MONROVIA – Following 14 years of bloody civil conflict, the international community worked with the people of Liberia to broker a fragile peace hinged mainly on disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of the three identified belligerent forces which included LURD, MODEL and the former GOL, amidst a security sector reform that listed the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) as one of the belligerent forces involved in committing heinous war crimes atrocities during Liberia’s internecine conflict. Today, having gone through an extensive Security Sector Reform (SSR) program, sponsored mainly by the United States of America and the rest of the international community, which continues to actualize the transformation of Liberia’s once dreaded “nokos” into an elite “Force For Good”, pundits believe that if care is not taken, the AFL could once again be used as an instrument to stifle democracy, given the recent statement from Liberia’s Army Chief of Staff General Prince C. Johnson, that the army will support the Police to contain dissent against those who decide to take the law into own hands.
The so-called “caveat” from Liberia’s Army Chief of Staff Prince C. Johnson stated explicitly: “for whosoever may feel or is disenchanted as we approach the 2023 elections to use the court system as was seen in the 2017 Presidential and 2020 midterm Senatorial elections. If you decide to take the law into your own hands (disregarding the rule of law), regardless of your current or past status or affiliation, and if the LNP can’t control your actions and/or is overwhelmed, we will execute our constitutional duties. We will not allow anyone or a group of people to obstruct our hard-earned Peace and Democracy. We will support the LNP and relevant agencies to protect key installations where necessary”.
The statement from the army chief of staff comes in the wake of the opposition community’s planned December 17, 2022 peaceful rally which they say is intended to amplify the unheard voices of the suffering Liberian populace to the egregious bad governance of the Weah Government.
General Johnson’s statement falls hot on the heels of an apparent attack on the leader of the December 17 “We are Tired Suffering” rally, Ambassador Lewis G. Brown, on last Monday, December 5, 2022, when he appeared at a local radio station on the Capitol Bye-Pass in Monrovia to ramp up support for the planned rally. Graphic scenes from the unfortunate event flashed across the globe as condemnations poured from all quarters about how such occurrence depicts the latent threats that would occasion the 2023 presidential and general elections.
Reactions to AFL COS Statement
General Prince C. Johnson’s statement has not gone unnoticed. Liberians, especially policy wonks, are afraid that the tremendous resources and sacrifices from the international community to stabilize Liberia could be wasted if heed is not taken, especially when anti-peace elements are poised to be used to destabilize the progress attained over the last two decades.
Dr. Ibrahim Nyei, a good governance practitioner who has dedicated his youthful years to ensuring that his country continues on the path that his mentor the late Dr. Amos C. Sawyer dedicated his life for says COS Johnson’s statement has the propensity to derail the peace process.
“The AFL is a security and defense force, not a law enforcement, agency. The Armed Forces of Liberia has in recent times issued public statements on matters of public safety, rule of law, and internal security. This is a wrong precedence and usurps the functions of the civilian authority over the AFL. The AFL is a force for national defense and security, not an internal law enforcement agency. But in matters where the national law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed, the AFL could be called in by the civilian authorities to support in the restoration of order.
“In a democracy, like ours, where our armed forces are supposed to be under civilian control, the Chief of Staff should refrain from engaging with the public and issuing threats guised as ‘caveats”. The army should express all concerns through the civilian authorities at the Ministry of Defense. The army does not issue “caveat” in a democratic society, it announces operational plans when there is a need to do so,” Dr. Nyei stated.
Continuing, the governance policy practitioner stated that in a society like Liberia, where there has been a culture of fear of soldiers, threats issued by the army, particularly to politically active citizens, could undermine civil-military relations and the citizens’ rights to engage in politics, express disagreements and stage protests.
“The army should remain professional by staying out of political contests, or presenting itself as a guardian of democracy when there are other agencies tasked to play that role. The recent move by the Chief of Staff or the AFL is a specter that must immediately be put under control, lest the army risks its reputation to be seen as a regime army instead of a national army,” Dr. Nyei stated emphatically.
On the other hand, Robert Monsio Kpadeh who once served the erstwhile Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government as Deputy Information Minister, believes strongly that the Armed Forces of Liberia has a specific role as enshrined in the Liberian Constitution which does not include issuing threats to civilians who wish to exercise their constitutional rights; therefore, the Chief of Staff of the AFL ought to know this and realize that the Liberian people will not be intimidated by his utterances.
“In democracies around the world, the military speaks last, and under very extreme circumstances–where it is thoroughly assessed and established that a dire national security threat against the state is at foot. Civil actions like the rights to assemble, freedom of expression, free movement, and freedom of association et others are guaranteed by both domestic and international laws (International human rights covenants and protocols to which states have acceded and ratified). The respect and adherence to upholding these rights cannot be easily derogated except under conditions guaranteed by law.
The police and other law enforcement institutions may intervene to ensure law and order in circumstances where the excise of civil assembly tends to violate the rights of other citizens, but not to prevent any group of citizens from exercising their civil liberties, Mr. Kpadeh stated.
“I don’t know the facts and basis that necessitated Chief of Staff Prince C. Johnson’s comments; however, I believe for a country still grappling with horrifying scars caused by the indescribable scale of atrocities meted on innocent citizens for fifteen years both by the former dreadful AFL and monstrous rebel factions during the country’s dark ages of civil war, the Head of the Army needs to be extremely careful with his utterances and the tone with which he echoes them. Most especially in a politically charged country like Liberia. Peace cannot be protected by threatening people and their civil liberties. General Johnson’s comments constitute a threat which, perhaps, was not intended to be a threat, but at times, our choice of words and the tone with which we express them could have unintended consequences. People can construe them differently and adjudge them wanting, especially strong comments coming from the whims of the Army Chief.
“Peace can only be achieved when fundamental rights are not trampled on and there exists socioeconomic equality as well as a legal system that upholds its doctrine of justice and equity (iustitia et aequitas), especially within the prism of democracy. And the army’s role, primarily, is to defend the state from external threats, not to be a menace to the very people it is under statutory obligation to protect. In 1979, when the police were savagely brutalising citizens at the rice riot, the military came to the people’s defense. Recently, we saw the military of Sierra Leone protecting citizens in the three-day demonstration against “bad governance” in that country. The military must be people-sensitive at all times.
“The AFL had a nefarious reputation in the past, factionalized and atrocious. Worldview analysts described the AFL in the 80s and 90s as a force of “killer machines”. Thankfully, the new AFL can be commended for taking a definable departure from the mentality of despotism, a transformation that is mostly credited to the enlightened and responsible leadership of its top brass who were all trained by the United States Army–on the values of democracy and citizen’s rights. I can only encourage General Johnson with whom I went to school, Minister Daniel Ziankahn et others to continue to lead the army along this path that honors citizens’ rights, and may the new AFL remain a ‘Force for Good,” Sage Moncio intoned.
As for Mr. Elchico M.F. Fawundu, Sr., a seasoned Liberian diplomat, no matter where he stands regarding the planned December 17 rally or protest, the Chief of staff has overstepped his boundaries.
“It is a democratic tenet to gather and protest in accordance with laws. Military should never threaten the action or purported action even if it were deemed harmful. We have the Police, NSA and other paramilitary who are charged with the internal security of the state. Even if the Military were to get involved, it should be invoked by the President under the law. This statement is wrong regardless,” says Mr. Fawundu.Similarly, other Liberians don’t understand why the Army Chief of Staff could attempt to meddle in civilian matter.
“In as much as I respect the AFL, I am of the opinion that they should not meddle in any internal crisis. Their priority should be protecting the national borders,” says Stanley Mcgill, a Liberian who has served the international community in his capacity as a United Nations Volunteer for decades.