Civilian engagement in security

Civilian engagement in security

Partners For Democratic Change/ Partners Senegal

Rokhaya Ndoye Mbaye


In recent years, numerous African states, with the support of foreign countries and international organizations, have undertaken significant security sector reform (SSR) initiatives. The changing nature of regional security threats has prompted a discussion on how SSR approaches can best respond to these changes. Within this debate, there is a consensus that security threats affect a greater share of the population in more direct ways, and this calls for responses that are social in nature. This has translated into a shift from a traditional view of security based on the armed forces’ ability to protect the nation from foreign threats to one concerned with “human security”. This novel people-centered concept encompasses a wide range of complex threats that influence a community or individual’s security. The depth of these issues also implies that the security sector cannot be the sole force in addressing them. Security sector management needs to collaborate with other sectors of government and factions of society to tackle these issues.

African states’ relationships with citizens are a significant barrier to the adoption of an inclusive approach to security sector reform, in part as an enduring legacy of colonialism. During colonialism, the security sector acted in the interest of the colonizing power. After independence, notably in countries where the colonial legacy of the security sector was preserved, these institutions remained unresponsive to civilians’ security needs in some cases, and downright oppressive towards civilians in others. Evidently, this has instilled feelings of fear and mistrust in civilians towards the security sector. Nevertheless, populations want to break loose from the colonial traditions that have affected contemporary security sector management. The sentiment has translated into greater civilian engagement organized around civil rights movements and local protection committees, whose objective is to shape the security sector so it can become more efficient, accountable, and responsive to citizens’ security needs.

This paper will argue that civilian engagement is a necessary component for security sector reform. It will also put forth general principles for security sector reform policies and expose the major challenges on the way forward. Finally, it will look at the positive developments in security reform in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as their limitations and core challenges.

1.    Logic of citizen Engagement

1.1.  Citizen engagement in the reform of the security sector

Citizen engagement can be understood in the following four ways. First, it is the security sector’s respect for human rights instead of being a threat to them. Second, it is the increase of government and security services’ responsiveness to the security concerns of citizens. Third, it is the expansion of public safety through the increased efficiency and effectiveness of security providers. Finally, it is greater responsiveness to the needs of the most vulnerable groups in society. Experiences in civilian engagement in SSR processes in Mano River Union countries expose two recurring and principle vectors: local ownership and parliamentary oversight.

Local ownership calls for the acquisition of greater security sector expertise among local actors. Civil society plays an important role in this as it can monitor and hold security actors, including parliamentary committee members, accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Civil society can also play a crucial role in providing parliamentarians with information and data that they may not otherwise have access to, and that can inform their policy decisions.

Next, parliamentary oversight is a core tool for promoting civilian inclusion in SSR processes. This is based on the conviction that citizens’ ability to pressure and influence security policy will strengthen security sector governance. While many reformers push forward to achieve this objective, many observers and scholars argue that SSR processes are excessively based on top-down thinking.

1.2.  Underlying issues in SSR processes

Diverse issues with citizen inclusion in SSR processes have been identified and commented upon. The most apparent are the deficiencies in local ownership, lack of legitimacy of SSR process, and donors’ lack of understanding of local realities. These have all in common a hectic history between the security sector and the civil population. Hence, disagreements with foreign governments and private donors accused of having dubious motives have only intensified civil society’s protest towards their lack of inclusion. The negative impacts of structural adjustment plans in the 1980’s had already created distrust among West African populations, who equate foreign-led reforms with a lack of legitimacy. Security sector reform has not escaped the donor-driven image, and thus, has had great difficulty achieving local buy-in. Finally, another reason for the people’s distrust is the lack of reliability of donors who are not directly accountable to the people.

The ownership of national governments is another important underlying issue compromising successful security sector reform. Governments have often submitted to foreign investors’ requirements to exclude populations, as they have the potential of threatening deals and catalyzing resistance. This arrangement had civil society groups questioning the legitimacy and ownership of the State in this process. Indeed, there is no oversight of private companies, as contractual agreements with Donor governments protect them from national inquiries. Negative perceptions of foreign agendas based on past experiences lead to the argument that foreign agendas, rather than national interests, could drive SSR in new conflict environments.

