Communities mobilize to protect Liberian peace

Collecting small arms to forestall renewed violence
Monrovia
From Africa Renewal: 
page 5

More than two years after the official end of Liberia’s civil war, its weapons are still fueling instability. The new Liberian national police, often aided by peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), sweep through Monrovia neighbourhoods or descend on villages to seize arms.

So far, there is not a serious threat of armed criminal activity or a resumption of political violence, given the “overwhelming dominance” of the peacekeeping mission, acknowledges Mr. Napoleon Abdullai, a small-arms adviser with the UN Development Programme (UNDP). But unless many of these arms are gathered and destroyed, once UNMIL begins to scale down, “the problem of armed violence and criminality will come up,” he told Africa Renewal at UNDP’s Monrovia offices.

The factors that could jeopardize the country’s hard-won peace were evident in the tensions surrounding Liberia’s recent elections. The presence of large numbers of unemployed and angry youths — some of them former combatants — makes the situation especially volatile.

Mr. Abdullai recalls that neighbouring Sierra Leone experienced an upsurge in criminal violence in the aftermath of its own civil war. In fact, untold numbers of small arms and light weapons are circulating throughout West Africa. When war ends in one country, uncollected weapons often flow across borders “to hot conflict zones,” he observes. To stem such flows, the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States are working to transform a voluntary moratorium on making and trading in light weapons into a legally binding treaty.

Some guns, mortars and other weapons from Liberia have already been acquired by armed factions in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. Early in 2005, police in faraway Bamako, Mali, seized a vehicle full of arms driven up from Liberia.

Arms for development

So for the sake of Liberia’s own future and that of its neighbours, collecting and destroying weapons has continued beyond the December 2004 conclusion of UNMIL’s formal disarmament programme. According to a recent report by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva, only 27,800 weapons were collected from the 102,000 ex-combatants who were demobilized.

To help mop up the leftover weapons, a community arms-collection operation has been launched, with support from UNDP, as part of a broader “arms for development” programme for countries emerging from conflict. The operation is modeled, in part, on the Community Arms Collection and Destruction programme initiated in Sierra Leone in 2001, in which the police, assisted by UN peacekeepers, helped local communities collect thousands of arms from civilians.

The first steps toward a similar effort in Liberia have begun in Lofa, Nimba, Grand Gedeh and Bong counties. In addition to running campaigns to educate the public on the dangers of small arms, UNDP helps establish District Development Committees (DDCs). These committees, which include government officials, civil-society representatives and private individuals, gather information on local arms caches and alert the police and UNMIL to collect them.

Clinics and solar panels

Once the weapons have been gathered, the police certify that district to be “weapons free.” The DDC can then approach UNDP with its priority needs. “UNDP will provide the cash and technical support for health clinics, sports fields, rural feeder roads, whatever they want,” Mr. Abdullai explains. Even if there is no request for electricity, UNDP will supply solar panels for community halls so that residents have someplace to gather in the evenings.

UNDP has approached donors for funding to extend the project for another five years, beyond its first year. It also aims to expand the effort to other counties.

To ensure that districts remain weapons free, the project will promote “community policing” to supplement the efforts of the national police, who cannot be everywhere. Community policing will include training elders, youths, women and other residents in basic intelligence skills, so that any arms entering or passing through the district are more easily detected.

UN centre combats arms proliferation

Often operating outside the limelight, the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, headquartered in Lomé, Togo, has for nearly two decades been helping the continent combat arms proliferation. Through research and training programmes, it supports the efforts of national governments and the UN, African Union and other organizations to reduce local arms production and trafficking, which often contribute to the continent’s numerous wars and conflicts.

Small arms and light weapons are a particular threat, notes Mr. Ivor Richard Fung, the centre director, since these “can be more easily obtained by individuals and groups than heavy weapons.” In late 2003, the centre launched a pilot project to help build national capacities to combat small-arms proliferation in 10 countries ( Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Togo ). UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported in July 2005, however, that a decline in overall contributions to the centre has caused a “financial crisis.” He urged a thorough review of the centre’s activities and funding sources.