November 7th last year was a glorious day in Monrovia, though only in terms of the weather. It was the eve of the second round of Liberia’s presidential election. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, was bidding for a second term. The opposition Congress for Democratic Change, helmed by former UN diplomat Winston Tubman and onetime FIFA world footballer of the year George Weah, had called for a boycott of the run-off vote, alleging electoral fraud.

On the 7th CDC supporters gathered outside their party’s headquarters on Tubman Boulevard, the main arterial route into Liberia’s capital. The protest was unlicensed; officially, campaigning was over. The CDC partisans called themselves ‘CDCians.’ They pronounced this coinage ‘seditions,’ which, in the light of what was to follow, was prophetic.

On Tubman Boulevard the CDC supporters – who were unarmed - faced off with armed units of the Liberian police, stiffened by a contingent from UNMIL, the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia. At first the atmosphere was unthreatening. Russian-made helicopter gunships with white UN paintjobs orbited high above in a sky of brilliant blue. I vividly remember someone saying all that the occasion needed was cold beer.

A protestor threw the first stone. More projectiles followed. The police responded with teargas. I do not know who fired the first shot, but remember watching a Liberian policeman drop to his knee and shoulder his rifle to fire. A UN policeman yelled, “They’re Liberians.” There was chaos.

Later Winston Tubman and George Weah stood in a house in the party’s compound filled to the gills with furious supporters. Both were dressed in messianic white robes. Upstairs a boy was laid out dead, shot in the head. There were others injured.

Security issues faced by these three countries today are fundamentally a problem of guns in the wrong hands
The stretch of West Africa from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast – Liberia lies in between the two – has in recent years been one of the most heavily ‘peace-kept’ regions in the world. The UN presence is a result of individual civil wars in all three countries that could be considered as part of one larger, pan-regional conflict. Fighting began on Christmas Eve 1989 when Charles Taylor entered Liberia’s northern Nimba County from Ivory Coast. The wars are over now, though their remove from the present varies. It is a decade since peace broke out in Sierra Leone, while the conflict that will probably be known to history as the Second Ivorian Civil War ended only last year.

Recently I made an overland journey from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, where I am based as a correspondent for Reuters, to Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast. Travelling with a colleague from the Economist, the trip helped put the region’s current condition into perspective. The upshot for me was that the security issues faced by these three countries today are fundamentally a problem of guns in the wrong hands. However, whose hands are the wrong ones varies from place to place.

Arming the police in Sierra Leone

Post-war disarmament campaigns were successful; there are no longer contraband weapons at large
Earlier this year I received via email a series of scans of invoices and shipping documents. The leaked papers detailed a purchase of weapons by the Sierra Leonean police. Invoice No. 951 broke down the $4.5 million acquisition. 50 “7.62 x 54mm” heavy machine guns, 2500 “advanced new stock with full kit AK47” Kalashnikovs, and 100 “40mm under barrel grenade launcher” featured among other, more prosaic items. When I pressed the Sierra Leonean police they said the purchase was for the replenishment of natural wastage. I was sceptical, and that scepticism was confirmed when the UN later spoke out against the procurement.

The point here is that the police in Sierra Leone do not need these guns. Although the country is still associated in many western eyes with images of Kalashnikov-toting child soldiers from the 1990s, it is now astonishingly safe. Post-war disarmament campaigns were successful; there are no longer contraband weapons at large. It was once suggested to me that the climate of Africa’s western elbow is part of the reason disarmament has worked. The weather is so humid that weapons cannot be easily hidden in the bush for later recovery as they can in drier countries. They rust to pieces.

The problem with the arming of the police in Sierra Leone is not theoretical either. In April rioting broke out in the town of Bumbuna in the centre of the country; workers at an iron ore mine operated by British firm African Minerals were complaining about pay and conditions. I reached Bumbuna the day afterwards. The armed wing of police were lounging by their station; there were the remnants of ad hoc roadblocks and burnt tyres in the streets. Local people reported indiscriminate shooting, officers looting and kicking over cooking pots. One woman died. At a hospital I saw another young women shot through the torso, nurses said they had seen a further five injured. A police commander told me his men fired when fired upon; that claim can be discounted. The residents of Bumbuna, like those of other towns in Sierra Leone, do not have guns.

In the interim between writing the intial draft of this article and its publication frantic diplomatic wrangling led to a partial solution to the arms procurement. The heavier weapons were transferred from Sierra Leone’s police to its army, to be taken to Somalia when a battalion deploys there as peacekeepers with the African Union mission. However, that has not resolved the issue of police violence. Recently officers have shot more civilians. A few weeks ago youths carrying the coffins of two victims tried to march on the president’s office. The police shot in the air to keep them out of central Freetown.

Unsustainable security in Liberia

The continued UN military presence in Liberia reflects the weakness of the country’s own security institutions
The drive from Freetown to Monrovia is a long one; I have done it four times in both directions, and tend to average about 13 hours. In the dry season the trip sometimes involves crossing a river in south-eastern Sierra Leone on a ferry that is in many ways closer to a raft. That contraption was out of action on my recent journey, necessitating a longer detour.

