Africa, Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights

LIBERIA: When the Mob Prevails

MONROVIA, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - It was past midnight when Carroll Johnson was woken by angry shouting in his suburban neighbourhood of Fiamah. Around the corner a frenzied crowd with sticks had gathered in the darkness, and now stood menacingly over an armed robber called ‘Bush Cat’.

Liberians lack confidence in a corrupt, under-funded and poorly managed national police force. Credit:  Rebecca Murray/IPS

Liberians lack confidence in a corrupt, under-funded and poorly managed national police force. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

He had just been caught after burgling the nearby home of university student Mike Gibson, and attacking him with a machete.

“The group that comes to get the rogue are more than he, and the angry crowd cannot be controlled; they will do what they’ve got to do. Everyone else is afraid in their houses,” says Johnson.

“The man they beat was about 40 or 45. They beat him for about an hour until he was dead.”

Following the merciless slaying, Bush Cat’s body was dragged from the main road to a grassy path, where it remained for three days, bloating in the tropical heat.

Francis Broh, Fiamah’s community leader, says he informed the local police about the decaying body several times. Sitting in front of a small, whitewashed drug store in the district’s bustling marketplace, Broh adds, “After two days the homicide police came, bagged the body and left.”

Running after the police, Broh asked how the body was going to be buried, and was told to go to his people to get some money. A community cash collection raised about USD $30 to bury it in a cemetery on the city outskirts.

Liberia’s decades-long conflict has devastated the country. The vast majority of its war-weary population of almost 3.5 million – with nearly one million in Monrovia alone – live without electricity or basic sewage systems; their homes, schools, hospitals, and government institutions are in ruins.

Liberia’s 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy estimates almost two-thirds of its citizens live below the poverty line. The global financial crisis has badly retarded Liberia’s post-conflict reconstruction, and stalled the country’s mineral-rich road to economic recovery. It has stoked fears that chronic unemployment could push former fighters to violent crime.

At the conclusion of the national Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration campaign, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) June report to the Security Council stated: “Many [evaluators] are of the view that the reintegration programme was a “quick fix” that neither transformed the disposition of the former combatants nor provided them with sustainable livelihoods.”

Bowing to heavy domestic pressure to be tough on crime, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reaffirmed Liberia’s death penalty legislation for armed robbery last year, to loud international condemnation. Liberia is a signatory to the Second Optional Protocol, an international measure aiming to ban the death penalty worldwide.

But Gautam Sawang, the UN Police Deputy Commissioner charged with training the Liberian police, believes the crime statistics are far less gloomy.

“If you see the number of unemployed youths and incidents of crime, it’s not really alarming… though there were some spikes in crime. For example, soon after the jailbreak on December 1, you saw a huge spike in the number of robberies.”

Public fears about violent crime are fuelled by a steady diet of sensational news headlines, and an abject lack of confidence in a corrupt, under-funded and poorly managed national police force (LNP). Ineffective corrections and judicial systems have only exacerbated public insecurities.

“You have armed robbers going around in the night, harassing peaceful citizens,” explains Dixon Gblah, head of the Liberian human rights monitor, Prison Watch. “The communities themselves do not trust the police, because in some cases they accuse the police of arming the robbers. There are instances of the community even accusing the police of carrying out armed robbery in the night.”

“Also, the justice system itself is not accessible or affordable. People don’t know their rights; prosecutors, defenders, magistrates, and judges infringe on the right of people,” Gblah adds. “Over 92 percent (of the prison population) are pre-trial detainees, and we don’t have enough public defenders and lawyers.”

Monrovia’s outlying districts of Paynesville, Red Light and Somalia Drive are normally filled with the daily chaos of crowds, traffic jams and dilapidated market stalls. But by night isolation and the dark draw criminals. The deserted, broken streets are patrolled by the LNP’s new Emergency Response Unit (ERU), which devotes much of its energy to dismantling vigilante checkpoints.

While most LNP officers are unarmed, the elite ERU of several hundred policemen are weighed down with pistols, rifles, ammunition, teargas and grenades. Rigorously vetted and trained by the UN police and US private military contractors, the force is intended to counter terrorism and public disorder.

Increasingly it is being drawn into the fight against routine criminal activity, and particularly armed robbery. Their early deployment has led to controversy, including the killing of a suspected robber, shot six times in the back by ERU officers. Dismissing early setbacks, UN police mentors say the force is young and learning.

“The vigilante is one of the major problems facing us,” explains Deputy Commander McDervin Smith, leader of the ERU’s Bravo Platoon. “They wear civilian clothes, and it’s difficult to distinguish who is who. We are trying to ask our bosses for community awareness, so the vigilante could have identification.”

“We don’t really encourage them, but the ERU alone cannot cover Montserrado County, so we highly appreciate the community handling the situation professionally and turning (suspects) over to the police.

“But many a time we have come across mob justice. Like on the Old Road, a man kept on taking things from people, so people just got fed up and stoned him to death. And when we got there he was lying there dead.”

Monrovia’s policing is run on a shoestring. The ERU officers – paid an average of only 78 U.S. dollars a month, without benefits – rely on police headquarters and popular Monrovia late-night radio show Crime Watch to advertise their personal cellphone numbers, so that members of the public can make direct emergency calls.

It is one of these 911 calls that has the ERU flying down Somalia Drive at four in the morning. In the pre-dawn a group of around 20 barefoot, half-dressed men stand at the side of the highway carrying cutlasses and sticks, adrenaline pumping in the dark.

One of the men, James Momo Jr, recounts the terrifying events that brought the neighbourhood’s men onto the street. “I heard the noise from within the community, so I was on the alert,” he begins. “When (the robbers) entered the first doors, they began to bust them and enter the rooms. I locked the door to my room, and I called one of my neighbours, so he began the alarm.”

Momo’s neighbour, Wolover Kseray, is indignant. “Tonight the police, when they got the call, said it wasn’t major. How can they say it’s not major?” he asks. “It’s major! Is he saying someone should die before it should become major? I’m urging attention to a call when a call is made.”

Kaseray is busy registering his community-based security watch team with the Ministry of Justice. They will be given whistles and cellphones, but no authority above that of a citizen’s arrest. Kaseray is confident that his neighbours will be entitled to use sticks and cutlasses in self-defence.

“If we didn’t come out today, maybe the robbers would come back, just wait for another two days,” Kaseray adds. “This is a clarion call – I can promise them, if they continue to come here, they will face the weight of the youth in this place. I can promise you that.”

Inspector-General Marc Amblard, Monrovia’s new police chief, sighs: “We do welcome the crime-watch groups for information, as there are criminals living in the communities. And we understand citizen’s arrest. However, the only thing we are concerned about is that vigilante action is not good for any security.

“With mob violence participants are liable to be held responsible. We must reassure the communities that the LNP can handle these robbers, so they won’t feel frustrated.”

Amblard adds: “We welcome them to curb crime by assisting the police. We want to let them help us, but not do our job.”

Back in Fiamah, Carroll Johnson sits down on a chair in squalid surroundings and the spitting rain, to talk about the killing of Bush Cat.

“It’s hard to say if justice would have been served if he were alive, because the man was a rogue. But (the crime situation) is improving; it was rampant before, now it’s not. We had a vigilante group before, but we clamped down on it.

“But people are not coming into our neighbourhood anymore. Because of what happened they are afraid.”

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