Wives of officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia have vowed to repeat their strike action again until the government settles its financial obligations to their husbands. This puts under grave threat, the much anticipated and heralded peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another. "We will ensure that this pending inauguration will not go on as planned until our plights are addressed by the Ministry of Defense and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf," the women who have been protesting at the Edward Binyan Kesselly Barracks (EBK) told the Daily Observer last week
The women, who converged at the EBK on the RIA highway came from the four major AFL Barracks in the country and were attired in red T-Shirts, which they said is a sign of DANGER. "We all know red means danger, so we want to tell the Liberian people that there is danger hanging over this country until this government satisfies our demand," one of the women told this reporter.
The women, who are reportedly backed by their husbands, have planned to take their protest actions to Monrovia early this week if their demands are not met. They have vowed to ensure that the pending inauguration, even if it is held, will not be done in a peaceful atmosphere.
The women have been staging protests at the entrance to the EBK barracks in demand for their husbands' benefits. The women are afraid that their benefits might never come if President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose tenure elapses in a little over a week, leaves office.
AFL Officers' wives protest at the EBK as their husbands look on
The threat of the AFL Officers' spouses means that the smooth transition that is poised to be sealed officially on January 22 when President elect, George Manneh Weah, is inaugurated, is now threatened.
"If we don't get our money, there will be no inauguration in this town. So the best Weah can do for himself is to prevail upon this government to settle us before they leave office or else he will be putting himself in a very bad situation," an officer told the Daily Observer in a telephone conversation last week--warning the President Elect not to dare take on this problem which he claims has been created by the Ellen Sirleaf administration.
The AFL officers and their spouses are demanding millions of dollars deducted from the soldiers' monthly income allegedly with the provision that the money will be refunded before President Sirleaf leaves office although Minister of Defense insists that such was not the agreement for the deduction.
Defense Minister, Brownie Samukai, confirmed to the Daily Observer that the compulsory savings scheme began in 2009, noting that the deduction ranging between 20- 30 U.S. dollars was applied across the board according to rank.
The EBK, Thursday and Friday, witnessed its second and third day of protest which the aggrieved women said was allegedly provoked by the wife of the Brigade Commander, who was reportedly raining insults on them. In anticipation of trouble, the Liberia National Police (LNP) dispatched officers to EBK. The officers were deployed at the Boys Town Junction on the Robertsfield Highway to deter protesters from blocking the highway leading to the Roberts International Airport(RIA).
"We will continue to protest until this wicked government and its officials see reasons to improve the lives of its servicemen, especially the AFL officers. We are living disgraceful lives here and it is a shame that we are referred to as First Class Citizens."
The Brigade Commander's wife was insulting us today saying how we are foolish and not educated. She threatened that her husband will not send any of our husbands on peace mission to Mali, said a protester.
"We will allow no guest in this country for the inauguration if this government does not pay our money. We are prepared to go on the rampage to ensure that we get what duly belongs to us. Some of us are no longer interested in being in the Army because of the level of maltreatment we are receiving from this government," another officer told the Daily Observer in a telephone conversation late last week.
AFL personnel wives from the Camp-Ware in Todee, Gbarnga and Coast Guard Barracks joined their colleagues at EBK for Thursday's protest. They have returned to their various Barracks after being assured by the Chief of Staff (COS), Daniel Ziankahn, that their concerns will be addressed as he is ably handling the situation. The women promised to be back, and even stronger, to begin the protest on a larger scale if the COS failed to get back to them sooner.
The Chief of Staff of the AFL, Daniel Ziankahn, has also called for calm indicating that the officers and their beneficiaries have genuine claims and that he is working assiduously to resolve the problem.
He told the women on Friday that investigation into the situation has been completed and reports have been forwarded to President Sirleaf and President elect, George Manneh Weah for prompt action.
In a telephone chat, Brigadier General Ziankahn said "I met them and told them that they have a genuine claim and so their situation will be addressed but they need to be a little patient and give us time. Our findings are now before the Commander-In-Chief (CIC) and the incoming CIC. This means that we are progressing and they need to give us little time."
