The Police Are Not Your Friend, Not Here, Not There, Not Anywhere.
How would you identify a good country? This question or something similar to it has come up in several conversations with friends recently. In the wake of yet another farce of an election in Cameroon coupled with a crisis which grows more violent and erratic by the day, friends and acquaintances I have spoken with have expressed their disdain at having been born Cameroonian. Some have mentioned wishing they could belong to another nation, or at least be resident there. While I understand that these feelings are a product of frustration, I have found myself responding to their declarations with the question: so what country do you think is better and why? Their responses always expose what they prioritize at the said time as well as what they feel Cameroon fails at the most. After the most recent of such a conversation, I turned the question on myself. What would be evidence of a good country for me? Free and fair elections? Leaders that are changed with regularity? Equitable participation/representation of genders, ages, faiths, and abilities?
All of those came to mind, but none stood out as much as the state of law enforcement.
For a brief period of my childhood, I lived with my immigrant single mother in the United States. It was the mid-1990s and after school, I would be cared for by neighbours who were immigrants themselves but relatively better ‘established’ having lived in the US for longer. It was in those spaces that I learned what I needed to fit in, from the first generation children who had come before me, I would learn of games like UNO, Dominoes and Cops and Robbers. During parties and meetings when the adults had their fun upstairs, we kids would be sent to a basement or backyard to play with each other. If it were a backyard, a game of Cops and Robbers would typically be on the program and it all began with picking those who would be the cops and who would be the robbers; this equalled who would be the good guy and who would be the bad guy. That’s what American culture first taught me of police. They were the good guys, who caught bad guys and saved the day. Even at school, when asked the oft-repeated “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, several classmates had said they wanted to be policemen. And why not? Back then we watched COPS (if we managed to stay up past bedtimes), we sang the show’s jingle with glee “Bad boys, bad boys whatchu you gonna do, whatchu gonna do when they come for you?” and we believed as we repeated the tune that bad boys got caught by the police, the ‘good guys’ and that it was always best to call 911 so the police come rescue you.
By the time I was 11, that idea of who the police are had become a bit tarnished. Only slightly, but still. An African-American classmate had recounted her fear of the cops discovering that she was at home alone most days and in charge of watching over her siblings because her mother worked multiple jobs and her dad was in jail. She warned me after I had received a particularly brutal whooping from my mom, not to let anyone know; because the police could take you away from your family altogether and foster-care was hell, she said. She had been there for some time herself. I took the lesson to heart and soon began noting the fear and apprehensiveness displayed by adults when police passed by. I began noting how my mom and other adults spoke to these men in uniform the way I would speak to adults when weary of stepping on the wrong toe. Nonetheless, at that age the police were still people to be respected, still people I believed one ought to call for help.
I returned home at age 12, the first thing I would note about police in Cameroon would be their standing on the roadside. They didn’t always have cars nearby and back then most just held batons and a stick with nails which would be extended out on the road as a threat to drivers: stop or puncture your tires. I recall asking during one trip from Bamenda to Yaoundé what would happen if the driver drove on, what if the driver saw the police ahead and dodged the stick with nails? What could they do without a patrol car and gun? Obviously, Cameroon didn’t have a sophisticated license plate tracking system. The adults I asked just told me it was a bad idea, the policeman would remember you they claimed, or warn the group of police at the next checkpoint to watch out for your vehicle. It seemed lame to me. A lot of things seemed lame to me back then as I compared the country I now call home to the one I had spent some six childhood years in. But the police, in particular, were very lame; all those I came in contact with spoke French, which I couldn’t understand nor speak. They were forever scowling and didn’t even give the impression of being at your service. Rather they were to be served. People would give up their treasured front seats at the bus for the gender me, often at the beckoning of the driver who hoped this ‘esteemed’ passenger would be recognized through the windscreen when the bus was stopped at checkpoints and the driver given less hassle. Those who gave up seats did so for the greater good I suppose. Police in Cameroon as I would come to learn were not those to be called upon for help. At no time have I been taught the emergency number for the Cameroon police, and I bet a vox pop would prove very few know it. The average man won’t even want to know the number; what would they use it for? If one needed the police for some reason, they would need to go to the police station at some popular junction- during ‘reasonable working hours’ of course. And if Cameroonian children ever played a game of cops and robbers, a realistic portrayal would have no reading of rights, there would be likely a passing of a bribe, and both sides equally bad, equally violent. As is the case in Cameroon now.
