Liberian Armor

Armored Vehicles Used by Liberia

Like many other African countries, Liberia has a badly recorded armored history. With sales often being made in secret and no specific publications about the topic, little information is available to the average foreign researcher. Furthermore, Liberia is a nation that has never reported its weapon imports to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA), and data collected by other institutions, like the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), can be faulty and incomplete.

Liberia is a naturally rich country but it suffered from a lack of proper government and incompetence at high levels in the past. This went hand in hand with ethnic disputes, eventually fueling a successful coup d’état in 1980, a failed one in 1985, and two civil wars between 1989-1997 and 1999-2003. Because of that, Liberia is among the poorest countries in the world, with very low living standards and a poor educational system.

A map of Liberia and its three neighbouring countries. With low and sandy coastal plains, the terrain becomes more hilly further inland. It is also home to a lush rainforest. Source: britannica.com

A short history of Liberia

Liberia was founded as an American colony, funded and established by an organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS). Its purpose was to resettle manumitted American slaves. The first group of former slaves arrived in 1820 on the continent that was once home to their forefathers. Instead of reintegrating into African society, the settlers brought with them American culture, regarded themselves as Americo-Liberians, and used a constitution and national symbols similar to those of the USA. They quickly clashed with the local population that was involved in the lucrative slave-trading business and was unwilling to stop trading, nor cede power and land to this new colonizing force. The conflict between the Americo-Liberians and indigenous people would slither on for most of Liberia’s following history, with the majority of the indigenous people being suppressed by the Americo-Liberian minority.

In 1828, the city of Monrovia was founded, named after the US President James Monroe. It would become the nation’s future capital. In 1847, Liberia declared its independence from the United States and consequently became the first republic on the African continent. It took the United States fifteen years to officially recognize the new country, in 1862. The Americo-Liberian rule was characterized by its discriminatory and authoritarian control over the indigenous peoples, as they were regarded as inferior. Active interaction was nearly non-existent and the groups remained largely separate from each other. In 1920, this was condemned by the League of Nations, which called Liberia “a republic of 12,000 citizens and 1,000,000 subjects”.

From 1877 onwards, political power was monopolized by the True Whig Party. The administrations were mainly confronted by two problems that threatened its sovereignty, namely the threat of financial insolvency and pressure from its neighboring colonial powers, Britain and France. Although retaining independence, large claimed territories along the borders were annexed by Britain and France. Due to a declining export market and a series of loans, the Liberian economy declined during the late 19th century. When World War I broke out, Liberia initially remained neutral but saw its small economy decline even further, since it heavily depended on German trade. On 4th August 1917, Liberia declared war on Germany and deported a small German telegraph station garrison, while a small number of soldiers were sent to France, although they never saw combat. After the war, Liberia became a founding member of the League of Nations.

Liberia remained an isolated country, but this changed in 1926, when an American company was granted the right to exploit what would become the largest rubber plantations in the world. This grant modernized the Liberian economy significantly.

Major changes also occurred during the Second World War. Early in the war, Liberia granted access to Allied Forces and became the main supplier of rubber, a vital resource for the production of many equipment, vehicles, and military materiel in general. In return, the nation’s infrastructure was modernized by the United States, significantly boosting the economy. Liberia even declared war on Germany and Japan on 27th January 1944 and was one of the founding members of the United Nations.

In 1944, Willam V.S. Tubman was elected president. Under his presidency, Liberia saw major political changes, as he introduced a unification policy that resulted in a liberalization of the political system and moved towards inclusion of the indigenous peoples. During his terms, Liberia also became a much stronger economy. At the same time, however, his administration became increasingly authoritarian and political opposition was repressed. He remained in power until his death, in 1971, and was succeeded by his former vice-president, William R. Tolbert.

Tolbert was different to Tubman, less charismatic, but a greater reformer. The different political path became increasingly unpopular in Liberia, creating a strong public opposition. This was further fueled by serious corruption within his administration and a declining economy due to a general decline of the international economy. The opposition formed itself into several organizations, the most influential being the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), founded in 1973 by Togba Nah Tipoteh among Liberian university students, and the Progressive Alliance of Liberians (PAL), founded in 1974 by Gabriel Baccus Matthews in the United States.

In 1975, Liberia became a member of the newly established ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States); an organization that aimed to develop the sub-region of Western Africa. Although chiefly concerned with economic affairs, a non-aggression pact was signed in 1978, followed by a protocol on common defence in 1981. Liberia had good relations with all members.

The Liberian Army

Relying on a militia at first, the Liberian Army was founded in 1908 as the Liberian Frontier Force, and only renamed in 1956 as the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Its military operations were mostly limited to suppressing tribal disturbances in the hinterland. The last of these took place in 1939. The Army developed close ties with the US Army and, already since 1912, the Army has been assisted by American military advisers, transformed into a contiguous United States military mission in 1951. In 1959, Liberia became the first African country to sign a defense pact with the USA and, two years later, a Military Assistance Program (MAP) came into operation as well.

