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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Mob justice in Liberia as police struggle with crime

MONROVIA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - A taxi driver is dragged from his car and beaten for refusing to stop after his passenger is accused of stealing. Across town, a crowd gathers around the bloodied body of a suspected mugger lying in the street.

Exasperated by a lack of security, Liberians have heeded calls from the government to take action themselves, forming vigilante groups to fight off criminal gangs blamed for armed robberies, murders and mutilations.

The gangs, thought to be made up largely of former child soldiers from the West African country's civil war, call themselves the "Issakaba Boys" after a series of violent Nigerian movies wildly popular around the region.

Residents say they leave calling cards in some parts of the dilapidated capital Monrovia, warning they have been on a recce and will be back later to plunder and loot.

"We've received many letters of threat from the Issakaba Boys here. But we're prepared to meet them," said Amos Brownell, chairman of the self-styled Cow Field Vigilante Group on the outskirts of the city.

"We do not sleep. We have over 50 men under our control here. Each night we change shift. We're prepared to fight them with sticks," he told Reuters.

The authorities in Monrovia, where derelict concrete towers stick up among mud-swamped shanty towns, admit they are overwhelmed by daily killings, hijackings and robberies.

Police officers complain they are unarmed and the Justice Ministry this month urged citizens to organise themselves into "community watch teams or vigilante groups" in the face of the security forces' inability to deal with the problem.


The crime wave is proving a headache for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who took office as Africa's first elected female head of state in January promising to crack down hard on lawlessness following the country's brutal 14-year civil war.

The guns fell silent three years ago but the chaotic warlord politics that drove the conflict and the drugged-up child soldiers who killed and maimed with impunity during it have left deep scars in Africa's oldest independent republic.

"We're aware there are people out there who are unhappy with the progress we're making after only eight months in office," Johnson-Sirleaf said in a state of the nation address last week.

"We know more about these people and their plans than they think. Our security agencies are keeping a close watch and will take decisive action against them when the need arises."

She said more armed security officers were being trained with the help of the United States, Ghana, Nigeria and China.

Liberia's war spawned a generation of children who knew little other than conflict. Many former child soldiers, kidnapped and forced to fight, are desperate to rebuild their lives, trying to catch up with schooling missed during the war.

Others have struggled to put a life of violence and looting behind them.

Human rights groups have warned vigilante groups will only cause more violence, as experience in Nigeria shows.

There, state governors set up more than a dozen vigilante groups in 2001, among them the Bakassi Boys, immortalised in the Issakaba films thought to have inspired Liberia's latest gangs.

The groups grew out of control. Amnesty International has accused the Bakassi Boys of responsibility for more than 1,000 executions, while some of its members have admitted to decapitating suspected robbers with machetes on the open street. (Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall)
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