Police officers on nighttime patrol in Monrovia, Liberia.

© 2011 Espen Rasmussen/Panos

Nearly every day, police officers in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, demand money – in the form of extortion or bribes – from Alex, a friendly motorcycle taxi driver in his early 20s. Sometimes, the police block the road with a rope or a big stick, forcing him to stop. They level made-up fines, often between US$2.50 and $4, saying, “You have on the wrong helmet,” or “You have the wrong shoes.” On these days, the police take home nearly all of Alex’s earnings – leaving him with nothing pay for food or his school fees.

Alex’s experiences are all too familiar to his fellow Liberians, who are preyed upon by police officers on the take. In Monrovia, police corruption is as much a part of daily life as the people selling fish or bread on center-city streets, or the abandoned and newly patched-up buildings, remnants of the civil war that ended a decade ago.

One of his worst run-ins was on Christmas Day, 2012, Alex told Human Rights Watch. When he was stopped at an ad-hoc police checkpoint, the officer demanded the exorbitant sum of $50, threatening to hold Alex’s rented motorcycle until January 15 if he didn’t pay up.

For Alex, this was an impossible choice. He earned nearly $14 each day, but after subtracting the motorcycle rental cost, he only pocketed $2.50 most days.

There was no way he could come up with $50. But if the officer confiscated his bike for nearly a month, he would owe the bike’s owner more than three times that amount in rental fees.

The officer took the bike. A few days later, Alex negotiated with a different officer to pay $20 for the bike. It cut into his school fees.

A new Human Rights Watch report, “‘No Money, No Justice,’” documents this routine extortion from the people the police are supposed to protect. While police officers on the street are starved of resources – they often pay for their own gas and even paper – the situation keeps Liberians from feeling safe. If Liberia’s government doesn’t get the situation under control, it will only get worse when United Nations troops, in the country since the war ended, draw down by 2015. This will leave Liberians even more vulnerable.

Alex repeatedly told Human Rights Watch how important it was to him to finish high school, and he stayed in school.  But Liberia’s bloody civil war, and his inability to pay his school fees, held him back.

Alex believes he was born in 1988, but the war left childhood events jumbled in his mind. He knows his parents were killed in the war. He remembers fleeing the fighting for neighboring Sierra Leone, which was embroiled in its own conflict fueled by Liberia’s  former president, Charles Taylor, who was later convicted of war crimes. There, Alex was snatched up by the Civil Defense Forces, a Sierra Leone rebel group.

As Alex was too small to carry a gun, the group had him run supplies, he said. He managed to escape and found his way to a refugee camp, where he stayed for  years. Around 2002, before the peace agreement ended Liberia’s civil war, Alex says, he returned to Liberia and was taken in by a farmer in the rural North. There, with the farmer’s help, he started and finished elementary school. When Alex learned of an uncle who was living in Monrovia, he o moved there to attend high school.

But with no money, Alex struggled in Monrovia.  So his uncle called someone to help him become a motorcycle taxi driver, he said. His job meant dealing with police corruption regularly, and although the police never beat him or became violent, their regular harassment had a tremendous impact on his life. Bills related to the harassment even caused him to drop out of the 11th grade in 2011.

Ultimately, Alex hopes the police will learn to show motorcycle taxi drivers more empathy.

I want the police to become friends for us. I want them to know that some of us are on the motorcycle to fund our education, so they have to give us chance. If every day they are harassing us, how will we be able to do something good for our future? … We just want [the police] to help us, to provide our protection.

Human Rights Watch has kept in touch with Alex. Only a few days ago, he let us know that he finally completed high school. He’s still riding his motorcycle, and hopes that soon he’ll be saving for college – if the police don’t take his money first.