UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: New national army to have 2,000 troops, half as many as expected
MONROVIA, 29 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Liberia's new national army will have just 2,000 soldiers, half as many as originally planned because of budgetary issues, US and Liberian defence officials have said.
"We had planned for 4,000 men but for now the target is 2,000," Deputy Defence Minister Joe Wylie told IRIN on Wednesday.
Earlier this year, the United States pledged US $35 million to help recruit and train a new 4,000-man army and said it had contracted DynCorp International, a privately-owned security company. Now those plans have been scaled back.
"From the (Liberian) government's own budgetary analysis, they told us that they are able to build up a 2,000 man army," Ryan McMullen, the defence attache at the US embassy in Monrovia, told IRIN on Tuesday.
"This is what the government said that it can afford so... the United States government is prepared to equip, train and recruit a new Liberian army of 2,000 men," he said.
Responsibility for security in Liberia, which is struggling to rebuild after 14 years of civil war, currently lies with a 15,000-strong United Nations force, known as UNMIL.
Even after two years of peace in this West African nation, many residents fear that if the blue-hatted peacekeepers were to depart, chaos would return to the streets.
Asked whether a smaller-than-planned Liberian force would be able to keep the peace and defend the country's porous borders, McMullen struck an optimistic tone.
"I am sure a properly trained, well equipped and well disciplined force, can defeat any threat to national security," he said.
"It doesn't make any sense to build up an army that can not be supported. An army has to be trained, paid and you have to maintain equipment. This is expensive and if you can not do this, it may lead to a series of problems," he added.
Just two weeks ago, soldiers from Liberia's old army, which is being disbanded, went on the rampage in Monrovia. Some looted their own barracks to protest missed payments, others threw stones and metal missiles at the defence ministry.
Wylie said at the time that the government still had to clear outstanding retirement and severance payments totalling some 15 million Liberian dollars (US $267,000) to long-serving soldiers and those recruited at the height of Liberian's 1989-2003 civil war.
According to McMullen, the Liberian government has 90 percent of the funds needed to begin the process of demobilising, recruiting and training the new military force. But he declined to specify the actual amount.
The US official said demobilisation of the old soldiers was due to start on Thursday and should last for about 45 days. Then the recruitment of the new soldiers could start.
"We will recruit and train about 300 men at a time and the training will last for 12 to 16 weeks. It is our hope that by January, the first 300 men will have gone into training," McMullen said.
That would mean the first batch becoming operational at roughly the same time as Liberia's next democratically-elected government is installed. Some 1.3 million Liberians are expected to go to the polls on 11 October to choose a new president and parliament.
McMullen said training the whole 2,000 soldiers would be a two-year process.
But both he and Liberia's deputy defence minister said that more soldiers might be trained if extra funds suddenly came up.
"If money can be available before the sitting of the next government, we will try to train an additional 2,000 men" Wylie said.
Liberia has been without a regular army since civil war broke out in 1989 when Charles Taylor 's forces launched an offensive to topple the-then president, Samuel Doe.
During the conflict, there were several proposals to restructure the Liberian army but none of them came to anything.
Under the Abuja peace accord that led to a break in the fighting in 1996 and general elections in 1997, the West African peacekeeping force (ECOMOG) was supposed to retrain a new national army based on fair ethnic and geographical representation.
But Taylor, who won the 1997 elections, sidelined the issue, saying the restructuring was solely a matter for the elected government. A year later his government established a commission that recommended the establishment of a new 6,000-strong army but the proposal was never implemented.
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