Understanding the Overloaded Police Service

Mon, 19 Apr 2010 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Nowhere in Ghana’s budding democracy have any of its institutions being critically tested for fuller scrutiny than its police service.

The examination runs in an African atmosphere where indiscipline is an increasingly serious social issue, where states had collapsed and politics paralyzed, where threats of civil wars sometimes flicker, where the tarnished Big Men overly make threats and incites the desperate youth, where armed robbery is a rising menace, where civic virtues are weak and destruction-minded traditional juju-marabou spiritualists support criminals, and some ancient traditions resist to reason with modernity for law and order.

It is in such climate that the chair of research at the Kofi Annan Peace Keeping Training Centre, Emmanuel Kwesi Aning, has observed that “there is a dangerous increasing sense of insecurity…there is a systemic failure somewhere and that systemic failure is beginning to be so widespread that people just don’t respect the law anymore because the security system has broken down basically…Because those who are at the front-lines are badly trained, the recruitment is poor, is looked at through the political lens, their ability even to analyze and then suggest responses is also looked at through the political lens and because there is an ulterior motive in securitizing problems in Ghana that does not look at these problems through the Ghana lens”

“The response mechanisms are always very narrow, focused on attaining particular narrow needs and is not put in a more holistic response strategy…This narrowness and this parochial approach at understanding security and responding to the challenges that arise…is what is leading to the breakdown…lack of confidence in the state’s ability to adequately protect the citizenry.”

Touted as the healthiest democracy in a difficult West Africa, how the Ghana Police Service significantly handles Ghana’s burgeoning democracy by rigorously enforcing the rule of law, freedoms and human rights would tell how democratic institutions would grow and help refine some of the inhibitions within traditional values that have been entangling progress. More critically is how the police service manages the challenges of traditional values that conflict with modernity. The Asantehene-Techiman-Tuobodom traditional quarrel that has caused some deaths, among others, more mired in ancient traditional allegiances than modern practices, reveals the tension between certain antique traditions and modernity. The Ghana Police Service, as the key frontline security institution, has to deal with this conundrum.

For the past months, the police have come into the forefront of public discourse, some bordering on its internal sins. While the police problems may emanate from larger Ghanaian moral troubles, some like Augustine Gyening, head of the Tema Regional Police Commander, echoing security connoisseur Kwesi Aning, “blamed the worrying but rising numbers of policemen involved in robberies on poor recruitment exercises engaged in by the police administration.” The Joy FM has reported that “six policemen and their four civilian accomplices were in November of 2009 sentenced to 20 years jail terms each for robbing a businessman of his money, at gun-point, while another policeman was arraigned before court at Techiman for selling three AK47 assault rifles belong to the police.”

The reasons reflect not only the current security situation of Ghana, which had being suppressed under the long-running one-party and military regimes of yesteryears and the unhelpful threatening utterances of some Big Men, but the fact that Ghanaians are yet to come to terms with the police service in relation to their existence since the police institution is a colonial creation that didn’t factor in Ghanaians traditional values and institutions. Kwesi Aning has touted the “need for the security systems to be restructured so they shed their colonial mentality.”

This is part of the main challenge between the police service and certain traditional values/institutions – how to situate the police service into traditional values/institutions in such a way that it will reflect Ghanaians’ core values and simultaneously help refine antiquated traditional practices such as human sacrifice and witchcraft that impinge on modern rule of law, freedom and human rights. When the Asantehene threatened to kidnap the Techimanhene if he sets foot on Ashanti region for publicly kidnapping and disgracing the Tuobodomhene, who owes allegiance to the Asantehene, he was talking traditional have been clashing with modernity. Here the police become entrapped in the schisms between tradition and modernity.

This may be part of the reason why, say, the Ghanaian or the Nigerian who have experienced myriad security problems will tell you despicable stories about the police, yet they have no clue how the police works and the problem the police go through everyday to secure their lives in their respective countries in a complex and fragile region.

The dangers the police faces in attempting to protect Ghanaians was echoed in 2004 by The Ghanaian Chronicle: “If the average citizen knew how difficult the work of the police is, perhaps he would then begin to appreciate and respect the men and women who have opted to maintain law and order as peace officers. Particularly in a country such as ours where illiteracy is dominant and ignorance of the law is considered the norm, the police service has an unenviable and uphill task making sure that the rule of law is upheld.”

For the rationale that the Ghana police have been used by different political regimes to their whims and caprices, Ghanaians do not trust the police much. In a nascent multiparty democracy mired in multi-faceted tribalism any police action is interpreted by those of the divide as “politically motivated.” In Sierra Leone the police was tribalised under the Siaka Stevens one-party regime, making it mistrustful, ineffective and an easy run-over by Foday Sankoh’s rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front.

In the heavily mess up Democratic Republic of Congo, the police under President Mobutu Sese Seko was so unprofessionally politicized that it blinded their objectivity in a profoundly complicated nation. No doubt today the country has over 20,000 UN security forces (the largest in the world) trying vainly to maintain law and order in a mucky and multi-sided ancestral atmosphere that resemble Colonel Kurtz’s drugged out slaughters in Apocalypse Now.

This is against the security fact, which defies any police operations that Congo-Kinshasa is so helpless in policing itself that, under Washington’s reasoning, as the BBC reports, Kinshasa has “invited” the militaries of three foreign countries, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, to control “in or around” Congo-Kinshasa’s “edges”. The disturbing fact, security-wise, or more appropriate, police-wise, is that despite having the “trappings of sovereignty” Congo-Kinshasa do “not” have “much modern government or control outside the main cities.”

Just imagine the police in such complicated security algebraic equation and have the feel, as a human being, how overloaded the police are.

It is in such broader development that in 2004, a Ghanaian commentator wrote that, “Under the Provisional National Defence Committee (PNDC) and later under the government of the National Democratic Congress (NDC, of the Rawlings presidency) nobody trusted the police…” The police service was almost paralyzed to the delight of the tyrant and undemocratic Jerry Rawlings in the name of his convoluted military security apparatus that created more security predicaments and saw the police service effectively paralyzed for long time and saw the Ghana Armed Forces wrongly taking over some police duties.

No doubt, throughout Ghana and Africa, people's misunderstanding of their civic responsibilities in relation to the police has gone as far as attacking the police in the course of undertaking their duties. In states like Nigeria, Congo-Kinshasa and Cote d'Ivoire gratuitous people have found it a fair game to attack police stations, and fatally assaulted the police in the course of doing their constitutional jobs. This shows that African citizens, after almost 50 years of independence from colonial rule, have weak grasp of the civic duties of the police, especially in dangerous and poverty-stricken places like Bawku and Yendi.

In a Ghana and Africa where poverty is widespread, influence of traditional spiritualists a daily affair, moral decay on the prowl, crime on the increase, youth let loose and threats of civil wars real and present danger, just imagine being a police officer. Just imagine being a police officer in Congo-Kinshasa with its intractable and complex conflicts involving numerous countries and factions that have claimed 5.4 million people between 1998 and 2008 with a continuing average of 45,000 deaths per month.

Or just picture being a police officer and confronting frustrated youth attackers in Bawku, Dadgon or Jos. This shadow self of African cities, where the police repeatedly clash with armed robbers and angry youth over varied issues, some realistic and others unrealistic, is Africa's own disintegration self, the awful pointer of what will happen when the worst transpires, as when the Ivorien police woke up one day and found their once peaceful country divided into two by rebel-soldiers. In such apparent peril the police left their duties for the deadly rebels.

African civilization under blockade from dim-witted African Big Men, hypothetically, will come unstuck. Anarchy will break loose in Bawku and weeds pushed up the Bawku wasteland, and the police will slide into a paramilitary tribe at war with either rebel groups or gangsters or senseless youth or the youthful armed robbers that go howling through the Accra wastelands like the phenomenal African military coup makers, AK47 runners.

This hypothetical dream contains some few serrated elements of truth. Some African cities have come to look dangerously like their anti-selves: the proverbial African Big Men threats, civil wars and grimy, multi-sided conflicts, homelessness, growing slums, increasing armed robbery, joblessness, homicides, prostitution, debts deepening, revenue shortage, services disintegrating, poverty, crime and drugs showing their open, permanent reality.

As for the clannish African police, they have been at war for some time in Freetown, in Bawku, in Jos and in other cities, though not in the better parts of African cities' neighbourhood. In Accra, the police, for years, are increasingly being dared to find those who have been killing women in juju/marabou-inspired ritualistic ways. This and other clashes like that in Bawku and Jos reveal the lawlessness that the African nightmare predicts: stunning, granular, and bizarre.

Watching Ghanaian and African police in action in places like Bawku, Yendi and Jos and thinking about other police brutality incidents – the police conniving with rebels groups or armed robbers, for example – Africans felt wonder, horror or, in some African cases, disgust at the police. In such situations, Africans side with the mass media for putting searchlight on the police. The African police do not have good relationship with the African media - there is always love-hate relationship.

The lasting reaction to the Ghanaian and African police, say, melting rough justice to demonstrators in Bawku, Nairobi, Jos or Bamako, besides outrage of one kind or another, may have been a sense of being in the presence of mystery. How is a group of people given such power? In places like Sierra Leone, where rebels mixed easily with non-rebel civilians, it was difficult for the police not to be paranoid, when sifting through who is a rebel and who is not. The Ghana Police Service is experiencing same between its officers turned armed robbers. But, yet still, the average Ghanaian do cry out against police for gross, offhanded brutality, dealt out by the guardians of the law, seemed strange enough and disturbing on a fairly deep emotional and moral level.

The beating of the student demonstrators in Accra in 2004, under Ghana’s developing democracy, the police not acting on some impulse of the moment, seem desultory and methodical at the same time. Police stroll around the streets of Accra. It looks like an impromptu RUF social occasion, where limbs are flying in the sky and the evil self let loose on innocent people but yet society appears helpless. In such a situation, there is future shock and an odd familiarity in the streets of Bawku, Kivu or Lagos in the scene: it has some of the feel of a colonial police teaching the “uncivilized” Africans sense – an African throwback migrated to the slave trading era of armed raids.