It is the reality of Cameroon now, which has me listing the reputation of law enforcement as a defining feature of the ideal nation. While, I’d never considered our Cameroonian police to be ‘good guys’, my opinion of them was based on relatively mild experiences like: their begging for money on the road, checking ID cards only for the expirations dates so they could collect bribes from those whose cards are expired, their sexual harassment of women on the roads on account of being ‘indecently dressed’, their lack of manners, believing that their jobs meant even the landlord they rent from ought to endure their inconsistent payments, their bullying and intimidation of Anglophones using by insisting on speaking in French in Anglophone areas. These experiences made them crappy but not quite ‘evil’. Prior to this crisis, I would still move in the direction of the police if accosted by some strange guy on the road. Prior to this crisis, I would try to understand that the police, the majority of them, were the bottom of the barrel educational-wise, that they were the children who had failed at Plan A, and had been told enter the police force for ‘job security’ on the grounds that all they had going for them was their brute strength. Prior to the crisis, I understood, that their poor service was as a result of their ill-training, the brutality of it which ensured that they graduated – not to serve the public, but as the state’s mercenaries ready for any orders from above. Prior to this crisis, our law enforcement had a bad reputation but not what I would look at as Cameroon’s nastiest blemish.
But then the crisis happened. Over the last two years, with the militarization of the Northwest and Southwest regions, we have had an uncomfortably close view of just who we are arming, who we are to call on for help and who we have trained to ‘protect and serve’. In the past two years, these regions have been militarized by a variety of ‘law enforcement’; there’s the police, the army, the gendarmes, and BIR (specially trained for the president’s orders). In the last two years, we have heard of these ‘law enforcers’ raping, stealing, and arbitrarily arresting anyone they want including an obviously pregnant woman. As a video surfaced recently of the Cameroonian soldiers carrying out extrajudicial killings in the North, I have wondered at what our law enforcement had previously gotten away with, wondered at what those in the North have known having been militarized much longer as a result of Boko Haram. If the sort of ‘protection and enforcement of security’ the Anglophone regions have been experiencing is that which was offered by our armed forces up North, then the I can understand why some of those in that region would be radicalized and opt to join the terrorist group. Because obviously, the choice would be to choose between one terrorist group and another.
Not that the government would see their armed forces as terrorists. To them, the terrorists are those who would want to ‘destabilize the state’ (the word destabilize has been thrown around so often, one would think the country was a Lego set). The government identifies just one group of terrorists, the ones who threaten kids from attending school, who have destroyed roads in their anger at abusive officials visiting, who have burned schools which functioned despite being ‘ordered’ not to. The government overlooks the terrorists in uniforms, the ones who have burned down whole villages with health centres and the elderly in their beds, done so repeatedly, as though that were the only technique learned at the academy. No one speaks of the terrorists who have made an already despised language even more despised by speaking on in French to a marginalized linguistic group protesting their marginalization. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so cruel. Suffice it to say, in Cameroon, there are two terrorist groups- one is state-sponsored and sanctioned.
More than once, I have wondered at the feelings of the individual members of our armed forces. I can understand- to an extent- the ‘Ambazonian’ fanatics, they are fighting out of anger and frustration. They have nothing to lose, are mostly uneducated and have been driven to this point by the government inaction and mishandling of the crisis. Yet, I remain baffled at what drives the members of the armed forces. How, even if you were ordered to, do you burn down a whole village- clinic included? What sort of training, or lack thereof, have we given them that would explain their indiscriminate killing, lack of alternate methods and inability to serve. What about the Anglophones in the various chapters of these armed forces. What have they done in seeing their hometowns burned to char? What does it say of them as individuals that they lack even empathy with their own? What does it say of us as a country, to be at the mercy of such a group- that our ‘good guys’ can be this bad?
My thoughts led me to recall the Greek philosopher Plato’s idea of a perfect society —the republic, where the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy. Yet in Cameroon, we have given the power to protect to those who would likely have difficulty spelling democracy, much less stand for protecting it. And Cameroon is not alone; the police aren’t that better in many other places, whether it be the trigger-happy/racial-profiling American police, or the South African police cracking down on #FeesMustFall protests as though they wouldn’t benefit from that social development, or neighbouring Nigeria where SARS now sees all signs of prosperity as a threat. We have bullies as law enforcement in too many places and all around the world, and there is a resounding query asked: “who polices the police?”
If there is any lesson to learn from Cameroon now, it is this: we must be more cautious with the counsel we give those looking for job security, we cannot continue pushing the wrong people into careers like teaching, and police work as Plan C. We deserve better. For great things have happened where those with arms have used their power for good; like the Egyptian military protecting protesters from police during the 2011 revolution. And when next we are called to determine the quality of life in a country, perhaps we ought to ask: “are the police good guys?”
We deserve to live where the police are indeed your friend, where the logic behind a game of Cops and Robbers is not lost