Exclusive Interview with Former IG, Keith Biddle

He made the name, Sierra Leone Police (SLP) force fashionable by simply ascribing to it the buzz-phrase, ‘a force for good’ and it helped to rebuild moral. Before then, some observers described the police literally as a “force for worse”. During the civil conflict, the country’s security apparatus lost all credibility from the citizens they took an oath to protect and defend.

Established by the Brits through a Royal Gazette of 1894, Sierra Leone’s first democratically elected President towards the end of the war, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah once again turned to the colonial masters to return and re-establish sanity in a moribund Police force.

The huge responsibility was placed on the shoulders of British Police Officer, Keith Biddle on secondment to Sierra Leone to help with the restructuring of that force. One cannot talk about reforms in the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) without mentioning his name. He came, did what he had to do, and the SLP was transformed into a ‘Force for Good’.

The now-retired officer served as Inspector General of Police under the late the Tejan Kabbah-led Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)’s government from 1st November, 1999 to June 2003. Before he left, he once again got Sierra Leoneans to begin to consider the men and women in blue as, “the police are your friends.”

Sixteen years after he left, Sierra Leone’s former Press Attaché to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Alhaji M.B. Jalloh, (AMBJ) currently in Ankara, Turkey traced him back for an exclusive interview. And the interview he had with me on the phone was as tantalizing as it was revealing. My first question was to ask him to reintroduce himself, especially to a post-conflict generation that may not have heard his name. Read on the transcript of the interview….

Keith Biddle (KB): Before coming to Sierra Leone in 1999, I was a consultant on police reform efforts in Africa and a retired officer of the British Police. I became involved in international police reform in 1994 as a member of the British Police Force, in which capacity I had worked in Greater Manchester and Kent. In my final years, I was Assistant Inspector of Constabulary in the Home Office, London. In 1994, I became the Policing adviser to South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission in advance of Nelson Mandela’s election. Following this work, I began to work with the U.K. Department for International Development on issues involving police reform, including in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Namibia, and South Africa. Between 1999 and 2003, I headed the Police force in Sierra Leone during the Tejan Kabbah era. I have since worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia and continued to be involved in police reform efforts in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Alhaji M.B. Jalloh (AMBJ):  Could you please tell us where are you now, what are you up to these days, and have your retired or still in active service?

KB: I am enjoying my retirement in Cheshire, about 25 miles south of Manchester. My family and I spend a few weeks each year holidaying in France. I do, however, from time to time take part in discussions on policing issues and deliver presentations at universities and other venues.

AMBJ: Have you been following up on the progress of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP)? If yes, what do you make of that progress?

K.B: I do follow the news from Sierra Leone. The SLP are, generally, doing well and making professional progress.

AMBJ:  Sierra Leone is yet to have a woman as Inspector General. Do you envisage this will happen not too long from now?

K.B: One of the key issues in The Policing Charter published by the late President Kabbah in August 1998 is “Equal Opportunities.” This policy was enacted in my time as Inspector General of Police (IGP) and has continued to develop over the sixteen years after I retired from being the IGP of Sierra Leone. In 1998/9, there were few women in the higher rank, and most were not operationally deployed. (I think there were only two women superintendents and five assistant superintendents). From what I read in the Sierra Leone press and on social media, there are now well educated, experienced and highly competent women officers in all ranks from constable to Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of Police. I am confident that, in the not too distant future, a woman will be appointed IGP.

AMBJ: With your vast experience on policing, don’t you think there is an urgent need to depolarize the police force at least by way of having a council that recommends a name to the presidency to be appointed I.G.P as we have in the case of the Chief Justice? Secondly, don’t you think in modern policing, the President should not maintain the power of appointing an I.G.P?

K.B: This is an interesting question and one that is occasionally raised by journalists and international consultants. The IGP is appointed by His Excellency the President acting on the advice of the Police Council subject to the approval of Parliament in accordance with the provisions of Section 157 (1) of the constitution. I went through that procedure. A question for those who query the present situation of the appointment of the IGP is, “How does the Sierra Leone methodology fit with international practice?” I think you will find that the system used is not that dissimilar from that used in other countries. For example, all police chiefs in England and Wales are appointed by the local Police and Crime Commissioner, who is an elected official, with the approval of the Home Secretary. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – i.e., the Police for London – is appointed by Her Majesty the Queen on the recommendation of the Home Secretary and the Mayor for Greater London. Do those examples not show a very similar process to the position in Sierra Leone?

AMBJ: They do to some extent, Mr. Biddle. But do you think it’s a good idea for the Vice President of Sierra Leone to continue to be the Chairman of the Police Board?

