7 February 2013

Liberia: Another AFL Day Comes - As Army Strength Keeps Falling

Next Monday (February 11, 2013) will be observed as Armed Forces Day, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has, as usual, passed a proclamation, declaring the dayb as a national holiday.

The strength of the national army has worrisomely dropped from over 2,000 to about 1,900, and any Liberians wonder whether the AFL would be capable to man the country's border against external aggressions as the United Nations Mission parks it bundle to leave after maintaining peace and stability in the country for a decade.

The President and Commander-In-Chief' Proclamation directs and orders all military organizations within the Republic to organize and execute appropriate programs including parades and other ceremonies in recognition of the Day. According to the Proclamation, special attention and honor will be given to the veterans of the AFL and the Coast Guard who have seen active and experienced actual service therein.

The Proclamation also orders all government offices, public and business houses to be closed during the observance of the Day, adding that "the Liberian Government recognizes the talents and services, patriotism and loyalty as well as the gallantry for the upkeep of the country's noble heritage by those men and women who are now memorialized through the establishment of the Department of Veterans Affairs, as ordered by the Act of National Legislature of Liberia on 22nd of July 2008."

A Foreign Ministry release issued in Monrovia stated that with the passage of the Defense Act of 2008, the AFL remains steadfast in supporting the foundation for Long Term Security and Economic Development in Liberia as well as fostering regional peace to consolidate our emerging democracy.

The release further quotes the Proclamation as saying that with the professional development of the men and women in arms, the new AFL has been reinvigorated to discharge its constitutional responsibilities of safeguarding the Liberian borders including its marine resources.

The President's Proclamation is in consonance with an Act of National Legislature of Liberia which declared the 11th day of February of each year as " Armed Forces Day" to be celebrated as a National Holiday throughout the Nation in recognition of the vital role of the AFL in defending and protecting the country's territorial integrity.

The observance is intended to inculcate the sense of loyalty and patriotism in the citizens of Liberia, and in recognition of the immense and sacrificial services rendered by the gallant men and women of the Armed Forces for the protection of free and democratic state of Liberia, the release noted.

Meanwhile citizens are raising concern over what they call the mass attrition of soldiers from the AFL.

Nearly 10% of the over 2,000 men and women in arms trained over the years are said to have left the army due to what some of them have termed as unfavorable and unbearable conditions, it was reported during last year's AFL Day.

President Sirleaf, last year, took note of the situation, describing it as "a matter of priority." Though the President said it is "not an insurmountable problem, and one which we much find a solution to," pronouncing solution to the imbroglio, some citizens including lawmakers said if those who have left the force are not encouraged to return, they may pose security threats to the country.

The public, then, called on the Minister of Defense Brownie Samukai to address the problem as one of the best measures of providing better security for the state when UNMIL leaves.

"These guys running away from the army are already trained like those they are leaving back...they all went through the same kind of training; it is dangerous for them to go like that," argued Ashford Mulbah in 2012.

"I am happy that the President promised that the issues will be addressed, that they will pay the soldiers good salaries and improves their living conditions and that of their families," pointed out Gibson Togbah. "I hope her statement will not be another theory that will not be practicalized as our governments always do."

On Armed Forces Day (Feb 11) and days following many persons have called on local radio programs and gathered at debate centers to expressed fear about the defection in the AFL, something President confirmed, but said the situation was not as exaggerated as being reported.

In her Goodwill Message in commemoration of the Day, the C-I-C said though advances have been made over the last six years, there were some areas still in need of additional improvement. "The attrition rate in the AFL has been a matter of concern."

The Liberian leaders noted that the situation has been written and discussed for some time, and offered to present the following facts: "As indicated...by the Minister of Defense, during the past three to six years, up to and including today, the combined attrition rate in the AFL out of 2,169 personnel is calculated at 10.42 percent."

This, the President stated, include deaths amounting to less than 1 percent; various discharges (honorable, dishonorable, and medical) amounted to 1 percent; and absent without leave (AWOL) and drop from roll (DFR) representing the majority of 8.67 percent. "This represents only 226 persons during the first several years, not the exaggerated rate that is being rumored," the President disclosed.

"The overwhelming reasons for the high percentage of AWOL," President Sirleaf revealed, "have been due to lack of adequate facilities, accommodations, and social constraint of long separation from their families. This is not an insurmountable problem, and one which we much find a solution to."

The C-I-C said she is aware that the military barracks are overcrowded due to limited accommodation space. "We are treating this as a matter of priority. Greater emphasis will continue to be placed on the welfare of our military personnel and their families."

Government, she said, intends to renovate the various military barracks across the country in the coming years, for additional living quarters, including educational and recreational facilities. "Our soldiers need to live in decent housing environments. Their dependents need to attend school and have recreational facilities to socialize."

She assured that soldiers of her commitment to improve the situation. "We will support the budgetary request from the Minister of Defense to renovate and refurbish additional housing units at Camp Todee Military Barracks, as well as the Coast Guard Base, and other military barracks."

Meanwhile delivering her Annual addressed last week, President Sirleaf noted that the national army has been vetted and restructured into a modern, professionally trained military.

"Today's AFL structure includes the 23rd Infantry Brigade, the Liberian Coast Guard, the Engineering Company, the Armed Forces Training Command and the Headquarters at the Ministry of National Defense.

The current AFL strength, as at 10 December 2012, is 1,909."

She stated that "during last year's unrest at our common border with la Côte d'Ivoire, the AFL was deployed as part of Operation Restore Hope to maintain stability in the southeastern region. We are proud of their record of professionalism in border operations, which has gained the confidence and respect of the communities."

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