UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: Where are the weapons? Is disarmament really working?
MONROVIA, 28 Jul 2004 (IRIN) - The United Nations has poured 15,000 peacekeepers into Liberia and more than 54,000 former combatants have been disarmed, but UN officials admit that not everyone is handing in a weapon and vast tracts of the West African country remain inaccessible to UN patrols.
Officially the news is very upbeat.
Asked how the UN-supervised Demilitarisation, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Rehabilitation (DDRR) programme in Liberia was going, UN Secretary General's Special Representative, Jacques Klein said: "Fantastic, fantastic - I get compliments from everybody!"
"More than fifty thousand demilitarised in five months, I don't know anyone else who's done that!" he enthused to IRIN in an interview.
After a false start in December, the disarmament programme finally got under way in April.
Klein predicted that about 60,000 ex-fighters would eventually hand in their weapons.
According figures collated by the UN Mission in Liberia, (UNMIL), 54,525 combatants had been disarmed by 12 July.
However, only 17,906 weapons were collected from them- an average of one rifle, rocket launcher, pistol or mortar round for every three fighters.
Last February, Klein told IRIN during a visit to Senegal that he estimated that there were around three weapons per combatant in Liberia.
Five months later, sitting in his office in the former German embassy in Monrovia, the UN supremo conceded that many of the weapons still in circulation were unlikely to be handed in voluntarily.
But he insisted that UNMIL troops would ventually recover most of them.
"I'm sure weapons are in the ground - but we'll find the caches in time, as we'll find those hidden in Monrovia," Klein said.
Several UN peacekeepers involved in the disarmament exercise told IRIN that many ex-fighters were selling weapons to non-combatants so that these in turn could claim the US$300 resettlement grant on offer to all those coming forward for demobilisation.
But Klein flatly rejected the notion that non-combatants were abusing the DDRR system in order to grab the cash handout. "That's not true, that's absolutely false!" he said angrily.
"You're saying that women who were cooks, intelligence officers, etc, should not be given access [to the DDRR programme]?" he added.
Women and children can register for inclusion in the programme without handing in weapons if they can prove to UNMIL staff at the five disarmament camps established across Liberia that they were associated with the fighting forces.
To date, 21 percent of the former combatants fall into this category, according to the UNMIL statistics.
But even after taking women and children out of the equation, there are still 2.4 adult men entering the disarmament programme for every weapon going out of circulation.
At the cantonment site in Zwedru in southeastern Liberia, a Nigerian officer receiving weapons from "former combatants" of the MODEL rebel movement told IRIN many of those claiming to be ex-fighters did not know how to use the guns they handed in.
"We know the commanders are giving out the minimum quota of arms to people who have never fought, but what can we do? We just take what they give us and they go through to the camp for their money," he said.
Residents in Monrovia also told IRIN that some former fighters were handing weapons to civilians who then reported for disarmament on the understanding that they would split the $300 they received with the fighter who gave them the gun in the first place.
Other weapons are heading over the porous borders with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire.
UNMIL said it had received reports from people living near the frontier that guns used in Liberia's civil war were being traded in neighbouring countries for consumer goods such as bicycles and motorbikes.
"We don't want arms going across the border. we are monitoring them to the best of our abilities, " said Klein.
But controlling remote border crossings is not easy and some of them, like the road into Guinea from the northwestern town of Voinjama, are still policed by rebel fighters, not UN peacekeeping troops.
"Problems will always be there, but with our deployment there will be less weapons and with the patrols we will be more or less on top of things," General Daniel Opande, the UNMIL force commander told IRIN.
A batallion of Pakistani peacekeeping troops is stationed in Voinjama, yet LURD rebels still control the border 20 km away and issue passes to local residents wanting to visit Guinea.
Asked about this anomolous situation, UNMIL officers said it was the responsibility of Liberia's transitional government to station representatives at the borders. Only when these officials arrived, could the peacekeeping force lend them support, they added.
The problem is that the broad-based government, set up last October, had not yet asserted its authority over vast swathes of the interior.
Pakistani commanders in Voinjama, told IRIN that they were only able to patrol the main roads and conduct aerial surveillance.
Ethiopian forces in Zwedru, near the border with Cote d'Ivoire, which is still in the throes of an unresolved conflict, said they were similarly restricted.
The densely forested Liberian countryside, which lent itself so well to a prolonged guerrilla war, is now perfect cover for anyone wanting to hide from the UNMIL forces.
And while thick bush hampers UNMIL's attempts to patrol the border Liberia's transitional government is not always proving helpful to the peacekeepers.
The broad-based administration is dominated by those who fought for former President Charles Taylor and LURD and MODEL, the two rebel movements which opposed him. It is notoriously unweildy and has already drawn widespread accusations of nepotism and corruption.
"We have here the coalition of the unwilling, that is a government that is quite often not interested in what we are," said Klein.
"We're supposed to have an election in October 2005 and some people are thinking, 'Why next year? I like being in my government job - what's the rush?'"
The former government of Liberia signed a peace agreement with the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL (Movement for Democracy in Liberia) rebel movements in August last year.
That accord ended 14 years of civil war and led to the establishment of the transitional government, headed by former businessman Gyude Bryant, an independent civilian.
However, it seldom operates cohesively and each faction is trying to entrench its own position.
"Each of the warring factions got ministries which are then staffed top to bottom with their people," Klein acknowledged.
The poor state of Liberia's roads is a further headache for the UN peacekeeping forces in their efforts to control the country effectively and take guns out of circulation.
The Pakistani Batallion in Voinjama, for example, reports to a sector headquarters in Tubmanburg, over 200 km to the south, but the dirt road that once linked the two towns has disappeared, overgrown by the forest.
As a result, several hundred square kilometres of densely forested countryside that lies between these two centre is now only accessible by foot.
Similarly, in southeastern Liberia, so many bridges have been destroyed or allowed to decay along the coastal road between Buchanan and Harper on the Ivorian border that it is now impassable for the UNMIL vehicles.
Some UNMIL troops and military engineers have gone to great lengths to grade and clear overgrown roads in their sectors. This has halved travel times in some parts of the country, but everywhere overland travel is still slow and arduous.
UN officials acknowledge this makes it difficult to deploy rapid reaction forces quickly and establish a ground presence in many outlying areas.
"But the thing is," said one official in Zwedru, "we need to disarm before we need the roads to be fixed."
Opande wants to see the disarmament programme completed by October, when the UN's refugee agency UNHCR is due to begin assisting some 250,000 Liberian refugees to return home.
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|