• By: Manaweh Lewis

AFL Soldiers Will Demonstrate If?

A Ministry of National Defense source has informed Wish News Network of a likely peaceful demonstration by some members of the Armed Forces of Liberia, AFL. Accordingly, the demonstration is intended to create public awareness to that ministry’s failure to reimburse salary cuts to the already dwindled wages of soldiers of the AFL.

The source told us that defense officials have for the past several years, abstracted money from wages of soldiers since the force was restructured in 2006. When contacted, Army Chief referred us to Minister Samukai who subsequently dismissed the claim, though alluding to the fact that payroll deduction of soldiers’ goes as far back as 2009. Minister Samukai however disclosed that those payroll deductions will principally sustain a WELFARE FUND that will cater to the future needs of personnel.

He cited the case of a Liberian soldier killed in the line of duty while serving with the United Nations Mission in Mali as well as another soldier who was involved in an accident on the S.D. Cooper Road and sustained injuries that led to the amputation of his leg.

He said in the case of the former, the Ministry of Defense made payments to the family to underwrite burial and other expenses and in the case of the soldier whose leg was amputated, the Ministry is currently sponsoring his studies at the University of Liberia in addition to covering the cost of his medical expenses.

Minister Samukai further said the establishment of the fund was based on the reality that the Government of Liberia does not have money to cater to such welfare needs of soldiers, although their line of work involves exposure to hazardous conditions and risks.

He said payment is intended to cover a 20 year period following which benefits are to be paid to the individual soldiers similar to what is done to civil servants who complete 25 years of service to country.

Currently, according to Minister Samukai, the fund has an accumulated balance of a little over US$700,000 in its account and it is intended to be used for no other purpose than that of catering to soldiers' welfare.

He said he has provided this information to President Sirleaf and to President- elect George Weah as well in separate briefing sessions. He however said going forward, decisions about what to do with the funds remains the prerogative of the incoming Minister of Defense.

It can be recalled that since the restructuring of the military in 2006, there have been media reports of desertion due to allegations of poor working conditions in the country's military. Low salaries and poor housing conditions for soldiers and their families are alleged to be push factors behind the attrition rate.

It can also be recalled that during the tenure of former Finance Minster Amara Konneh, several government officials expressed concern that they were being kept in the dark by Minister Konneh because they had no idea what was allocated in their respective budgets, something which they claimed was impeding progress.

Prominent among those officials expressing such concerns included Defense Minister Samukai, Deputy Civil Service Director-General Puchu Bernard, and former Lofa County Senator Kupee.

Defense Minister Samukai was particularly outspoken on this issue and at a point virtually accused the Finance Ministry of keeping them in the dark and withholding approved budgetary allotments which he said was delaying ongoing renovation work on housing facilities for soldiers.

Whether the MoD's establishment of the WELFARE FUND for soldiers was indeed driven by such concerns remains unclear. It is however clear that soldiers are not covered under the welfare scheme operated by the National Social Security and Welfare Corporation (NASSCORP) although the displeased soldiers say they are unaware if they are covered.

When contacted, a NASSCORP official spokesperson David Q. Beekeh confirmed that soldiers are not covered under its insurance and pension program for civil servants and other public service employees.

On the other hand, many soldiers of the Armed Forces admitted that they initially accepted various pre-taxed payroll salary deduction agreements upon their entry into the AFL.

One source said that, from what he understood the scheme to be, was that the deducted wages would be deposited in a saving-account and disbursed at the end of the Sirleaf’s tenure.

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