K.B: Why not? This will continue to be the case until a Constitutional Amendment is approved per the Constitution. The point is that sight must not be lost of the Sierra Leone Constitution. Section 156 states:

“Establishment of Police Council (1) There shall be an established Police Council which shall consist of—

  1. the Vice-President who shall be Chairman; b. The Minister of Internal Affairs; c. The Inspector-General of Police; d. The Deputy Inspector-General of Police; e. the Chairman of the Public Service Commission; f. a member of the Sierra Leone Bar Association who shall be a legal practitioner of not less than ten years standing as a practicing Barrister, and shall be nominated by that body and appointed by the President; eg. Two other members appointed by the President, subject to the approval of Parliament.
  2. Every member of the Police Council shall take and subscribe the oath as set out in the Third Schedule to this Constitution.
  3. The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry responsible for matters relating to the Police shall be Secretary to the Council.”

This replaced a similar body created in the Police Act 1964 then. However, the Police Council was chaired by the Minister for Internal Affairs, and the Commissioner (IGP) was accountable to the Minister who in turn was accountable to Parliament. The present system has made the IGP and Deputy Inspector General (DIG) as voting members of the Police Council. I was never too comfortable with that issue. I have been asked many times why I did not propose changes. The answer must take account of Section 108 of the Constitution that has made Section 156 an entrenched clause meaning that it might only be amended or deleted following a referendum. “Every person who is entitled to vote in the elections of Members of Parliament shall be entitled to vote at a referendum held for subsection (3) and no other person may so vote; and the Bill shall not be regarded as having been approved at the referendum unless it was so approved by the votes of not less than one-half of all such persons and by not less than two-thirds of all the votes validly cast at the referendum.”

This is an issue that needs a great deal of careful thought and is for the people of Sierra Leone to decide in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.

AMBJMr. Biddle, a lot has been said regarding the country’s criminal justice system. Allegations are that, the force is a contributing factor to our broken criminal justice system. What do you think should be done to remedy this problem?

KB: That, too, needs a lot of thought and work. It is something that I believe needs to be researched in depth. It will be a lengthy and expensive process. For example, when I joined the Police in Manchester in 1962, a Royal Commission on policing had been published towards the end of 1961 and that had made the point that is the essence of your question. The system was not finally changed until 1986; that is twenty-five years later. The reasons are complex. The first being the availability of qualified and experienced lawyers and the need to amend some issues of criminal law and other procedural amendments to the justice system.

A key issue in Sierra Leone was that the system of committal proceedings had to be radically changed. The system introduced in 1968 came from the Criminal Justice Act of 1967. Committal proceedings in the lower courts were simplified and, unless the defendants insisted through their lawyers that witnesses gave oral evidence to the lower courts, they were committed for trial by judge and jury on written evidence approved by both prosecution and the defendant. These provisions speeded up criminal cases and removed the queues of cases and constant adjournments in the lower courts. There was also a need for expansion of the provision of free legal aid for defendants and this was costly. If thought is given to what I have summarized you will see there are many issues to resolve before you can reach the position that the police are no longer responsible for criminal prosecutions.

AMBJ:  How old were you when you joined the police in Manchester in 1962?

KB: I joined at 18 as a cadet and served 32 years in the UK.

AMBJ : What do you think is the critical role the force can play in tackling the non-ending problem of rape in Sierra Leone, especially from the perspective of investigations, prosecution and seeing people go to jail for such crime?

KB: This matter is now under scrutiny, so I will not comment on the present situation. I will, however, make a comment on the system developed since 1999. The late President Kabbah, together with most people, was determined to see justice for those women (and some men) and children who were the victims of the most horrendous sexual abuses during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Shirley Gbujama, then Minister for Gender Affairs, led on the issue. The result was the introduction of the ‘Rainbow Centre’ and the SLP Family Support Units (FSU). Those initiatives have led to almost daily reports in the newspapers of Sierra Leone of cases brought to prosecute offenders in respect of rape and other serious sexual crimes. Before these initiatives, very few cases were ever brought before the courts. It is now good to see that the Government together with civil society and the SLP are seeking to develop and improve the systems of reporting, medical treatment and prosecutions etc.

AMBJ: Mr. Biddle, as a former IG in Sierra Leone, how do we build on strong ties and mutual trust between the SLP and other security agencies, more so, as we now see military officers manning major streets in Freetown in the name of controlling traffic which is constitutionally the role of the police force?

KB: I am afraid, Alhaji. It is a question that you need to put to the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), the IGP and the relevant ministers. I have not read anything that indicates that the National Security and Central Intelligence Act of 2002 is not still an applicable law or that the procedures of Military Aid to Civil Power (MACP) have been rescinded.