1.3.  Why is citizen engagement SSR so vital?

The security sector’s raison d’être is to protect citizens. Citizens who live in greater security will influence the overall security of the state. Traditionally, SSR has been excessively oriented towards the institutional level. The main actors have primarily been the elites including ministers and senior level personnel of international organizations. However, the elites neglect a wide range of security issues that do not affect their daily lives. The only way to understand society’s challenges, especially those affecting rural areas, is to include civilians from all walks of life into the reform process. Additionally, the empowerment of localized actors will remedy in part the state’s lack of tactical capacity to lead reform processes. Civil society is also pivotal in reorienting the state’s tactical capacity so that it best benefits the society at large.

The importance of civilian engagement is manifest in the shift to a human security paradigm. Security goes beyond the state’s protection. It broadens the meaning of security to encompass many other threats to a person’s wellbeing. So, human security can relate to health, nutrition, education, environment, and human rights. Security at all levels is a prerequisite and catalyst for development. Therefore, it is crucial to not exclusively involve the national government, but international and local non-governmental organizations, and local communities. Proponents of the state-centered traditional view of the security sector’s role would argue that devolving security providing responsibilities is dangerous and can undermine the nation’s security. However, security threats in these countries today are diverse and complex, and require localized solutions. Institutions that engage citizens to provide solutions to human security threats are a more appropriate strategy to guarantee the nation’s security.

2.    From armed conflict to democratic reforms: A historical overview of SSR in Liberia and Sierra Leone

Since independence, the Mano River sub-region has undergone various political transitions. Governments have shifted from authoritarian regimes to more democratic ones. Today, there has been notable progress towards democratization and improved relationships between the security sector and civil society. Despite relative success of democratic initiatives, uncertainty and chronic instability still characterizes the Mano River countries. This state of affairs results from years of the security sector’s mismanagement, poor governance, weak state capacities, and the lack of civilian inclusion in policy-making. Multi-stakeholder efforts to transform countries’ security sector’s architecture are an important process for dealing with the region’s chronic instability and violence. The institutionalization of citizen engagement in the security sector is far-reaching goals, which out of committed political will and resources, some countries will have difficulties to achieve.

2.1. The Liberian case: Civilian desperate attempts to be heard

In Liberia, there are motivated and credible civil society initiatives that have the potential to be drivers of local ownership in security sector reform. However, for the time being, these movements have not been adequately integrated into the government’s reform framework.

In the past, there have been several significant attempts to include citizens in the security sector’s management. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)[1] signed in Accra in August 2003, ending the civil war, set the stage for the beginnings of a security sector reform process. The CPA set up then a transitional parliament, which had the authority to manage a security reform process that included citizen voices. The CPA also established the Governance Reform Commission (GRC), which Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf first chaired. It had citizen engagement at its core as it sought to promote the “dialogue among various sectors and the process of ensuring that all sectors, including the military, are brought under a common governance framework, as an essential condition for local ownership”.[2] The CPA were however accused to have skipped important statements such as the strengthening of civilian oversight, judicial and penal reform and local participation in SSR .

Further, in 2005, the Ministry of Justice and the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) held a National Dialogue on Security Sector Reform in Liberia. This initiative’s main objective was to work toward an accountable, inclusive, and locally driven SSR process. The national dialogue event brought together many key actors including directors of the security institutions, parliamentarians, representatives of civil society organizations, of women’s groups, of the press, and senior UNMIL personnel. The participants welcomed assistance from the international community and other regional actors, but agreed that the primary responsibility of the security sector reform, as well as the broader post-conflict reconstruction process, should stay in the control of Liberians.

