Introduction

There is limited historical experience with democratic policing in Sierra Leone. Before the country was consumed by an eleven-year civil war (1991–2002), the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) was perceived as an instrument of political oppression. The broader political climate, in the pre-war period, was characterised by corruption, marginalisation and poor governance, which negatively affected the relationship between the state and its citizens. The role and behavior of the SLP significantly undermined the confidence and trust in the police and the state. Several authors have pointed to the heavy-handedness of state security institutions, including the police and the paramilitary Internal Security Unit (ISU), as a contributing factor to the outbreak of civil war in 1991 (Koroma 1996; Richards 1996; 2003; Rashid 2004).

The breakdown in the relationship between citizens, especially young people, and the state through decades of marginalisation, poverty and bad governance, created an environment in which young people were easily swept into active participation in the brutal civil war. During the civil war, the SLP became a principal target of violence as victims of police brutality were eager to exert revenge on them and demonstrate a change in power relations. This trend continued throughout the war.

At the end of the war, a Security Sector Reform (SSR) process was initiated to transform the security and justice service providers, such as the SLP, into democratic, people-centered institutions with the capacity to efficiently and effectively deliver services and restore the trust and confidence of the public. This process had many iterations, as it evolved from an ad hoc to more comprehensive process, while the country moved from a fragile to a more sustainable peace.

While there have been extensive studies on the SSR process in Sierra Leone, there are limited studies that assess progress with democratic policing in Sierra Leone since the end of the war (2002–2017) (see for example: Albrecht 2009 and 2010; Horn et al 2011; Bangura 2016). This paper argues that while significant investments have been made in promoting democratic policing in Sierra Leone, the gains achieved appear to be eroding due to a lack of political will, limited financial commitment, and the continued perception of corruption and political interference in the dispensation of justice. These factors are mitigating the ability of the SLP to effectively meet the growing demands for security and justice-related services, consequently undermining the trust of the public. This is particularly worrisome for democratic policing in Sierra Leone as people are still grappling with the legacies of police-society relations from both the war and pre-war times.

This study employed a mixed methods approach with data collected by the author and five research assistants, from 567 respondents (336 men and 231 women) representing a mix of state and non-state actors. The respondents can be further delineated as: 349 police officers; 153 civil society representatives; 35 key informants from local police partnership boards; 30 representatives from relevant ministries, departments and agencies. The aim of the survey was to capture perceptions of state and non-state actors on the impact of reform initiatives on democratic policing.

The Most Significant Change (MSC) tool1, semi-structured questionnaires, observation and focus group discussions (FGDs) were used to collect the data between August and September 2017 from five districts in the five regions of the country: Freetown (Western Area), Kono (East), Kambia (Northwest) and Moyamba (South). Additionally, a mix of random, purposive and snow-balling sampling techniques were used to identify and engage the different categories of respondents, thereby, providing a rich collection of perspectives to enhance the arguments, perspectives and analysis presented in this article.

Policing Sierra Leone: 1961–2002

When Sierra Leone gained independence on 27 April 1961, the new government inherited the SLP as established by the British colonial authorities. One of the oldest police forces in the region, it origins could be traced to the declaration of Freetown as a Crown Colony by the British in 1808. Until 1964, when the Police Act was enacted, there was limited clarity on the role of the SLP in a democratic dispensation; although, it was for the most part a well-disciplined and professional institution. This perception of the post-colonial police force was reinforced by a staff member of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who explained that the police were initially professional, respectful and focused on their tasks.2 However, the government and ambitious politicians drew the police into politics and, by 1970, the police were operating as “an enemy of the people.” The same official further detailed that the politicisation of the police left citizens at the mercy of politicians.

This shift described by the interviewee had its roots in the 1967 general elections that the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) lost to the opposition, All People’s Congress (APC). Instead of a smooth transition, the country experienced a military coup d’état that denied the winner, Siaka Probyn Stevens, the premiership and sent him into exile in neighbouring Guinea. Stevens, with the support of junior military officers, returned to power in 1968. However, this experience affected his trust of the security structures and he moved to downsize the military and create parallel structures for his personal and regime security in his post-1968 administration.