From 1960 to May 1963, the AFL contributed a 250 men infantry unit to the UN mission in Congo (ONUC). This specially organized unit, known as Reinforced Security Company, consisted of men drawn from the regular force. They were carefully selected and specially trained by the US military mission. A total of six companies rotated and, after a poor start, their performance increased steadily. Furthermore, in 1963, the Addis Ababa charter of the Organization of African Unity was signed, with which it subscribed to the general principle of cooperation with the other members in matters of defense and security.

When Tolbert replaced Tubman as president in 1971, he retired 400 older soldiers and replaced them with younger recruits from the urban areas, who were more literate. Among these new troops was Samuel Doe, who would become quite relevant some years later.

The first armor

According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, Liberia received 15 M3A1 Scout Cars in 1959. Whether this is accurate is hard to tell, since no photographic evidence exists and they are not listed in an official US study from 1964, just five years after the alleged transfer. The Military Balance lists 12 Scout Cars between 1972 and 1986, but this data seems to relate to other armored vehicles. In case the SIPRI report is accurate, the M3A1s would have played a very minor role in the army for just a short time.

It is more likely that the history of armored vehicles in Liberia started with the acquisition of six armored cars from the Swiss manufacturer Mowag between 1967 and 1969. These were bought for 300,000 USD. The specific make was unspecified, and photographic evidence before 1973 seems to point to the Grenadier. However, another picture from 1990 shows what seems to be a Roland. Either way, they were formed into a Scout Platoon, alternatively described as a recce unit. The existence of this unit is for the first time mentioned in the Military Balance of 1973.

Two 4×4 Mowag armored vehicles, photographed sometime before December 1973. They seem to be of some Grenadier model, similar to ones operated by Greece, but the bad quality makes it hard to tell. Distinguishable features are the windshield and the rolled tarp next to it, the central line on the front, and the placement of both headlights. Source: CIA
Leader of the NPFL, Charles Taylor, next to an armored vehicle. This vehicle clearly shows the side of a Mowag Roland APC with the reminiscent side door, and bulletproof visor, protected by two small bars. Source: Patrick robert via Getty Images

In 1975, the US embassy in Liberia learned that the government of Monrovia expressed interest to purchase M113A1 vehicles from Italy for roughly 130,000 USD a piece. The embassy also learned that this was likely fueled by fears of the president and his close circles for their safety. However, at the time, a five year plan to improve the AFL, developed in consonance with the US military mission in Liberia, was already using the full capabilities of the AFL to accomplish even the essential goals until 1980/81. This meant the AFL had no capabilities to accept a new vehicle into service, nor the logistical equipment and technical support. Furthermore, the AFL did not necessarily need them, as the six Mowag vehicles fulfilled the tactical requirements already.

Further problems would have been caused by the requirements for maintenance, repair, and training facilities, while they could not have been used widely since the local roads would be easily damaged by a tracked vehicle. The apparent problems with funds, equipment, lack of manpower, and US support meant the deal never came through.

However, only two years later, in 1977, the US granted Foreign Military Sales credit (FMS) to Liberia, for fiscal year 1979, to acquire six additional armored personnel carriers. This was part of a larger program of modernizing the Liberian Army to secure US financial, economical, and military interests in the country. The available evidence suggests that, with the FMS, six new Mowag Piranha II 4×4 vehicles were ordered and delivered. They joined the other six Mowag vehicles with the unit that was stationed at Camp Ramrod. By 1984, eight out of twelve vehicles were operational with the unit that stood under command of Captain Joseph D. Jarlee. Thirty soldiers of the unit had received training in Switzerland to be able to operate the vehicles properly.

Liberia had a bad record concerning their motorized capabilities. As a CIA report put it:

“Despite a continuing training program, the development of competent drivers, operators, and repairmen is a slow process. General-purpose vehicles are in short supply, and maintenance is inadequate at the unit level. Cannibalization of inoperative vehicles is prevalent. Poor roads, inclement weather, and vehicle abuse take a heavy toll of available equipment”.

A Piranha II 4×4, seen with NPFL troops in 1990. Six of these were bought in 1977 and delivered sometime after that. The NPFL vehicles had read squares painted on the front and/or side, showing a black scorpion, which was another nickname for the NPFL group. Source: Patrick Robert via Getty Images

The 1979 Rice Riots

The Rice Riots in April 1979 formed the first major clash between the Americo-Liberians and the politically repressed native ethnicities. The government decided to raise the price of rice by roughly a third. Because it was so important for the whole population as a major food source, the price was heavily regulated. The price increase was put in place with the idea that rice farming would become more lucrative and increase the earnings for the farmers. However, the people saw it as a heavy rise in expenditure instead of a rise in economic opportunity and that it would only benefit Tolbert and several government officials who were heavily involved in rice trading.

In response, the radicals organized a protest to march on the presidential mansion and demand his resignation. The crowd was joined by poor people from the inlands who had moved to the capital because they could not make enough money with farming. Tolbert feared his mansion would be overrun, putting his life in danger, and decided to violently repress the protests. Therefore, he called in the army, but he did not trust them completely, so he also asked the president of Guinea for military support, to which he agreed.

