Police brutality and political violence in Sierra Leone

By J L Samboma

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Musa Tarawallie (left), has effectively voided a nationwide ban on rallies and other party political activities announced by the Inspector General of Police last week.  While many see this as a slap in the face for Francis Munu, the whole incident stinks to high heaven of political corruption and, once again, raises serious doubts about the judgement of the country’s top cop and the probity of the force he heads.

The Inspector General – handpicked by President Ernest Bai Koroma and seen as being very close to him – shocked many when, in the run-up to next year’s general elections, he issued a press release proscribing overt political activity. He declared “a blanket ban on all political rallies, processions and public meetings until further notice,” adding that, during this “cooling off period,” all political meetings should be confined to respective party offices.

Battle of the press releases

Ostensibly, this unilateral action was in response to a wave of inter-party violence which rocked the southern town of Bo on 9 September after supporters of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) attacked a procession by the main opposition party during which the latter’s presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio, was seriously injured.  Supporters of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) retaliated by setting fire to the APC party office and houses belonging to party stalwarts.  At least one person was killed when police opened fire on the former; over twenty were reported injured.

Munu (right) took the opportunity in his media statement to also lay into the press, expressing “dismay” at what he called “inflammatory statements from both the print and electronic media and the acrimonious debates ensuing therefrom” which were “helping to raise the political temperature, fuel seeds of discord, heat, intolerance and contempt among political opponents.”

It has now come to pass that Munu’s “cooling off period” has lasted all but a couple of days, thanks to what one might call the “battle of the press releases” – one which he has presumably lost to his immediate boss, Interior Minister Tarawallie.  Citing “the president’s position on democracy,” the minister said Sierra Leoneans “should be able to exercise their democratic rights without hindrance and they must enjoy freedom of movement to any part of the country regardless of their tribe, religion or political affiliation.”

The minister’s words have been interpreted by many, not least the opposition, as a reprimand to the police boss and a green light that Bio’s “Thank the People” tour of the country – which had been interrupted by political violence – could go ahead.  This assumption will be tested in the coming days and weeks.  If the ban is enforced, it would reinforce opposition allegations that the policeman’s move had the president’s blessings.  They believe it is a cynical ploy to hobble the SLPP in the run-up to general and presidential elections next year.

“Police withdrew just before attack”

The impartiality of the police as an arbiter in the inter-party violence has been called into question on numerous occasions since the inception of Koroma’s presidency four years ago.  These disturbances have invariably kicked off after APC supporters marched on and attacked the premises of their main political rivals in various parts on the country.  The most recent was the assault on an SLPP procession on their way to a rally in Bo.

During that incident, eyewitness reports say that police who had been lining the route of the SLPP convoy withdrew from the scene just before APC supporters commenced throwing projectiles at the group.  When police eventually reappeared, the reports say, it was to open fire with live ammunition and lob tear-gas canisters at SLPP crowds.  The most damning indictment, however, is the revelation that opposition officials had warned the police that threats of violence had been made against their proposed rally.  Further, they had also requested a personal police escort for their presidential flag-bearer.

I have written elsewhere about the spate of violence against the SLPP in March 2009, during which the party’s Freetown HQ was vandalised by APC loyalists, its members severely beaten up and several women raped.  Footage exists of members of the police and of the Presidential Bodygard entering the fray and the opposition’s premises.

He’s called Leather Boot (he kicks people)

What I have not done before is say the name of the extremely enthusiastic plainclothes officer who was at the head of the frenzied mob which invaded the SLPP HQ – the man who I saw in the footage adjusting his flies after emerging from the area where the women were raped.  His name is Idrissa Kamara, more commonly known as Leather Boot (he likes to kick people).  This notorious fellow (right), known for his violent and intemperate disposition and his unalloyed loyalty to the APC, is the head of President Koroma’s personal protection team, a ruthless enforcer in the mould of the Godfather’s Luca Brasi.

