Is the Sierra Leone police a force for good?

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 May 2013

Sierra Leone has one of the worst crime figures in West Africa. A survey conducted last year found that the majority of people in the country do not trust the police force.

Over 70% of people also said that the police force is the most corrupt institution in the country. This is a highly damning record, for an institution which takes its roots from the British tradition of ‘fair cop’ and fair-minded enforcement of law and order.

Last year the country’s police were accused of murder, when armed officers opened fire on law abiding mine workers out on strike in the northern district of Tonkolili, killing one woman. Their only crime was to protest against exploitation by foreign companies.

The striking workers were demanding better working conditions and higher pay from their employers. Yet, police boss – Inspector General Munu is proud of his force’s record.

In 2011, two young men were shot dead in separate incidents in Freetown by armed police officers. According to human rights groups in the country, both killings were unjustified and premeditated.

The police appears to be rapidly losing control of most areas of the capital – Freetown. Few weeks ago, drugged-up gangsters supporting popular local musicians ran riot in the capital, looting, destroying properties and injuring many innocent citizens. The police were out-manoeuvred.

The president spoke last December at a pre-Christmas dinner held in his honour in Makeni. He told the nation that lawlessness in the country and the break down of law and order “is getting too much”.

Last year, the entire country was on edge, when senior police officers failed to plan and issue proper traffic prohibition orders, to ensure that the president’s motorcade did not come into a dangerous stand-off with the opposition SLPP leader’s heavily armed entourage, along the narrow and congested streets of Freetown.

If not for common sense and pragmatism on the part of both president Koroma and SLPP’s Maada Bio, their heavily armed bodyguards would have turned the scene into a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Thankfully, no shot was fired. The police were accused of unprofessional conduct and dereliction of duty.

The effectiveness of a trigger happy police force in combating crime in Sierra Leone has been called into question by several commissions of enquiry.

Most recently, the politically motivated violence, which erupted in Kono and Bo, which left several injured and a few dead, exposed the weakness of the country’s police force.

Many in Sierra Leone believe that the buck stops with the police chief – Francis Munu, who they say must take full responsibility for the unprofessional conduct of his force and the poor leadership.

The overwhelming allegations of police brutality, bribery and corruption, characterises the pervading culture of a force, which was hurriedly put together by the British, after a ten year absence of a properly organised institutional policing.

The reality is that the majority of serving police officers are ex-combatants of the civil war.

But by increasing the size of the force from 8,500 in 2007 to over 12,000 in 2010, president Koroma has ensured that 4,000 of those new recruits are from his northern constituencies.

With politics and tribalism polarising the appointment and promotion of senior officers, it is inevitable that the recruitment, training and deployment of junior officers, leaves a lot to be desired.

Traffic police, immigration control, drugs and narcotics investigators, inland revenue enforcement officers, local council police are all on the take.

Few police officers in Sierra Leone go to work with one abiding principle in mind – to serve the people, while the majority regard their posts as meal tickets and opportunity to line their pockets.

But supporters of the government and those responsible for disseminating information – false or otherwise (depending on what you believe) – about the work of government agencies and ministries, disagree. They say that:

“Francis Munu and his men should be commended. They have a long way to go, but where they have reached, they should be appreciated and government should obviously be commended for always providing the political support to them.”

John Baimba Sesay is the government’s Press Attache at the Embassy in China. He has just returned from a visit to Sierra Leone, where he had the opportunity of talking to the police chief – Munu, about the work of the police in Sierra Leone.

This is Baimba Sesay’s report:

National security is a crucial element in sustaining good governance. A nation that effectively sustains her national security stands the chances of making gains in terms of socio-economic development.

For instance, when you have dozens of foreign and national investment opportunities, it is only when national security is guaranteed that such investments can flourish.

Countries like China, Japan and even the world power – the United States, all tend to reach their apex of development due to a number of reasons, amongst them – their ability to maintain internal security.

But sustaining and maintaining state security involves the collective role of citizens. And it is only when we respect the law by abiding to what law enforcement agencies say that we can achieve what we wish.

Progress and development

Sierra Leone continues to make tremendous progress in the area of maintaining internal security, just as it is with external security.

Both the police and the armed forces have all kept excelling in their various constitutional mandates. This is notwithstanding the numerous challenges they are faced with.

The fact remains the police force has continued to stand the test of time, since the return of  Sierra Leone to multi-party democracy, especially following an end to the country’s decade long civil war.

By 2007 when President Koroma was elected, the police force under the leadership of Brima Acha Kamara had many challenges.

But the facts must be stated that the change in government came at a time when people were clamouring for change. They had realized the development plans of the incoming government, contained in President Koroma‘s ‘change agenda’ were as rich and promising as the leadership itself.

So, one was not surprised, that even the police force were literally happy that an opposition party leader could win an election in post war Sierra Leone. But again, forget not the fact that, that was not the first time for the APC to have won elections when in opposition.

Say what you may, the force has gone through a lot of transformation, both in terms of crime management, collaborating with the justice sector and in working with the public in curbing crime rate across the country.

Head of police – Francis Munu, may not have satisfied all, but I am of the fervent view, that an encouraging percentage of the populace are in support of his leadership.