One of the newly created structures was the Internal Security Unit (ISU). The ISU was a paramilitary wing of the SLP and most of the ISU officers were loyal to Stevens, either through tribal or political affiliation. Unsurprisingly, the ISU soon became an instrument for the suppression of people opposed to the regime (Keen, 2005: 15–17). With the help of the ISU, Stevens further entrenched his power. In 1978, Stevens introduced a one-party system of government, banned political opposition and muzzled civil society and the media. With opposition leaders exiled and murdered or coopted and lame, Stevens effectively established an autocratic gerontocracy through which he and his cronies used state institutions and resources to their advantage.

At the heart of the Stevens autocracy was the ISU, a unit largely characterised by his kinsmen. The unit received training in communist China and Russia and became an instrument of power, at the sole disposal to the president and his party. Thus, the unit played a leading role in suppressing any form of opposition against the APC. At the height of Stevens’s autocracy, the ISU became agents of economic oppression as they facilitated the underworld trade in smuggling of diamonds, contraband goods and extortion of Lebanese and Fullah businessmen. This continued until 1985 when the aging Stevens handed over power to Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, the then head of the military.

Initially, Momoh enjoyed widespread support from a public that was desperate for change. However, as Abdul Karim Koroma (1996) described the marriage was short-lived and the public quickly realised the general was not up to the task of leading the country. Like Stevens, Momoh used the police to curb, even legitimate expressions of, opposition. Student protests against the military government in 1977 and 1985 resulted in deadly clashes with the police.

By 1991, the relationship between the public and the SLP was one of oppression and control with students protesting the system facing the brunt of their brutality. A student activist remembers how the most powerful and feared person in the country at that time was not the president, but the Inspector General of Police, James Sylvester Bambay Kamara.3 The police had ascended within the domestic political sphere, positioned to “do anything” and “go unchecked.”4

While the police became influential, that influence was based on the dependence of the regime on the police for its survival. As such, the police had become political with a major stake in the decision-making process. Thus, the gap between the government and citizens widened with resultant effects such as increased poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. These factors, in turn, increased the level of vulnerability and frustration within the country, especially among the youth and women. In describing the situation with the youth in the rural areas of the country, Richards (1996) states, “the government failed to respond to the needs of the rural youth and instead receded from those areas, creating a sense of abandonment and absolute neglect”. By 1991, a civil society activist5 described as “the existence of an uneasy calm” disintegrated into a full blown civil war sparked by rise of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Civil War in Sierra Leone

On 23 March 1991, a rebel group of approximately 250 Sierra Leoneans and Liberians, trained and assisted by Burkina Faso, Liberia and Libya, crossed into Sierra Leone and started one of the most brutal civil wars the region had ever seen. The small group of invaders were met by a military that had been undermined by years of mismanagement and political interference. Additionally, as the RUF promised change, they attracted a ready-made army of disillusioned, poor and disengaged youth in the south-east of the country. What was originally a small insurgency group, graduated into a formidable force that soon started taking, and holding territory. The conflict was soon characterised by attacks on institutions and actors – such as the SLP – that were believed to have disadvantaged Sierra Leoneans. This was based on the victims’ mindset shaped by years of marginalization, neglect and infantilization, especially of the youth and women by political elites and community leaders. The desire for revenge against the system was very strong, as was demonstrated in the high levels of violence inflicted by the RUF.

Across the country, there was a shift in power dynamics as the once powerless youth now had the upper hand. Within the government, 1992 saw the APC administration overthrown by young military officers, who formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), led by Captain Valentine Esegrabo Melvin Strasser. Strasser became head of state and sought to consolidate control. On 29 December 1992, Julius Bambay Kamara was executed alongside more than 20 people alleged to have been involved in a coup plot. However, even the young soldiers with experience confronting the RUF, could not contain them and the public began to demand a return to democracy.

As the civil war continued, the police further lost their prominence. A senior military officer explained that the SLP were perceived as part of the corrupt system that the military had overthrown.6 The military saw the central role of the police as a threat to their ability to rule and sought revenge for the way the previous system had marginalised the military and compromised their morals and efficacy; “(T)he military was angry and this anger was reflected in the way Bambay and others were killed”.7

With calls for the end to military rule finally gaining traction, in 1996, Sierra Leone transitioned from military to civilian rule with a former UN diplomat, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, becoming president. By June 1996, the government had set up a committee headed by Dr. Sama Banya “to inquire into and review the conditions of service, the recruitment and staffing policies, and the functional capabilities and administrative structure” of the SLP (Banya Committee Report 1996: i). The committee recommended that the police use a community-based approach to policing, with communities integrated into identifying and addressing security-related challenges, to improve the confidence and trust of the people in the force (Banya Committee Report 1996: 5).

However, as Kabbah developed interest in reforming the police, his relationship with the military slowly disintegrated. Like Stevens, Kabbah appeared not to trust the conduct of the military. The military had gained the reputation of ‘sobels’ – acting as soldiers by day and rebels by night – undermining their reputation in the eyes of the public. Some within the military were also very critical of Sam Hinga Norman, Kabbah’s choice of Deputy Minister of Defence (Kabbah 2010). The situation continued to deteriorate and Kabbah was overthrown on 25 May 1997 by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). However, with the support of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), he was reinstated in April 1998.

On his return Kabbah relied on ECOMOG and the State Security Division (SSD), and initially on the ISU also, for his security. According to Bangura (2016: 12), Kabbah, harbouring mistrust and doubt in the military, was closely examining the possibility of having structures other than a standing army, which would pose less of a threat to his government and the people of Sierra Leone. However, Kabbah’s potential options were limited and his reliance on ECOMOG was short-lived. For the next nine months, the war with the RUF raged throughout the countryside, surging finally on 6 January 1999 into the capital city. The RUF invaded Freetown and Kabbah’s attempts at reforming the security services came to an end. From then onwards, police reform was to be addressed as part of a holistic post-conflict governance reform programme as outlined in the internationally-supported Lomé Peace Agreement, signed on 7 July 1999 in Togo between the government and the RUF. The RUF, however, continued to violate the provisions of the peace agreement until 2002, when the war finally came to an end.

The SLP and SSR in Sierra Leone

With the end of the civil war, an SSR process ensued with the SLP being one of the principal targeted agencies. However, it is noteworthy that the SSR process in Sierra Leone did not commence at the end of the conflict in 2002, but rather started as an outcome of the Lomé peace process of the late 1990s. Importantly, the initial interventions specifically targeted the police. This process was initiated by the British government through its Commonwealth Police Development Task Force (CDTF) and the Commonwealth Community Safety and Security Project (CCSSP). According to Albrecht (2010: 12), CCSSP constituted the ‘heyday’ of police reform in Sierra Leone with this project spending some £25 million from 1999–2005.

According to a government official familiar with the CCSSP, this was the first serious reform process and although, the focus on reform was minimal as the war continued until 2002, these initial efforts started getting the police to rethink what policing is all about.8 However, authors have argued that these programmes were largely driven by the immediate security needs on the ground and as such people may not have been familiar with them (such as Bangura 2016; Waldman and Varisco 2014). When asked whether they were aware that reforms in the SLP started in the mid-1990s, 239 respondents noted that they did not know what these reforms were or the impact they created. However, the desire for reform on the part of both the Sierra Leonean and the British governments laid the ground for the comprehensive reforms, which commenced by 2000. Importantly, too, the British government was instrumental in setting the framework for reform and, specifically, provided and continued to provide direct financial and technical support to the SSR process in Sierra Leone.

The reform agenda was strengthened by the appointment, in 1999, of Keith Biddle as the inspector general for police (IGP). This timely move occurred alongside the launch of the Sierra Leone Security Sector Reform Programme (SILSEP), which aimed to move from an ad hoc to a comprehensive and centralized reform process. The SILSEP did not exclusively deal with the police but addressed other aspects of SSR related to, for instance, the military, with financial and technical support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Africa Conflict Prevention Pool (ACPP) (Albrecht 2009: 2).