During the investigation, he said, the team wanted to know what was the total collected and how much was expended. "We have done all of that and submitted our report-this we took to President Sirleaf and President elect Weah on Friday and they promised to get back to us," he said.
He also said though their concerns are legitimate it does not call for violent protest that would impede people's movements or endanger lives .
He however said that he could not disclose the contents of the report, but told the Observer that a copy could be obtained subsequently at his office.
An AFL officer who asked to remain unnamed told the Daily Observer that his colleague will continue to push until the government addresses this situation. We are not taking this for joke--it is not the normal Liberian "Your leave it" thing we are doing. This is our hard-earned money and we must get-this is why we are supporting our wives 100 percent," he said.
The officer further noted, "We are backing our women 100 percent. So no one should play fool out of us. We will ensure that we get what is due us. We work for our money and we must get it," the officer, who asked not to be named, said.
US$2.5 Million Allegedly Missing from Welfare Fund
Though the Chief of Staff did not disclose the content of the investigative report, the AFL officers, according to sources, may have genuine reasons for concern reasons against the backdrop of unconfirmed reports that over US$2.5 million has allegedly gone missing from the account established at the ECOBANK in Monrovia.
According to the Defense Ministry sources, the investigation team which comprises members from the security apparatuses, ECOWAS and others, there were 160 deposits made by Minister Samukai, which amounted to a total of US$3.6 million.
A bank statement obtained from ECOBANK headquarters on 11th street indicated that there is a balance of a mere US$600,000 in the AFL Welfare account. "This is unacceptable and the Minister and his people must account for the money," an officer (name withheld) said on the phone. "We are not foolish people who will be working while others are enjoying our sweat," he said.
The officer noted that the ECOWAS representative on the investigation team said that the soldiers should not be given the money and the funds should be kept until their service tenures come to an end.
"We want to make this clear to the ECOWAS team that they should not create tension here. If we don't get our money there will be no rest here," another offcer said.
"We heard that they are going to pay each officer US$300. This is an insult to us and we are not going to accept that little amount. This simply means there will be no inauguration in this country. The best Weah can do is to prevail on President Sirleaf and her Defense Minister to settle us if he (Weah) wants to take power and govern smoothly
"Our women from Camp Ware are already in town while those from Gbarnga Coast Guard Base and Gbarnga will be joining their friends shortly. When the people don't pay that money; If we don't see the e-alert from the bank on our phones there will be no peace in this town," he said.
"Our women are not alone in this protest; we are with them 100 percent. This is why we have told the LNP to leave this place. If they don't want any disaster they should pack and leave this place or they will feel our full weight in due time," he said
However speaking to the Observer over the weekend, Defense Minister Samukai confirmed that an investigation into the status of the funds has been conducted and its findings are expected to be released to the public this week He disclosed that he has had nothing to do with the investigation and that he had recused himself at the request of President Sirleaf.
He said although he could not disclose what the findings are, he however said it is acknowledged that the Government of Liberia (GOL) generally accepts responsibility since the money was used to partly underwrite AFL operational costs which should have rightly been the responsibility of Government. He submitted that Government's resolve to refund the amount is the right step in the right direction since the deductions were actually meant to cater to soldiers' welfare.
The Defense Minister comments appear to confirm statements by Army Chief of Staff Ziahnkahn that the investigation has been concluded; both President Sirleaf and President elect George Weah have been apprised of the situation and that their reaction to the report is still pending.
Meanwhile Minister Samukai has appealed to the soldiers to maintain calm and exercise restraint as the matter will be handled to the satisfaction of all and sundry. He warned against lawless behavior which he said can only lead to chaos that will benefit no one including the soldiers. He furthered that the patient and calm demeanor exhibited by Liberians during the electoral period was clear evidence of the wish of most Liberians to never again use war, violence and conflict to settle disputes.
He praised the soldiers for their services and sacrifice but he cautioned that the issuance of threats of violence to accomplish their aims is extremely provocative and will not be supported by Liberians and the international community particularly ECOWAS whose sacrifice in precious lives to restore peace in Liberia must not be ignored nor forgotten he said, warning that trouble makers will be dealt with decisively.