During the early hours of the riots, the Liberian soldiers were relatively friendly to the crowd, only pushing the protestors away. The police were far more brutal and started to fire into the crowd, who fled to the business district, to reassemble on Gurley Street. The AFL armored cars were deployed as well and placed in key positions in order to maintain some sort of control. After a few minutes, both tear gas and automatic rifle fire were directed into the crowd, and chaos broke out. The Guinean military deployed put down the riots in an extremely brutal way, killing hundreds of people.

It became clear to the population that the government was not representative and that it had to be overthrown, and that is where the Army was going to step in.

Map of Liberia showing the diversity of ethnic groups. Future conflicts would mainly revolve around disputes and rivalries between the various ethnicities, and the Americo-Liberians, concentrated in the capital Monrovia. Source: bloggingwithoutmaps.blogspot.com

Samuel Doe

On April 12th, 1980, seventeen indigenous NCOs and soldiers of the Army, led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, marched to the Executive Mansion, where they killed president Tolbert and successfully launched a coup d’état. Doe promoted himself to General and established the People’s Redemption Council, consisting of him and other lower-ranking officers. The members of Tolbert’s cabinet were put on trial by a kangaroo court and thirteen members were executed on 22nd April. This led to international backlash.

Because Tolbert’s son, who was among the killed, was married to a relation of the president of Côte d’Ivoire, the Ivorian president took a dislike to Doe. Doe was also seriously disliked by other Francophone presidents in the region, but relations with Liberia remained stable after the coup, while friendly relations were established with Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Doe was an ethnic Krahn, and under his increasingly authoritarian regime, he made sure that Krahn people (roughly 5% of the Liberian people) were favored over other ethnicities, while the Army became increasingly dominated by Krahn soldiers. He got financial support from the Mandingo traders. Obviously, by narrowing down the base of his rule, opposition grew and, after fraudulent elections in 1985, by which Doe became officially president, Doe’s Chief of Staff, General Quiwonkpa, initiated a coup attempt but failed. As a result, his home region of Nimba County was pillaged by the AFL, leaving many people dead, while many others fled to neighbouring countries, chiefly to Cote d’Ivoire.

Another one who had fled the country was Charles Taylor. Part of the Doe administration until 1983, he fell in disgrace with charges of corruption, and moved to the United States, where he was arrested. Miraculously, he managed to escape from prison, which some think was arranged by the CIA, and suddenly reappeared in Ghana. With help from Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, and military help from Libya, he began planning to overthrow Doe’s regime. He founded the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), for which he also recruited non-Liberians, with the promise that they would receive his support for struggles in their respective home countries.

Samuel Doe and his Romanian Armor

On 18th October 1986, Samuel Doe and many of his generals visited an armored vehicle and artillery tractor exposition at Clinceni, on the outskirts of Bucharest in Romania. Negotiations overnight concluded that Romania agreed to sell 5 TABC-79 and 5 ABI armored vehicles and should be ready to be shipped in an incredibly short time, namely six days later, on the 25th. Doe wanted them so he could show them off at a parade that was to be held on 16th November in Monrovia.

The TABC-79s were readily available, but the order for the ABI turned out to be a nightmare for the responsible engineers. In total, seventeen were available, but these had been in use since 1979 and required a major overhaul, something not easily accomplished within six days. After hard work, the deadline was met and, on 25th October, the vehicles were ready for shipment, and stowed on the ship the next day. Some batches with spares were also prepared, while Romanian specialists had to be sent to Liberia to properly hand over the equipment.

Following this, a deal was signed with Romania for a series of heavy equipment, worth some 4 million USD. It apparently included eight BTR-50P and eight TAB-77 (wrongly designated BTR-60PB by SIPRI). Apart from a single image of a knocked out TAB-77, no further public photographs of either four types, or any further information of them as a matter of fact was found.

A newspaper-quality image of a knocked out TAB-77 in a small village in the hinterland of Liberia, probably in Nimba County. The vehicle was set on fire by rebel forces. One soldier that managed to leave the burning vehicle was killed, beheaded, and his head was placed on a spike nearby, just visible on the left. This brutal behavior was far more common during the civil wars in Liberia than encountering an armored vehicle. Source: AP news agency

The First Civil War 1989-1996

“This is just an ordinary civilian uprising, it is not a military coup, not a military situation. Ordinary people uprising, trying to bring fair play and justice.”

Charles Taylor

On 24th December 1989, Christmas Eve, the NPFL entered Nimba County from Côte d’Ivoire and attacked the small town of Butuo. The attacking unit was quite small and numbered somewhere between 100 to 180 people, but other units had already infiltrated Liberia and awaited deliveries of weaponry to join. Doe and his government misjudged the situation as a revamp of 1985, and sent AFL units, including armored vehicles, to the region. These forces were ruthless, just like in 1985, killing civilians, burning villages, raping women, and pillaging in Nimba County, but in other places as well. Within weeks, some 170,000 Liberians had fled the country. The AFL was not able to contain the rebel forces, and was gradually pushed back to Monrovia.