Between 1999 and 2003, Biddle initiated an “aggressive restructuring process that transformed the SLP into a force for good.”9 As part of the restructuring process, the police rank system was cut down from twenty-two to nine ranks, with new offices and departments established such as the Media and Public Relations Department, the Community Relations Department, Corporate Services, and the Complaints, Discipline, and Internal Investigations Department. This was complemented by the introduction of a gender mainstreaming policy geared towards increasing the number of women in the force and, at the same time, protecting and promoting their welfare.

Fundamental to the reform process was the establishment of decentralised security structures as part of the Local Needs Policing (LNP) approach of the SLP. LNP was a platform to strengthen the interaction and relationship between the SLP and civilians. It aimed at directly involving local communities in security issues, creating avenues through which the security needs and aspirations of community members could be better understood by the SLP, and exploring ways the community and SLP could collectively address law and order.

According to Horn et al (2011: 10), LNP reflected the necessity for policing to meet the needs and expectations of the local community while also delivering law and order services within national and international standards and guidelines. For LNP to succeed, local communities needed to be directly engaged with their issues and expectations assessed and addressed. To accomplish this, community-based structures, such as the Local Police Partnership Boards (LPPB), Community Police Partnership Committees (CPPC) and the Area Police Partnership Committees (APPC), were established. The SLP also set up a Family Support Unit (FSU) to handle domestic and sexual violence cases and expanded their physical presence through adding police divisions with local unit commanders (LUC). These structures were geared towards improving the relationship between the police and local communities and at the same time involved community members in security matters in their communities.

To ensure democratic and civilian control, internal and external oversight mechanisms and structures were established. These included: the Police Council; the Parliamentary Committee on Internal Affairs and Local Government; the Ministry of Internal Affairs; the National Security Council (NSC); and the Justice Sector Leadership Group (LG), chaired by the vice president. Both the NSC and the LG have lower structures that oversee coordination and engagement among security and justice institutions. For the NSC, there is the Office of National Security (ONS), which coordinates activities within the security sector and it has the National Security Coordination Group (NSCG), which constitutes representatives of all security agencies; the NSCG reports to the NSC. For the justice sector, the Justice Sector Coordination Office (JSCO) serves as the coordination unit and the secretariat of the Technical Working Group (TWG), which reports to the Leadership Group.

To protect the rights of people, the Complaints, Discipline and Internal Investigation Department (CDIID) was established within the police. To further strengthen public confidence in police, the Independent Police Complaints Board (IPCB) was also established in 2014 to receive, investigate and monitor complaints from the community about the SLP, to protect people from abusive police practices, and to enable public accountability for misconduct and human rights violations (GoSL 2015). It is evident that significant investment went into the establishment of systems and structures geared towards reforming the police and positioning it to efficiently and effectively carry out its duties. The next section draws on the primary research collected to analyse the impact of the police reform agenda.

An Assessment of the Gains Made by the SLP

After two decades of SSR in Sierra Leone, there appears to be mixed feelings on the transformations in the SLP. 73% of the interviewees that were familiar with the activities of the police during the pre-war and war eras, indicated that the SLP had improved significantly in attitude and in the practice of policing. 45% of those 73% attributed the transformation to capacity building through SSR, 37% to civilian oversight and 18% to other factors such as a democratic system of governance within the country and effective leadership within the police. Arguing on gains made and how they have helped to strengthen the police in the eyes of the public, a senior staff of the ONS noted that the police used to be regarded as thugs and instruments of oppression of the state and now they are considered ‘a force for good’ that ensures the safety and security of people.10

69% of the total number of respondents indicated that the use of decentralised security structures such as the LPPBs, CPPCs and APPCs has led to an improvement in public trust and confidence in the police. Two major reasons provided for this conclusion by respondents are: firstly, that the decentralised structures provide community members with the recognition and respect they require by including and working with them on security related issues; and secondly, there is an element of satisfaction on the part of community members that the police are making a conscious effort to understand and address their challenges.

