Liberia: AFL’s 2014 West Point Violence Shows Armed Forces Are Not Reformed from War time

AFL soldiers in a drill on Armed Forces Day

The day was Wednesday, August 20, 2014 and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) had been deployed in West Point to enforce an Ebola quarantine imposed by the government a previous day. Residents were angered after the commissioner of the seaside township was evacuated on a day the epidemic reached more than 1,300 cases. The soldiers flogged people and the people threw stones at the soldiers. Then there were gunshots and afterwards 15-year-old Shaki Kamara lay on the sidewalk in agony and pain. His right leg shattered by bullet. He died of his wounds later that day.

Opinion by Mae Azango, New Narratives Justice Correspondent

The death of Kamara stole all major headlines across the global at the time Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone made the biggest news for a health crisis that would go on to kill 5,000 people in Liberia alone. It was a huge tragedy even for a slum like West Point, which has been plagued by violence for decades.  

The mission of the army might have been to restore calm to a turbulent neighborhood; however, it was more than that. That was the first time the army was thrust into action following years of training that cost the United States some US$200 million over a three-year period, according to the U.S. State Department. Its “A Force for Good” motto was tarnished in West Point and gone with it was an opportunity to showcase a new image following its often brutal behavior in the Liberian Civil Wars that killed 250,000 people.  In the war, the AFL continued the footpath of its predecessor—the Liberian Frontier Force it replaced in 1962—that arrested and killed native chiefs and elders on the Kru Coast in the aftermath of the Fernando Po Crisis in the 1930s.   

Current Defense Minister Daniel Ziakahn, who was then Chief of Staff of the AFL, said he regretted the incident at the time. “This was a life experience to learn from,” Gen. Ziankahn said. “Whenever I think about the West Point incident, I develop bad feelings, because I got to know that we (the AFL) didn’t do a good job.”

The army had denied it was responsible for the killing of Kamara and injuring three other men but an inquest by the Independent Human Rights Commission blamed the army. “The findings from the Disciplinary Board of the AFL concluded that a Platoon Commander and four enlisted men were guilty of indiscretion and exhibited indiscipline on August 20, 2014,” the Commission said in a statement.

The Restructuring of the AFL was a key component of the Security Sector Reform of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) that ended the war in 2003. Under this restructuring, the AFL was dismantled, with some 13,770 soldiers retired and 440 personnel of the Ministry of Defense replaced. The reform also placed an ethnicity gag that limits the recruitment of soldiers from specific tribe to not more than 15 percent, and the pool of soldiers at 2,000. In 2013, after years of United States-led training, the army was qualified at professional enough to serve the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.  

The new AFL also serves at ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja as part of the support and commitment to the ECOWAS Standby Force; and has a presence at the MRU Secretariat under its security protocol. It successfully conducted “Operation Restore Hope”, which brought calm and civility along the Liberian and Ivorian border. The engineering company of the national army builds roads and constructed bridges in hard to reach areas and participates in rescue efforts during natural disasters.

However, the AFL has some skeletons in its closet to clean — demons of its past to banish. Soldiers of the AFL on April 12, 1980 toppled the government of President William R. Tolbert, killing him and later 13 members of his cabinet. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Liberia in its 2009 report blamed the AFL for some of the crimes committed during the Liberian Civil War (1989 – 2003). It posthumously listed the late President Samuel K. Doe as one of the heads of a “warring faction” to face prosecution. It booked senior commanders as “most notorious perpetrators”: the late Captain Yuobo Tailey, Major Jerry Gban (he was also active with the Liberia Peace Council) and Captain Moses Thomas (who faces a civil suit in Philadelphia related to the war), just to name some. The TRC blamed an AFL death squad for the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre that killed some 600, the John F. Kennedy Hospital Massacre that killed about 250 and series of killings at the end of the runway of the James Spriggs Payne Airfield.

A scene of the West Point Ebola quarantine riot on August 20, 2014 / John Moore-Getty Images

The AFL committed 8,794 human rights violations or five percent of the total violations heard and recorded by the TRC. This means it was the AFL which committed more crimes than ULIMO K, ULIMO J and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL).

The restructure of the AFL is aimed at curbing future violation of human rights. For instance, the gag on ethnicity is meant to prevent the dominance of any tribe like the Krahns dominated the force during the regime of the late President Doe. The CPA open recruitment of the new army to all factions of the war, but recruits must be high school graduates. And all recruits must have a clear human rights record. These were supposed to be safeguards against future human rights violations that in the past blamed on tribalism and uneducated soldiers or “Nokos” as they were called prior to the war.

General Prince C. Johnson, the Chief of Staff of the AFL, went through the vetting process before becoming one of the new recruits of the first batch. “I was part of the first group of 112 men enlisted in the 2006 new military officers and after 13 years, I see myself as the head,” General Johnson says. “The military allows our soldiers to go to school, because the more you are educated, you will be able to make sound decisions.  If you are a college graduate, you become an officer when one takes the military exam and scores highest [mark],” he says. “So, this is why many of our soldiers are going to school.”

Touching on the West Point incident, General Johnson says it taught the military a “bitter lesson” and has become a point of reference for the danger of soldiers’ lack of professionalism. “I must admit that there were a couple of mistakes made and found those responsible and they went though the military code of justice and served their punishments,” he says, a statement that cannot be independently verified as the soldiers’ punishment was not made public.  

Notwithstanding, some have nothing but praise for the AFL. 

“I am happy that the army that we once were afraid of can come down to our community in Kiabah [in Barnesville] and fix our road and even play games with the civilians, is what I prayed to see before I die,” says Elder Man Sackie Momoh.

For former Labour Minister Kofi Woods, who served as orator at the 2015 Armed Forces Day celebrations, there is still a lot to be done. “The Liberian government cannot resurrect young Shaki Kamara and other victims. [It] cannot pay reparations, but the government can inspire hope and accrue some trust dividends through a renewed relationship with the community,” Atty. Woods said.

As economic turmoil grips the country and protests and mob violence increase, the true extent of AFL reform may be tested. Some observers fear an overreaction by the AFL now could spark a major uprising in the country. Only time will tell if reforms have been enough.

This piece is the opinion of Mae Azango, a New Narratives correspondent, as part of our West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Reporting was funded by the International Women in Media Foundation. Opinions expressed are the author’s own.