Author : Mariam Bjarnesen
Site of publication: Taylor and Francis Online
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: February 2022
In March 2018, after 15 years of presence in the West African nation, the United Nations mission in Liberia (UNMIL) completed its peacekeeping mandate. Both rebel groups and state security forces had been complicit in the violence against Liberian citizens. For this reason, transformation of security institutions in the war-torn state was desperately needed.
In this paper, based on empirical observations of the role of informal governance and informal security provision in Liberia, I firstly argue that it would be a mistake to assume that peacebuilding efforts and SSR processes have made non-state security actors irrelevant. Secondly, since such actors may still have a role to play in the security arena I explore how a context in the aftermath of international intervention, where non-state security actors such as vigilante groups (here interpreted as informally mobilised networks of individuals that have taken upon themselves, or have responded to calls of their home communities, to provide security) remain active, should be understood.
Security sector reform and hybrid security governance
In states emerging from war, or where state security has been found wanting, SSR has become a crucial component of peacebuilding, and an important tool in the efforts of stabilising societies. The UN supports SSR in peace operations as well as in non-mission settings and in response to national requests. The UN is also active in transition settings, where peace operations are withdrawing but where ongoing security sector assistance is needed.
The SSR process ‘has as its goal the enhancement of effective and accountable security for the State and its peoples without discrimination and with full respect for human rights and the rule of law’. The UN defines the security sector broadly, as ‘structures, institutions and personnel responsible for the management, provision and oversight of security in a country’.
Despite such acknowledgements of security as a good that not only formal state actors can provide, SSR processes have often been accused of being state centric. This is problematic as it may result in direct negative consequences for the general security situation on the ground.
As expressed by Adedeji Ebo, SSR assistance that merely focuses on state institutions can indeed be successful in terms of enhancing the operational efficiency of state security forces and possibly the quality of oversight. While at the same time, it may not have a substantial effect on the sense of freedom from fear among the population, since the provision of security services to the people may have largely been made by a parallel informal structure of non-state actors.
The hybridity of security governance?
Over the last two decades, the concepts of hybrid political orders and hybrid security governance have influenced thinking on interventions, state building and security transformation in post-conflict contexts, in particular. This strand of research points out the problems inherent in thinking about states emerging from wars as somehow ‘incomplete’ or ‘not yet properly built’, or ‘having failed’.15 As noted by Boege and colleagues, we cannot assume that in these contexts simply adopting Western state models is always the most suitable option.
In promoting conflict prevention, security, development, and good governance, models of governance that draw on the strengths of social order and resilience embedded in the community life of the targeted societies deserve more attention. Interveners should accordingly work ‘with the grain’ of existing institutions on the ground.
Based on ideas of hybrid security governance, the argument of this paper emerges. Drawing on the idea presented by of Albrecht and Moe that hybridisation can be studied as an ongoing process rather than an ‘end product a continued hybridisation of Liberia’s security governance is to be expected, despite years of efforts aimed at transforming and strengthening formal security institutions. If local actors tend to adopt external ideas of security sector reform selectively the strengthening of state security institutions may, in the best case, be one effect of international security transformation efforts.
Security governance and reform in the Liberian case
Liberia’s formal security institutions have a long history of predatory behavior. Founded in 1847, by black American settlers, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. Representing only 5% of the population, this settler elite established a corrupt, nepotistic system that oppressed the indigenous ethnic groups. In 1884, the Americo-Liberian rulers established the True Whig Party, which became a vehicle for total state control and brutal oppression.
Liberia’s citizens accordingly also have a long history of trying to protect themselves against the security institutions of their own state. For instance, the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) is a descendant of the notorious Frontier Force, which was known for pillaging local communities and crushing mass uprisings.
There have also been strong critiques about the lack of local ownership levelled against the reform process. Morten Boås and Karianne Stig, for instance, noted in their reviews how the degree of parliamentarian and civil society involvement was minimal. When institutions were built, the strengthening of local capacity to oversee and regulate the process and the new institutions was neglected. Local actors were expected to govern in accordance with the principles of participatory democratic rule, while the international community itself did not feel obligated to adhere to the very same principles.
The continued hybridization of security governance in Liberia?
In 2006, after a call by the Liberian Justice Minister to residents to protect themselves, most communities had set up vigilante groups against crime and criminal gangs the police were unable to handle.70 In 2007, after heavy criticism by human rights groups, international aid agencies, the UN and the LNP, the Minister was, however, forced to issue a statement in which she explained that she had been misunderstood and that she had only meant for such groups to assist the police and not to act autonomously.
Vigilantism evidently continues to be an integral, but disputed, part of security governance. While some have expressed worries about non-state security providers, others call for the strengthening of such actors. In 2020, Monrovia City Mayor Jefferson T. Koijee called for the establishment of the ‘Citizens Action Unit’, a vigilante force that could combat crime in Monrovia.
The opposition political party, the United People’s Party (UPP), however, raised concerns about the initiative. In a press release, the UPP party said that the proposal by Mayor Koijee could trigger the establishment of a variety of vigilante groups that could endanger the work of the LNP and other state security forces. Such calls could overshadow the LNP they warned.
In 2011, Tubman and Weah lost the elections to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the informal security providers loyal to Tubman lost their opportunity to attain state security positions. After winning the presidential election in 2017 Weah would, however, have been in a position where he had the possibility to provide security positions for those previously loyal to him and the CDC party. As emphasised by Jaye, Liberia, constitutes a hybrid political order where traditional authorities have, and continue to provide security, peace and justice in their locales.