The police service in the African traditional sense did not exist in Africa (the traditional African community was itself a police service, everyone a police officer); it was brought, like most structures existing now, by the colonialists. The mystery is how can a group of people be given such power, for what? For law and order: to teach the people where power lies. How does a group of otherwise normal people turn into a mob capable of killing people (as in Bawku), beating people (as in Yendi) and brutalizing people (as in Tuobodom)? Among the police they will tell you they are gentle people going about their business like any other responsible citizen. The police have families like any other citizen, and do come from within the same people who have been clashing and insulting the police.

The questions about the Ghanaian/African police are both social and personal. Sociologists will tell you, in Freudian terms, that the law is supposed to perform the function of the superego, policing the wild of Bawku, Yendi, Techiman or Accra and the violent id in the plains of Dafur and Tuobodom. The police principle goes to work when the id takes over from the superego and put on a green or blue or khaki uniform (as the various African police services/forces uniforms show), when police authority goes wild.

My paternal aunt, Paulina Adutwum, a sergeant in the Ghana Police Service, will tell you that most African police officers are decent men and women doing honourable work in a very dangerous period in Africa's transition, where arms and drugs are easy to get in Bawku, Kivu or Soweto today than Kwame Nkrumah’s era. The civil wars, porous borders, globalization, and political paralysis have made the Ghanaian/African police work more precarious. It is partly for that reason that the Ghanaian police's transformation from group to mob, as in Bawku, when the police are chasing armed tribal attackers, is hard to understand. And as Adutwum would again tell you, the dangerous work the police do, for modest salaries and poor conditions, is also brutalizing.

African criminologists say the homicide rate in Africa has jumped over the years. In big cities like Lagos, Accra or Abidjan most felony offenders have been arrested before, and some have at least one prior conviction. Robbers and drug gangs are often armed with automatic weapons more sophisticated than the handguns the African police carry. How can, say, the police in Kivu deal with lethally armed tribal gangs? Or as the Ghanaian police is finding out in post-Rawlings Ghana, how can they deal with proliferation of AK47s?

A career of dealing with such situation of vicious, conscienceless criminal-enemy frightens and frays the nerves. It drives the African police deeper into the solidarities of their professional tribe. There they find the support and understanding they feel they do not get from the ignorant citizenry. The African public prefers their innocence, does not want to know the violent lengths to which the African police sometimes go when trying to contain armed attackers in Bawku or Yendi to enforce the law.

Security expert Aning argues “the need for the authorities to pursue a paradigm shift in the manner in which the security services are treated, reminding the president (John Atta Mills) that the buck stop with him, so he must make sure the police in particular are properly funded, resourced and trained so as to help them maintain the Ghana’s peace and security.” In a Ghana with over 23 million people, the Ghana Police Service’s problems are made worse by the fact that while the “police service had a numerical strength of about 37,000 in 1991, that number had dwindled to about 19,000 in 2010, juxtaposed with increasing population,” revealed Aning.

Nigerian or Ghanaian police will tell you that the terms “war against crime” and “war on drugs” encourage, and sometimes, demand an all-out attack by the African police upon criminals - no quarter given. But like the progressing culture of armed robbery in Nigeria, which has prompted joint police-military operations, the African police are fighting an unwinnable war, assuming large social responsibilities that belong more to the much-hated African politicians than to African police service: and as in the Nigerian campaigns of war against crime, atrocities are being committed in both sides.

The African police, like any African group, have a life of its own that is far more than the sum of the individuals in it. They belong to different moral order from the individual. It has sensibilities and impulses and appetites and mind of its own. It has its collective will and its personality and its voice and its emotions. It has its shared values and thoughts that can be frightening and incomprehensible, like domesticated species, that may sometimes turn erratically vicious, doing wild-species things no one could foresee.

In such an African police culture, the ordinary African's judgment may differ to the collective judgment in a police group, where individual responsibilities get diffused, scattered among them. And so when the police in Ghana or Nigeria decide how to contain youth demonstrations or growing armed robbery, normal inner standards give way to group will. The policeman becomes less self-focused. It will take a strong, poised character of a policeman to go against current of group will. Those koti, as the police are called in Ghana, who confront deadly armed robbers in Accra allow themselves to go with current of their police tribe, against their individual inner standards.

The secret of the transformation of the Bawku youth or any of the others in the riverine areas of Nigeria who have been clashing with the police over environmental and oil matters is that a few leaders incite the rest, tying them, throwing the rope over a palm tree, and they become a mob. The others automatically allow themselves to be carried passively by the group purpose. When the African police encounter demonstrators in Abidjan, it does this with its own atmosphere and triggers its tribal antipathies and peer-group expectations.

In such an atmosphere none of the police officers express objections. And the result can be rough justice against the enemy – rebels or youth demonstrators or armed robbers. It is for this reasons that the overloaded Ghanaian and African need our understanding.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi