Yesterday, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf confirmed Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Dee Ziankan as the new chief of staff of the country’s armed forces. Colonel Ziankan becomes the first head of the nation’s military since it was disbanded in 2003 as part of a peace agreement that ended the most recent of Liberia’s civil wars. Since then, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has been responsible for the country’s internal security.
Liberia has had a tumultuous history since it was established in the early nineteenth century as a homeland for freed slaves from the United States. From 1989 until 2003 the country experienced two brutal civil wars, in which the national military was a significant actor. As part of the agreement signed in 2003 in Ghana’s capital Accra, the military was disbanded and UNMIL took over responsibility for providing security.
The 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement also called for the development and formation of a new, professional national military. The initial Liberian Security Sector Reform (LSSR) program, led by the United States through the Department of State, focused first on the demobilization of the existing Ministry of Defense personnel. This took substantial time, only being completed in 2006. Subsequently a plan was drafted to develop a new Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). A human rights vetting process for new recruits was a key component of the transformation plan.
With the formal activation of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008, the US military became actively involved in the LSSR program. Soldiers from US Army Africa (USARAF) and Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) were called upon to support the effort.
In 2010, AFRICOM initiated a new effort, called the Liberian Defense Sector Reform (LDSR) program, as a separate component of the larger State Department LSSR effort. The change also indicated that what had already been established of the new AFL had reached significant milestones. Under the original LSSR efforts, US forces were directly responsible for training AFL personnel at all levels. Under the LDSR effort, nicknamed Operation Onward Liberty, the AFL would be responsible for training its own forces on company-level basic infantry tactics, techniques and procedures, as well as providing logistics training to its soldiers. The US would continue to provide advisory and mentoring support for the AFL as it continued its development. AFRICOM also designated US Marine Forces, Africa (MARFORAF) as the lead entity in charge of Operation Onward Liberty.
This most recent milestone is indicative of how far the AFL has come since 2003. Reports suggest that unlike the pre-2003 force, Liberians view the current AFL positively and as a professional force. Last year, AFL personnel joined other African peacekeepers as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). This constituted the first deployment of Liberian military personnel outside of the country since the end of the civil war. The continued progress by the country’s military is indicative of how far Liberia has come since then more broadly.