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Security Sector Reform (SSR) is one of the four major objectives pursued by the Liberian government as it rebuilds after the fifteen-year civil war. What are the approaches and framework used by the government of Liberia to help rebuild this post-conflict state? How can the international community ensure that security reform continues to move forward?

Security Sector Reform (SSR) is one of the four major objectives pursued by the Liberian government as it rebuilds after the fifteen-year civil war. The innovative approaches and framework employed by the government of Liberia and the international community to reform the Liberian security sector after the civil war were discussed at a meeting of the Liberia Working Group, an initiative of the United States Institute of Peace. The meeting, which took place on February 21, 2007 featured Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein, former United Nations special representative of the secretary general in Liberia (UNSRSG), and Andy Michels and Sean McFate, co-founders of Interlocutor Group.1 The panelists provided an overview of the policy framework used for security reform in post-conflict Liberia and the challenges facing Liberia in rebuilding its security services. This USIPeace Briefing highlights the central points of the meeting and summarizes recommendations for the way forward. Most of the discussion during the working group meeting centered on the reform of the army, although key points on police reform are also noted.

Challenges of Security Sector Reform in Post-Conflict Liberia

The fifteen-year Liberian civil war displaced nearly one-third of the population and took the lives of approximately 250,000 people. Not surprisingly, by the time of the August 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the population and the transitional government were deeply mistrustful of law enforcement and military officials. Police and military officers were not regarded as a source of protection, but rather as entities to be feared. In order to reform the security sector, the relationship between civilians and law enforcement had to be reestablished. Thus, the challenge before the national, regional, and international communities lay not just in rebuilding the Liberian military and police force, which would take considerable resources, but also in determining their new roles in the post-conflict society.

The financial support for the reconstitution of Liberia’s security sector is shared between the United States government, which is leading the reform of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the ministry of defense, and the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which is implementing police reform. Indeed, the CPA explicitly requests “that the United States play a leading role in organizing [the] restructuring [of the Liberian Armed Forces].”2 In reconstructing the relationship between the public and the security services, DynCorp International, under contract with the United States government and the government of Liberia, is employing innovative methods for recruitment and reclaiming the public’s trust in the new army.

Framework for Liberia’s New Army

According to the panel, the guiding principles for Liberia’s security reform are that the armed forces should be commensurate with a perceived set of threats and should be financially and operationally sustainable. More concretely, the size, structure, and function of the new AFL should be framed by financial, regional, and historical concerns. Within these parameters, the government of Liberia envisioned an infantry force that was able to move quickly while at the same time posing no threats to its neighboring countries. Indeed, rather than building a force with the capacity to fight external threats, the new Liberian government determined that the country needed a force with the ability to patrol borders, control immigration, and manage criminality. While there is a need–and eventually there will be a capacity–to repel external threats (such as trafficking or border incursions), the new AFL will not be an expeditionary force capable of invading a neighboring state.

The United States, through DynCorp International, is working with the government of Liberia to establish a 2,000-member light army. While some members of the working group questioned the wisdom of having such a small force–especially given neighboring Sierra Leone’s 12,000-strong military–one panelist responded that a larger force may become a security threat if soldiers do not receive salaries on time or must live in sub-standard housing because of inadequate government support. In this regard, successful security sector reform also greatly depends on the redevelopment of the Liberian economy – especially since the United States did not agree to support the security forces beyond its initial training commitment. By focusing on the security-development nexus, the Liberian government re-oriented the commonly pursued paradigm that stresses the need to protect against external threats to national security. In Liberia, the threats to national security principally derive from internal grievances stemming from poverty and human suffering. As such, development reinforces security.

The reconstitution of the army is not only a means to secure the state, but also a critical component of nation-building. Hence, men and women from all ethnic groups are invited to apply for all positions in the new AFL. Moreover, the fifteen-week training program for new army recruits includes three weeks of courses in Liberian civics and history and international human rights norms. As a result, new recruits will possess a common base from which to overcome ethnic divisions and begin to think of themselves as fellow citizens, rather than simply as former enemies.

Reconstituting the Liberian Army

Given the long civil war, acute suffering of civilians, and the high degree of atrocities that had been committed by all of the armed groups, the new army has to regain the public’s trust. Liberians will judge the new army not only by its actions, but also by its membership. To confront this challenge, the government of Liberia carefully established a number of stages by which to screen recruits for the new Liberian army. A vetting council, comprised of a representative of the Ministry of Defense, Liberian civil society, UNMIL, and the United States Embassy, assesses each candidate’s physical fitness, literacy level, and health. The government of Liberia also specified that each candidate has to have attained at least a 12th grade education.