On 30th May, AFL soldiers attacked the UN humanitarian aid compound in Monrovia, established in March, killing some forty refugees, which led the UN to withdraw their personnel, who only returned in November. In June, the AFL also opened fire on unarmed protestors in Monrovia, and on the night of 29-30th July, AFL soldiers entered a church in Monrovia, where they massacred some 600 people who had taken shelter in the church. Followed by these events, men of Gio and Mano ethnicity, who were either orphaned or enraged by the brutality against their people, decided to join the NPFL in response.

During the start, the NPFL was poorly organized and consisted of several groups. Early disputes between the chief military commander, Prince Yormie Johnson, and Charles Taylor led to Johnson splitting off from the NPFL, forming the Independent National Patriotic Front Liberia (INPFL). Apart from fighting the AFL, the factions fought each other as well, but both advanced to the capital Monrovia. The AFL was gradually pushed back and the INPFL advanced to the west and established its base in northern Monrovia, on Bushrod Island, Liberia’s most important sea port. The NPFL took a central route and captured the eastern suburbs of Monrovia. Just like the AFL, the NPFL behaved brutally, especially against (alleged) supporters of the Doe regime, and thus mainly Krahn and Mandingo people.

The excessive use of violence by all sides led to a large refugee exodus and, by late 1990, over 700,000 people had fled to neighbouring Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, roughly one third of the population.

Armored vehicles in Monrovia

A report from 28th July 1990 noted that “On the other side of the town, Mr. Doe’s hard-pressed troops retreated with one of their three tanks from Broad Street, near the Ducor, to Center Street, outside the Defense Ministry, about half a mile from the mansion. The tank was so crammed with goods looted from shops in the neighbourhood that the crew barely had room to maneuver.” (New York Times)

Other reports of the fighting on 31 July noted that “… late in the day, about 500 soldiers loyal to Doe, advancing under the protection of their last remaining tank [Romanian APC, red], staged a counterattack, retaking control of government buildings that rebels had seized earlier” and “… Mr. Doe’s soldiers, clustered behind their only tank, had counterattacked …”. (Los Angeles Times & New York Times)

This suggests that, by 28th July, Doe had still three armored vehicles at his disposal, of which two were disabled before 31st July. In the meantime, the NPFL had managed to capture at least two Mowag armored vehicles, including a Piranha II, which were turned against the AFL. The Piranha’s armament in the turret was removed, and a machine gun was welded on top of the turret. This was probably done because the original weapon either malfunctioned or was out of ammunition. It is unknown if this modification was done by the NPFL, or the AFL itself.

Close-up of the turret of the Piranha II 4×4 deployed by the NPFL in August 1990. The weaponry in the turret has been removed and a new gun has been welded on top of the turret. The camouflage pattern shows a light green base color, with brown, green, and dark green brush strokes over it. The NPFL fighters on top are less camouflaged. Source: Pascal Guyot via Getty Images

Ecomog

With Monrovia, and in it the AFL and Doe, besieged by two factions, the Anglophone members of ECOWAS decided to intervene, while most Francophone members were opposed to any form of intervention, as they supported Charles Taylor in his attempt to overthrow Doe. Headed by Nigeria, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was established during a meeting on 6-7th August. By this time, the level of atrocities that were committed by all sides was astounding. Dead bodies, which were often mutilated, were everywhere, while the shortage of food, drinking water, and medical care had become chronic. With neither the United Nations or the United States willing to step in, the ECOMOG deployed a force to Monrovia, mainly funded by Nigeria. The troops were also mainly from Nigeria, but joined by others from Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, totalling some 3,500 men.

The peacekeeping force’s first aim was to prevent a rebel takeover of Liberia, organize a cease-fire, and help form an interim government. The force was weak and poorly equipped however, and when it arrived in Monrovia on 24th August, it established a cooperative relationship with the INPFL led by Johnson and set up its HQ in INPFL-controlled territory. The INPFL saw it as an opportunity to prevent Taylor from becoming president, while Doe saw it as an opportunity to stay in power. Charles Taylor was heavily opposed to the peacekeeping force, which led to military confrontations between the two. ECOMOG managed to take control of central Monrovia, despite the opposition. ECOMOG also established the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), headed by Amos Sawyer, but Charles Taylor refused to cooperate with this new political entity.

A Nigerian Panhard AML in Monrovia, 1990. Source: On Mamba Station

On 10th September, Doe visited the headquarters of ECOMOG after an invitation, but when he arrived, members of the INPFL suddenly showed up, killed his bodyguards and took Doe captive. He was transported to the INPFL, where he was tortured and killed, which was captured on video and the footage was widely distributed. With Doe killed, the IGNU rose to prominence, and the AFL officially pledged its support, but largely ignored any given orders. In early October, ECOMOG launched an offensive to create a buffer zone between the remnants of the AFL and the NPFL, which was driven back to the outskirts of Monrovia. In November, ECOWAS managed to persuade Libya and Burkina Faso to (temporarily) halt their support for Taylor and the financial difficulties forced Taylor to agree to a cease-fire on 29th November 1990. With a large part of Liberia under his control, Taylor established a new capital at Gbarnga.