AMBJ: Do you think the concept of police operational independence really exists in Sierra Leone or it’s just a myth?

KB: Again, this question is outside of my current knowledge. I can say, however, that is the Constitutional position. The operations of the police are, of course, subject to the rule of law and accountable to the courts.

AMBJ: Mr. Biddle, I still remember my interview with you back in 2001. In that interview, you were very worried about “the lack of adequate incentives” for police personnel and officers in terms of salaries and remuneration. You have been following up developments back in Sierra Leone through the media. Do you know if there have been any improvements in that direction?

KB: Again, I do not have the depth of knowledge to answer that question. My position, however, has not changed since 2001.

AMBJ: Keith, what Police did you bequeath and do you think the gains you left eroded under your successors or not?

KB: No. They have improved very much since I left. I have over the past sixteen years met many former colleagues and friends from Sierra Leone. In particular many SLP police officers of all ranks – working in missions overseas for UN and AU, where they are highly regarded for their professionalism, understanding and problem-solving skills. Also, I have associated with several younger members of the SLP who have been studying for master’s degrees at UK universities. They all did well and were praised for their work. Non-police friends positively comment on the work of today’s SLP.

AMBJ: Since you left, among your successors, who would you grade as the most successful?

KB: As I have not been watching the day to day performance of all the SLP personnel, I cannot answer that question.

AMBJ: Sierra Leone is a multi-cultural society with serious political interference in the police hierarchy – from appointments to promotions and even the way opponents are targeted and arrested or detained. As former IG, what would your opinion be on how the SLP can transform itself and build trust and credibility with the people of Sierra Leone?

KB: I am afraid it falls into the highly political category and I am not in a position to answer, as I am not in possession of all of the facts.

AMBJ: Okay that’s fine. But with the recent political unrest we have seen in Sierra Leone, particularly the recent incident at the main opposition APC party offices, what strategy or approach would you recommend for the SLP to adopt in handling political violence?

KB: I am sorry, Alhaji. It is not something upon which I can’t comment. This is an ongoing issue and I am not in possession of the facts and the evidence.

AMBJ: Along what parameters should you consider the police to use deadly force?

KB: Simply, in accordance with the rule of law and the procedures of Sierra Leone.

AMBJ: Do you think the Sierra Leone Police is still “a force for good” as you left it or it has become an instrument of political oppression and brutality?

KB: This is a very political question that is outside of my present knowledge.

AMBJ: Some citizens still blame the Police for unprofessional acts. They say they take orders from above and they always dance to the tune of the Government of the day. What do make of those claims?

KB: Alhaji, I am not aware of any changes in that direction since I left office in June 2003. So, I cannot comment.

AMBJ: During your tenure, did you follow orders from above (State House)?

KB: Neither the late President Kabbah, the Vice Presidents: Dr. Joe Demby and Mr. Solomon Berewa nor the four Ministers of Internal Affairs I served ever gave me “orders from above”. They did on occasions, however, request me to undertake investigations and draw to my attention allegations they had received.

AMBJ: Keith, you served as IG under President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Do you think the late President had a clear vision of what was needed in the country?

KB: The late President Kabbah was an excellent man, who had the best intentions for Sierra Leone and its people. He was the finest man for whom I ever worked and from those I have met, in my opinion, he ranks alongside Nelson Mandela. On the specific issue of policing, he had a very clear view and had concisely written his clear and cogent views for the NPRC back in 1994.

AMBJ: As a retired officer, what best international practices would you advise the current leadership of the SLP to follow?

KB: The Rule of Law and the maintenance of peace, security and good order.

AMB.J: Could you please share with us your best and worst memories during your tenure as IG?

KB: My best memories are surrounding the wonderful people of Sierra Leone with whom I worked. My worst memories are of the atrocities that flowed from the civil war. Most especially the amputations of innocent men, women and children; especially those of babes in the arms of their mothers. I will always remember.

AMBJ: Finally, do you have any message for the SLP and the people of Sierra Leone?

KB: For the SLP, serve the people well, work closely with the people maintain public peace and tranquility, and follow the rule of law. Also develop and improve the SLP and the systems to ensure a better service for all of the people of Sierra Leone. For the people there are two points I wish to make: Firstly, I urge them to support and respect the police, who are doing a difficult task to keep you safe. Secondly, work with the local policing partnerships to ensure that the police account for how they police the areas in which you live and work.

Note: For any comments on the interview, you can reach me on email: assijay82@gmail.com or WhatsApp: 00966567672815

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Critique Echo Newspaper is a major source of news and objective analyses about governance, democracy and human-right. Edited and published in Kenema city, eastern Sierra Leone, the outlet is generally referred to as a level plying ground for the youths, women and children.

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