During this period, civil society led an energetic and passionate struggle to have their voices heard in the debate over government reform issues. The National Coalition of Civil Society Organizations in Liberia (NACCSOL) organized a conference in March 2005 to extend and enhance civil society’s role in the SSR process. Less than a year later, in January 2006, the Liberia National Law Enforcement Association (LINLEA) in collaboration with the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) organized a conference urging the government to set up an Independent Technical Advisory Committee on SSR (ITAC) to review the existing recommendations on security reform. In March 2006, the ITAC organized a workshop on ‘Civilian Oversight of the Civilian Security Sector’. We should also mention community implications in security direct services supply. One key contemporary issue is the lack of capacities of the Liberia National Police (LNP) to solely supply security to the population (widespread physical insecurity, high rates of gender-based violence such as rape, armed robbery in Monrovia, narcotic traffic at borders, etc…). In addition to UNMIL services, Community Watch Teams, which operate at a community level, have been very useful. [3]

Despite civilian dynamism, the excessive number of civil society movements and the “proliferation of initiatives” limited the effectiveness of local engagement in the SSR reform process (Sherman, 2009). Also, government often ignored civil society’s demands, and their input was largely ignored for ITAC recommendations on citizen engagement in security sector management.

Allegations of bad governance and corruption in the transitional assembly also bore a significant negative impact on these endeavors. The Liberian population was increasingly frustrated with the lack of information, consultation and transparency in parliamentary oversight of the security sector, which made it difficult for the transitional assembly to lay the groundwork for effective and credible parliamentary oversight of the security sector during the reconstruction period. Also, hesitations in President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s newly elected government were a constant threat to civilian ownership of the SSR process. Indeed, article seven of the CPA that stipulates the United States of America will play a leading role in the re-organization of the armed forces was realized, and rose questions of national ownership. The U.S. State Department provided a $95 million training package to the Liberian government. The Pentagon decided that the army should consist of 2000 soldiers, and the Bush Administration subcontracted major SSR tasks to American private security suppliers, like Dyncorp International and Pacific Architects and Engineers. Dyncorp was responsible for the restructuring and the training of military, as well as the recruitment process in the armed forces. Pacific Architects and Engineers provided specialized training, equipment, logistics and base services. The U.S. was then leading one half of what typically constitutes an SSR program. Liberian civil rights movements fiercely opposed this arrangement, and claimed that it neglected national ownership and the Liberian population’s consent. Moreover the process were claimed to have week coordination mechanisms. Authors such as Jaye[4], Malan[5], Bandix and Stanley[6], and Ebo[7] insists that

“they were no single external actor coordinating SSR, but each looks after its turf. Conceptually, the US embraces a comprehensive approach to SSR, but in practice it has devoted little attention and resources to the non-defence, non military components of SSR. The reform of the security sector has to date been poorly coordinated: a multiplicity of actors have been operating in a fragmented manner. SSR has virtually been reduced to army and police reform. UNMIL has dedicated considerable resources to justice reform; but a conceptual link to other aspects of SSR appears weak.[8]

In sum, the CPA launched an SSR process that championed an inclusive approach. National dialogues, a comprehensive review, and the establishment of a transitional parliament with oversight and citizen inclusion objectives demonstrated this commitment. Furthermore, civil society made dynamic attempts to be heard in the process. Nonetheless, accusations of mismanagement and corruption, donors’ exclusion of key actors, as well as the lack of information, consultation, transparency and accountability undermined citizen engagement in the SSR process.

2.2. The Sierra Leonean security review process model

The main points of this case study are the comprehensive security sector review and the transition conducted in Sierra Leone after the devastated the civil war of the 90s, which were marked by extreme brutality and widespread human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of people were killed and up to one-quarter of the country’s population was displaced.[9] The government’s security forces failed to protect its citizens, and were even the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence, though perhaps on a smaller-scale than the rebel forces. Women and children were disproportionately victims of violence committed against the civilian population.

An unusually high degree of international commitment to define the SSR program was implemented, with national support, to resolve the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. The United Kingdom, with the support of the United Nations, was the primary leader in reform processes. Many scholars such as Bendix and Stanley argue that this RSS program is an unprecedented model: “With the use of the UK’s ACCP, the Sierra Leonean SSR case was one of the first to be conducted with the help of a formal mechanism for coordination, both among government departments (DFID, FCO, MoD) in the leading donor nation and with other donors.” [10]( Bendix and Stanley, 2008). Since the end of hostilities in 2001, the SSR process has been reinforce to secure the peace, disarm ex-combatants, and reconstruct governmental institutions including the security sector. The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) led the initiative to rebuild the security sector and other government institutions. In order to prepare for the security sector’s management and accountability after UNAMSIL’s withdrawal, the government launched a security sector review.

