MONROVIA, LIBERIA— After 10 years of peace, the police force in the West African nation of Liberia still lacks the ability to protect most neighborhoods, and it maintains a reputation for corruption. As a result, residents of crime-prone areas in the capital, Monrovia, rely on vigilante groups to provide security.
On a recent weeknight, leaders of a vigilante group on Monrovia’s Bushrod Island go around knocking on doors to wake up their members before the evening patrol. Armed with cutlasses and sticks, the group of about 12 young men walk around the neighborhood all night, keeping an eye out for men they describe as “rogues.”
The group covers a small area of about 100 homes in a community called Logan Town. It collects 150 Liberian dollars, or about $2, from each home every two weeks.
The appeal of vigilante groups appears to stem from a lack of confidence in the police, according to international group Human Rights Watch [HRW]. This is despite 10 years of U.N. assistance in trying to rebuild the police after 14 years of civil conflict ending in 2003.
Expensive police work
HRW Researcher Valerie Brender said that because Liberian police officers demand money before performing basic job functions, it is not possible for ordinary Liberians to turn to them.
“What we found is that the police routinely compromise access to justice by making people pay at every stage of an investigation. So for many Liberians, justice has simply become too expensive. So what that means is Liberians who feel like they can’t get justice from the law will often take justice into their own hands,” she said.
The groups are technically illegal. Citizens are not allowed to police communities, though the police force does collaborate with Community Watch Forums, which are unarmed and simply report crimes to police officers.
One big concern about vigilante groups is that they deny due process rights to criminals, potentially subjecting them to physical violence instead.
Danicious Kallon, one of the founders of the group in Logan Town, denied beating suspects, saying his group handed suspects over to the police and tried to protect them from angry mobs. He said the group was only violent with suspects who resisted arrest.
Some residents of Logan Town, such as 35-year-old Musu Taye, said they were happy with the vigilantes’ work.
“The vigilante is helping us. At least now we can sleep at night without any embarrassment. At first it was not easy. The criminal was giving us a hard time. The armed robbers were on our back. But with the help of the vigilantes, things are calm and we can now sleep in peace,” Taye.
Others, like 41-year-old Jerry Sumo, said only the police should be responsible for law enforcement, and that they did not trust the vigilantes.
“The vigilantes are also involved in crime. They also steal some of our community things. They kill our chickens at night, kill the dogs at night, and steal our car tires. So they are of no help. There’s no difference between them and the criminals. I don’t support the idea of vigilantes. I think police need to redouble their efforts and take control of security," he said.
But even if the police were corruption-free, Liberia does not have enough of them. As of February, there were slightly more than 4,000 for a country of about 4 million.
The U.N. mission in Liberia, which provides more than 1,400 officers, has vowed to draw down its forces. But the mission has estimated that it will take about 8,000 Liberian police officers - or double the current number - to adequately serve the population once the U.N. leaves.