opinionBy Alie Y. Kallay
On November 17 this year, Sierra Leoneans will be electing a new parliament, local government and president. This is the third democratic elections to be held ever in Sierra Leone since Independence in 1961. It all started with President Tejan Kabbah in 1996 and was later interrupted with Johnny Paul Koroma's led military/rebel coup that took place in May 1997. One year later Kabbah was reinstated to power by the West African intervention forces known as ECOMOG. An election was held in 2002 in the end of Kabbah's first term. He won again his second and final term which ended in 2007. Ernest Bai Koroma and his team for the first time took over the state affairs. His first term ends with this year's polls that are to be held in November 2012. If he wins, 2017 is going to be his final exit from the political arena by law.
Since the war ended in January 2002, the country started enjoying peace till the general and presidential elections in 2007. But during that electioneering process, violence has been the order of the day in almost everything and in every instance. People always accuse the police force of either causing it themselves or condoning it.
Alie Y.Kallay, reports from Freetown
Police in any country like the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) is a state institution charged with the responsibility to ensure security, enforce the law and protect life and property of its people. The 11-year long brutal civil conflict affected all spheres of life including the police and their families. Many police officers were killed, the barracks vandalized and vehicles burnt down. Many civilians accused the police of collaborating with the rebels. This undermined the trust and confidence once reposed in the police. This situation was compounded when the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) overthrew the then late Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh's led All People's Congress (APC) government on April 29, 1992. The NPRC coup severely eroded the public trust in the police and dented its credibility. Before then, the nation was like a police state as the then head of the police force, James Bambay Kamara, was the invisible power behind the administration of former President J.S. Momoh. Bambay Kamara was eventually executed by the NPRC and the police seemed to have been left out in the running of the state, reason why they were never at peace with the NPRC as well as with civilians during the war period.
The war officially ended in January 2002 under President Tejan Kabbah's Sierra People's Party regime. By President Kabbah's request The Commonwealth contracted the British born police officer Keith Biddle to assist in the reconstructing and retraining of the police force. New methods of policing were introduced such as the 'neighbourhood watch (NW)' and the Police Partnership Board (PPB) or the Family Support Unit (FSU). These were organised at community levels under the supervision of the Local Unit Commander (LUC). Thus, Sierra Leoneans eventually regained their trust and confidence in the SLP who in turned referred to themselves as 'force for good'. This confidence was however shattered during the 2007 elections campaign. The SLP was regarded as partial, favouring one political party against the other. This accusation became glaring when the then ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) government accused the police for being biased in favour of the then opposition APC. "At first, we thought Brima Acha Kamara (former Inspector General of Police) who succeeded the British man was loyal to the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah," an SLPP activist, Moray Vandi said. "But we were greatly disappointed when it became clear during the 2007 elections campaign that Acha was a betrayal." During that same period, two allied opposition political parties, the APC party and the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) both questioned the neutrality of the police. In a radio discussion in June 2007, PMDC leader, Mr. Francis Charles Margai, a lawyer charged the police of supporting the ruling SLPP. "The police will be held responsible for any problem that would arise from the election," he had warned.
Subsequently, when the APC was declared winner of the 2007 presidential elections after the run-off in September, some police officers were seen openly jubilating; exposing their disloyalty to the losing SLPP party. Another glaring case of police partisanship was demonstrated when gun-toting officers stood aloof and watched the SLPP headquarters being vandalised and properties worth millions of Leones taken away. Shortly after the incident, the Inspector General then, Brima Acha Kamara, was heard in a BBC interview saying that it was SLPP youths who raided their own office and, as he put it, engaged in 'operation pay yourself'. This was a deceitful remark by a head of a police force which angered a lot of SLPP members as it was in evidence that it was the APC youths who had in a dramatic fashion raided the office and carted away every single item they could lay hands on. The same was repeated one year later on the same office and as just like the previous one, the police stood by unhelpful. The ineptitude on the part of the police left tongues wagging with cross-section of the public questioning the neutrality of the police, given that the role of the police is to protect life and property.
