October 1, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara 

The trumpeted Hands-Off-Our-Girls Campaign faces a bleak future owing to the conduct of some members of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP)-the principal law enforcement agency within the state.

The campaign dubbed as the first to be launched by a first lady in West Africa is geared towards combating the obnoxious crime of sexual penetration otherwise known as sexual abuse of girls.

In the wake of its launching last year, the ceremony captured the attention of other West African First Ladies who jetted into Sierra Leone to patronize their counterpart.

Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Fatima Bio was supported by her counterparts and the occasion gained the pace it deserved. The campaign has been taken to various parts of the country as the first lady is poised to see it as one of her greatest success stories in Sierra Leone.

The most recent trip of the campaign was taken to the Southern town of Mattru Jong in Bonthe district where the President and the First Lady reiterated their unwavering commitment to the fight against sexual penetration, rape, teenage pregnancies and early marriages.“The Hands-Off-Our-Girls campaign was to complement the efforts of the Free, quality education…stop gender inequality in the country by giving equal opportunities to boys and girls through the provision of quality education.” A State House news release read in part:

The declaration of a state of public emergency by President Maada Bio to stem the tide of spiraling sexual offences was a precursor to the eventual launching of the Hands-Off-Our- Girls campaign. Although the controversial state of public emergency was whittled down as a result of a parliamentary impasse, the supreme legislative body however succeeded in passing into law, the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019.

The new law prescribes a maximum punishment of life imprisonment for perpetrators of sexual violence especially where aggravating factors are identified during prosecution.

However, such moves by the government are yet to produce the desired result as sexual crimes are still committed at an alarming rate.The Annual Crime Statistics Report of the Police for 2019 puts the official figures of sexual offences at 2,200.

But, most frustrating for the campaign, some police personnel have become synonymous with perpetrators of sexual crimes. As the state is plagued with the bane of a rolling statistics of sexual crimes, police personnel are supposed to be the forerunners of the campaign as they are in the forefront of the country’s criminal justice system. By their calling, they are expected to be beacons, if not icons, of morality.But a repugnantly ironical situation emerges in Sierra Leone as trends indicate.

Currently, two police officers, Kpallu and Sandy are answering to criminal charges in Koidu Eastern Sierra Leone in respect of sexual penetration allegations while on duty.The matter is presided over by Magistrate Yillah and the ages of victims stand at 15 and 16 respectively.

A police officer attached to Motema Police Division who spoke on condition of anonymity narrated that the two police officers were deployed at Sewafe Police station in Kono district.

The policemen, he continued, were on duty when victims were brought in for alleged harbouring. The two police officers are under oath to protect victims and treat them in a humane manner with the aim of bringing perpetrator of harbouring to justice. Seasoned criminal investigators would subscribe to the notion that there is a strong nexus between harbouring and sexual penetration.

Professionally, the harbouring allegation would have been a clue to sexual abuse.But, in the twist of events, the men on duty became suspected criminals in police uniform as they allowed their desires to overcome the ethics of the profession.

The Complaints, Discipline and Internal Investigation Department (CDIID), the disciplinary wing of the Sierra Leone Police first investigated the police officers and found them wanton and handed them over for criminal investigation and prosecution.

Consequently,the two police officers appeared before the magistrate as civilians and the court denied them bail.

Apart from the incident in Kono District, Kambia Police Division is also on the spotlight for a sexual penetration scandal involving a senior police officer who is helping the police in their investigation.

The Local Unit Commander, Kambia Division explained that the police officer was newly transferred to the division. “I have had no personal contact with the police officer that had allegedly involved himself in sexual allegations. I was waiting to see and work him when the allegation of sexual penetration was made against him,” The LUC explained via SLBC Morning Coffee Program. “The police officer would be investigated as the law demands,” he assured.

What is obtaining now among police officers in the Hands-Off-Our-Girls campaign was also happening then.Prior to the launching of the campaign, two policemen on a night shift duty at Bo police station allegedly raped two prostitutes brought at the police station. The rape allegedly took place last year at the police station premises.The prostitutes were arrested and brought into the station at night time by a police sergeant who handed them over to the alleged rapists.Investigation into the alleged, unethical conduct of the policemen was mounted by the CDIID personnel at the Bo Police Division.The results of the investigation were not made public.

Men’s penchant to rape women or sexually penetrate girls cannot be divorced from what occurred during the war period between 1991 and 2002. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, 2002 confirmed that sexual violence was a weapon of war used by all warring factions during the war period against women and girls.The existence of the ‘Small Girls Unit’ and the ‘Bush Wives’ were great testaments.

The Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police is a body charged with the responsibility of detecting, preventing and investigating incidents of sexual crimes-rape, sexual penetration and other related offences.

The unit is constrained in terms of personnel, logistics and funding. As such, the effectiveness and efficiency of the unit has been repeatedly questioned by members of the public.

Nonetheless, several calls have been made by the public for the unit to be removed from the SLP. The calls are not unconnected to the rapidity at which police officers commit sexual crimes and enjoy a field day as well as the low budgetary allocation to the unit.

Chief Superintendent of Police Mira Koroma, head of Operations, Planning and Contingency Department of the SLP was the head of FSU few years back.In 2015, Koroma stated in a radio discussion that, she found it difficult to run a unit that attracted only Le4M as budgetary allocation for the fiscal year.The statement did not seem to go down well with top police management.

If removed from the SLP, the FSU stands as an independent investigative unit with highly educated and competent investigators. It would enjoy a status akin to the Anti-Corruption Commission thereby ensuring a situation in which the long arm of the law reaches everyone regardless of official status. But an answer to the removal question of the FSU is yet to be provided by the authorities.

Mid last year, a special group of personnel in the FSU have been trained and reserved only for the investigation of sexual crimes.The FSU group tagged the ‘Sexual Assault Syndicate,’ SAS for short, is maintained in every police division to complement the Hands-Off-Our-Girls campaign.

In spite of the painstaking effort poured in the campaign, girls are still unsafe in the hands of men. Those who are supposed to protect neglect their duties and sometimes sexually interfere with victims.

Since the police now embark on sex sprees, a big question mark exists for the success of the Hands-Off-Our-Girls campaign.