Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Botched Demilitarization

In Spring of 2003, an ECOMOG peacekeeping mission composed of S’Leonian troops landed at Roberts International Airfield; the task of demilitarizing ex-combatants was among their chief priorities. Street fighting in Monrovia had subsided over the past few months, and many citizens felt that Liberia, in fact, was demilitarized.

“That is what surprised so many people,” a friend of mine recounted, as we sat at a beach in Sincor, Monrovia.

“People thought the war was over, until ECOMOG and UNMIL troops began offering money for remaining weapons. One of the largest collection points was on Randall Street at Stop and Shop [one of three major grocery stores in downtown Monrovia]. Troops offered up to 100 dollars (USD) for a rifle, and 50 dollars for three shots… I remember standing on the street and watching children and old ladies come with reels of ammunition.

“This did not have the desired effect, however, because during the war, Taylor and his opponents armed their soldiers. People were given weapons to go to the front lines – so even those who already owned arms received guns. Many people had two or three AK 47s.

“The system of purchasing weapons was also just dangerous. One time, UNMIL ran out of money and had to tell a crowd of people bearing guns and ammunition that they would not receive the money they expected.”

The demilitarization of Liberia, according to many, is a job left undone. Particularly in the outer counties, communities possess stockpiles of weapons; further still, many Monrovians believe they would require little persuasion to put them to use. Ex-combatants, and armed civilians for that matter, are know to have sunk weapons in nearby using sealed containers filled with oil; the lakes make ideal hiding grounds and the oil lubricates the guns and artillery such that they may be surfaced and used years later.

What would be the most effective way to route a county of such weapons? Today, UN peacekeeping missions continue to offer money for arms in southern Sudan (among other places, I would imagine). Money for guns is standard operating procedure. Though clearly this process was not fully successful in Liberia, the practice is still used and the implementers are still thought to be vital to the peace in Liberia.

“UNMIL cannot pull out of Liberia yet. Though we all agree they cannot be permanent, they must stay until people have faith in the new army [the Armed Forces of Liberia]. For now, it’s just too soon.”

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