Furthermore, Taylor supported the establishment of a new rebel movement in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which mainly consisted of former NPFL fighters from Sierra Leone. From March 1991, they started to operate and stir unrest in Sierra Leone, creating another civil war. In response, the Army of Sierra Leone counterattacked rebel bases in Liberia. Despite this, around July, the NPFL controlled some 95% of Liberian territory.

Meanwhile, a new faction started to emerge among refugees in Sierra Leone, mainly composed of former supporters of Doe. Backed by the governments from Sierra Leone and Guinea, the United Liberation Movement (ULIMO) was established on 21st May 1991. ULIMO would use the Sierra Leonean counter-attacks in Liberia as a springboard and successfully managed to capture parts of Liberia from the NPFL. Although the size of controlled territory constantly fluctuated, they controlled a third of Liberia at some points. In early 1992, ULIMO launched an offensive which brought them 45 kilometers from Monrovia. During the year, they continued pressure upon the NPFL.

With new factions emerging, another disappeared. The INPFL, faced with internal struggles, was disbanded near the end of 1992.

AFL soldiers with an armored vehicle behind them, presumably of the ECOMOG force. This picture was taken on 9 November 1992, shortly after Operation Octopus, an unsuccessful attempt by the NPFL to gain definite control over Monrovia and repel the ECOMOG force. Source: Alain Bommenel/AFP via Getty Images
Source: Patrick Robert/Corbis via Getty Images
In August 1990, the NPFL deployed A truck with armament on it. The second picture shows it in April 1996. Source: Patrick Robert/Corbis via Getty Images

Operation Octopus

After preparations of nearly a year, the NPFL launched a surprise attack on Monrovia on 15th October 1992. Supported by well-trained soldiers from Burkina Faso, as well as a large array of newly acquired weapons, the attack was a complete surprise to ECOMOG, but they held their ground, supported by the AFL and ULIMO. After an intensive bombing and shelling campaign, ECOMOG, together with the AFL and ULIMO, launched a counter-offensive in January 1993, which drove Taylor’s forces back and, by early March, they only had some 40% of the country still under control. On 31st July 1993, a new cease-fire agreement was reached. Furthermore, the ECOMOG force was further strengthened by troops from Tanzania and Uganda, and the United Nations established the Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to oversee the ceasefire. The agreement also included the establishment of a new interim government, the Liberian National Transitional Government (LNTG), while the IGNU was to be dissolved, but due to negotiations, the IGNU remained in place until March 1994.

Despite the ceasefire, peace was not returned, as several smaller and new groups became active. The anti-NPFL Liberian Peace Council (LPC) emerged in the south-east of Liberia and attacked NPFL-controlled territory. With support from Taylor, the Lofa Defense Force (LDF) was established, which attacked ULIMO territory from Guinea. Both the LPC and LDF became active near the end of 1993. The LPC managed to take control of the coastal region, blocking the NPFL access to the sea.

The situation in Liberia, as of April 1994. Source: Civil War and State Formation

ECOMOG strengths in June 1994*

Contingent Officers Soldiers Total
GAMCON (Gambia) 1 9 10
GHANCON (Ghana) 73 1048 1121
GUCON (Guinea) 140 440 580
LEOCON (Sierra Leone) 16 348 364
MALICON (Mali) 3 7 10
NIGCON (Nigeria) 442 7489 7931
TANCON (Tanzania) 41 733 774
UGACON (Uganda) 53 731 784
Total 789 10,805 11,574
*Source: John Mackinlay and Abiodun Alao, Liberia 1994: ECOMOG and UNOMIL Response to a Complex Emergency, New York: United Nations University, Occasional Paper No. 1 (1994), p. 39.

In March 1994, internal struggle split the ULIMO into two factions, a group of Mandingo and a group of Krahn members. From 1995, most fighting centralized around the conflict between these two factions. However, the NPFL also suffered from friction among the higher ranks. In July 1994, the NPFL headquarters and their capital Gbarnga was captured by an alliance of the AFL, LPC, and ULIMO, supported by ECOMOG. Although it was recaptured in September, fighting commenced between several NPFL factions. ECOMOG also started to lose the control they previously had over the groups it had supported against the NPFL.

Likely inspired by his large military losses, Charles Taylor finally recognised ECOMOG’s intention to establish peace in 1995 and became a member of the Council of State, a collective presidency over Liberia. A resolve of the conflict was finally in sight, but not before another outburst of violence in Monrovia in 1996, when the UNOMIL faction, led by Roosevelt Johnson, attacked ECOMOG forces. The fighting was intense, and also involved the deployment of armored vehicles. Around 26th April, “… the latest fighting was taking place around the Barclay Training Center, an army barracks in downtown Monrovia where about 30 African peacekeepers were being held hostage. Three of their armored personnel carriers were reported captured by rebels.

