As Liberia’s security forces take over Thursday from UN peacekeepers for the first time since civil war ended 13 years ago, national pride is mixed with fears the underfunded police are not up to the task.
Government forces and rebel groups raped, massacred and maimed hundreds of thousands of people during two conflicts between 1989 and 2003, and the highly politicised police and army were disbanded after committing some of the worse abuses.
Since then UN peacekeepers have largely ensured the country’s security, though their numbers have dwindled from 15,000 in the aftermath of war to just under 4,000 today, as the nation’s re-trained forces were assimilated.
From this week the peacekeepers will have a small supporting role only.
“Everything I know about policing, I learned from UNMIL,” said Dao R. Freeman, Liberia’s national deputy police commissioner, using the mission’s UN acronym.
Freeman, a product of training that has attempted to instil an anti-corruption ethos and respect for human rights, believes the country has “quality not quantity” when it comes to keeping order on the streets.
“If we continue to build that capacity and also provide the resources that are needed, I believe that we can take responsibility of our country’s security,” he told AFP.
But citizens are far from convinced, scarred by the memory of forces loyal to former president Charles Taylor who razed whole villages and hunted down those who fled into the bush.
On the eve of UNMIL’s drawdown, the implications have set the country on edge, with radio and television talk shows buzzing with talk of little else.
“I would prefer UNMIL to stay forever,” John Gweh, a 56-year-old farmer, told AFP at his rubber plantation, flicking through a newspaper whose front page was dominated by the same story.
Aware of the high costs of the UN mission, Gweh said he was thankful for the international community’s long intervention, but added he was still wary of the Liberian National Police (LNP) despite years of reform.