From their establishment in 2002 until 2015, these structures were largely supported through capacity building projects by DFID initially through its Justice Sector Development Programme (JSDP) and later through the Access to Security and Justice Programme (ASJP).

Existing Factors Undermining Democratic Policing in Sierra Leone

Most interviewees (57%) indicated that, although, the police have improved its relationship with people and is a more professional force, there remains mistrust between the public and the police. Corruption, political interference and lack of police presence in remote communities, continue to undermine public perceptions of the police. Of the challenges listed, the perception of corruption came out strongest: 83% – of the 57% mentioned above – indicated that the most immediate challenge is corruption. However, it was observed that corruption is largely directed at the traffic police, which is often the first (and most frequent) point of contact between the police and citizens. The negative perception of the traffic unit appears to cloud the reputation of the whole police force. Other corruption-related claims by interview respondents included the demand for logistical support, such as transportation and the request for tips or bribes to encourage police to take cases.11 While these claims are unverified, the police must continuously ensure that these perceptions are addressed with public actions taken to fight corruption.

A major challenge to democratic policing in Sierra Leone is poor salaries and conditions of service; all officers interviewed specifically pointed to this challenge. For instance, a corporal within the force receives a salary of less than $150 a month – an amount that is deemed to be inadequate to meet personal and familial demands. Not only do the low salaries undermine morale but the low pay also means that officers look for supplementary means to meet their financial demands. As a police officer stationed in Makeni pointed out, the legacy of low pay needs to change as you cannot effectively fight corruption, if officers are poorly paid.12 The same officer noted that the government had recently increased the salaries of judges, magistrates and state counsels without raising the salaries of the police, the gatekeepers of law and order.

While government officials recognised that there is a correlation between the salaries and conditions of service and corruption, they also pointed out that the government is contending with financial challenges and is not in the position to increase salaries.13 Sierra Leone is facing significant economic hardship in the wake of the Ebola outbreak and due to the collapse of the mining sector. While these justifications may be valid, it can also be argued that very little effort was made to increase salaries even before these crises hit.

What those critical of the police and its ability to readily respond may not necessarily understand, is that the police are also contending with significant logistical challenges. For example, in Kenema district with 16 chiefdoms, the police have only four functional vehicles, which raises concerns about the ability to respond to multiple incidents. This provides an indication that the government and its development partners need to invest more in the force to ensure that it can meet the growing demand for security and justice in local communities.

A further concern noted by interviewees is that of political interference in the activities of the police, especially in areas that are perceived to be strongholds of the opposition SLPP. A civil society activist in Kenema lamented the lack of an unbiased, professional police force that respects the rule of law, explaining that the police targeted civil society activists in the area and had even assaulted an officer of the Human Rights Commission for questioning the actions of the police.14 Even police officers interviewed for this research noted that there are instances when they are given ‘orders from above’ to direct the line of action to be taken in certain cases.

Closely related to the perception of corruption in the SLP is that despite public financial management reforms in government after the war, the SLP has continuously resisted attempts to decentralise the use of their budget, which would improve accountability, transparency and the public’s confidence in the force.

Such evidence supports the analysis that the historical legacy of the pre-war and the war period persists and the democratisation process has still not reached its maturation point. While Sierra Leone has succeeded in holding three democratic elections and has not relapsed into violence, the country may still not have moved out of the post-conflict trajectory. Political tension and mistrust, which embody negative peace, are challenges that the country continues to contend with.

Furthermore, the police should be strategically positioned to meet the demands of changing times. The demand for security and justice services are increasing while West Africa is also facing increasingly sophisticated transnational organised crime, including from terrorism, violent Islamic extremism, human trafficking, cybercrime, piracy and money laundering. Tackling or preventing such crimes require a much more proactive approach, supported by human, financial and legal requirements and investments, and with a horizontal integration encompassing state and non-state actors. While the current strategic plan of the SLP (2015–2019) appreciates the need for a proactive human security based approach to policing (SLP 2015), police interviewees complained of lack of political will to invest in the needs of the force.