Koroma's first five year term is getting expired; for him to stay or not, only the elections that have been scheduled for 17th November 2012 determine that. Right before the polls, accusing fingers have been pointed again at the Sierra Leone Police for being biased. Some political parties claim that the police are not neutral as they are biased to the cause of the ruling All People's Congress (APC) government. Again the neutrality of the police has been put to the test. For the first time in the country's history, the two-month long Biometric Registration has been completed and during the process, the SLPP stated in a press release earlier this year that the police is not at all neutral. "It is regrettable that for the 2012 elections, the police have assumed the role of the judiciary interpreting electoral laws," commented a legal luminary. The lawyer was reacting to a press release the police had issued relating to the controversy over the interpretation of 'ordinarily resident' as defined in the Electoral Act of 2002. The debate as to who is qualified to register and vote in the coming elections was ignited following the alleged cross border registration from (Guinea and Liberia) of Sierra Leoneans or non-residents of this country. The police took upon themselves to interpret that portion of the Act to mean anybody can register and vote: those who wish to raise objections may establish so later on. The question many people have been posing is whether it is within the mandate of the police to interpret the law, or the National Electoral Commission (NEC) or the judiciary?
The traditional role of the police, as we know it, is to enforce the interpretation of the law. Now all of a sudden, police have taken upon themselves to interpret some elements of the Electoral Act 2002. Whether they did so in the interest of the ruling party or for those wishing to cross over to register for the November elections is anybody's guess. But again this usurpation of roles will likely undermine their neutrality. Even when it was reported that the police were beating people and stealing their property in Pujehun District in the southern province over the alleged importation of non-Sierra Leoneans and attempting to register in the border town of Gendema, the Local Unit Commander (LUC) in the area vehemently denied the report, but admitted that indeed an extra truck-load of police officers were dispatched to Gendema for no clear reason other than to intimidate people and disadvantage supporters of the opposition parties by scaring them away from the registration centres.
Speaking on the issue, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Ibrahim Samura - who is the official spokesman of the police - maintained that the SLP, as he puts it, remains absolutely neutral, absolutely independent and absolutely not part of politics. He acknowledges the fact that the police enjoy operational independence as it conduct its affairs outside the interference of the government, adding that the SLP is not an APC police neither that of the SLPP or the PMDC. He said no politician uses the SLP as thugs or to aid and abet intimidation and violence. Policing a democratic state, he went on, requires them to enforce the tenets of democracy. "The police ensure freedom of movement and association," he said and further stressed on their role. "The police have an obligation to the people of this country and the responsibility of enhancing the conduct of the electoral process." However, all the by-elections conducted in this country after the 2007 polls were all not free from violence. Elections in Gendema in the Pujehun District, Southern Province and in Tongofield in the Eastern Kenema District in 2009, in Buedu in the Eastern Kailahun District in 2011 and in Freetown in 2012 were marred by violence and the opposition SLPP as usual accused the police of heavy handedness in their strongholds.
Members of the opposition SLPP have been arrested including the chairman in Constituency 104, Mr Aziz Carew and his Councillor-elect of the Fourah Bay community in eastern part of Freetown. In the violence that erupted during the election on that day not a single member of the ruling APC was arrested and charged to court. This was the case in Tongofield where thirteen SLPP supporters were arrested and charged to court, leaving out a notorious APC thug simply known as Adamu who was arrested but released after few hours later. All these instances have given rise to the suspicion that the police are not neutral when it comes to elections, which is a recipe for discontent among the populace, leading to violence.
But recalling events around the 2007 elections, the police spokesman said all the political parties blamed the SLP in one way or the other for being partial, which suggests that the police have always been neutral and will remain to be neutral when it comes to executing their constitutional mandate on behalf of the people of this country in order to ensure free and fair elections; elections in which the police have vowed to prove their neutrality.
While the opposition parties were up in arms with the ruling APC party over the cross border controversy regarding the registration of Sierra Leoneans residing both in Liberia and Guinea, news broke out that the Sierra Leone Police had procured arms and ammunition worth close to five million United States dollars (US$5 million). The arms include light and heavy weapons such as grenade launchers, AK47 assault rifles, artilleries and automatic pistols.
The Inspector General of Police Francis Allieu Munu - FRANK TOK" on Voice of the Handicap Radio (VOH) 96.2 on (4/3/12)
"Like in all other countries, these are security items which are not open to public debate. This is an example of people that are trying to derail our efforts so as to present us in a negative light to the public. Every patriotic Sierra Leonean should feel very safe with these items because we are trying to build the capacity of the police so as to deal with any security threat that may arise. The reason America is today the most powerful country in the world is because of its weaponry. Any country with heavy security and defence mechanism is rated very highly. If as a country we don't have the means to check those who may want to subvert the security of the state, then we won't survive as a state because there will be no country without security or defence.
"The weapons are not meant for peaceful people but to handle insurrection so that people will feel safe in case certain people will want to subvert the security of the state there should be a force to counter that. We are envisaging that otherwise America should not be pilling weapons. These weapons are not meant for elections. They were purchased in 2010 but they delayed in arriving. The police cannot use machete or knife to ward off threats; we need the wherewithal to do our work.
