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– by Samwar S. Fallah
Liberia’s security situation is still fragile. This post-war nation depends largely on the presence of a United Nations peace- keeping mission. Although the UN force has seen troop numbers decrease considerably since their first deployment in 2003, it still provides security in a country with over 3.5 million people and porous borders with Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Liberia is a traumatised nation. Most people were exposed to violence. Many still have more faith in UN troops than in the national security agencies that are being re-established. As part of their exit strategy, the UN and other international partners have been training a new Liberian police force.
There are reasons for the public’s distrust, however. The Liberian National Police (LNP) has a history of officers being loyal to whatever regime was in power, rather than to the nation. They served the interests of the leaders, ignoring the statutes that require police duties towards citizens.
Liberia’s history is marked by 15 years of civil war, starting in 1989 and ending with an interim government in 2003. During the war, the security sector broke down completely and police officers joined rogue groups.
Following the first round of fighting, rebel leader Charles Taylor became president in 1996. He is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes committed in Sierra Leone. As president, Taylor relied on fighters from the defunct National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), his rebel militia, and turned them into his police force.
Under Taylor’s reign from 1997 to 2002, the police became notorious for committing crimes against the civilian population. Civil-rights groups have linked them to extra-judicial killings. A special police unit, the Special Operation Division (SOD), was notorious for brutality. People commonly referred to the acronym as “sons of the devil”.
After the departure of Taylor, the succeeding regime, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), began the process of training the police. The NTGL started a “Security Sector Reform Programme” (SSR). The LNP has since been cooperating closely with the UN in efforts to train officers and to restore law and order in Monrovia and other parts of the country.
Immediately following democratic elections in 2005, which ushered the current regime of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a new vetting and recruitment process was launched with the support of the United Nations Mission in Liberia and international partners like the USA and Britain. Nigeria, Germany, Norway, Sweden, China and others have also helped to train the police in technical, logistical and financial fields.
The government is trying to keep the police force clean. Several officers have been discharged for unprofessional behavior, and some were found guilty of aiding and abating criminals. James Hallowanger, the commandant who presided over the training of 75 % of the current force, was dismissed for alleged corruption. Nonetheless, problems persist.
Low education levels
Initially, the educational requirement for joining the new police force was a high school education. Turnouts remained low, however, so the standard dropped to a junior high school education. A large number of youngsters with little education have been attracted since.
The initial plan was that 20 % of the officers should be women, but there were only few female applicants. The target is yet to be met, even though an eight-month fast-track programme was introduced for women with an elementary education who want to join the police. Today, one sixth of some 3,600 officers is female.
“The police are well trained. We have confidence in the force, and we are doing our job,” says George Bardue, the deputy police commissioner for public affairs. “The public has confidence in the police; today you can see the drop in the crime rate.” Bardue reports that some officers were trained abroad, in Nigeria and China for instance. Other police leaders similarly express confidence in the force. Nonetheless, there still are occasional reports of police brutality in some areas of the country as well as complaints about ineffectiveness.
The greatest challenge, perhaps, is pay. The average wage for police officers is only $ 90 per month. In a country, where the cost of living is very high and there are no price controls, this is simply not enough. On a daily basis, police officers are seen collecting bribes from truck drivers, motorbike riders and car owners. Many traffic-rule violations are never reported to the police headquarters because officers keep money they collect as fines.
Due to low salaries, many young Liberians do not want to join the police force. Moreover, many do not wish to be part of an agency with a tainted image. One man said: “Why should I join a force where people are paid $ 90, only to rely on taking bribe?” A young woman agreed: “I can’t see myself joining the police because when you join, the only way you can survive is to take money from drivers.”
Complaints of this kind abound. And there are more. People say they need to bribe officers before they take action. One man said that, when his car was stolen, he went to the police for help, but was asked for 25 gallons of petrol and $1,000 before the police would do anything about the crime.
Anthony Gray, a police officer, disagrees with those who label the police as corrupt: “People just like to say negative things about the police; not all police officers take money from drivers or request money before making arrest.”
Augustine Toe, the head of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Liberia (JPC), considers the police as corrupt and ineffective however: “How can a corrupt force fight crimes, it is not performing to the expectation of the Liberian people.” In a recent report, the JPC indicated that the police are not up to the task of protecting citizens and called for reform.
Toe blames the police of being incompetent, corrupt and disorganised. In his view, Police Commissioner Marc Amblard should not have been appointed to leadership: “The police force is being headed by someone who does not have any formal police training.” Amblard’s formal education was in agriculture. When President Johnson Sirleaf appointed him to lead the police, many observers critizised her choice. Toe’s rhetorical question is: “Was he appointed on the basis of friendship?”
Like many Liberians, a 31 year old slum dweller says she has no confidence in the police: “We are living by the mercy of God. Whenever armed robbers strike, it takes a long time for the police to come, and by then, the robbers are done.”
Some Liberians blame slow responses by the police on the lack of adequate logistics. Due to scant confidence in the police, several communities in Monrovia have established vigilante groups that conduct nightly patrols.