Dakar — A Liberian has been made the head of Liberia's army for the first time since civil war ended more than 10 years ago.
On Tuesday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf confirmed Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Dee Ziankan as chief of staff of the new Armed Forces of Liberia.
This is the first time a Liberian has taken command of the country's military since the former army was disbanded in 2003, following more than a decade of civil war.
Associate Professor Dorina Bekoe, who teaches at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said, "This is quite significant for Liberia because up until now, the chief army staff has not been Liberian, in fact it has been Nigerian. That was a point of contention, and so this is a great source of pride, I would say, for the Liberian military in terms of concretely showing how far they have come and what the army represents and who makes up their army."
The U.N. Mission in Liberia, known as UNMIL, has been in charge of security in the country since August 2003, following a ceasefire that ended Liberia's second civil war. UNMIL began a drawdown of its military presence in 2007, and has been gradually handing responsibility to Liberian security forces.
Bekoe said the army was party to the civil war, but today is generally well-liked and respected. She said the country has come a long way in 10 years.
Atlantic Council Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham said new chief of staff Ziankan faces several challenges. "One is [that] the size of the Liberian military is relatively modest compared to neighboring states. So when you look at the security [situation], Liberia, although the West Africa region is certainly much more peaceful today than in the '90s, it's still not yet the safest neighborhood in world. And the question is going to be, and we will never know until the moment comes, whether it is sufficient for the security needs of Liberia."
Pham said another challenge will be maintaining and building the capacity of the army once the international community is no longer providing training, equipment and support. He said Ziankan also must ensure the army preserves its newfound legitimacy by remaining professional and apolitical.
Pham said a lack of reform in other sectors of society, such as the government, presents another problem. "It is never good when you are talking about nation-building or state-building that either the civilian leadership gets too far ahead of the military or the military actually gets too far ahead. It puts things out of balance," he said. "So I think while the reform of the military went well, I think the broader reform of government and governance in Liberia is something that really still remains to be tackled."
Many Liberians say they are optimistic. Monrovia radio technician Allen Tamba said appointing a Liberian as the head of the army is a step in the right direction.
"I think it is a good thing... I have no doubt that he will perform. This is the time for Liberians to take ownership of the army," said Tamba. "It will be challenging because we are a post-war nation, but if we put our nation first in all that we do, we will make it. I have no doubt in the ability of our army."
In her comments Tuesday, President Sirleaf challenged Ziankan to maintain the order and discipline of a professional military in his new role as army chief.
Prince Collins contributed to this report from Monrovia.