MONROVIA, Liberia – With their military fatigues, machine guns and signature light blue berets, the United Nations peacekeepers are hard to ignore in this West African nation’s capital and largest city.
Their convoys cut through dense city traffic with ease.
They stand sentry in front of border checkpoints and most significant Liberian government buildings, including the Executive Mansion, even though Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf does not actually reside there.
(The Nobel Prize winner moved out of the mansion in 2006, after a fire damaged part of the building . She resides in a home elsewhere in the city and her office is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just down the road from the shuttered mansion.)
But as Liberia enters its 10th consecutive year of peace, a key question will be how the nation adjusts to the eventual withdrawal of the United Nations.
On Tuesday, I visited the United Nations compound in Monrovia, located hard up against the Atlantic, on a fine stretch of sand in the city’s Sinkor neighborhood.
I met with UN spokesman Aleem Siddique to get his take on this question, as well as what sort of progress he saw in the nation’s decade of peace and where the United Nations was or is contributing.
Liberia is notable for being the organization’s oldest peacekeeping mission. The United Nations Mission in Liberia, or UN-MIL, was authorized in September 2003, one month after a ceasefire ended 15 years of near-uninterrupted conflict from 1997-2003.
At the time, UN-MIL was the largest UN peacekeeping force anywhere, with 15,000 military personnel.
Today it stands at 5,800 troops and has a budget of nearly $500 million, or in excess of Liberia’s annual budget of about $350 million.
By June 2015, a gradual phase down will bring troop levels to 3,500. Liberia’s entire standing army is about 4,000 troops.
Siddique, who has been with mission for just over a year, says the progress the nation has made in the past decade should not be understated, considering how brutal Liberia’s wars had been.
More than 150,000 had been killed in the fighting and more than 850,000 had been forced to flee.
“In a relatively short amount of time, we went from mortar fire to talking about enforcement of law. Liberia moved from being a broken nation to a sovereign state.”
He pointed to the fact that Liberia, for the first time in 52 years, sent a platoon of some 50 peacekeepers to aid in the UN’s efforts in nearby Mali.
Siddique also noted that Liberia’s anti-rape law is among Africa’s toughest, that the country’s has made significant gains in child mortality rates and made improvements in education nationwide, thanks to free and compulsory K through 6th grade schooling.
However, he acknowledged that improvements still need to be made in the quality of education all young Liberians receive. He also talked about the need for better enforcement of laws in rural areas.
“There can’t be peace in this country without justice,” Siddique said. “Rule of law needs to be better enforced so that the umbrella of protection goes beyond Monrovia to rural Liberia.”
The UN’s main role now, he said, is to train and advise the nation’s armed forces and to serve as a backstop for them during violent incidents, including the occasional mob violence in Monrovia.
A key part of Siddique’s job involves traveling the country to hold community meetings on how the UN draw down works and what it will mean for the nation.
Much of that, he acknowledged, involves “managing fears” about a possible return of violence. Siddique says he stresses the importance of everyday citizens in ensuring the nation’s hard-fought peace.
“Peace can’t be dictated by international powers,” he said. “It has to come from Liberians.”