“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.
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 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 pop 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 US dollars 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 the rule of law in this recovering post-conflict state.
Since the end of the country’s devastating civil wars ten years ago, Liberia’s overall progress has to be seen as positive. The brutality of warlords like Charles Taylor, the common use of child soldiers, and 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 ten years doesn’t mean everything’s OK here,” says Thomas Nah, executive director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia, and an expert on corruption in the country.
“All the hope we have, all the vision we espouse... it all means nothing. 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, the numbers don’t augur well for the future. The police themselves only tally some 4400, 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. 90% of Liberians live on less than two US dollars 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 ten dollars 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, Griffiths points out, for understandable reasons.
Many officers have to survive on a salary of US$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 it does quite a bit at this time of 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’ve got a vehicle, there’s a good chance the petrol for it has disappeared somewhere along a “leaky” logistics line. 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 corruption expert 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 ten 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?”