Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2014, 13:14 GMT

Paying for Justice

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Author Katy Glassborow
Publication Date 18 May 2009
Citation / Document Symbol AR No. 213
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Paying for Justice, 18 May 2009, AR No. 213, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a1e47dca.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Locals say they turn to vigilantism because just getting police to register a crime costs money.

By Katy Glassborow in Bangui (AR No. 213, 18-May-09)

"There are no exceptions, everyone has to pay [money] for justice in this country," the senior police officer tells us flatly.

Our bag has been stolen from the boot of our taxi en route to Bangui airport. Our passports and money are gone and, as a result, we've missed our internal flight to Birao in remote north-eastern Central African Republic, CAR.

But just to get the police to register the crime, we're being asked to hand over the 10,000 CFA francs, or 20 US dollars.

It's just after midday and we are melting in the central African heat, trying to decide how far to push the officer sitting across the desk from us.

"What about a woman who's been raped? How much do you charge her to register the crime she's suffered?" I ask.

She explains that her neighbourhood police station in Bangui would charge a woman 1,000 CFA francs to register a rape. The graver the reported crime, the more it costs to record it, she stressed.

She says police chiefs across the city meet to decide how much to charge people when they come to report crimes.

"There was a ministerial decree saying we have to charge a certain amount, but everything was destroyed when the president came to power so I can't show you," said the officer.

Ex-army chief Francois Bozize seized the CAR presidency in 2003 from Ange-Felix Patasse after months of bloody fighting, during which civilians were raped, displaced and killed, and the scars still haven't healed.

CAR is now tenth on the failed states index compiled by Washington-based think-tank Foreign Policy.

Signs of the failure are littered all over the capital. Factories, closed long ago, have been looted and many buildings are just shells. Aside from food, CAR produces almost no goods and has to rely heavily on imports from neighbouring Chad, Congo, Sudan or Cameroon. The situation outside of the capital is bleaker still.

"But what do you do with the money you take? What do victims get in return?" I ask the policewoman, anxious to find out if people who hand over cash to report crimes ever get any justice in return.

She adds it costs an extra 6,000 CFA for a criminal investigation.

In a country where most people make less than a dollar a day, I ask whether justice is simply unaffordable to large swathes of the population. The officer is so incensed that she rips up the crime registration form and walks away.

We call the United Kingdom's Honorary Consul - there is no embassy here - and he agrees to come and help smooth the situation. He speaks slowly and kindly in lilting Sango, the most widely-spoken local language, unruffled by the humidity and hot tempers. He works a miracle - we can go back the next day to collect the salvaged paperwork, and pay the 10,000 CFA with smiles and handshakes.

Next, we head out of Bangui to a suburb called Combattant. We're sitting in a muddy courtyard, and feel the eyes of the women studying us as our translator Bernard tells them our story.

Chickens cluck around us and muddy kids in tattered clothes play in the sunshine. They laugh and run to tell their families when I take a photo. They rush over and crowd around to have a look.

Sitting around on low wooden chairs, the women tut and shake their heads, as Bernard relates our set-to with the police officer. "Courage," said some; "Dommage (a shame)," said others.

One woman, Clementine, says she didn't go to the police when thieves recently stole some blankets out of an open window in her house. "When you go, you won't get good results," she said.

In its 2008 Human Rights Report on CAR, published in February, the American State Department said people's distrust of the country's 800 or so police officers had led to a rise in vigilantism.

One man was recently caught trying to steal electricity cables in her neighbourhood, and people just beat him to death, she another woman, Monique.

"Mob justice helps to prevent crime," she said, mentioning that three other thieves had been beaten to death last year.

Another group of women laugh out loud when we ask them about the police.

One of the women, Marie, said, "When you go to the police, you never know how much they will charge. They tell you they don't have a car and they need money for transport. If you don't have money, they say you can give other things."

Elie Ouefio, minister of territorial administration, resolutely denied that there was a widespread practice of citizens having to pay police to investigate crimes.

"There may be black sheep in the police who rip off people; it is true, like in any police force around the world. But saying that you have to pay to get services from the Central African police is false," he said.

Later, we drive to Boali, a few hours west of Bangui, after securing a lift in a truck groaning with women and children, and piled high with bags, crates and men perching expertly on top of it all.

The people clearly have little money and few possessions, but the chat is lively and friendly despite the cramped travel conditions.

During the coup, many of these people lost everything - targeted by government and rebel troops for perceived loyalty to one or the other side. Women were raped, men sodomised or killed. Possessions were looted, livestock shot and homes destroyed.

We grind to a halt at several police roadblocks and money is handed over by the driver.

Some men collecting the money are in uniform, others in plain clothes.

We spend more days in Bangui, and talk to more people.

They tell us extortion is so rife because police often go unpaid and, in the past, civil servants have had to wait years to receive their salaries. In order to get paid, police either have to come to Bangui in person, or fill out a "procuration (a claim form)" - to allow someone else to collect their salary on their behalf, locals tell us.

This is an impossible journey for most policemen outside the capital. The roads are so bad that some provinces are cut off from the rest of the country for up to eight months each year.

While officers appear to have trouble getting paid, little attention seems to be given to their workplaces.

The senior police officer we had a run-in with earlier had told us that the money she was asking for didn't go towards pay packets, but to buy office furniture.

Recalling its crumbling walls and abject lack of equipment, it was obvious that funds were desperately needed.

The situation in the capital is better than in the provinces - the term used for anywhere in the country outside Bangui.

In Sibut, about four hours' bumpy drive out of the capital, the police station is plagued by termites and house bats.

According to the State Department report, the police detention centre in Bouar had neither windows nor a toilet - only a bucket that was emptied every other day, and detainees slept chained to each other.

Internationals working for the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, as well as for BONUCA, the UN political mission in CAR, are developing projects to support the police and the justice system.

Mirelle Widmer, from the UNDP rule of law unit, said, "Often the police will come to us and ask for paper, they have no resources. They ask us for pens, paper, office supplies... "

Internationals in the country are aware that supplying materials can only go some way to tackle the symptoms of some very deep-rooted problems.

"The government has months of salary arrears, so personnel [resort to] corruption and greed because they need salaries," a human rights worker in CAR told us.

"If the government is not paying them on time, they will tend to demand money from victims attempting to report violations. We need to ensure the government can pay police and justice officers on time."

General Jules-Bernard Quande, the minister of security, rejected claims that the police often went unpaid.

"You have no rights to say that you have talked to people in Bangui and that they have told you this.

"The police are part of the population. The president of the republic pays everyone, all the people of Central Africa, therefore the police too."

Meanwhile, we resign ourselves to never getting our stolen bag back.

People advise swinging by Radio Ndeke Luka, the main independent radio station in CAR, to ask them to put out an appeal for us.

We're told it's not easy to sell foreign passports in CAR - and that other visitors who've had travel documents stolen have had them returned eventually.

The helpful Ndeke Luka journalists broadcast a newsflash appealing for our stolen passports, and a day later a young man in civilian clothes turns up with them - without the money - saying he is from the police.

He wants 20,000 CFA francs in return for the documents.

After a long, awkward negotiation, we agree to give him enough money for the return taxi ride.

Whether he is with the police we will never know, but we wouldn't have got our passports back if it weren't for the help of our friends at Ndeke Luka, the Honorary Consul, and a little bit of money.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Jan Coebergh, a Hague-based doctor specialising in mortality rates in conflict situations who also travelled to Bangui, and Melanie Gouby, a London-based IWPR reporter, contributed to this report.

Some of the names in this report have been changed for security reasons.
Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Search Refworld

Countries