In Liberia the mechanics of security are different. Though the Second Liberian Civil War ended only one year later than Sierra Leone’s conflict, in 2003, there are still thousands of UN peacekeepers in the country. By contrast, all but a tiny contingent of UN troops pulled out of Sierra Leone in 2005. The continued UN military presence in Liberia reflects the weakness of the country’s own security institutions.

The riot I witnessed last November was only prevented from descending into a wholesale bloodbath by the action of Nigerian peacekeeping troops, who forcibly disarmed the Liberian police to stop them shooting on their own people. Shortly after the riot, in the Mamba Point hotel close to the American embassy, a Bosnian UN police officer suggested to me that Nigerians – who were also present in Liberia as regional peacekeepers during the civil war – are “like penicillin” for the country.

There is then in Liberia also a problematic armed section of the police; guns are in the wrong hands, and the same wrong hands as in Sierra Leone. But the other key issue in terms of domestic security in Liberia is sustainability. UNMIL, the UN presence, has drawn down from its post-war peak of around 15,000 soldiers. There are now some 7,800 blue-hatted troops in the country, and plans for further reductions. However, there are no immediate plans for full withdrawal. Last year I was told that, at half a billion dollars per year, UNMIL cost more than the entire national budget of the Liberian state. That is an uncomfortable statistic, eight years after the end of the war.

The continued military UN presence in Liberia mitigates then the problems of weak domestic security institutions, but it does so at an unsustainable cost. A Scottish lawyer who has spent several years in Monrovia working on justice sector reform suggested to me that the job of the current, thousands-strong, peacekeeping mission – who spend much of their time in barracks – could possibly be equally performed by 50 highly trained troops with reliable helicopters.

Such a force would act as airborne firemen, flying to trouble spots like the outbreaks of mob-violence after car accidents that UNMIL currently has to put down. If this suggestion seems far-fetched it is worth bearing in mind that South African-based private military contractor Executive Outcomes used a similar model in the mid-1990s in Sierra Leone. EO - with around 100 men on the ground at any one time - effectively won the war in a matter of months, defeating the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front before an international community chary of mercenaries forced them out. When EO left, the war resumed.

Persistent insecurity in Ivory Coast

With many illicit weapons still at large, Ivorian security forces cannot do their job without their own arms.
From Monrovia we drove north to Gbarnga, Charles Taylor’s old base. Beyond Ganta in Nimba County we left the tarmac road, and jolted on dirt to the border crossing with Ivory Coast at Logatuo. Ivorians like to refer to what happened in their country last year as “la crise post-électorale” rather than “la deuxième guerre civile,” perhaps a subconscious linguistic attempt to retain their antebellum status as one of West Africa’s rare success stories. But the campaign to force out President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to concede defeat after an election in late 2010, left 3000 dead and bore most of the hallmarks of war. In the west of the country, where we entered from Liberia, there are still many illicit weapons at large.

Yet the police are unarmed. An officer we spoke to in the hill town of Man looked skyward – to the heavens - when we asked how he could defend himself. This curious situation is a result of the fact that the Ivorian police and gendarmerie were formerly bastions of support for Gbagbo. After Gbagbo’s fall they returned to garrison the northern and western regions of the country, which had been under rebel control for years. However, as the new administration of Alassane Ouattara – perhaps understandably – does not trust the police, they are not permitted to carry weapons.

The situation is the opposite of that in Sierra Leone and Liberia. With many illicit weapons still at large, Ivorian security forces cannot do their job without their own arms. Without armed police, though the war is over, instability persists. In western Ivory Coast our driver was concerned about car-jacking. There are occasional raids on villages. Several weeks after our trip seven UN peacekeepers died in an ambush south of where we had travelled. The wrong hands that hold the weapons Ivory Coast are those of fighters left over from the war.

In Abidjan we sat on white arm chairs in the British embassy and heard about their travails fixing the scars left by bullets and mortars last year; French helicopters used the British compound as a marking point to hover above while they rocketed Gbagbo’s nearby residence in the endgame of the crisis.

Here, and in other interviews in the city, it became clear that while the illicit weapons and impotent police in the north and west of Ivory Coast are acknowledged as a problem, the international community in general and the UN in particular is loathe to embark on a ‘buy-back’ disarmament programme of the sort carried out in elsewhere in Africa. In such a scheme fighters receive cash, as well as sometimes the offer of vocational training, in return for handing in weapons.

The reluctance to engage in such a programme in Ivory Coast stems from a fear that cash-for-weapons would stimulate a further flow of arms into the country. Such a view seems – and I stand willing to be corrected – a misunderstanding of basic economics, a problem avoidable by careful price setting. If the buy-back bounty is pitched high enough to be a small fortune to a fighter in the forests, but below the import cost of a weapon into the country there would surely be no incentive long-term to ship more in?

Once illicit guns are removed from a country coming out of war the problems are not over
Once illicit guns are removed from a country coming out of war the problems are not over; the issues with police-instigated violence in Sierra Leone and Liberia clearly illustrate that. To my mind – possibly biased by my British upbringing - a disarmed population policed by an unarmed force is the ideal end state. However, as Ivory Coast makes clear, in the scrappy time immediately after the end of the fighting the police do need guns, and the removal of illicit weapons has to be the first step in the long-term pacifying of a nation. Only then can the police themselves disarm.