"At the time the British Department for International Development DfID bought weapons for the police the strength was 5000 personnel but the strength has now increased to more than double. There is enlistment going on. There are countless number of applications for police services but we can't meet that challenge but we keep telling them to hire private security 'because we keep telling them that part of our challenges is to meet the increasing demand - both armed and unarmed.
"If you are enlightened on the security of the West African sub-region, where there is a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which is largely responsible for the instability of the region, then you should know that any government, any state should have the wherewithal to provide deterrent to any threat. Now, terrorism is one of the most serious things threatening the security of nations. You know what is happening in neighbouring Nigeria. How can people make mountains out of heaps as if it is something extraordinary?"
As reported in Cocorioko online newspaper and published in March 2012
The former representative of the UN Secretary General in Sierra Leone, Mr. Schulenberg at the Security Council meeting in March 2012 to consider the Report of the UN Secretary General on the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone ( UNIPSIL ) for the past six months:
"The Government has imported assault weapons worth millions of dollars in January of this year to equip a recently enlarged Para-military wing of its police, the Operational Services Division (OSD) and this was of great concern. I would urge the Government to fully clarify these reports and, if true, explain the intended use of these weapons."
Joseph Bandabla Dauda (JBD), Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation as also reported in Cocorioko online Newspaper March 2012
The Minister said: "It was a logical and natural thing for any country to equip its armed forces." He pointed out that Sierra Leone had an unfortunate experience 19 years ago when the Sierra Leone armed forces were so ill-equipped that they had to abandon the battle field when the Foday Sankoh-led rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded the country. The invasion led to an eleven-year civil war that killed over 200, 000 people and left the country's infrastructure in ruins. "We cannot wait until there is another war or threat to our national security before we arm ourselves. We have to beef up our security forces before any attack on our sovereignty," the minister stressed.
Alhaji Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, Minister of Information and Communications - "QUARTER DECK" ON VOH FM 96.2 (5/4/12)
"We as politicians rely on the security advice of the people that are trained for that purpose. When the weapons arrived, we looked at it closely and decided that we don't need all for the Operation Support Division (OSD) and will give to the army those weapons that are [not] needed by the OSD. So the purchase of the arms wasn't done in secret. We informed the Diplomatic Community about what we wanted to do and they gave us their technical people to look at the weapons and advised government on what is good for the police and what is good for the army. And because the weapons belong to the government, we decided that we will give to the police what is necessary for them and to the army what they need probably to be used in international peace keeping in Darfur, Sudan. So this was not something we did in secret," I.B. Kargbo clears the air.
ABDULAI BAYRAYTAY - "NIGHTLINE" ON Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation SLBC (3/4/2012)
"The President doesn't need weapons to secure a third term. People will have to judge him on the basis of his performance. People will use the premise of his Agenda for Change to judge the President for a second term that will be uncontested. But because we are in a democracy, and that the people are concerned about the arms purchase, the government listened by saying that it has to respond to the concerns of the people with whom they have signed a contract to serve.
"A technical committee was formed to look at what weapons the OSD will need and what they would not need. Based on that recommendation, the government used its executive discretion with the support of the International Community to handover some of the hardware to the military. The situation took this dimension may be because the media played into the politicization which has been mentioned earlier. But in an election year like this where a certain political party has no issue to sell, it can capitalize on the arms issue by going around saying that the government has imported arms to fight. But at the same time, the media amplified the issue."
Mr. Musa Tarawallie, Minister of Internal Affairs - "Good Morning Sierra Leone" on Radio Democracy FM 98.1 (28/3/2012):
"We should believe in our security forces and we should know that our safety and security is the primary responsibility of the President and me as Minister of Internal Affairs and the Police, who have a constitutional duty. People should understand that when the security apparatus is not equipped it is a recipe for chaos in the country and when the perpetrators understand that the security apparatus don't have the wherewithal to stop them, they will do things with impunity. Whoever knows he/she is peaceful should not be afraid of the police because the arms are meant to enhance the police to resist chaos and violence and they should understand that. All over the world, police are fully equipped and so we should be proud of Sierra Leone when it starts supporting its security apparatus.
"What I want to say is that let's take our attention back to the 1992 military coup. Everybody knows that the late President Momoh was a quiet player that almost turned this country into a police state. When the perpetrators of the 1992 coup realized that the government has no defence and that the security apparatus were not equipped, what they did was to overthrow the government. And I believe that whoever wants to make a coup now, the government is equipped to stop them."