A Nigerian T-55, deployed in May 1996 on the streets of Monrovia. Source: AP News Agency
A ZSU-23-4 of ECOMOG, photographed on 19 April 1996. In many conflicts, the ZSU-23-4 SPAAG turned out to be quite effective as an anti-personnel vehicle. Source: Patrick Roberts via Getty Images
A Toyota Landcruiser Type 1b (J75LP) technical, armed with a ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun, deployed by NPFL troops in April 1996. The pick-up formerly belonged to Doctors Without Borders, the markings of which have been retained. Source: Patrick Roberts via Getty Images

In 1996, a new accord was agreed upon, and on 22nd November 1996, ECOMOG could finally begin a disarmament process. It concluded in early February 1997 with an optimistic disarmament percentage of some 62% of all fighters. The situation calmed down significantly as well, with only minor incidents from January to March.

In preparation of the elections, most warring parties were partly transformed into political parties and, if any faction leaders wanted to run for president, they had to give up their position within the faction. Charles Taylor became the presidential candidate for the National Patriotic Party (NPP). The war resources of the NPFL were now employed for the election campaign, which gave the NPP a major advantage over other parties. This, combined with the opposition being unable to unify, led to a major victory for Taylor in the election, with 75.3% of the votes in July 1997. Remarkable is Taylor’s campaign slogan: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”.

A Nigerian Piranha I 6×6 is seen here patrolling through a street in Monrovia during the fighting of April 1996. Another one is visible to the right. Source: Patrick Robert/Sygma via Getty Images

Other armor in the First Liberian Civil War

According to ECOMOG reports, for the NPFL operation Octopus in 1992, Taylor had smuggled a large amount of weaponry into the country, including some twenty armored personnel carriers and four tanks. Although later disputed by Taylor himself, it was certainly true that Taylor managed to acquire a large amount of new weapons, but if any armored vehicles were among them is unverifiable.

During the initial deployment, ECOMOG lacked much equipment and maintenance capabilities, as it was equipped as a peacekeeping force, and not a peace enforcement force. Only later, Nigeria provided wheeled armored vehicles and tanks. The vehicles deployed between 1990 and 1998 included Panhard AMLs, Piranha I 6x6s, T-55s (with the Nigerian 221 Tank Battalion), at least one ZSU-23-4, and at least one Malian Fahd. Other contingents mobilized older equipment, like T-34 tanks, Type 62 light tanks, and Panhard M3 VTTs.

They would lose several of their armored vehicles. For example, during a battle at Tubmanburg in December 1995 between ECOMOG and ULIMO-Johnson, several armored vehicles of an unspecified type were reported lost.

In February 1998, the ECOMOG force finally withdrew from Liberia, only to be relocated to northern neighbour Sierra Leone, where another war waged on, fueled by Liberia’s problems.

A Fahd APC of the Malian Armed Forces in 1997, being prepared to be airlifted to Monrovia, where it would be deployed for six months with the Malian contingent of ECOMOG. Source: Paul R. Caron
A knocked out ECOMOG Piranha I 6×6. The location of this photograph is not specified, so it could have been taken in Sierra Leone as well, but ECOMOG did lose several of these vehicles in Liberia and these would presumably be left like this as well. Source: politicsinmotion.blogspot.com

The Second Civil War

Although the presidential elections officially brought an end to the conflict, tensions remained between the ethnic groups and leaders of various factions, most of whom had received governmental positions. Compared to former president Doe’s practices, those of Taylor were not much different. Corruption and the repression and exploitation of different ethnic groups continued and, with most of the Liberians living in severe poverty and with the little they had having been destroyed during the first war, a renewed conflict seemed to be inevitable. Besides, Taylor employed a strategy of aggressively securing profitable resources from neighbouring states, which led those states to actively sponsor some dissident forces against Taylor.

In 1998, Taylor still had close ties with the earlier mentioned RUF in Sierra Leone. ECOMOG had organized several former Liberian forces to fight against the RUF, but in August 1998, a small dissident group called Justice Coalition of Liberia (JCL) led several attacks in northern Liberia.

A major turning point though was the fighting in Monrovia in September 1998. Taylor attempted to eliminate former warlord Roosevelt Johnson, former leader of a ULIMO faction, who still had a militia. Many were killed during the fighting, but Johnson managed to flee to the US embassy, which was attacked as well, forcing the US to withdraw half their embassy staff and deploying a number of Navy SEALs. Having failed to capture and kill Johnson, the forces of Taylor went on a killing spree in the capital and massacred an estimated amount of up to a 1,000 people, mainly of the Krahn ethnicity. This led to yet another flow of Liberian refugees which, together with refugees still abroad, established the Organization of Displaced Liberians (ODL). It organized a brief raid into Liberia in April 1999.

