‘The guns may be silent now, but Liberia is going nowhere’: After a decade of peace, country is still suffering under a corrupt police force

Liberia’s post-civil war reality is of a shattered economy exposing its people to exploitation  by a police force devoid of morale and morality

Monrovia

“When the police want something, they just come and rob us,” says Patrick Davis, as his fellow street vendors in central Monrovia nod in agreement and push forward to tell their stories.

Mr Davis sells jeans and trousers on the pavements of the Liberian capital and the police are regular customers – only, they don’t pay; they simply take what they like, says Mr Davis, who then sees the same officers wearing his clothes the following day. “You can’t believe it, but that’s what they do.”

From the soft-drink sellers to the shoe salesmen to the motorcycle taxi drivers to the smallest kids who get what they can for sticks of chewing gum, the experience is the same: the uniformed officers of the Liberia National Police are widely seen as predators, not protectors.

“They came here, they beat us and they took our stuff,” says Una Roberts, who trades in fizzy drinks and water. “When we tried to go to the police depot to get our goods back, they wanted money. They arrested 11 of us and demanded $150 to be released.”

None of this happens with any paperwork, of course. This isn’t about bonds and bail money. This is about theft and extortion which, if unsatisfied, can lead to arbitrary arrest and detention. Extortion also undermines the establishment of law in this post-conflict state.

Since the end of the country’s devastating civil wars 10 years ago, Liberia’s overall progress has to be seen by outside observers as positive. The brutality of warlords like Charles Taylor, the common use of child soldiers, the death of some 200,000 people and displacement of over a million in this country of about four million – that’s all, thankfully, in the past.

But many people had thought a decade of peace would bring more.

“Just because the guns have been silent for 10 years doesn’t mean everything’s OK here,” says Thomas Nah of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia. “Liberia is going nowhere as long as the police remain like this.”

The issue is coming to a head in the coming months, as well. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is gradually drawing down and while their oversight and advisory role to the police will continue for some time to come, the numbers don’t augur well for the future. There are only 4,400 police in the entire country, which even for a relatively small country seems far too few.

“Professionalising” the police and having them focus on respecting – or even better, promoting – human rights and the rule of law in the wake of UNMIL’s departure are pivotal for Liberia’s economic development and long-term stability.

The still shattered economy is, of course, the reason there are so many pavement vendors in central Monrovia and elsewhere throughout the country. Nine out of every 10 of Liberians live on less than $2 a day.

“There are no jobs,” is a frequent refrain of the street traders. “What do they expect us to do? If people can’t sell goods on the street, they’ll only turn to crime and prostitution. What else is there? Street trading is the last stop before that.” Developing strategies to cope with police corruption is essential if you want to stay in business. For the backpack and suitcase sellers, it’s something of a hedge game.

“When we see the police coming, we each tie together a bunch of bags and each run in a different direction,” says one man who asked me not to use his name. “They can’t catch us all.”

Last time, the one who was caught had 12 suitcases confiscated, he says, and he paid $10 to get just six of them back. The others vanished in police hands. “I’m sure a policeman was taking a long trip somewhere.”

Of course, corrupt police are only one part of Liberia’s problems.

“There’s corruption in all institutions,” says Cecil Griffiths, president of the Liberia National Law Enforcement Association. “Look at the courts, for example. But the police are the most visible,” he says. “They’re the most public, in the street, the face of state...”

And police morale is low, Mr Griffiths points out, for understandable reasons. Many officers have to survive on a salary of $135 a month, and they have to put up with absurd privations to do their job. Police stations are in deplorable condition. When it rains, which is common at certain times of the year, the roofs leak so much you might as well be outside. Worse, some stations haven’t even got a toilet for the officers (to say nothing of facilities for the inmates in holding cells).

The police sometimes lack the most basic of tools, including pens and paper, and if they have got a vehicle, there’s a good chance the petrol for it has disappeared somewhere along “leaky” logistics lines. These problems in particular spark police corruption, as officers demand money from victims and complainants to pay for the materials to fill out reports and even to transport them to the crime scene.

“It’s almost as if we put the officers in such a position that they have to take bribes and demand payments to survive,” says the corruption expert, Mr Nah.

Still, even with all the obstacles the police face, it’s impossible to justify their predatory behaviour when you see its effects. While every one of the street vendors has a story to tell, perhaps the saddest come from the children.

“They took my last 10 boxes of cornflakes five days ago,” says one girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old.

“I can’t afford to replace them, so I’ve had nothing to sell since then. My friend is helping me,” she says pointing to a girl of similar age holding a box of sweets. “What am I supposed to do?”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
filmCritic Kaleem Aftab picks his favourites for Halloween
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballBeating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Life and Style
Google's doodle celebrating Halloween 2014
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes