By Isaac Massaquoi
Just as the world was coming to terms with the shocking incident of celebrity sportsman Oscar Pistorious shooting dead his girlfriend in their bathroom and all the courtroom drama that followed his application for bail pending trial at a Pretoria magistrate court, came another bizarre news from the same country – a 20-year-old man was handcuffed to the back of a police van and dragged for over three hundred yards and then dumped into a police cell where he died. His offence was that he parked his taxi in the wrong place. In Sierra Leonean terms, this is the sort of offence Operation WID will deal with or before that, Traffic Wardens would handle.
It looks as if in South Africa people get killed for almost everything and that accounts for the murder rate in the country being among the highest in the world and in most cases the victims are shot in cold blood.
Nobody will forget in a hurry how reggae star Lucky Dube met his untimely death at the hands of common thieves in Johannesburg. But even by South African standards, the killing of the Mozambique taxi driver was murder most foul.
As we saw in the video, many ordinary South Africans were outraged by the behaviour of their police and the government has responded by charging eight officers with the young man’s death and they look set to be convicted as long as the state prosecution is able to make a good case in court.
Every time such incidents occur, I feel compelled to ask this question: Could such a thing ever happen in my country Sierra Leone? Well, in the war years, incidents too horrific to mention happened in this country – Sierra Leoneans killed and maimed fellow Sierra Leoneans inside Sierra Leone for ten years. So we can never say it hasn’t or will never happen in this country.
Somebody could well argue that this was war time and atrocities are always committed under such circumstances. I will concede some ground but, let’s face it, our police force has a lot of questions to answer in terms of their relationship with the average Sierra Leonean on a day-to-day basis. And while their counterparts in South Africa are made to account for their actions through the normal structures of criminal accountability, the tendency in the Sierra Leone Police is to either engage in elaborate cover-up or shamelessly accuse the victims of bringing the calamity upon themselves – the South African equivalent of that would be for the police there to have accused the Taxi Driver of causing his own death.
Who doesn’t remember former Inspector General of Police Brima Acha Kamara telling the opposition SLPP and the world that the looting of their party headquarters in Freetown was done by their own militants in what the former IG called “Operation Pay Yourself”. Assuming for the sake of it that Acha was correct even with that extreme situation he described, isn’t it the responsibility of the police to stop people harming themselves? Why are people who attempt suicide charged to court? Isn’t it their own life? I am just using Acha’s logic. We can’t remember what happened to that case until he was sacked. Does anyone still remember what happened to the matter involving a beautiful promising young lady named Alima who was apparently murdered in Kenema allegedly by a Lebanese man?
Let me make a few points clear: This is not an attack on the whole police force in Sierra Leone. Certainly not! It’s also not meant to suggest that we have the worst police force in the world. I know that this country is blessed with very highly intelligent police officers trained in some of the most prestigious police academies and universities around the world, who are dedicated to the service of this country and have proved themselves as such at all times and have integrity. In terms of per capita, we have put a good fortune into training, equipping and generally modernizing our police force. That should explain why we are so concerned.
However, let nobody tell me that at the heart of this police force, we do not have a significant number of officers holding very senior officers who are either extremely incompetent or are serving other masters in furtherance of their own agendas while still in uniform. Let nobody also tell me that there aren’t also an equally significant number of junior-ranking officers who are poorly trained, have criminal records that should rule them out of the job and are there simply because some politician is bent on honouring an election pledge by forcing all manner of hooligans into the Police Training School at Hastings.
This is where the problems begin. On our streets today are policemen who fail the recruitment test on all counts – they don’t have the academic requirements, over-aged, they have criminal records and they can’t pass any physical test required for the job. Their only motive for joining the force is to properly cover their criminal tracks or serve as hit men for their political masters.
It’s the activities of people like these that the whole police force risks its reputation by covering them up when their true colours are made public.
We must never hide the fact that in the last ten years or so, our police have shot and killed ordinary people at the slightest provocation all over the country and I don’t know of any time when those officers identified as being responsible for such horrendous human rights violations have been arrested, charged and processed through the courts like every other Sierra Leonean. Our police hastily declare curfews and lock down whole communities for weeks even for small incidents in isolated corners without any regard for civil liberties.
From Gendema to Bo and from Bumbuna to Kono, police officers have been implicated in the killing of ordinary Sierra Leoneans taking part in or observing demonstrations in all the places mentioned. Demonstrations take place every day in civilized democracies. In Gendema, Bo and Bumbuna, police officers were named in official inquiries alongside civilians. They hurriedly arrested the civilians and had them locked up in prison for weeks. Some are still standing trial. They then put an elaborate but woefully inept Public Relations machinery into operation to cover up the sins of their colleagues. Even today, none of them have been arrested or charged. In our quiet moments, we ponder all these issues and ask ourselves: where is justice?
In Wellington, in the eastern suburbs of Freetown, police officers shot dead two Neighbourhood Watch teenagers claiming they were “suspected robbers”. We don’t know whether they now operate a shoot-to-kill policy. But even if the boys were robbers what are the rules of engagement?
So two boys who risked their lives fighting armed robbery just to make their communities safe where the police had failed to do so, lost their lives because the police “suspected” them to be “robbers”. At that time, elections were approaching and cynically, politicians took their turn in visiting the families of the deceased and offering gifts. What’s the situation now? We don’t know if any police officer was questioned about the quality of their judgement on that evening with the aim of establishing criminal responsibility. Somebody would be paying a huge price now if this were a true democracy.
I recently met a senior police officer friend of mine at the house of our common friend and I raised some of these issues with him, including the fact that the Sierra Leone Police was facing big credibility problems with the public because of such attitudes. He put up a brave fight against me and another friend who joined the conversation half way through. Our new friend had many examples of police officers behaving unprofessionally, some were very personal to him and he felt badly let down.
My police officer friend told me a lot about dismissals from the force, as a result of conclusion from the police internal complaints body otherwise called CDIID. The CDIID was a good idea when the British head of the SLP Keith Biddle and others introduced it. But over the years, it has been so compromised that there is hardly anybody in civil society who has confidence in their adjudications. I know of one case in which police officers on the panel called a complainant many times to plead with him not to press his case against their senior colleague who had misbehaved.
While their counterparts in South Africa are in jail awaiting trial for murder, our own trigger-happy police officers are out on the streets, enjoying in nightclubs with the full backing of their senior officers and the government pretending all things were bright and beautiful for all creatures great and small.
We can argue that the situation regarding those eight police officers accused of killing the taxi driver represents a solid triumph for media convergence and citizen journalism. There are serious ethical questions around the use of the material once it landed in the hands of the media but for now, let’s celebrate that one man with a mobile phone was able to capture this moment in the criminal history of Great South Africa and being outraged by that dastardly attack on human dignity decided to out the criminals despite the consequences for his personal safety and that of his family later on.
From what I have said throughout this piece, I suppose you have a good idea how our police would have reacted even with such powerful and incontrovertible evidence as the video of the taxi driver being dragged to his death. That is if you agree with my analysis of the issues as presented. Again, there are no two ways about it: In a liberal democracy, the police serve the people who are their masters; not the other way round.