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The Sierra Leone Police and Okada Riders: Two Sides to a Story

OCTOBER 15, 2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

Just last week in Freetown, ‘Okada’ riders – local commercial motorbike riders – were up in arms with the Sierra Leone Police after the gruesome death of one of their comrades. Alpha Jalloh, a youth in his earlier twenties, met his untimely death while being hotly pursued by traffic police officers along Guy Street, off Krootown Road, on that fateful Thursday morning.

As usual, he was trying to evade arrest, apparently for being in breach of some minor traffic regulations, according to eyewitness accounts, like failure to wear a crash helmet or riding in a so-called prohibited area.

For thousands of young ‘Okada’ riders, evading police arrest every day is an essential art in their mode of operation, because an arrest would most often than not mean parting with at least fifty thousand Leones to the officer or having the bike seized until a hefty ‘fine’ is paid to senior officers at the station.

And because Alpha decided to evade his pursuer, perhaps due to the fact that he had no money to part with that morning as he had just started the day’s work, his journey of life was brutally cut short by that evasive art on that fateful day when he got entangled by a reversing truck which crushed his head. A fatal error of judgment on his part? Perhaps.

This gory and macabre end is symptomatic of a brutal, unorthodox policing employed by the Sierra Leone Police under the hegemony of Mr. Francis Munu, arguably the most unpopular police boss in the history of post-war Sierra Leone. The record of the successor to Brima Acha Kamara, who himself was no archetypical police boss worth emulating, would unenviable place his predecessor in the Police Hall of Fame (Sierra Leone Police Standard!).

Yes! Acha may have infamously justified the savage attack on the headquarters of an opposition party by ruling party thugs as ‘operation pay yourself’ or may have been complicit in the escape of his kinsman, war crime indictee, Johnny Paul Koroma, but he maintained a police force that was not trigger happy and never went out of its way to justify extrajudicial killings by his men. But his successor though has rather superintended over a force that is notorious for pulling the trigger, killing a Sierra Leonean United States Marine, innocent school children, protestors, bike riders and even police officers!

And in all of these unfortunate episodes, the head of the police would come out gung-ho, defending his men, even if it means storming radio stations uninvited! Such has been the style of policing propagated by the Munu-led police that they espouse the use of brutal brawn and eschew employing conscionable brain, tact and partnership, as one would expect a force on the road to transformation. Alas! For Munu and his men, policing is all about applying eccentric methods, characterized by brutality, human rights abuses, harassment and extortion.

The result, which is sad for our country, is that despite years of trying to rebrand the police force as ‘a force for good’, thanks to British tax-payers money and expertise, the force wallows in mediocrity, unprofessionalism and still philosophically rooted in one-party era, with allegiance more attuned to the regime and less to the state.

That is why recruitment into the force is still blighted by favouritism, with scores of square pegs placed in round roles, and promotion from one cadre to another influenced by considerations other than merit, years of industry, professionalism and ability. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the police has always had to depend itself from public condemnation following each unfortunate and avoidable killing. Sadly, in most instances, lives are lost, although investigations take too long to complete or culprits are surreptitiously dismissed from the force.

Seldom have we seen the police coming out to apologize for their Apartheid-like policing, which is antithetical to contemporary police modes, where protection of rights, including that of those in conflict with the law, should be the norm and not the exception.

Although the police high command would at times apologise for the zombie behaviour of their men, yet apology alone will be inadequate. What we need now is a real professional police force which can take independent decisions and act in the interest of the citizenry. Sierra Leone doesn’t need a trigger happy force, especially one with many deadwoods.

Without doubt hundreds if not thousands of police personnel are of sound professional and intellectual acumen. However, the bad eggs are in the majority and they in turn frustrate the efforts of the ‘good guys’.

Also, the fact is that police officers have been stellar in their performance in other countries, while on United Nations/African Union Mission, where the rules of engagement are clear and rigid, and the motivation to maintain high international standards is borne out of the craving to remain part of the mission than to uphold universal policing best practices. Thus, it is pretty much bizarre that while the record of the police is exemplary abroad, their home record is anything but praiseworthy. But charity, they say, begins at home. In other words, the police force should translate their achievements on peacekeeping missions around the world into top-notch professional performance at home, to remedy their already chequered record.

That said, the behaviour of bike riders is nothing to eulogise as a good many of them would rather be in breach of the law than act within it. While there have been various efforts to curb their errant ways, thanks to trainings by non-governmental groups and even the police, many still maintain their jungle proclivities which anomie we all live with now, unfortunately.

However, inasmuch as the menace posed by these bike riders is quite disturbing, even lugubrious, as a result what they pose to societal moral and stability, yet that does not arrogate to the police license to violate their civil liberties and freedoms willy-nilly.

Leaders of the Okada riders have argued that if the government didn’t want them to operate they should not have allowed them to register. Some mischievous ones have even posited that the chief executive had endorsed them by accepting the title of ‘chief rider’ and bought them helmets with his name emblazoned on them during the 2012 elections. Hence they conclude it’s a tacit endorsement of their existential functionality to the polity, and the fact that they should be accommodated instead of harangued and harassed routinely, although during electioneering period they are hailed.

The reality is that beyond the political and policing façade of feting and fighting the Okada riders in equal measure, depending on the time and circumstance, the social menace they pose is a necessary evil because they provide the quickest and for some the sole means of transportation across the country. Talk less of the revenue they generate to government and even the police, they are a means of livelihood to thousands of households and the only viable employment mode for thousands of youths.

Therefore, what we need now is how to effectively regulate them, instead of how to oppress them. The fact is that they are here to stay, so long as our public transport sector remains in shambles and youth unemployment continues to soar.

Hence, what government, including the president should do, is to regulate the operation of Okada riders across the country, demarcating routes they should ply, hours of operation etc, so as to impose a strict legal regime within their ranks. Perhaps more significantly, the police should be prevented from arbitrarily imposing laws aimed at ‘ambushing’ Okada riders, with a view to collect money and not to refine their ways.

Otherwise, our society will bury many more Alpha Jallohs, amidst protest marches to State House – a common occurrence now by the way – and the indiscriminate firing of teargas by the Operational Support Division (OSD) of the police.