The vetting process has been particularly difficult in Liberia because of the paucity of reliable documents attesting to candidates’ education, medical condition, and criminal records. Consequently, in addition to fitness, medical, and literacy tests, the vetting council interviews candidates at length; with the information gathered in the interview the council then travels into candidates’ communities to confirm basic facts, inquire as to their suitability to serve in the security forces and assess the public’s trust of the candidate. Furthermore, the vetting council widely distributes pictures of the candidates throughout the community. Citizens are encouraged to anonymously report any reason a particular candidate cannot serve in Liberia’s armed forces. The vetting process has proved thorough. Through the exams, interviews, and public announcements, one panelist reported that 75 percent of the candidates who applied to the new army were rejected, a comparatively high number vis-à-vis previously used vetting protocols. In contrast, the candidates for the police, a process managed by the UN, had a 10 percent rejection rate.

Status of Security Sector Reform

Nearly four years after the signing of the CPA in Accra, reform of the security sector remains incomplete. Panelists cautioned that while demobilization and disarmament have generally been satisfactory, the reintegration progress to date is discouraging. According to the most recent report by the UN Secretary General, 39,000 former combatants have yet to be re-integrated.3 Many of these former combatants are frustrated by unfulfilled expectations of the international community’s intervention. Panelists were concerned that failure to reintegrate former combatants could result in renewed violence.

Even though 119 Liberian civil servants in the ministry of defense recently completed a 17-week professional training program,4 security sector reform remains insufficient. One panelist noted that although the U.S. government provided $500 million for Liberia’s reconstruction,5 Liberia remains largely unprotected. Militarily, UNMIL still provides most of Liberia’s protection as the AFL consists of only 106 soldiers. In fact, some identified the stringent vetting process as one reason for the delay in the full reconstitution of the Liberian armed forces.

Recommendations for the Way Forward

The participants at the Liberia Working Group stressed the importance of economic development, the engagement of civil society, and retaining international engagement in order to effectively reform the security sector.

Economic Development

Participants stressed the security-development nexus. Economic development is among the most effective means for reforming the security sector. A viable economy provides the funds to pay soldiers adequately and regularly, dampening incentives for criminality. Furthermore, a strong economy in general reduces the levels of economic and social grievances, which can lead to civil conflict in the first place. In this regard, the international community has a key role. It can contribute to security reform by forgiving Liberia’s external debt, assisting the government in improving the conditions for foreign investment, and providing support for infrastructure development.

Engaging Civil Society

The government of Liberia and the international community must engage civil society organizations in security sector reform. Specifically, civil society organizations could be instrumental in nominating acceptable candidates for the new military. Indeed, some panelists noted that without a partnership between the Liberian government, the international community, and civil society, it will prove more difficult to build a security sector that the Liberian public trusts.

Retaining International Engagement

The international community must continue to contribute resources to support the Liberian government’s peacebuilding efforts. Importantly, resources must be provided to enable the government of Liberia to reintegrate former soldiers, retrain soldiers for the new Liberian army, and fill critical civil service positions. Failing to do so may threaten the fragile peace in Liberia.


1. Andy Michels and Sean McFate were formerly of DynCorp International, to which the United States government had contracted security sector reform.

2. United Nations Security Council, "Letter dated 27 August 2003 from the Permanent Representative of Ghana addressed to the President of the Security Council," S/2003/850, 29 August 2003, Annex: "Peace Agreement between the government of Liberia, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, and Movement for Democracy in Liberia and the political parties," Part four: "Security Sector Reform, Article VII, Section 1(b).

3. United Nations Security Council, "Thirteenth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia," December 11, 2006 (S/2006/958), paragraph 13 (electronic version).

4. The figure of civil service staff has differed slightly in various sources. See: "AFL Warms Up to Duty," The Analyst, March 26, 2007 (; and United Nations Security Council, (S/2006/958), paragraphs 19-20.

5. "Liberia Partners' Forum," Address by Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State, February 13, 2007 (



This USIPeace Briefing was written by Dorina Bekoe, a senior program officer in the in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, and Christina Parajon, a program assistant in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.


The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.

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