After Sierra Leonean pressure, the JCL was relocated to supportive Guinea, where it came into contact with the ODL and, together with several other smaller factions, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) was formed. About 60% of this new faction were former ULIMO members, while another major percentage were former AFL soldiers disarmed by Taylor. The group also attracted a significant number of men from Taylor’s paramilitary groups. In April 1999, LURD attacked Taylor’s forces, officially starting the Second Liberian Civil War. Both parties became notoriously known for their extensive deployment of child soldiers.

In September 2000, Taylor and the RUF launched a counter-attack into Guinea, both from Sierra-Leone and Liberia. The invasion was repelled, however, by the Guinean Army, LURD, and Sierra Leonean and Guinean militias. Guinean forces pushed into Sierra Leone, forcing the RUF to agree to a ceasefire with the Sierra-Leonean government, constituting the base for peace in Sierra Leone in 2002, ending a long conflict there. Until early 2003, LURD had achieved only limited successes and, apart from some isolated battles closer to Monrovia, most battles took place in Lofa County, in northern Liberia.

In January 2003, LURD began an offensive and steadily gained more ground. It was followed by another offensive in early March and, within weeks, the LURD was so close to Monrovia that Taylor recalled his men to the capital. Meanwhile, a new faction had emerged from the southern neighbour, the Côte d’Ivoire, called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). In January 2003, they captured their first ground in Liberia and, by the end of April, it held major ground in eastern Liberia. Due to these advancements, and also several UN-imposed sanctions, by this time, Taylor lost access to all domestic and regional sources of income, severely weakening his government. Unlike LURD, MODEL did not advance on the capital.

In early June, LURD reached the outskirts of Monrovia, with both parties agreeing to a ceasefire on 17th June. On 22nd June, the LURD broke the agreement and advanced further into the city. New negotiations caused the fight to be temporarily suspended, and LURD withdrew, but launched another attack on 17th July, occupying Bushrod Island and the port facilities. After this, they started shelling Monrovia, causing major civilian casualties. Taylor’s government started to disintegrate, with high members calling for him to leave the country. Simultaneously, calls for international intervention became louder. This call was heard.

Source: qsakamaki.com
A Type 1a (J79L-TJ) technical, armed with what appears to be a KPV in the Second Liberian Civil War, near Old Bridge, Monrovia, 2003. It was employed by a Taylor-aligned militia against the MODEL faction. Source: Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Based on the ceasefire agreement of 17th June, under Nigerian leadership, a new intervention force was prepared and arrived at the Roberts International Airport on 4 August, bringing it under control. The mission was known as ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL). Fighting suddenly ceased with the arrival of the first troops. On the night of 6-7th August, Taylor’s minister of defence demanded the soldiers to vacate the airport, as a special guest would arrive. They refused, and when the plane landed, the special guest turned out to be 30 tonnes of Libyan weaponry. It was seized and, days later, on August 11th, Charles Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria. On 18th August, a peace agreement was signed, finally posing an end to the second civil war. LURD, MODEL, and ‘civil society representatives’ were to form a power-sharing government for two years.

Impacts on Liberia

It goes without saying that the extremely violent period from 1989 until 2003 had a huge impact on Liberia as a country and as a society. It has been estimated that, in total, some 250,000 Liberians were killed, roughly 10% of the population. An estimated million people were displaced, nearly half of the population. A whole nation had been traumatized by cannibalism, massacres, torture, rape, killing, abduction, and beast-like forms of violence. Another characterization of the wars was the large-scale employment of child soldiers. Most, if not all parties, used children in their lines, giving them weapons, and driving them with drugs and alcohol.

Apart from the human suffering, buildings, industry, and infrastructure laid in ruins, let alone the economy, which was overrun with weapons. In 2019, Liberia ranked 175 from 189 in the UN Human Development Country, indicating it is still one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

The first armor to arrive with the Nigerian ECOMIL forces on 4th August were some Piranha Is. This kind of vehicle was also deployed by ECOMOG between 1990-1998, but now it has been painted white to UN standards. Source: Chris Hondros via Getty Images
On 16th August, Nigerian MT-LBs entered Monrovia with the 2nd Battalion. Source: Issouf Sanoga/AFP via Getty Images

ECOMIL, UNMIL, and their armor

As mentioned, Nigerian forces were first to deploy on 4th August 2003. Some Piranha Is were also flown in. On 16th August, the first 110 troops of the 2nd Battalion entered the city, also deploying some MT-LB tracked vehicles. Already on 10th August, South African Special Forces had temporarily arrived in Monrovia as well, deploying with light Vlermuis vehicles. A contingent from Guinea-Bissau used tracked YW531 APCS (export version of the Type 63 APC). Initially, some 3,600 men were deployed, coming from Nigeria, Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo. Starting from 9th September, the force started to be deployed outside Monrovia.

The peace agreement of 18th August also called for the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping operation. The UN agreed and, in October, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was established, integrating the already present ECOMIL force, and becoming the largest of such missions ever established. By 2005, the force was fully deployed, with 14,482 personnel present from over 45 countries, not including observers and police forces. What follows is a list of contributors at the time of full deployment by 2005: Bangladesh, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Moldova, Namibia, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Senegal, Serbia and Montenegro, South Africa, Sweden, Togo, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, and Zambia.

