The UN said the peacekeepers were departing a “stable and grateful Liberia” as peacekeeping mission in the country formally ceased operations on Friday after aiding Liberia’s transition from ravaging civil war to a hopeful era of peace.
The conclusion of the 15-year operation follows a landmark election that resulted in the country’s first transfer of power from one elected president to another in 70 years. The newly elected President, George Weah, spoke for many Liberians as he thanked the UN for helping to make that possible.
“In our darkest days, the UN stood with us,” Weah said in his inaugural address in January. Weah, a former football star, won the presidency in a runoff election in December, succeeding Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who had served since 2006. Speaking at an event recently in Monrovia to mark the completion of the peacekeeping mission, Weah pledged that the good work of the UN would not be forgotten. “We will not fight again, we promise you,” the new president said.
Liberia, the first independent country in Africa, enjoyed nearly a century and a half of stability before falling into chaos, enduring two devastating civil wars between 1989 and 2003. By some reports, more than 250,000 Liberians were killed and nearly a third of the population was uprooted while 80 per cent of Liberian women and girls suffered conflict-related sexual violence. The Security Council established the peacekeeping mission for Liberia in October 2003, as violence lingered even after warring factions agreed to a cease-fire and a plan for political rebuilding. As peacekeepers first arrived, “the entire country was in turmoil,” Lt.-Gen. Daniel Opande, the pioneer Commander of UN forces in Liberia, said, adding: “People were moving from place to place, looking for safety or for food”.
A newly secure environment enabled more than a million refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes. The Government established its authority throughout the country and by now has successfully held three presidential elections. According to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Nigerian troops were the military backbone of (UNMIL), from 2003 to 2018 while about 20,000 Nigerians served in Liberia, with more than 1,500 women. However, their service did not come without sacrifice as 200 peacekeepers lost their lives due to illness, accidents or other causes while serving in Liberia. With peace elusive in many regions where UN forces have been deployed for years, the auspicious conclusion of the Liberia mission represents a success for UN peacekeeping, which has 110,000 men and women deployed in 15 operations worldwide. UN Deputy Secretary-General, Ms Amina Mohammed, noted during her visit to Liberia recently that a generation ago, Liberia was in “free-fall”. According to her, “the closure of UNMIL marks the transition of all three countries to peace and democracy.”
In a sobering statement to the Security Council in New York, UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised the successes of peacekeeping in West Africa. The UN chief, however, highlighted the “serious challenges” that confront ongoing deployments in several other African countries and called for advances in military equipment and preparedness on the limits and roles of UN peacekeepers. “Put simply, peace operations cannot succeed if they are deployed instead of a political solution, rather than in support of one,” he said. In Liberia, a broadly shared commitment to a new, democratic political order was an essential key to progress.
The 2017 presidential election, which led to the victory of Weah, was a collective success for all Liberians, said Farid Zarif, the former Afghan diplomat who has served as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of UNMIL for nearly three years. “It was a culmination of all the hard work that was done in post-conflict Liberia – on the part of the people of Liberia, the political leaders, the media, the civil society organisations,” Zarif said. One of UNMIL’s core mandates was to help the Liberia National Police build its capacity to take over security responsibilities.
In July 2016, the UN handed over all security tasks to the Liberian authorities – a benchmark on the path to the March 2018 full withdrawal of the mission. Bintou Keïta, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, saw first-hand the results of the years of mentoring, training, and capacity-building. She said during a recent visit to Liberia: “One proof that it worked is that there was no such huge violence during the preparations for the election.”
With stability restored and UNMIL planning to exit, the mission partnered with local organisations on development projects that could improve the lives of the Liberian people. A series of “quick impact” projects were carried out across the country, including sustainable farming, agriculture, baking collectives, recycling, climate action, and urban development. Yacoub El Hillo, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Liberia, said that the projects are an example of ongoing UN support for sustainable peace and development. “It is true that UNMIL is closing, but through projects like these, new openings are being made possible for Liberians to go further,” said El Hillo, who will stay on as the UN Resident Coordinator, working with numerous UN agencies whose development work in Liberia will carry on.
Despite all of its achievements, Liberia still remains fragile on many fronts, noted Special Representative Zarif adding “We should not just presume that everything is fine and leave the country without any assistance.” “Liberia is going to continue to require the solidarity, the support, and help of the international community for the long haul but they have already started demonstrating that they are the ones who are responsible for the future of their country.”