MONROVIA, Liberia — The group seemed fairly subdued, participating in two separate sit-in demonstrations near each other in an open field in the Liberian countryside.
The sit-ins turned to chanting, singing and dancing, their collective voices rising higher, until the two groups, in fact, became one.
Individuals continued to join the fray, each additional person seemingly ratcheting up the tension toward a point of no return.
Over time, the crowd grew, both in number and in frustration, the situation becoming increasingly precarious.
As is often the case in protests, a few individuals, emboldened by their surroundings, turned their frustrations into physical acts, throwing rocks and sticks and making threatening gestures towards the local police force, called to the scene to act as peace keepers.
When the crowd became too hostile for the local police to manage alone, the Armed Forces of Liberia sprang into action, calmly, collectively, but purposefully standing vigilant to protect innocent bystanders.
Methodically and with precision, the AFL soldiers cleared the area, taking the leaders of the protests into custody and breaking the spirit of the group, until the group disbanded and people went their separate ways.
A lethal shot was never fired. In fact, a lethal weapon was never even unholstered.
Luckily for the citizens of Liberia, the riotous group was actually just soldiers chosen to pose as rioters, to provide a realistic training scenario so their fellow soldiers could practice their non-lethal weapons skills.
The demonstration was the culminating event following three weeks of training at Edwin Binyah Kesselly Military Barracks here, March 16.
During the course, the soldiers received instruction on safe takedown procedures, civil disturbance response procedures and non-lethal munitions, as well as other non-lethal capabilities.
These skills were displayed in front of Maj. Gen. Suraj Alao Abdurrahman, AFL command officer in charge, as well as a contingent of soldiers, Marines and airmen from Operation Onward Liberty, a group of approximately 50 U.S. military personnel who mentor and advise the AFL in order to develop a national military that is responsible, operationally capable, respectful of civilian authority and the rule of law, and is a force for good among the Liberian people.
Training for the AFL soldiers was conducted by a United States Marine Corps training team dispatched from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12, Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, Italy.
“This training really helps the people of Liberia because the Liberian police force is fairly small, and if an uprising were to occur, the AFL would very likely be asked to help protect key Liberian resources,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Benz, of St. Louis, Mo., a non-lethal weapons trainer and subject matter expert on missions to Africa. “The non-lethal weapons aspect is important because it gives a level of escalation, a way to handle hazardous situations without resulting to lethal means. It helps the AFL assist the Liberian National Police in restoring order if called upon.”
The course was set up in a “train the trainer” format, where 16 AFL soldiers were identified and received personalized instruction from the special purpose MAGTF personnel in advance of the course.
When the rest of the AFL soldiers came to the training, they were instructed not by the Marines, but by their fellow, now fully-trained soldiers, helping the AFL develop their internal capabilities.
The Marine trainers then supervised the trainers, ensuring they stayed within the bounds of the course objectives and standing by to answerer trainer questions.
“The course was received very well, especially by the 16 individuals who served as the trainers here,” said Benz. “Every single student showed up every day ready to be instructed, they had great energy throughout the day and overall, it was a very enjoyable teaching experience, and I know the soldiers enjoyed it.”
Students of the course had similar feelings regarding the training they received.
“This training was great, and necessary because now soldiers will know what to do right and what not to do when asked to serve the people of Liberia in a civil disturbance operation,” said AFL 1st Lt. James Fahnbulleh Jr., AFL infantry officer and officer in charge, non-lethal weapons training. “We need this training, because now we have a capable core of individuals that are able to control a rowdy crowd without having to use lethal means. We are the army, we know how to use our guns, but guns shouldn’t be necessary. Instead, we want to stop a crowd situation from getting worse without inflicting damage upon people, but at the same time, protecting Liberian citizens from harm.”
Though trained to be the primary response force to any potentially threatening situation, AFL soldiers understand their role in domestic peace keeping operations.
“We are not aggressors in these situations, and in fact, we are not even the primary peace keeping force should a problem develop within Liberia,” Fahnbulleh said. “We are a stand by force, a force capable of coming in to assist the LNP if they become overwhelmed. We are here to assist, but from this course, I promise you, we know what to do if and when that call comes in requesting our help.”