Sierra Leone’s Chief law enforcement agency, the Sierra Leone Police(SLP) is in deep opinion crisis in the face of endless threats to peace and security. The opinion crisis confronting the SLP considerably undermines public confidence and acceptance in the institution.
The situation has its root to where the SLP has been and where it is now. The crisis affecting the SLP also has bearing on how the SLP has responded to certain events in the country. Police service in Sierra Leone had a humble origin as members were seen as stooges and messagers of those in power.
The force metaphorse d to an institution of law and order in the late 18th century when Sierra Leone was under the shackles of colonialism.
The growth of police service in Sierra Leone was evidenced by the deployment of police troops in the protectorate today known as the provinces . The protectorate chiefs were angered by police presence in their communities.
The chiefs’ anger was justified on the basis that most of those that filled police rank and file were runaway convicts and slaves. The chiefs saw their recruitment into the colonial police service as error on the part of the British Government.
Without any fear of contradiction, the influx of ex-convicts in the colonial police service was one of the remote factors that caused the Hut Tax Rebellion of 1898.
Police service in Sierra Leone however has moved from stage to stage before it became a standard police service. Between 1970’s and 80’s, the police Force gained notoriety for police brutality especially against opponents to the government.
At that time, police serviced was a luxury as only the ‘powerful and the ‘haves’ access the service while the ‘poor’ and the ‘less privileged’ found it difficult to enjoy the service. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, 2002 was plain about how the police contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The report accused the police to have been part of a syndicate that sowed the seeds of discord that germinated in the 1990’s. The conflict was ferocious and tragic as historians, legal circles and academics referred to it as the bloodiest guerilla warfares in the world.
One of the trial judges of the defunct Special Court of Sierra Leone, in his summary of evidence, said:
“All factions to the conflict committed the most heinous offences ever recorded.” During the TRC hearings, the SLP was represented by former Inspector-General, Francis Allieu Munu who apologized to the nation for the wrongs done against the people of Sierra Leone.
Considering the significant role the police play in the maintenance of peace and security, they were forgiven, and looked up to for the second time. Following the restoration of late President Tejan Kabba to power in 1998, the police force was also restored to police a democratic order.
The late President was of the firm conviction that it is only a professionally trained and competent police force that can police a democracy. The police of yester years, the President declared, cannot be relied upon to police a civilised and democratic state.
As a result of the Presidential declaration, the SLP benefited from what one would refer as the greatest restructuring package in Africa.
The Commonwealth Community Safety and Security Project (CCSSP) for the SLP was one that overhauled the SLP in all aspects of policing.
The project, in the short run, succeeded in changing completely SLP’s style of arrest, investigation, detection of crime, handling reports and suspects in police custody, response to public calls , respect for human rights, and most importantly, response to riots and other public order situations.
Owing to the restructuring, the police were able to return communities to peace without the use of arms. Policing communities without the use of arms was visible as police officers no longer conduct their passing out ceremonies with weapons. The no-use of weapons during passing-out ceremonies portrayed the police as a peace-keeping force and not a fighting force.
It was from the peace-keeping nomenclature that the SLP got the name SLP in 1998 that replaced the SLPF acronym which means Sierra Leone Police Force. The removal of the force element made the force an organisation that was prepared to serve the people without discrimination as to tribe, region, social status among other considerations.
Community policing, through Local Policing Partnership Boards, was employed for the realization of the security objectives. SLP’s contribution to the restoration of peace in post-conflict Sierra Leone was a no mean feat.
Consequently, the organisation won accolades and laurels making the envy and celerity among sister police forces in Africa. The SLP, without any form of overstatement, enjoyed a celebrity status in global policing.
Thus, nations have enjoyed SLP’s expertise on various forms of policing. Haiti, Darfur Region in South Sudan and most recently, Somalia are among nations that have enjoyed and still continue to enjoy professional police service from the SLP.
Services SLP exported abroad did not only transform the institution but also the country in terms of the economy. Foreign currencies paid to SLP personnel helped the country’s reserves and foreign currency stockpile at the bank of Sierra Leone.
Such glorious laurels means the SLP has come a long way, it has so much, it has done so much, but much more remains to be done. Suffice to say SLP’s failings in recent past is slowly outweighing it’s past glories.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the SLP is it’s seeming weakness to withstand political pressure from the highest quarters. The SLP has taken part in a chronology of incidents that has trapped the institution in a dance of destiny.
In the early days of former President Koroma, the SLP was used to quiet the people of hydro-electric power dam in the northern town of Bumbuna when the people expressed their dissatisfaction with government over the absence of energy in a Community that host the source of power.
The SLP was also used by the Koroma regime to muzzle dissenting voices over the removal of the country’s legally installed Vice President.
Although the removal was unlawful, SLP participated in it to mesmerise the then powers. The SLP’s action, at that time, lends credence to the time-honoured adage of he who pays the piper calls the tune.
As if that was not enough, the SLP has been used to unlawfully withdraw security details in 2018 from former President, Ernest Bai Koroma. The current Inspector-General of police was used for that purpose.
The withdrawal was unlawful, but he participated into please His Excellency. In a related development, the SLP was also utilised to remove guards from the former Vice President, Chief Sam Sumana. In July this year, the SLP participated in the unlawful removal of a standby thermal from the north-eastern headquarters of Makeni, the home of former President, Koroma.
Six precious lives were taken away in the scuffle that followed. Accusing fingers were pointed at the police to have carried out massacre. Although the SLP, deny the allegation, the denial was not watertight as the police are men in charge of internal security.
All these factors combine to erode the SLP’s credibilty, public confidence and acceptance in Sierra Leone. It goes without saying that the factors represent an opinion crisis for the SLP which will seriously dampen it’s capacity to maintain peace in a once war-torn nation.
It is now up to the SLP to fight back and regain it’s glory. The question is how the SLP would explore strategies by legal means to suppress political pressure and interference in its work.