Is it time to make real, the promise of democracy in Sierra Leone? Op ed

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 21 June 2022:

It is not surprising that the arrest and detention of the popular Sierra Leonean musician, Alhaji Amadu Bah, Aka Boss LAJ has generated reams of newsprint and churned out high volumes of data on social media. LAJ was reportedly arrested last week, following an allegation of robbery and aggravation at a fuel station in Freetown. (Photo above: Sierra Leone’s Inspector General of Police – Sovula).

The public outcry though not surprising, has focused on the alleged mistreatment and human rights abuses meted by our police force. It is reported that LAJ was allegedly injected with a foreign substance and had his trademark dreadlocks shaved off at the detention facility. Rastas would not take kindly to that though. It is also alleged that his family was denied access, amid his alleged deteriorating health condition.

Like many other cases, the trial by media is in full swing and overdrive. However, what seems to capture the public’s angst and condemnation is how the police violated his human rights. ; thanks to the shaving of his head. The reaction is reminiscent of Alexander Pope’s poem, The Rape of The Lock and he would be turning in his grave.

The topical nature of the case has forced the police to issue a statement to clarify their position. It is so topical with varying interpretations that even the Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB) has weighed in with a press release of their own, right in the middle of an ongoing investigation. There is little surprise there, as we are talking about one of Sierra Leone’s “A-List celebrities”.

In their release, the police aimed to clarify certain points contrary to social media reports. They confirmed that LAJ was in custody for “a felonious offence”. They denied that he was “injected with any red substance while in police custody”. However, the police confirmed that as part of their “Standard Operating Procedure” to preserve the health and well-being of all male suspects, “the facility would have their hair shaved off their head while in custody of the holding centre”. Wow.

The shaving of LAJ’s hair, especially his dreadlocks is what seems to galvanise the outrage against our police department.

In a letter addressed to the IG of the Sierra Leone Police, the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA), as “moral guarantor of the constitution of Sierra Leone” issued its unreserved concerns about the “allegations of torture and degrading treatment” of LAJ. SLBA has called for the suspension of SOPs in police custody facilities, an investigation by the IPCB, and access for his family to LAJ, among others. It is necessary to note that the reaction of the public about the alleged police treatment does not come as a surprise, despite whatever merits it might entail. LAJ’s supporters, worldwide are now shaving their heads in solidarity. Does this look like its turning into a big PR disaster for the department; “a force for good”?

Considering that LAJ at the time of all this, was/is just a suspect and not even charged with a crime yet, one would wonder why him, or any other person should be subjected to such treatment like shaving off his hair. We know that prison facilities all over the world have SOPs for criminals in their jails.

In the interest of health and safety, prisoners are required to remove and submit all belts, shoelaces, combs, and anything and everything, etc.,  that could be used as a weapon or item to cause harm to themselves or others. This is purely a health, safety and welfare matter. Today, we see young man walking with their trousers hanging loosely below their backsides and on their ankles and wonder where that vogue came from.

Most prisons around the world shave prisoners’ heads to prevent the spread of lice, but can also be used to as a demeaning measure. Having the head shaved can be a punishment prescribed in law in some countries. Is this a law in Sierra Leone?

So, was the rape of the locks a health and safety issue?

To say that LAJ’s dreadlocks were shaved as part of the SOP for safety and security reasons would require some serious logic and explanation from the police. How does that impact on his health and safety? It is refreshing to note that despite the catalogue of allegations of police brutality across the country, they could spare a thought for the health and safety of people in their care. Hallelujah. Perhaps the police would endeavour to educate the public on the relationship between a man’s hair and his health and safety. LAJ has kept his lock for so long without any reported health conditions. To conclude that no sooner he goes into a holding pen than he becomes a health hazard would be difficult for many to fathom. The perceived consensus from social media is not only that it was humiliating, an abuse of his human rights but also an intention to dehumanise and cut him down to size. The police would have some explaining to do, and we are listening.

This saga has brought the role of the IPCB into sharp focus. There is no question that our police force is loaded with questionable behaviours of disrepute. It is “a force for good” but how many people buy into that notion? With all the perennial allegations flying around about police brutality, indiscipline, killings, unlawful detentions etc., when last did you hear of police personnel suspended, disciplined, dismissed or even charged with a crime in our country? The police are a fundamental sub organ of the three organs of governments. Unfortunately, our police tend to act as judge and jury in many instances. The perception is one of guilty until proven innocent.

Are the police above the law or a law onto themselves?

Throughout our history, the public see the police as carrying out the bidding of sitting governments in our country. As civil servants, they are supposed to be independent of political affiliations, but are they? Sadly, they are perceived as agents who do the heavy lifting for the government of the day. Does our police force have the confidence of the public to protect its lives and property? This case will no doubt test the credibility of the IPBC, an independent body charged with the moral, political and civil task of providing investigations “into incidents of injuries, assault or wounding caused by a police officer, and “any matter or incident which it thinks the action or inaction of the police is likely to impact significantly on the confidence of the people in the police” respectively”. We are listening.

If the police are typically responsible for maintaining public order and safety, enforcing the law and, detecting, preventing and investigating criminal activities; what hope is there for public confidence when they are constantly mired in accusations of corruption, brutality, torture and killings? How many police officers were found wanting, disciplined or reprimanded, following the killings at Mile 91, Tonko Limba, Makeni, Kabala, kemadugu, and many more? The use of live bullets for the slightest of skirmishes is common and first response from our police force. The IPCB may have recommended criminal proceedings against police officers in the past, but how many have been implemented?

However, amid all this, there is the temptation to overlook the behaviour of the man himself LAJ. This is aimed at neither castigating LAJ nor apologising for the behaviour of the police. Equally, we cannot pretend that LAJ is a saint. There is the small matter of an allegation of theft and violence.  We know that he was deported from the USA with a chequered history. We cannot deny that he breathed a fresh energy into our social and music scene. He is an “A” list celebrity, Salone style. He has a large following of fans, especially among our impressionable youths, who see him as their mouthpiece. There is no doubt that LAJ by default is a role model and a massive social influencer. Nevertheless, does that put LAJ above the law?

His rivalry with other Sierra Leonean artists is well catalogued. LAJ has had several previous running with the law and law enforcement in the country. There are some who see his lyrics and the language used as a bad example for the children. He was even accused of trying to recreate a gangland style situation during his rivalry for the hip-hop title with fellow artist Kao Denero. Despite his reported chequered history, it does not diminish his right to treatment with human decency and human rights.

With the police busy updating its profile in the minds of the public, and with the recent spate of police involvement of alleged brutality, how do we expect the same police force to enforce the law if they cannot uphold the law. Should people living in glasshouses throw stones at others? Judging by the perceived and alleged notoriety of our police force, does the mean that we are experiencing a monumental breakdown of law and order, or an increase in a trigger-happy syndrome form our police force? Is the force taking a sterner no-nonsense approach in maintaining law and order or just binging on force and power?

Is our police force a “force for good”?

The question may sound like an affront, but is there a temptation to tar the whole force as one of brutality?  We are not anti –police, just anti police brutality. Like any organisation, there will always be bad apples. However, the silence of the good people could be more dangerous than the brutality of the bad people.

Is it time for law enforcement officers to speak out? Should we live in fear of the people sworn to protect us? Because if our description of violence depends on who is propagating that violence, we are in effect telling our audience what type of violence is more acceptable. Violence is violence and must be condemned in all its forms. “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened” (JF Kennedy).  Is there another “Blacker” style phot op in the wings? Stay tuned.

Over to you. Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

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