Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-LIBERIA: Policing the Police

Abdullah Dukuly

MONROVIA, Aug 2 2004 (IPS) - Since the start of a United Nations disarmament programme in Liberia in December 2003, much attention has been paid to the painfully difficult process of reintegrating the country’s rebel troops into society.

Another – and equally important – operation is also underway, however: the reform of Liberia’s police force, which is blamed for a significant number of human rights abuses during the country’s civil war.

Fourteen years of intermittent fighting in the West African state created a situation where the police force became a tool of prevailing political interests.

“While they (the people) needed to be served, they were often harmed. While they needed help, they were hurt. Rather than being the guardians of the people, the police became agents of state terror,” says Jacques Klein, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy in Liberia.

With elections planned for October next year, the UN has now started to build a police force that “will have democratic values, respect for human rights (and a) non-partisan approach to duties,” says Mark Kroecker, Police Commissioner for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

“We are here to build a police that will be placed in the hands of the people of Liberia. One year ago, there was a disintegration of the rule of law in Liberia, but UNMIL is trying to build, develop and reform the Liberian police”.

Kroecker’s comment is a reference to the fact that by July 2003, rebel forces had advanced to the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia, and were fighting for control of the city. Their advance forced former President Charles Taylor to hand over power to his deputy, Moses Blah, and leave Liberia for exile in Nigeria.

UNMIL has about 1,070 international police officers in Liberia, who have been deployed at 26 sites in Monrovia – and 23 locations outside the capital. Their responsibility is to advise, monitor and build the capacity of the Liberian police – with which UNMIL also conducts joint patrols.

UN officials hope to train up to 2,000 police officers before the upcoming poll. To date, 646 people have graduated from a course that enables them to serve as interim officers.

A batch of 150 serving police and new recruits is also in the process of receiving instruction in general policing, crime prevention, riot control and basic defence tactics.

After three months, they will be deployed in the field where they will work under the supervision of international police experts (trainers from 36 different countries are participating in this process). The police and recruits are then scheduled to return to class for a final month of instruction.

In addition, UNMIL has undertaken a recruitment campaign for the police throughout Liberia, and is conducting investigations into the background of every candidate to ensure that they meet the criteria for joining the force. These include having a high school education, and being free of any association with corrupt practices or human rights abuse.

The expanded police force will also have wider representation from Liberia’s 16 ethnic groupings, and will be provided with new uniforms.

The UN’s efforts concerning Liberia’s police form part of commitments undertaken during the signing of a peace accord between government and rebels last August. In addition to creating a power-sharing transitional government, the accord empowered the UN to restructure Liberia’s security apparatus.

Police reform has come as a relief to many in the country.

“The Liberian police have been brutal under successive regimes and so need an image building”, says Henry Jones, a university student.

Former police chief Brownie Samukai believes that lack of police reform also contributed to the resumption of civil war after presidential and legislative elections in 1997.

He says UNMIL has set up a programme to ensure that the Liberian police “will be credible, respected and will respond to the needs and aspirations of the communities.”

However, certain critics have voiced concerns about the duration of the training being given to police recruits – saying it should be longer.

Kroecker has not revealed the cost of the police restructuring process, which appears to be financed by donor funds pledged in February during an international meeting on rebuilding Liberia.

Whatever the amount of money being spent, however, it has not stretched to cover all costs. Clarence Massaquoi, Director of the Liberian police, told IPS Friday, Jul. 30, that police continued to be handicapped by logistical problems.

Massaquoi appealed to the government to prioritise the needs of the national police, rather than simply relying on the global community for assistance. Officers currently have just three patrol vehicles at their disposal. They also operate without torches, batons and other necessities.

Kroecker, a retired American policeman from Los Angeles, has served as a UN police officer in South and Central America. But, he says he has never ever seen a police force so stripped of equipment as the one in Liberia.

The American official warned that crime had a tendency to surge after the end of conflict in a country, and that this highlighted the need for an effective police force to be on the ground in Liberia.

“Once the priority is given to security organisations, the streets will be safe, the children will go to school without hindrance and free and democratic elections will be held,” Kroecker noted.

The new recruits appear happy to be included in Liberia’s revamped police force. “We are glad to be a part and parcel of it, and to be able to serve our people with pride and dignity,” said James Farkollie, one of the trainees.

In recent months, Liberia has seen a great improvement as regards the observance of human rights. However, the country’s unemployment rate is in the region of 80 per cent – and there are fears that this lack of jobs will foster the potential for renewed violence in the country.

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