern region, the county and its citizens. What has also taken place is the use of insecurity as an economic opportunity for local politicians. These opportunities ultimately arise from the government announcement to close the gold camps situated close to the Ivorian border, and where a recent Human Rights Watch report claims Liberians are financing and fighting the conflict in Ivory Coast, where the situation may be erupting into a civil war.

The government announcement of closing the camps and the government’s curious silence concerning its implementation has created considerable insecurity that directly affects the lives and futures of several thousands of people in Grand Gedeh. For anyone visiting the camps for a longer time the terminology soon becomes misleading: not all the gold camps are simply for miners, but they are more accurately towns as they are not only inhibited by the young men working on the gold fields, but in many cases also their families.

Some camp elders also bring out an important point, together with a veiled threat: many of the miners are former combatants, who are currently busy with mining in the camps. Forcing them to leave the camps would materialize in thousands of homeless and jobless people loitering around in the county capital – a prospect that worries many even in Zwedru. More importantly, the lure of a mission in Ivory Coast might become too alluring for some of the miners made unemployed by the implementation of the government decision.

The exploiting of this uncertainty is carried up on every level, beginning from local leaders upwards. Considering that vast sums of money are involved in gold business the amounts of money discussed are not small. It also seems clear that these transactions are not done with any (official) sanction from the government. Whether they will help to affect the situation is equally uncertain. If the government does not act swiftly and begin to provide real security both inside the camps and especially between them and the border areas, local political entrepreneurs can continue to make offers that are very, very difficult to refuse. The situation in Grand Gedeh at the moment seems to be a good example of how conflict can cause problems for the majority, while at the same time providing new opportunities for the minority.

This is the third guest post by Ilmari Käihkö. He is currently residing in Grand Gedeh conducting research for our project on mid-level commanders and their roles in post-war Liberia

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3 Responses to Has Grand Gedeh County become a frontline? Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö on the situation in the Liberian borderlands

  1. James says:

    I don’t have very much concern with the deployment of the AFL in the border region. The AFL generally does not get involved in civil matters since its re-establishment in 2006. But you are right about the Emergency Response Unit. This was a force that was “vetted” and trained by UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia). They simply allowed individuals already in the police force to be recruited in the ERU without proper vetting and then gave those individuals weapons training.

    A good number of ERU officers are high-handed and trigger-happy. A matter which could easily be handled may escalate if they are left to their own devices. The way UNMIL organized the ERU demonstrates the ineptitude of the UN in such matters. Let’s look at how the AFL was re-organized by the Americans: The entire previous force was disbanded. New recruits were brought in. The vetting process required among other things:

    1. a high school certificate for entry
    2. sitting an exam (written)
    3. passing a physical and medical (including being HIV-free)
    4. names and photos of recruits were published and circulated in the
    community to prevent known criminals and miscreants from the civil war
    from joining the new force.
    5. a college degree is required for officers
    6. training was done by ex-US soldiers via a contract given to dyncorp (I know
    this is a controversial approach) and active-duty US military personnel
    through bilateral agreement with Liberia.
    7. All soldiers were required to sit in on lectures on the laws of war, human
    rights.
    8. indiscipline is quickly dealt with in the AFL. Soldiers are removed from the
    force at the slightest sign of indiscipline.

    I will admit here that this is perhaps relatively easier to do because the army is much smaller than the police force. However, at a minimum, the same approach should have been taken for a specialized unit of the police such as the ERU. It baffles me that UNMIL is so inept that it couldn’t properly vet and train some 500 police officers for the ERU. Mind you, the ERU is the only unit in the Liberian police force authorized and permitted to carry weapon. They are the only unit that interacts with the civilian population while carrying weapons. Unlike the military who has minimal or no interaction with Liberian civilians unless in the event of an emergency, the ERU performs a policing and riot- control function. The training and vetting of ERU personnel should have been equally or more robust than the AFL. I am not surprised that Grand Gedeans have branded the ERU as Taylor’s ATU (a notorious, now disbanded force) guilty of several human rights abuses during Taylor’s reign of terror. Of course, this is a hyperbole on the part of Grand Gedeans but when you don’t do the required vetting, you leave the door open for people who have political motives and are willing to exploit ethnic tensions to make such accusations. So I am not surprised that Yahyah Nimely, MODEL rebel leader, would make such an accusation. This could have been avoided had UNMIL properly vetted the ERU.

    The AFL has not gotten the same response from the civilian population because they stay out of the way of the civilians and are actually at the border monitoring the security situation rather than roaming Zwedru and harassing civilians who have nothing to do with recruitment and organizing insurgency into the west of La Cote d’Ivoire.

  2. Pingback: Liberian Political Risk in Cote d’Ivoire’s Cocoa Industry | iPoliticalRisk

  3. Liberia should moved forward and stop the pity politics.

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