Deployed armor

Bangladesh – BTR-80, Brem-K (BTR-80 ARV)
Guinea-Bissau – YW531
Ireland – 12x Mowag Piranha III, 6x AML H-20, AML-90
Namibia – Wolf Mk II
Nigeria – Piranha I 6×6, MT-LB (at least 9), Otokar Cobra
Pakistan – M113
Sweden – 13x Stridsfordon 9040C, Bv 309, XA-180/185

A Ram MK3 in a static position. These Israelian-built vehicles were likely deployed by Senegal. Source: investmentcourse.co.za

Other vehicles, with the users not being able to specified, were BRDM-2s, Ram Mk3s, and some armored police vehicles. In total, 284 (armored) combat vehicles were deployed by UNMIL.

Besides these countries, other UN members provided support as well. For example, the Dutch navy provided aid and also transported some M113 APCs for the Pakistani contingent by sea. During this operation, some BV206s and a Leopard BARV of the Dutch Royal Marines shortly made it ashore as well.

The UNMIL organized demobilization and new national elections. The elections were won by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became the first elected female president in Africa. She had already served with the Tolbert administration and had run as a presidential candidate during the election of 1997. Starting from August 2007, the number of UNMIL troops was gradually scaled-down, to 4,722 personnel as of 6th June 2014.

A YW531 (export Type 63 APC) of the Guinea-Bissau contingent is being deployed to Totota, in northern-central Liberia. Source: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images
South African Special Forces with a Vlermuis in Monrovia, next to a Toyota manned by men loyal to Charles Taylor. Source: Georges Gobet via Getty Images
A Swedish 9040C in Liberia, 2005. Thirteen of these were deployed and marked the first active deployment of the CV90. Source: Reddit user 5_Frog_Margin

Post-Civil War

Under the presidency of Sirleaf, Liberia became and remained relatively stable. However, UN observers saw that tensions remained present, while some numbers of Liberians were involved in the unrest in neighboring countries, mainly during the violence in Guinea in 2007 and 2010, and in Côte d’Ivoire during the 2010 elections.

The 2011 presidential elections in Liberia granted a second-term to Sirleaf; she also won the Nobel Peace Prize that year. UNMIL began training new police forces and a new army. On 30th June 2016, the transfer of security responsibilities to Liberian authorities was completed. The mission remained present until completion on 30th March 2018, nearly fifteen years after the civil war was put to an end.

The new Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL)

In 2005, the company Dyncorp started the training of a new armed force of some 2000 men, funded by the US. Two infantry battalions were formed, as well as several supporting units. The new AFL relied heavily upon foreign donations, especially from China and the US. In 2013, the AFL deployed a platoon to the Nigerian contingent of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), marking the first foreign deployment of the AFL since the 1960s.

In terms of vehicles, China donated twenty trucks and two graders in February 2016, worth 3 million USD. This was followed by a US donation in July, including eighteen 70 Series Toyota Land Cruiser pick-ups, two Land Cruiser maintenance vehicles, and some other equipment for the MINUSMA mission, including a 10,000-liter water truck.

In 2019, the United Arab Emirates gifted at least seven (possibly up to twelve) Streit Cougar protected mobility vehicles to the Liberian Army, which arrived in Monrovia in September. They were specially gifted to serve with the MINUSMA mission. The vehicles have a protected weapon station on the roof but lack a mounted weapon. These Cougars are the first armored vehicles in service by the Liberian Armed Forces since the civil war ended.

In July 2020, China gifted Liberia some 3 million USD worth of medical drugs and medical equipment to the Army for use by the 14 Military Hospital located in Margibi County. The equipment included 2 Dongfeng Mengshi Intensive Care Unit ambulances (Chinese: 东风猛士救护车).

The new fleet of the AFL, showing two Streit Cougars, a Dongfeng Mengshi ICU ambulance, and a Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up. Source: Ministry of National Defense Liberia

Armored vehicles pre-civil war
M3A1 White Scout Car (1959-?) presumably 15 delivered, but unconfirmed.
Mowag Roland/Grenadier (1967-1990) 6 unspecified 4×4 Mowag vehicles were bought between 1967 and 1969, presumably a mixture of Grenadiers and Rolands.
Mowag Piranha II 4×4 (1979?-1990) 6 newer Piranha II 4x4s were bought between 1977 and 1984
ABI (1986-1990) 5 bought second-hand from Romania.
TAB-C79 (1986-1990) 5 bought, new from Romania.
TAB-77 (1987-1990) 8 bought from Romania.
BTR-50P (1987-1990) 8 bought, second-hand from Romania, but unconfirmed.

Armored vehicles post-civil war
Streit Cougar PMV (2019-present) 7-12 gifted by the United Arab Emirates.

A page by Leander Jobse

Sources

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China Donates Military Hardware, Drugs To GOL, The News Newspaper.
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