Along with him on that day, in addition to regular police officers, were members of the presidential detail in their distinctive orange camouflage colours.  It is possible those police officers could reasonably explain their presence on the premises of the opposition: They could say they had gone there to apprehend “violent suspects,” for instance.  But there is no reason under the rising sun why members of President Koroma’s protection team should have been inside the opposition HQ, which is up to an hour’s walk from State House.

I have mentioned these things so as to put suspicions concerning the partisanship of the police into bolder relief.  But there is more.  In many other instances of political violence around the country, the one constant – aside from the identity of the instigators – has been that the supposed arbiters of the law, the police, have either stood by and allowed the opposition to be set upon by “alleged” APC thugs, or have themselves meted out what can only be described as police brutality against the victims.

It was not surprising, therefore, when Musa Tamba Sam, an SLPP MP and publicity secretary of his party, recently expressed concern at the “lack of enthusiasm” by the authorities to tackle the problem with resolute action.  “Police violence in the bye-elections in Tongo Field, Pujehun and Zimi is another alarming rate of political violence in the country.” 

Creative opposition minds

Subsequent to the violent disorder in Bo and the international opprobrium it occasioned, the government instituted a commission of inquiry to look into the events.  It was not exactly a bolt from the blue to learn, courtesy of the local Global Times newspaper, that one of those arrested for the attack which led to injury to opposition leader Bio (above) is a serving policeman.  The Sierra Leone authorities were unavailable for comment, but I found a relevant statement on an internet publication close to the APC and the Koroma government.

The organ wrote:  “The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Sierra Leone, Mr.Frank Kargbo and officials of State House who also spoke with COCORIOKO  denied any involvement by the APC. ‘This was an attempt by certain people to attack Bio and then smear the APC,’  officials told this newspaper . ‘President Koroma had strongly warned all supporters and APC officials to do whatever it takes to avoid violence, especially as he remains very popular with the people of Sierra Leone and he is well poised to win next year’s presidential Elections. There is therefore no rhyme or reason for APC  supporters to attack Mr. Bio in the SLPP  stronghold,’ the officials went on.”

We will note in passing the minister’s allegation, the upshot of which is that the SLPP arranged for their rally to be disrupted and their presidential candidate injured – some creative opposition minds have even called it an assassination attempt! – so as to get one up on the APC.  Such is the pedigree of the gloss and the spin which this organ and its numerous internet stablemates are reduced to spewing out to honour their mandate to “rebrand” Koroma's APC. 

A rational observer might wonder why the opposition would stage such subterfuge in one of their strongholds, instead of in APC heartlands to the north and west of the country – where such a ploy, if indeed it was that, would stand a better chance of attracting more credence. 

On the perhaps not-surprising fact (given past precedent) of the arrest of a policeman in connection with the Bo incident, a government spokesman has denied that the man arrested was a police officer.  Sylvester Swaray, the spokesman, alluded on local radio that action may be taken against the Global Times for the “untrue” story.  But the paper says it stands by the story and has challenged the government to either “put up or shut up.”

Police beat journalist into a coma

The Global Times story goes on to cite the many occasions where serving policemen, members of the presidential guard have taken the law into their hands and assaulted innocent members of the public – and gone scot-free!  Aside from the Bo imbroglio, the most recent was on 3 September, when police seconded to the Presidential Guard mercilessly beat up four journalists at the National Stadium, leaving one in a coma. The latter was Mohamed Fajah Barrie (left), who had been covering a football fixture for the BBC.

Keen observers of the Sierra Leone political scene will recall that in the summer of 2008, when the the SLPP’s Freetown HQ suffered one of the now-familiar sieges by the APC, journalists sent to cover a meeting between the SLPP chairman and President Koroma were set upon by the presidential guard.  They were kicked, slapped and otherwise manhandled by the police and their cameras and other equipment damaged or stolen.   Again, this police brutality went unchallenged and unpunished.

The inescapable conclusion to draw from the foregoing is that the police are not impartial arbiters in the violence which has become a hallmark of party politics in Sierra Leone; furthermore, a culture of impunity has developed whereby serving members of the police can wreak bloody violence on any citizen without fear of being disciplined as long as their actions are seen to have been in the “defence” of the President or the ruling party.

