Monday, December 3, 2007

Small arms, big problems: The case of Liberia

This is first of a two-part series on how the proliferation of small arms is destabilizing an already-unsteady post-conflict nation.

In a country barely four years removed from civil war, the news materializing from Liberia often takes on mythic proportions of the struggle of good versus evil. However, two interesting little tidbits recently caught my eye. The first, simply titled Country Joins Talks to Curb Small Arms, describes how the Liberian government participated in two days of talks with thirty other African countries in Tunis regarding the relationship between the easy access of small arms and violent conflict across the region.

In a shaky democracy like Liberia, it’s a problem that the government cannot ignore.

In fact, second story points out that the country’s National Commission on Small Arms recently embarked on a six-month survey to examine every crime and the instrument used to carry it out. This will provide the government with a good look at the depth of small arms’ proliferation.

Under a microscope
When you look at it, four years after the war ended, it’s amazing that Liberia is a functioning state at all.

Take this into account:

  • Three out of four people live on less than a dollar a day;
  • Fifty percent of children do not attend school, Refugees International claims, because parents are forced to pay school feels even after the government cancelled them;
  • While half the households in Monrovia are food secure, 14 percent in the overflowing capital remain food insecure;
  • The country still has 16,000 internal refugees;
  • In the countryside, people can’t get to the markets – one of the biggest problems of food security worldwide – because many roads are nearly impassable.

On the other hand, good news does exist:

  • Three out of four households in Monrovia have access to clean drinking water;
  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf may get a lot of good press in the U.S. because she went to Harvard and is willing to go against other African leaders (most notably in her support for Africom). But here is a comment from the new All Africa blog:

One of the most noticeable changes seen in Liberia under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the degree to which people are willing to express themselves freely. Many Liberians feel they can now speak without fear that their opinions will land them in trouble.

Does fear taste like chicken?
All this adds up to a fragile political situation, albeit one buoyed by more than 14,000 UN peace keepers on the ground, along with 1,200 foreign police officers.

As they say in those news stories imbued with heavy symbolism: The country has now reached a serious juncture. And crime is the major reason.

The government of New Zealand maintains that the shaky political system has negatively affected the security situation, and these threats pose such a high risk, “You should avoid non-essential travel outside Monrovia and travel outside Monrovia at night should be avoided.”

The U.S. government simply claims that crime is high, mostly because the high rate of unemployment. “Theft, assault, sexual crimes, and murder are problems, and they occur more frequently after dark. Foreigners, including U.S. citizens, have been targets of street crime, robbery, and sexual assault. Women have been attacked on deserted beaches. Residential armed break-ins occur. The police are ill equipped and largely incapable of providing effective protection or investigation. Criminal activity is reported in both urban and rural areas.”

The UK government reminds travelers that a dispute between local communities and the LAC rubber plantation in Grand Bassa county led to a November 17 fatal shooting of the plantation manager, a Belgian. UN authorities have increased its presence in the area, but the possibility of further disturbances remains.

Boots on the ground
Like I said, Liberia is merely four years removed from a decade-long war, including civil strife and regional conflict. One of the major problems facing law enforcement in this country is the proliferation of small weapons. Not just handguns, experts point out, but any weapon that can be fired by one person – rifles, grenades and bombs. The country of Liberia is dripping with such weapons.

Many of the guns most likely remain from the years lost to war. No demobilization process can effectively capture every gun, but Liberia’s campaign was fraught with many problems. The first: the sheer number of fighters. When the Liberian Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration program began in December 2003, the United Nations estimated that 38,000 combatants remained in the country, possessing a virtually unknown cache of weapons.

By the end of the disarmament process, which lasted until Spring 2005, more than 100,000 people participated – nearly three times the original estimate. According to Ryan Nichols, many of the participants weren’t combatants, but people ready to claim some role in the war to be able to enter the disarmament network and be paid: Any ex-combatant turning in a weapon received a total of $300 (paid in two installments), were housed and fed for five days, where they went through a medical screening process and received ID cards.

Ex-combatants also received a month’s supply of dry food. They took part in civic education courses, along with peace building and career counseling sessions in one of four areas: formal education, vocational training, public works or agriculture/livestock/fishing. (Women also received reproductive health and sexually based gender violence.)

Yet something remained fishy. Because the numbers of “ex-combatants” was so high, these groups literally overwhelmed the UN and local NGO staff at the 11 demilitarization camps across the country. Some complained that the UN’s entrance rules for men – possession of a working weapon and only a 150 rounds of ammunition – was too small an impediment to be considered a soldier, especially in a country where one could purchase a good weapon for between $30 and $50. For women and children it was even less; they only had to show up at the centers, although 13,000 women did arrive carrying a weapon.

Part of the blame lies on poor planning. When the UN picked up soldiers to transport them to centers, personnel attempted to quickly screen individuals on their role during the war and the weapons they used. However, these questions were never standardized, and most people carrying a weapon could eventually slip through.

Once the groups reached the camps, it was found that a majority of the local NGO staff was never trained on debriefing combatants. It seems that all comers gained entrance to the camps.

Although the country’s militias promised to provide comprehensive lists of their fighters to the authorities, these registers never materialized. Human Rights Watch claimed this gave former commanders an excess of power, not only over their soldiers beholden to them for disarmament funds, but also to camp staffs to control unruly combatants. At some camps, order soon got out of hand. Because camps were only designed to handle 250 ex-combatants a day, riots broke out after nearly 1,000 people had waited to turn in their guns and get some food.

Other issues persisted. Fights broke out between ex-combatants and their former commanders; some of the 10,000 child soldiers were often unwittingly re-united with former commanders who had originally kidnapped them. In all, 3,000 people most likely disarmed twice.

The rush of people made a proper count of confiscated weapons nearly impossible. Even the rough count of weapons, at least to me, dismisses any accounts that this was merely a jungle war, where fighting took place between poorly supplied armies who would rather prey upon civilians. They armies may have been more interested in looting and killing civilians, but they were armed to the teeth

All told, an estimated 25,000 guns were turned in and destroyed, including 20,000 rifles and sub-machine guns, nearly 700 machine guns, 1,800 RPGs, 10,000 hand grenades, 12,000 mortar shells and 8,700 RPG rockets.

Of these 25,000 destroyed weapons, perhaps up to 14,000 remained at large. Some of these found their way to Cote d’Ivoire, where the preliminary disarmament processes in Spring 2004 offered payment upwards of $800 to turn in a weapon. (This process was eventually cancelled.)

At the end, donor money ran out. Yet a problem remains: Roughly 30,000 ex-combatants have yet to enter re-integration programs.

Two parts gasoline, one part match
So, we have the guns. Now, let’s add other elements. As pointed out before, post-conflict Liberia resembles an economic wasteland. Ex-combatants of all stripes cannot find work, nor can many of their families support them. For refugees who originally fled the fighting, returning home usually means transferring one form of hardship for another.

With most economic prospects so low, as Human Rights Watch points out, former Liberian combatants have hired out their services for conflicts in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea. From the Human Rights Watch report:

A military intelligence source who has extensive experience in West Africa described the regional warriors as follows: “These guys form part of a regional militia I call the insurgent diaspora. They float in and out of wars and operate as they wish. They have no one to tell them where, when and how to behave. They’re been incorporated into militias and armies all over the place – Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire – and are really the most dangerous tool that any government or rebel army can have.”

Although these orphaned combatants are helping spread the seeds of instability elsewhere, it appears that Liberian government’s main problem centers on those who have stayed. Are the ex-combatants and their weapons and know-how responsible for Liberia’s excessive crime rates?

If so, what can be done?

We’ll save that for next time.


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