Part of the problem of political will in Sierra Leone, is related to the central role of international actors in the reform process. While this was a strength of the police reform programme in its early stages (1999–2002), interviewees noted that there was too much reliance on the British for SSR in Sierra Leone.15 Instead of taking leadership, the government left it to the British, who had the resources and will to claim that space. However, since 2015, the reduction of British support is having a negative effect and the government is not prepared to fill the gap. Some 79% of interviewees suggested that SSR is not a priority for the government. The lack of government prioritisation for continued SSR has a negative connotation for a country that has not completely transcended the post-conflict trajectory.

The understanding and appreciation of the relationship between security, peace and development is of intrinsic significance to the achievement of sustainable development. According to a representative of a donor agency in Sierra Leone, the government does not display sufficient prioritization of the SSR processes and fails to understand that it is the principal duty bearer and donors are meant to complement, not lead, government efforts.16 The same official used the 2-year approval period for the National Security Policy and Strategy as an example of the lack of priority action on SSR.

Inasmuch as there is an improved relationship between the police and civilians, some isolated incidents in the last few years provide an indication of highhandedness on the part of the police, leading to clashes with civil society. For instance, on 23 March, 2017, Amnesty International reported that the police used excessive force, leading to the loss of one life to quell a student demonstration at Njala University in Bo. Similarly, clashes between youth and the police in Kabala in 2017 were also very violent (Amnesty International 2017).

The heavy-handedness of the police, which is a contradiction to democratic policing, draws to mind what Fichtelberg (2013) labelled the ‘democratic dilemma of policing’, which he defined as “the need to create institutions for effective law enforcement and for the maintenance of social order while simultaneously preventing these institutions from becoming tools of oppression, either through their deployment by a would-be dictator or simply by overaggressive law enforcement” (2013: 12). This points to the need for more democratic checks and controls of the police to mitigate excesses and the use of discretion. However, this will be difficult to achieve, if the actions favour the interests of the political elites.

According to 61 out of the 77 participants, who partook in 8 FGDs across the country, there is a growing concern especially as Sierra Leone is moving towards elections in 2018. 53 of the FGD participants indicated that the police need to be retrained and reminded on what democratic policing is. Specific training recommended by them included community security, crowd control, dealing with young people, use of discretion, human rights and the rule of law, and on fighting corruption within the police.

To consolidate the gains made and to overcome to further improve on democratic policing, there is the need for an immediate and urgent need for continued investments in structural and systemic transformations within the SLP as Sierra Leone goes into an election in 2018.

Conclusion

Since the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, significant investments have been made in promoting democratic policing through establishing civilian oversight institutions and complaints mechanisms, decentralised structures that promote LNP and the expansion of service provision in different areas of the country.

However, despite this progress, with the dwindling support to the police reform process in Sierra Leone since 2015, it is becoming increasingly clear that the gains made through SSR are being undermined by a general lack of political will and commitment to prioritize and invest in democratic policing in the country. The failure of the police in the last few years to efficiently and effectively deliver on the growing demand for security and justice services, coupled with perceptions of corruption, political interference, and heavy-handedness of the force, especially in their dealings with young people, is significantly eroding the trust and confidence of the public in the force.

It could also be concluded that the lack of adequate investments in the police is rendering the force unprepared to deal with policing challenges in the 21st century. Addressing or mitigating existing and emerging threats such as terrorism, Islamic radicalisation, cybercrime, human trafficking and piracy will require a longer-term strategic and proactive approach, instead of the reactive approach that the force is accustomed to.

To further consolidate the peacebuilding process in Sierra Leone and transition Sierra Leone out of the post-conflict trajectory with positive peace ensured, the country will require a democratically transformed police force that the people of the country have confidence and trust in. However, for this to happen, the government needs to understand that it has a vital role to play, especially with the dwindling donor support for SSR in Sierra Leone. As the government has the principal responsibility of protecting and promoting the rights and welfare of Sierra Leoneans, investing in institutions, like the police, is crucial.