Taking the people for fools

We will now introduce into evidence the Inspector General’s unilateral ban on political activity, and try to locate it in this matrix. Many have said that it was tantamount to an undemocratic attempt to hobble the opposition, a move whose only beneficiary would be the ruling party.  I would go further.  If anything, Francis Munu’s intervention is an unequivocal message to the men under him that the reign of terror they have enforced for the benefit of the president and his party is okay by him – and that it should be “business as usual” as far as he was concerned. In a word, it was a vote of confidence to the men of violence.

Anyone who doubts this should consider the following: If Sierra Leone’s top copper was really interested in bringing an end to political violence, he would immediately institute a wide-ranging investigation into all the violent episodes which have marred politics in recent years, arrest their suspected perpetrators and work with state prosecutors to bring them to justice, without fear or favour.  He could start with high-profile suspects such as those in his force – the likes of Mr Boot.

It is within the Inspector General’s remit to launch such an investigation without the approval or acquiescence of his political masters.  Attempting to put a spanner in the opposition’s electoral machine for the benefit of his masters smacks of political corruption, abuse of power, cronyism and, last but not least, taking the people for fools.  If the problem of political violence is to be successfully addressed in Sierra Leone, then the authorities need to send out the message that it will not be tolerated. 

The only way that can be achieved is by making an example of those who engage in it.  By his cynical manoeuvre, the IG has demonstrated that he and the force he heads have become a large part of the problem!

The President did nothing

This view mirrors the findings of an inquiry set up by President Koroma (right) to look into the causes of the March 2009 disturbances.  The findings of the Shears-Moses Commission have been gathering dust on a State House bookshelf for the past two years.  The leaked report highlighted the impartiality of the police force and called for its root-and-branch reorganisation. 

Members of the security forces,” the report says, “who have betrayed the trust put on them to protect the citizens, and found to be unprofessional in their activities, or support violence, should be dismissed from their employment to serve as a deterrent to others in future. In this regard we specifically indicate Mohamed Turay (Yete Yete), Idrissa Kamara (Leather Boot).”

Also, the report calls for the dismissal of other public officials deemed to have brought their offices into dispute:  “We recommend that steps be taken for those responsible for the acts of violence in Freetown and Gendema to be relieved of their responsibilities and barred from holding any public office for a period of at least 5 (five) years. The Mayor of Freetown, Herbert George Williams, and the Resident Minister South Musa Tarawallie are being specifically mentioned.”

These excerpts show that the president knows the identities of those responsible for at least some of the political violence in his fragile nation, but has chosen to do nothing about it.  Yet, at the drop of a hat, Koroma is ready to tell anyone who will listen how he deplores acts of political violence and how he is a firm believer in the tenets of democratic pluralism.  All those who the inquiry panel recommended be dismissed for their respective roles in the carnage have kept their jobs, including Presidential Enforcer Mr Boot.

President sat on the report

In fact one of them, Musa Tarawallie, was promoted from the position of Resident Minister South to that of Internal Affairs Minister for a job well done.  Also very interesting is the fact that it is this man who has now locked horns with the Inspector General – and by extension the president – by effectively voiding the ban on party political activity!  What could be going on here?  Is there a cake fight at the top table? Is Mr Tarawallie on his road to Damascus?  The scope of this article will not permit us to speculate further.  But, like I said, a very interesting development!

The president’s move to set up yet another inquiry into the Bo incident may be seen as an attempt to kick it into the long grass.  If he has sat on the findings of the Shears Moses inquiry into March 2009, what are the guarantees that the same will not happen to the present one?  The incident should be treated as a criminal matter and the police should investigate, arrest and prosecute all those responsible.  As we approach next year’s elections, the message this will send out will do more for peace and stability than the president’s many fine words about “attitudinal and behavioural change.”

Any serious attempt to address the growing problem of political violence must begin with the root-and-branch reform of the police recommended by Shears-Moses, after which the politicians must back-off and give the boys and girls in blue and the juduciary the space they need to  treat the men of violence as they should be treated - like the common criminals that they are.