Upon my arrival in Sierra Leone over a week ago, I found time to have a chat with the police chief, after two years as Inspector-General of Police.

From the robust screening checks (even AIGs included) right at the doors leading into the building, to my observation of regional commanders’ meeting, to the apparent coordination I saw, I was impressed that things continue to change on a daily basis.

Public support

Francis Alieu Munu has been in office for 2 years and since then, a lot has occurred, including “capacity building through training of police officers”.

“A lot has been happening in the last couple of years in terms of capacity building through training”, IG Munu told me. And as a result the force has been able to reduce crime in the country.

Of great relevance in police operations is the need for general support from stakeholders, such as the general public and political parties, especially given our post war history.

In fact it was because of the value that the force placed on community participation in their daily work, which saw the establishment of Local Policing Partnership Boards across the regions.

Political parties must also be seen working in tandem, with the strong desire to ensure security and work towards encouraging their supporters to abide by the law. Anything below this means, they are undermining the national interest.

For IG Munu, the police force has “not been getting that great support from most of them, since most times, when we try to curb political crime, political parties – especially the opposition would think we are against them.”

But has party colour been of relevance, when it comes to curbing crime? “The party you belong to is not as relevant to us, as much as the crime you commit”, Munu told me.

Government support and peacekeeping

Working under the executive arm of government, most of what the police does depends on how government supports them. The President has always worked towards ensuring state institutions, especially the security sector, are given the needed support.

President Koroma knows that a state that caters for its security is one that cares for its people. And Munu thinks such support, especially from the executive arm of government, has been very encouraging.

“We are getting support from the government. We get our salaries on time; get our regular subventions, which we are now using; we now talk about an increase in our mobility; also with an increase in the number of new recruits from 8,500 in 2007 to about 12,000 at present. We continue to get a lot of investments in the country and there is the need to get the security to be able to secure such investments across the country”.

And it is as a result of the continuous support they keep getting from the government that we have seen some sort of international confidence in our police force, for which we should all be proud.

Today, the police force continues to contribute to international peace and stability as seen in their deployment in countries like Sudan, Somalia and Haiti.

Police, politicians and the law

Let us be practical here; when supporters of the main opposition SLPP went berserk during their petition hearing, the force had to ensure the maintenance of law and order around the precinct of the law court, especially following the display of acts and behaviours – contrary to societal expectations and what the law allows.

This eventually led to a number of SLPP supporters being put into police custody and subsequently charged to court. This provoked media headlines, both local and international.

This is when a political dimension was given to the issue by the opposition, which was a rather unfortunate decision on their part.

But it should be noted that the force is there to maintain law and order, and until political parties – especially those in the opposition know this simple fact, it becomes a serious challenge for the work of our law enforcement agencies.

And encouragingly, Munu said; “what we (the police) do in maintaining law and order cuts across all political parties. Be you APC, SLPP or PMDC, we look at the crime committed and when you fall foul of the law, we don’t look at your party but the crime you commit.”

Take for instance, the recent pronouncement by a leading opposition figure in the country in the person of Charles Margai Esq. (Photo: Margai on left and president Koroma on right).

For many years, Margai has always remained controversial in Sierra Leone’s political landscape.

He had an issue with the law, following his threat against state security and promising to “see the back “of the President, claiming the President may not see the end of his second term in office; and even boasting of having thousands of ex-militia men under his control (by the way, why did he not get thousands of vote in the recent elections?).

His outburst emanated from a land issue he had with the first lady. Perhaps he was looking for cheap propaganda and a way of getting the attention of the President. Who knows?

Rather than using the courts of law, he chose the court of public opinion – the media, to seek the attention he needed.

The police “took the threat against the state by Charles Margai seriously. The constitution prevents one from raising any form of army. The Kamajors were a rebel militia that were disbanded after the war. He claimed to have control over 20,000 and that he has the power to marshal them, as they were only waiting for his command,” Munu said.

The police would therefore want to know “how he intends stopping the President from ending his second term in office and how he would want to see his back”…he should give account of his statement.”

Besides, Munu assured, the force will “try to separate his involvement with the police from the land issue. He made an oral complaint to me about the land issue and I gave him an oral advice. We do not determine ownership of land as it is not our responsibility and that is why I even asked him to see how we first determine ownership of the said land. He never made a statement to the Criminal Investigations Department upon which we will act”, Munu said.

And given the seriousness of his threat against the state and the Presidency, the law officers department will be asked to advice the police as “the case file will be sent to them for legal advice. We hope to charge him. We will send the case file to the Law Officers Department for legal advice.”

General impression

My general impression about Sierra Leone’s police force has been one of hope and a brighter future. The country’s drive to prosperity cannot be achieved when the security of the state is not guaranteed. We have seen how law enforcers in other countries execute their duties.

We have seen how some politicians have always tried to provoke state security. But with the professionalism of our forces, coupled with the support that the government has been giving them, we have always tried as a country to move with international trends.

Francis Munu and his men should be commended. They have a long way to go, but where they have reached, they should be appreciated and government should obviously be commended for always providing the political support to them.

And it is with that, I say kudos to the political ministry in charge of internal security.

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