Eleven years ago the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the peacekeeping mission in Liberia, helped to ensure that Liberia transitioned from decades of civil war to peace. Now the Ebola crisis in Liberia presents a major test to the domestic security sector exactly as UNMIL is scheduled to draw down.
Is Liberia's 11-year-old domestic-security sector well-equipped to handle citizen unrest in the face of a deadly epidemic? So far incidents have been sporadic and isolated, and the security response has contained the violence. But it remains to be seen whether this will last.
In a potentially menacing security incident, citizens from the village of Bo Waterside in Grand Cape Mount County threatened to riot if the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare did not pick up a dead body in their community. The villagers demanded government removal instead of protesting government removal. During the early days of the Ebola epidemic, many citizens were protesting government involvement in removing bodies, as they preferred burying bodies themselves. But, recently, most protestors blame the government for their slow response to picking up dead bodies. This is a marked change in attitude and perhaps a positive one, as it shows a clear change in behavior about taking the Ebola epidemic seriously. In fact, at Bo Waterside, the community self-quarantined by not allowing anyone on the road leading to the village until the Health Ministry came to remove the body. In the end the Police Support Unit (PSU) responded to the security incident at Bo Waterside in coordination with a UNMIL Formed Police Unit (FPU). They were able to ensure that the Ministry of Health arrived eventually and took the body away.
Yet, to prevent violence, the government cannot continue to rely on positive behavioral transformations such as the changed preferences for government disposal of bodies or the self-quarantining that occurred at Bo Waterside -- especially if the government itself is unable to meet the demands of body disposal. Not everyone has shifted attitudes about Ebola. While the general awareness of Ebola has drastically increased, there are still many areas where community members believe that the government of Liberia or even international organizations are infecting people with Ebola. Forcing these areas to quarantine or defy traditional custom could propel them to resort to violence.
In the worst-case deteriorating-security scenario, organized anti-government groups could take advantage of the government's weakened position due to Ebola. The Ebola crisis has greatly undermined an already feeble government. Consequently, the timing is opportune for any rogue groups that may want to further destabilize the state to do so. For example, there have been alleged claims of a coordinated, organized group poisoning water wells in various parts of Liberia. In spreading fear, the rogue group could be testing government response or even whether the government responds at all. If the government does not respond, the security situation could quickly worsen as potential rogue groups become emboldened.
As a way to ensure that Ebola does not spread further, and perhaps as a way to deter rogue groups from taking advantage of the government's precarious situation, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken a heavy-handed security approach. Recently she announced Operation White Shield, whereby the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and the Liberian National Police (LNP) have been deployed in the counties to quarantine different Ebola-infected communities and to man checkpoints. This is the first time since the civil war ended in 2003 that the AFL has been deployed inside multiple counties. (In 2012, during Operation Restore Hope, the AFL were deployed on joint patrols with the LNP on the border of Cote D'Ivoire.)
The Liberian response to Operation White Shield has been mixed. Some believe it will be enough to quell potential violence, because deploying the military will serve as a deterrent. Others, however, are more fearful. One security "accident" could lead to potentially grave consequences. The LNP and AFL have received years of training on use of force (police), rules of engagement (military), human rights, and less lethal munitions and tactics, but it one small accident such as shooting into a crowd has the potential to destabilize the security situation, especially since the AFL are on public display for the first time.
The line in Liberia is a thin one between peace and violence, and the Ebola crisis comes at a time when UNMIL is drawing down its forces in Liberia. There are hardly any military contingents left in the country, which means that in crises situations such as the Nov. 7, 2011, election run-off violence, where the Nigerian military intervened and prevented further violence, there may not be enough manpower if there is a major security issue (such as the major riot and property damage of ArcelorMittal in early July).
Nevertheless, for the past 11 years, Liberia's security sector has received years of training and implemented numerous security-sector reforms to rebuild a professional police force and military. This is perhaps the first time that the security forces will be tested for the long haul, as the Ebola crises does not seem to be wavering. But it may also be perfect timing for the test, as UNMIL is drawing down. If the Liberian security sector can handle the security situation related to Ebola, it means that they can be self-sufficient in handling their own security issues, suggesting that the UNMIL drawdown is warranted. This could be Liberia's biggest security test yet. It is up to them now and the rest of the Liberian government to ensure that incidents such as the one in Bo Water continue to be contained and that peace endures.