Liberia: Qualified successes in recruitment eroded by lack of sustainability


Following Charles Taylor’s exile in 2003, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) at Accra put an end to the large-scale, bloody 14-year civil conflict. The UN launched its largest peacekeeping operation at the time—UNMIL—responsible for providing general security as well as restructuring the civilian elements of the security sector as part of the SSR process mandated in the Accra Accords.

Given its historic ties to the Liberian state, the US took the lead in reforming the defence sector, thus sharing responsibilities with the UN for the SSR process. Given the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, along with USAID’s particular restrictions (it is prohibited from defence development), the Department of Defence and the Department of State were reluctant to intervene directly and decided to outsource its part of SSR to private military companies. The resulting Defence Sector Reform (DSR) is seen as a qualified success of SSR.

Entry points

The mission encompassed two aspects: a logistical, infrastructure-related objective, along with a more substantial project related to operational (rebuild the Armed Forces of Liberia, AFL) and institutional (create a new Ministry of Defence) levels of SSR, which formed the bulk of the DSR.[1] Its relatively limited goals of transforming the military sub-sector were in complement with UNMIL and other actors for the overarching reform of the Liberian security sector as a whole. The different phases of the mission involved the demobilisation of the old AFL, communicating and sensitizing on the new AFL, managing the recruitment and vetting processes and finally developing the Ministry of Defence.

The whole approach was based on a particular understanding of Liberia’s security, which located the main threats in internal dangers arising from failures of development, such as crime, insurrection, or poverty, rather than in interstate conventional military threats. Adopting the human security paradigm led to envisioning the creation of a limited army of around 2,000 soldiers as the core objective of the project. The character of this envisioned army, notably the integration of civic and literacy classes, its ethnic balance, and the inclusion of women also reflected this human security understanding.


The DSR resulted in the complete demobilisation of the old AFL, consisting of 13,500 members, at a cost of USD 15 Million. Part of the success of the demobilisation lied in treating the members of the army as soldiers rather than criminals, and in “retiring” them with some state recognition. This diminished grounds for grievance, while asserting the state’s presence and prerogatives.

The subsequent creation of the new AFL began with a country-wide communication campaign. The combination of sensitisation on the non-threatening and inclusive nature of the new army, aimed at the general population, and necessary given the recent history of abuse and terror in the country, with a message for recruitment purposes posed some problems and diminished the efficacy of both. The following step of recruitment involved considerable preparation to be able to reach beyond Monrovia itself. The final result was a minimally literate army which, although skewed towards the capital, still included members from all regional and ethnic backgrounds in considerable proportions.

Preventing the enlistment of individuals involved in war crimes and grave abuses of human rights in the new army was ensured via a careful vetting process. To be able to confront the lack of reliable information on individuals, typical in a post-conflict country, the process combined three complementary methods (background checks, records checks, and public vetting). It was conducted by a panel independent of the implementing partner, composed of two Liberians as well as a US Embassy official. All in all, the AFL went from being a security consumer and one of the causes of the civil war to being a security provider. It is now seen as a representative small army that accommodates women, and is capable of successfully integrating in peacekeeping missions (Mali 2013).

Lessons Identified

1. SSR should take into account the conditions that each country faces. Importing ready-made models is not an adequate approach; rather, the security sector should reflect the needs of the country. In Liberia, much was to be rebuilt “from scratch” following the 14-year civil war, and the greater freedom in devising and implementing DSR was appropriately used. Consideration of the specific threats facing the country and of its capacity to pay salaries – an essential planning constraint given the danger posed by unpaid, disgruntled soldiers - thus led to the development of a limited national army. 

2. A crucial aspect in building security forces lies in an adequate admissions process. Appropriately vetting the candidates to the AFL was essential to manage spoilers and check backgrounds thoroughly. Given the sensitivities involved in rebuilding an armed force in a post-conflict country, communication towards the population on the processes in place and inclusiveness in planning and engaging are important and need to be backed by great care on the selection process. Successfully vetting the applicants is essential, lest the entire DSR or SSR program is undermined. More generally, “training and equipping”, relatively straightforward provided the financing follows, is alone not sufficient for successful SSR, and other aspects such as local inclusion are essential.

3. The different objectives pursued in SSR at times contradict each other, and prioritising and sequencing among the different objectives are in such cases essential. For example, turning over the vetting records, valuable information on individuals in a country characterised by a lack of reliable archives or documents, can advance transitional justice. Yet it can also entail reprisal against witnesses, and hinder the completion of the new AFL. In the case of Liberia, security was prioritised as a precondition to development, and only later were the records handed over to the government for justice purposes and to highlight that the new AFL was untainted. Similarly, rates of literacy diverged across ethnic groups. The requirement of literacy was thus lowered for some of them in order to favour ethnic inclusiveness, while a literacy program was included into the training in order to mitigate the challenge.

4. The original successes of training and recruitment were not sustainable over the long-term, especially with the departure of the outsourced privates military company. See Steffen, and Welken, for further insight.

Selected Resources

[1] Pacific Architects & Engineers (PA&E) was the private military company responsible for former objective, and DynCorp for the latter.


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