By Demba Baldeh from eye witness accounts..
Law enforcement is one of the most important institutions in any country. Law enforcement is neither the army nor the National Intelligence Agency – renamed State Intelligence Services (SIS). The Gambia police force is the prime law enforcement agency in the country. They deal with major and minor crimes as well as community policing. Their challenges range from traffic regulations; accidents, murders, domestic violence issues such as child abuse, petty quarrels, theft etc. The police are also involved in both national and international crimes investigation just to name a few.
The Gambia police force historically has a good reputation during the first republic. Though a smaller force, they were well trained and attracted highly capable citizens whose interest was to serve their nation. The force consisted of many patriotic citizens with impeccable character and integrity. They were well respected and did a fine job under the circumstances.
The Gambia police force during Jammeh’s twenty – two years dictatorship were the most neglected institution in the country. In fact, there are still evidence that the police are still the most neglected institution in the Gambia. These young men and women toils the streets and villages in Gambia under difficult circumstances and, yet they are the least equipped and least paid in the civil and security services. Yahya Jammeh and his regime literally used the police as a dumping ground for less qualified citizens who were basically stripped of their law enforcement power which was transferred to the National Intelligence agency and the Military.
Almost all security check points and traffic posts were manned by the army and the NIA who were largely responsible for arrest and investigation of crimes. Plain clothes NIA and military officers were around who arrested, tortured and dumped citizens at police stations only to collect them in the dark hours of the night to torture chambers and unknown destinations. Station officers did not have the power to detain or refuse the transfer of detainees from one station to another. The Inspector General of police position was mostly occupied by Jammeh royalists qualified or not and they were fired at random without explanation.
Instead of empowering the only supposed law enforcement agency in the country, Yahya Jammeh sidelined and neglected this important national institution into oblivion. The work of community policing was completely transferred to the notorious national intelligence agency and the army who were never trained to deal with civilians and the community. As a result, fear and terror were the order of the day and citizens were subjected to all kinds of maltreatment. At the very least the police are trained in law enforcement and how to deal with the community. The police became Jammeh’s favorite target in frequently changing personnel effectively rendering the institution into a ghost force.
Fast forward to the new government, realizing that the NIA and Army are not a law enforcement agency, the former interior minister Mai Fatty went to work to revitalize the damaged institution. He conducted several training and started to clean house. He quickly realized that the task of reviving the police force would be a daunting task. He however, went to the national assembly and requested funding to provide transportation and uniforms for the police. Mai constantly talked about police conduct and the need to respect the rights of citizens to freedom of expression and association. He was often seen with the paramilitary police speaking to them and conducting some form of training. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make a big difference until his unexplained removal from office. The removal of former IGP Sonko, prison Director Colley and appointment of current IGP Kinteh was seen to be the beginning of efforts to reform the police.
There is no question the Gambia police force has enormous challenges institutionally. Not only are they ill equipped, but the condition of police stations and their abilities to investigate or prevent crimes is severely hampered. They have no means of transportation to quickly response to crimes and or patrol remote villages to provide community protection. Crimes have been in the rise especially arm robbery in remote parts of Gambia. How can the police respond to crimes if there is not even a number to call to report crimes and or transportation for police to get to a crime scenes? Not to talk about controlling traffic in the most congested side of town. Sometimes traffic police post is more of hindrance to traffic than easing the flow because they are undermanned and less respected.
Some of the most damning evidence of the police being the most neglected institution is how they operate in various police stations. From several stations this author personally visited, what I saw was simply jaw dropping and a national embarrassment. Almost all police stations in the Gambia do not even have a single computer to do their work. Instead, these stations are still using manual registry book to document incidents in a large registry as big as an encyclopedia or the Guinness world record consisting of over hundred years record. When I visited a police station nearby in Bijilo next to the turntable, one of the busiest stations in the area, I could not believe my eyes. There is one desk top computer probably as old as fifteen years and cases were being documented in a giant book. I asked why the station does not have computers to document these cases, the look I got was enough to send me to prison that night. I saw a couple older computers in the CID unit which are virtually dysfunctional as well because of their age. The most embarrassing thing though were not lack of computers, but the leather chairs. I was afraid to sit on the chairs as they are ripped and looks like they came from the dumpsite. The officers were afraid to say anything in fear of losing their jobs or being in the news. I stubbornly took a picture of the giant record book for evidence but not knowing I wasn’t allowed to do so. My phone was seized and the picture deleted from it before I got my phone back. I wish I had my google images back up! My intention wasn’t ill intend but simply to bring attention to the police so that they could possibly get some help may be from a philanthropist or good Samaritans who can donate computers.
My visit to the Banjul police headquarters though gave a different impression. There was so much security in the hall ways I thought I was visiting Kanilai in the hay days of the paranoid dictator. I was visiting a senior official and it took me more than half an hour to see the gentleman. To be honest, his office was well furnished with air conditioning and two computers. Three securities were outside of the office screening people coming in and out. In essence the condition of the police headquarters does not reflect the several police stations I visited. It depicts of an old bureaucracy where the top officers enjoy all the privileges while the very people doing the hard work are left to fend for themselves. On New Years eve, my wife and I with several hundred motorists spent three hours stranded within quarter of a mile around the Senegambia strip. The problem, the police had closed the high way through Senegambia and the taxi drivers have gone crazy. They literally blocked traffic in all directions and no one could move for three good hours. When I saw a police officer leaving his post, I respectfully asked him what he was doing to ease the traffic. His respond to me ran chills in my spine and I was very sympathetic with him. I said “Officer can you help with the traffic”? He responded in a very fatigue voice “My brother am trying to find my way home to my family after being here for nineteen hours” I thought about how much he gets paid, how long he has been standing there and the amount of disrespect he got, I couldn’t help but sympathize with him. How could you expect a poor officer getting paid D2,000 or less to spend the whole day and night in the hot sun and deadly pollution to continue to do his work when he has family to feed and a wife and children to get to?
Essentially, the Gambia police force has some serious challenges to deal with. They are no doubt the most neglected institution in the country. The government cannot expect these poor sons and daughters of our nation to give it all they have and, yet they are deprived of necessities to do their work. The only encouraging thing I saw is the increasing presence of female police officers in the force. This is a good move as more of our sisters obtained employment through the force. That is one good work Jammeh might have done. At the very least the IGP must visit all stations and make sure that there are decent furniture and computers for them to do their work. There must be efforts to create a database and or an electronic system where the police can document their cases and keep records of them regularly.
I am certain police pay grades are a big contributing factor to police corruption and acceptance of bribes. The police cannot attract the best and the brightest if that institution continue to be neglected. May be government cannot do it all, in which case successful citizens and good corporate citizens must also contribute towards donating computers or even furniture to these stations. Community policing is most essential, but the police cannot do their work if they cannot even get to a crime scene. It is therefore important that the Barrow government prioritize the police as an institution. IGP Kinteh’s legacy must hang on his ability to transform the police force. They must begin to channel some of the funding the government receives towards upgrading the police force. Security is paramount and the presence of police officers in neighborhoods means more security of our communities.
The situation is so dire I would propose citizen action to help reduce some of these challenges. If you read this story and you either live or own a home close to the Brusibi, Bijilo, Senegambia, Brufut, Sukuta, Manjai or along the Kombo Coastal road let’s consider putting funds together to help donate computers and or furniture to the Bigilo/Brusubi police station. These can be duplicated in other areas by citizens to help boost community policing… If interested, please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org . We can coordinate and help raise some funds.