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Opinions of Monday, 19 April 2004

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Respecting The Police Service

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong writes that in a West African where states have collapsed, politics paralyzed, some civil wars, armed robbery a menace, gangsterism a growing problem, civic virtues weak, and juju-marabou mediums ready to help criminals, the police service in West Africa needs all the respect, regard, and co-operation they can get from an increasingly ignorant public who do not know the troubles the police go through everyday

For the past months, the police in West Africa have come into the forefront of public discourse. The reasons reflect not only the current security situation of the region but the fact that the West African, like other Africans, are yet to come to terms with the police service in relation their existence since the police institution in Africa is a colonial creation. The Ghanaian or the Nigerians or the Ivorien or the Sierra Leonean or the Liberians who have experienced myriad security problems, from brutal civil wars to horrendous armed robberies, will tell you different stories about the police, yet they have no clue how the police works and the problem the police go through everyday to secure their lives in their respective countries and in a region that is not only complex but also the most unsecured in Africa in terms of civil wars, state collapse, political paralyzes, indiscipline, armed robbery, and general insecurities.

The reason for lack of respect of the police service was echoed by the Accra-based Ghanaian Chronicle in attempting to educate Ghanaians about the dangers of the police service goes through to secure them, ? If the average citizen knew how difficult the work of the police is, perhaps he would then begin to appreciate and respect the men and women who have opted to maintain law and order as peace officers. Particularly in a country such as ours where illiteracy is dominant and ignorance of the law is considered the norm, the police service has an unenviable and uphill task making sure that the rule of law is upheld.? Because the West African police have been used by different political regimes that the region have come to experience in its painful life the police is not trusted. In Sierra Leone the police was tribalised under the Siaka Stevens long-running regime. A Ghanaian commentator wrote that, ?Under the Provisional National Defence Committee (PNDC) and later under the government of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) nobody trusted the police and for that matter the security apparatus to be fair and open minded when they dealt with cases involving the political opponents of the ruling government.? Throughout West Africa, especially the troubled states, people?s misunderstanding of their civic responsibilities and of the police have gone as far as attacking the police in the course of undertaking their duties like any citizen. In states like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, and Cote d?Ivoire mindless people have found it a fair game to attack police stations, and fatally assaulted the police in the course of doing their constitutional jobs. This shows that people, after almost 50 years of independence from colonial rule, still do not know the civic duties of the police, especially in dangerous times like this in West Africa?s development.

In a region that is the poorest in the world, where poverty is rife, influence of invisible forces a daily bath, moral decay on the prowl, crime on the increase, youth let loose, civil wars real and present danger, and assassination a child?s play, just imagine being a police officer in Freetown during the brutal civil war, where Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rampaged through with arson, bloodbath, looting, rape, and mayhem. Or just imagine being a police officer and confronting deadly and frustrated youth demonstrators in West Africa?s cities. This shadow self of West African cities, where the police repeatedly clash with armed robbers and students over varied issues, some realistic and others unrealistic, is the West Africa?s own disintegration self, the awful pointer of what will happen when the worst transpires, as when the Ivorien police woke one day and found their once peaceful country divided into two by rebel-soldiers. African civilization, hypothetically, will come unstuck. Anarchy will break loose in Monrovia and weeds pushed up the Monrovia concrete, and the police will slide into a paramilitary tribe at war with either rebel groups or gangsters or West Side Boys or the Ogoni youth or the youthful armed robbers that go howling through the Accra wastelands like the phenomenal African military coup makers, AK47 runners.

This hypothetical dream contains some few jagged elements of truth. Some West African cities have come to look dangerously like their anti-selves: civil wars, homelessness, growing slums, increasing armed robbery, homicides, prostitution, debts deepening, revenue shortage, services disintegrating, crime and drugs showing their open, permanent reality. As for the tribal West African police, they have been at war for some time in Freetown, in Monrovia, in Accra, and in other cities, though not in the better parts of West African cities? neighbourhood. In Accra, the police are increasingly being challenged to find those who have been killing women in juju/marabou-inspired ritualistic ways. This and other clashes like that in Kaduna reveal the lawlessness that the West African nightmare predicts: vivid, grainy, and surreal.

Watching the West African police in action in places like Nigeria or Liberia or Sierra Leone and thinking about other police brutality incidents - the police conniving with rebels groups or armed robbers, for example ? West Africans felt wonder, horror or, in some West African cases, disgust at the police. In such situations, West Africans side with the mass media for putting searchlight on the West African police. The West African police do not have good relationship with the West African media - there is always love-hate relationship. The lasting reaction to the West African police, say, melting rough justice to demonstrators in Accra or Lome or Bamako, besides outrage of one kind or another, may have been a sense of being in the presence of mystery. How is a group of people given such power? In places like Sierra Leone, where rebels mixed easily with non-rebel civilians, it was difficult for the police not to be paranoid, when sifting through who is a rebel and who is not. But, yet still, the average Sierra Leonean do cry out against police for gross, offhanded brutality, dealt out by the guardians of the law, seemed strange enough and disturbing on a fairly deep emotional and moral level.

The beating of the student demonstrators in Accra, where democracy is just growing, the police not acting on some impulse of the moment, seem desultory and methodical at the same time. Police stroll around the streets of Accra. It looks like an impromptu RUF social occasion, where limbs are flying in the sky and the evil self let loose on innocent people. In such a situation, there is future shock and an odd familiarity in the streets of Accra or Freetown or Lagos in the scene: it has some of the feel of a colonial police teaching the "uncivilized" Africans sense ? a West African throwback migrated to the slave trading era of armed raids. Police in the African sense did not exist in Africa; it was brought, like most structures existing now, by the colonialists. The mystery is how can a group of people be given such power, for what? For law and order: to teach the people where power lies. How does a group of otherwise normal people turn into a mob capable of beating students and brutalizing people? Among the police they will tell you they are gentle people going about their business like any other citizen. The police have families like any other citizen, and do come from within the same people who have been clashing and insulting the police.

The questions about the West African police are both social and personal. Sociologists will tell you, in Freudian terms, that the law is supposed to perform the function of the superego, policing the wild of Accra or Monrovia and the violent id in the plains of RUF or National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The police principle goes to work when the id takes over from the superego and put on a green or blue or khaki uniform, when police authority goes wild. My paternal aunt, Paulina Adutwum, a sergeant in the Ghana Police Service, will tell you that most West African police officers are decent men and women doing honourable work in a very dangerous period in West Africa?s transition, where arms and drugs are easy to get in Accra or Lagos today than Modibo Keita?s era. The civil wars, porous borders, globalization, and political paralysis have made the West African police work more dangerous. It is partly for that reason that the Nigerian police?s transformation from group to mob, as in Accra, when the police are chasing armed robbers, is hard to understand. And as Adutwum will again tell you, the dangerous work the police do, for modest salaries, is also brutalizing.

West African criminologists say the homicide rate in West Africa has jumped over the years. In big cities like Lagos or Accra or Abidjan most felony offenders have been arrested before, and some have at least one prior conviction. Robbers and drug gangs are often armed with automatic weapons more lethal or sophisticated than the handguns the West African police carry. How can, say, the police in Freetown deal with lethally armed RUF rebels? Or as the Ghanaian police are finding out in post-Rawlings Ghana, how can they deal with proliferation of AK47s? A career of dealing with such situation of vicious, conscienceless criminal-enemy of frightens and frays the nerves. It drives the West African police deeper into the solidarities of their professional tribe. There they find the support and understanding they feel they do not get from the ignorant citizenry. The West African police public prefers their innocence, does not want to know the violent lengths to which the West African police sometimes go when trying to contain armed robbers in Accra or Lagos to enforce the law.

Nigerian or Ghanaian police will tell you that the terms "war against crime" and "war on drugs" encourage, and sometimes, demand an all-out attack by the West African police upon criminals?no inch or quarter given. But like the progressing culture of armed robbery in Nigeria, which has prompted joint police-military operations, the West African police are fighting an unwinnable war, assuming large social responsibilities that belong more to the much-hated West African politicians than to West African policemen: and as in the Nigerian campaigns of war against crime, atrocities are being committed in both sides. The West African police, like any African group, has a life its own that is far more that the sum of the individuals in it. They belong to different moral order from the individual. It has sensibilities and impulses and appetites and mind of its own. It has its collective will and its personality and its voice and its emotions. It has its shared values and thoughts that can be frightening and incomprehensible, like domesticated species, that may sometimes turn erratically vicious, doing wild-species things no one could foresee. In such a West African police culture, the ordinary West African?s judgment may differ to the collective judgment in a police group, where individual responsibilities get diffused, scattered among them. And so when the police in Ghana or Nigeria decide how to contain student demonstrations or rebels or growing armed robbery, normal inner standards give way to group will. The policeman becomes less self-focused. It will take a strong, poised character of a policeman to go against current of group will. Those koti, as the police are called in Ghana, who confront lethally armed robbers in Accra allow themselves to go with current of their police tribe, against their individual inner standards. The secret of the transformation of the Ogoni youth or any of the others in the riverine areas of Nigeria who have been clashing with the police over environmental and oil matters is that a few leaders incite the rest, tying them, throwing the rope over a palm tree, and they become a mod. The others automatically allow themselves to be carried passively by the group purpose. Either in the Nigerian riverine areas or streets of the thinking that violence is the only language the armed robbers understand. When the West African police encounter demonstrators in Abidjan, it does this with its own atmosphere and triggers, its tribal antipathies and peer-group expectations. In such an atmosphere none of the police officers express objections. And the result can be rough justice against the enemy ? rebels or student demonstrators or armed robbers. It is for this reasons that the West African police need our respect and honour.


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