One major accomplishment was the establishment of a comprehensive security sector review, which adopted a “people-centered” understanding of national security.

This review was a milestone as it evolved into an articulated SSR strategy and contributed to the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah ordered the security sector review, and the National Security Council led the process, with the support of the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID). Many stakeholders from the government and civil society were consulted in the review process. This inclusive approach was open to the media who were encouraged to monitor and report progress. The public was also free to participate in the debate and judge the process’s results.

The review process resulted in the creation of local movements to ensure protection such as the District and Provincial Security Committees intended to incorporate the population into Sierra Leone’s security structures and enhance accountability and transparency. The roles of these communities are to provide early signs and therefore improve the security. The security review is also expected to impulse in the long-term benefits such as better trained and more professional armed forces; the establishment of a Ministry of Defense under joint civilian and military management; a more professional and motivated police force; a more efficient security sector. (Nathan, 2007).

However the review as the transition process in tgeneral hasd to face serious challenges. The first one is the accusation that the SSR process was under excessive “donor tutelage. Also, , the sustainability of the process can be a source of worry as it is uncertain whether the government of Sierra Leone could sustain the capacity and standards that have been achieved with the UK government support (through a significant provision of personnel, equipment and cash). The quality of local oversight also is a challenge, as institutions such as parliamentary committees do not have a strong resources and capacities capability to uphold oversight. And last, the SSR initiatives in Sierra Leone will need to be successful in the long term subsequent progress in the general governance environment, the co-ordination of SSR activities, and community trust in the security sector. (Bendix and Stanley, 2008).

Looking at the recent history of both countries, we argue that security sector have been sustained and achieved through civil society’s actor’s perseverance. Also, in the two countries, inclusion of parliamentary oversight seems to be important in donor’s agenda[11]. Finally, for a SSR process to be sustainable, legitimate, and effective, the state’s ownership is a prerequisite.

3.    Conclusion

Traditional war between national armies is no longer the most prominent security challenge that Mano River Union countries are facing today. Security threats come from within and do not know borders. They range from the illegal traffic of small and light weapons to food and water security issues. This reality calls for a more flexible and decentralized security sector that engages civilians. International donors have been dominant in post-reconstruction security sector reform in order to prevent a fall back into armed conflict, which has irritated civil society and national parliaments. Lack of local ownership has limited SSR programs’ effectiveness and sustainability. On the road ahead, international donors will have to put a greater emphasis on national ownership and citizen engagement so that their short-term initiatives are not compromised in the long-term.

[1] Comprehensive peace agreement, 18 August 2003. Available at: <>

[2] GRC press release issued on 4 April 2006.

[3] Mehler, Andreas and Smith-Höhn, Judy (2007), “Security actors in Liberia andSierra Leone – roles, interactions and perceptions”, in T. Debiel and D. Lambach,eds., State failure revisited II: actors of violence and alternative forms of governance, Duisburg: INEF (INEF Report 89), pp. 50-66.

[4] Jaye, Thomas (2006), an assessment report on security sector reform in Liberia [Note48], p. 4.

[5]  Malan, Mark (2008), Security sector reform in Liberia: mixed results from humble beginnings. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. Available at: <>.

[6] Bendix, Daniel and Stanley, Ruth (2008), “Deconstructing local ownership of security sector reform: A review of the literature”, African Security Review Vol. 17 N° 2, pp. 93-104., ISS: Pretoria. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. Available at: <>.

[7] Ebo, Adedeji (2007), “Liberia case study” [Note 48].

[8]Security Sector Reform in Africa: The Promise and the Practice of a New Donor Approach; Daniel Bendix and Ruth Stanley; African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD); Occasional Paper Series: Volume 3, Number 2, 2008


[10] Security Sector Reform in Africa: The Promise and the Practice of a New Donor Approach; Daniel Bendix and Ruth Stanley; African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD); Occasional Paper Series: Volume 3, Number 2, 2008

[11] Sherman, CIC, 2009

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The African Consensus Economic Paradigm

Skip to toolbar