By Isaac Massaquoi
The people of Freetown are still trying to understand how is it that a group of young people armed with machetes and other offensive weapons could march to densely populated communities like Saint John and Brookfields, randomly attack, wound and rob innocent people of their monies and mobile phones and get away with it. Please don’t tell me police arrested and charged a few of them because you will put me into some nasty déjà vu.It was the 11th of May and somehow Sierra Leoneans have managed to unofficially declare that day as a day of free-for-all marijuana-smoking in memory of the late Bob Marley. The point is; Rastafarians are very peaceful people, they are kind and spend a lot of their time reading the bible. There are followers of the movement in Sierra Leone and they neither smoke marijuana nor do they have dreadlocks. The reggae group Morgan Heritage says Rasta is “not a dreadlocks thing…it’s a conception of the heart.
This is why I will argue very strongly that a fringe criminal group infiltrated or took advantage of the so-called Bob Marley night and embarked on serious criminal violence – stealing from ordinary people on their way home from work and shed their blood. What is happening to this country? Just before you accuse me of pretending it’s not happening in other countries, let me say that while I understand that such things do happen in other places, I live in Sierra Leone and I am paying all my attention to what is happening here. Besides, apart from the war years, we are not used to gangland land violence in Sierra Leone but it appears as if we have lost our innocence as a quiet city where people are at peace with each other.
Imagine this: every time inter-secondary school athletics meetings take place, the whole city will be paralysed by sporadic acts of violence – motorists will be compelled to wind up and petty traders either cover their wares and stand guard over it with clubs or run helter-skelter. Also on public holidays, mask devil parades authorised by the police become opportunities for petty thieves to distress people all over the place.
In recent times, our musicians have joined in. They mobilize gangs of supporters to attack others after bad-mouthing their colleagues in songs – the so-called ‘beefing.’ It’s beginning to look like every small gathering, be it for music, mask devil parade, politics or sport is an opportunity for violence and naked thieving.
Around June 2006, Ken Moore, a building inspector was abducted and brutally murdered in the line of duty at a place called South Ridge just off Hill Station in the west end of Freetown. In their usual style police rounded up more than twenty people. They were eventually charged to court but they all walked free. A few months before the killing of Moore, a string of murders occurred in Freetown, starting at a guesthouse in central Freetown, which was widely reported as a case of a foreign exchange deal that went badly wrong.
At Lumley and at Calaba town, business people were murdered. As I write this piece, the police and the law officers department have not successfully brought any of the perpetrators to justice. And just because this is so close to us in the media, Journalist, Ibrahim Foday was stabbed and killed at Grafton apparently because he had reported on a community land dispute in a way some hooligan called Tunde did not like. To this day, Tunde remains at large and police have never even issued a wanted persons notice for him and they somehow believe they owe nobody an explanation. If the Sierra Leone Police were in charge of the Steven Lawrence case in Britain, they would have given up eighteen years and six months ago without saying a word. I understand their limitations, but they just don’t work hard enough and they like to cover things up.
When a presidential panel recently issued a report into the causes of violence during a political rally in the southern city of Bo, the police arrested and charged the civilians mentioned in the report and allowed the police officers whose part in the violence was well documented, to go scot free. One of them was accused of shooting dead a motorcycle taxi rider. I recently found one of those police criminals sitting in a nightclub, enjoying bottles of Guinness. Where is the justice then? Did the police not send the signal that police officers have immunity from prosecution?
Everybody knows that the population of Freetown has grown beyond recognition. It started with the war forcing people out of their homes, emptying them in Freetown; then there is the movement that takes place when young people move to seek education in institutions in Freetown; and indeed the movement of people for survival reasons. Cities in Africa are seen by people from areas outside the capital as a place where people go to get educated, look for money and return to their village to enjoy the rest of their life. It is those factors that have caused this rapid urbanisation and the consequences we see on our streets daily. At the beginning of the rains, armed robbery is in full swing once again and the police appear clueless.
The natural consequence of all this is that, criminals are daily closing down the little space ordinary folks like us have to move around freely and enjoy our beautiful country in spite of all the difficulties we face trying to make a decent living.
In recent times my newspaper has published a lot of material on the Sierra Leone Police and the fact that they appear to be losing the confidence of the people because of some of the issues I have mentioned and many others, too numerous to catalogue in this newspaper.
It is not as if we have anything against the police. In fact, I believe the police force has undergone enormous transformation considering what we used to know and there exists a good core of well-trained, disciplined and dedicated police officers up and down this country, who are very professional and want to keep the nation safe. Their efforts are however being held back by an equally hard core criminal element that joined up only to facilitate criminality and despite all the talk about national development and human security, many communities are either totally unprotected or are inadequately catered for.
Here’s what I mean: In 2006 I managed to acquire a plot of state land on lease. A portion of the area called South Ridge was allocated to me along with many other people. After doing all the necessary payments and documentation at the ministry of Lands, we went to South Ridge where everybody’s plot was clearly marked out. Six years later, I still can’t have access to the land because a group of well-fed boys hired by God-knows-who, have seized the whole area and are persistently vandalizing every attempt I make to start any development on the land, which as a citizen, I know I acquired perfectly legally.
Almost all the people who were with me on the day of allocation have simply pulled back. The handful that have managed to build anything on the land, had to hire an equally powerful militia to ruthlessly enforce the authority of the government, not in Yenga, but just about five miles from Youyi building. Is this what Sierra Leone has come to now?
In some countries, my land rights will be enforced by the state, using the police and the courts. I will never go to the courts on that matter, because depending on the judge and the political connections of the man who hired those thugs to fight people off the land, I might be told, my papers – though duly signed by the ministry are fake. Or justice will come a century after the return of Neanderthals.
How can the police make any real impact against criminal? Look at a place like Lumley. The place and its outlying communities have grown more than one hundred times since that old and tiny police station was built. The holding cells are the same and there’s only a slight increase in personnel numbers in real terms, in the last ten years. The figures I saw said a lot about crime and the fear of crime in the Lumley area. I will make the same comment about Adonkia Police and those other settlements in the Freetown peninsular.
New England Police Station, despite recent improvements cannot serve New England, George Brook, parts of Brookfields and Congo Market with what they have in terms of facility and officers. Look across the city and tell me I am wrong.
Today there are informal settlements of criminal gangs all across the city from where they distress people in broad daylight – Waterloo, Calaba Town, Goderich Street, Brookfiels, Congo Town, Aberdeen, and Lumley and beyond are not as safe as they used to be. We are simply not used to what criminals are throwing at us.
I suggested earlier that the police must act very fast against lawlessness and criminality. They talk about community policing, what’ happening with that? They talk about police partnership boards, how about that too? Munu should not tell me they are all in place for the sake of it. Why is it that we can’t sleep anymore? People are forming neighbourhood groups to police their communities. What is really happening? Munu has to explain.
In this article, I have tried to paint a picture from the point of view of an ordinary Sierra Leonean who only happens to be a journalist and can therefore speak out in this way. There are many others who are victims of crime and are suffering in silence. Let’s not kick these issues into the long grass, they are real and current and things are not looking good for the confidence of the people in the ability of the police to keep our communities safe.