Concerns have been raised about the timing and rationale behind the purchase of these heavy machine guns especially this being an election year. I.G. Munu, the Defence Minister Paolo Conteh or the Finance Minister, Dr. Samura Kamara could not clearly explain the source of the money used to purchase the weapons and the intended purpose other than for security reasons. The specification of the arms and ammunition sent shock waves to many who wondered if the nation was preparing for another war. "Such weapons are needed to fight wars and not to put down peaceful protests," Mr. Karimo, a retired civil servant, could not hide his resentment when she spoke to this writer.
A youth activist, who represents youths on the board of a renowned organisation, was more than infuriated when he learnt about the new weapons bought from China and the quantum of money spent. "It's scary," the activist said and went on to assess the implication of bringing in such arms and ammunition at a critical time like this when elections are around the corner. "I don't know if the APC government has a hidden agenda, otherwise what's the use of all these when government has pressing issues to attend to," he wondered, expressing concern that many voters may be afraid to go out that day to cast their votes for fear of being caught up in any eventuality.
Determined to get to the bottom of the arms dilemma, this writer and others made persistent efforts to get on to the Inspector of Police, Francis Munu, in order to throw light on the rationale for the purchase of the arms. Unfortunately, the IG could not grant us audience even when we tried him many times on his personal cell phone number.
However, a senior police officer at police headquarters in Freetown who chose to remain anonymous said it is the constitutional right of the police to procure arms and ammunition, arguing that the purchase ahead of the 2012 election is very timely and necessary because, as he put, the police will be required to provide security for each and every political party flag-bearer, and secondly to ensure a peaceful election. He said the police will also be required to provide security for political party rallies when NEC shall have declared campaign open, and these he said cannot be done with bare hands or with clubs, more so when tension heightens by the day. But he cleverly evaded the question as to the use of grenade launchers during violent demonstrations. "No, we cannot use those," he denied, saying "that's why we have brought in the tank containing boiled water. We want to minimise the use of teargas in crowd control. The tank will be used to disperse demonstrators, especially student demonstrators as hot water will be sprayed on them when they persist in their lawlessness, such as during their sport meetings.
Speaking to a human right expert, Mr. Edward Sam of the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission, he explained to us that the procurement of arms and ammunition in Sierra Leone and indeed in any West African state has to be approved by the regional body, ECOWAS. He said ECOWAS had issued a moratorium on the purchasing of light weapons. "The purchasing nation needs to inform ECOWAS on the type of weapons to buy and the purpose of the purchase," he disclosed and said in case of heavy machine guns, the home parliament should discuss it and give approval before the deal is done. Upon further investigation, we observed that these procedures were however not followed by the police when they procured the arms. The Communications Officer of the Human Right Commission, Mr. Mustapha Sesay, observed that demonstrations are legal instruments available to people which are codified in international law and domesticated into national laws. "They include Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association and Freedom of Assembly, and this should be done within the ambit of the law," said Mr. Sesay, noting that it is the human right of every individual to associate and to assemble without fear of intimidation.
"However, if protests get out of hand, police will be demanded to quell the situation but that should not include violating the human rights of the citizens such as spraying hot water on demonstrators," he said, adding that there are various methods available to the police to put down protests. This, he continued, involves firing of teargas canisters or spraying them with coloured water for identification so that they could easily be apprehended. "If demonstrators are sprayed with coloured water they will be forced to abandon the protest march as they would have already been identified. So, using hot water on demonstrators is against established human rights laws."
Recently local workers of a mining company known as African Minerals Limited (AML) in one of their areas of operations in a town called Bumbuna in the north demonstrated for a better condition of service. The police opened fire on the armless demonstrators, in the process a woman was killed by police bullet. Omo Kelly and Sheriff Sesay plus two others were stabbed to death during the May 11 (Bob Marley Night) celebrations in the city this year when fans of late Bob Marley were celebrating their prophet's 29th death anniversary. Two young men were mistakenly killed by the Police in wellington, one killed in Koidu Town, another one known as a bike rider was also killed at Goderich in the dead west of Freetown. One Jacob Stanley Davis was shot in the Lumley beach area. Other killings like son killing both parents, wife killing husband, mob killing armed robbers are daily occurrences all over the place. No tangible reason behind the killings has been provided yet to this moment by any source.
"In some of the killings the police were not named but it is their responsibility to make sure it does not happen," one concerned citizen said. According the police, nothing but investigations are ongoing. This is a clear indication that the November 17 elections are not going to be easy. "All I am going to do is to take my family and go to somewhere and I am not coming back here until the final results are out," said a prominent businessman.
Who is to blame? The police or the one that dished out at this hard time five million US dollars to arm them in this time of peace!