Bong County Associations Condemn Police Killing of Youth in Gbarnga

The Perspective

January 7, 2002

Editor's Note: Few weeks ago, the police authority in Bong County, taking the law into its own hands, shot and killed John Kpannah, a fourth grader of the St. Peter's Elementary School in Gbarnga, Bong County. The police alleged that he had been mistaken for an Armed Robber wanted by the authority. But eyewitnesses to the incidence reported that the act carried out by the police was deliberate, calculated and cold-blooded. Bong county citizens residing in the United States, organized under the umbrella of the United Bong County Associations in the Americas (UBCAA), have condemned the act and have called for a speedy investigation and trial. Below is a full text of a statement issued by the organization.

In the absence of established standards of conduct for a security force, lawlessness is assured. Lawlessness has no defense or justification in a supposedly civilized society. Whether carried out by private citizens or by law enforcement personnel, lawlessness is still lawlessness. It is particularly disheartening when the chaos is commonplace and is carried out by those who are charged to enforce the law.

We, the citizens of Bong County, are proud of our tradition of peace and humility, which fact is well known throughout the nation. Often, these qualities are misinterpreted as weakness and fear. When they are, in fact, characteristics usually inherent in people of discipline, maturity and wisdom. Because of who we are, the most effective approach we have to conflict resolution is the use of dialogue rather than violence. Thus, as of the date hereof, UBCAA's voice will not be silent, or be silenced, on any matter, such as John Kpannah's, in which it is determined that a fellow Liberian is the victim of an act or acts of a government official.

UBCAA vehemently condemns the shooting death of student John Kpannah by Police in Gbarnga. There is no tolerance for this type of senselessly vile police brutality in Bong County or on any inch of soil of Liberia. Be it a 4th Grader in Elementary School like the late John Kpannah, or a 4th year student in college or any citizen for that matter, every citizen deserves equal protection under the law. The members of this Association reacted with complete indignation to the news that the police, whose role should be to enforce the law and protect the citizenry in a constitutional government, would take the law into the barrel of their guns, unseat the judiciary and become judge, jury and executioner of an alleged accused.

It appears that this type of wanton abuse of human rights and denial of constitutional rights stem from a broader culture of violence and lawlessness brought on by a system that devalues human life at the expense of self-preservation. Since 1989 when the National Patriot Front of Liberia (NPFL) launched an invasion against the Doe Government, human rights and the rule of law have suffered. The country was plunged into a mess of civil strife with mushrooming warring factions, each vying for control of the government. The conflict caused the death of more than 200,000 Liberians and the effect from the nearly decade of death and destruction still lingers. The dust appeared to have settled with the coming to power of the Taylor Government in 1997; yet, we still experience the underpinnings of violence and distrust. The civil war is no excuse for a continued state of lawlessness. After the Taylor Team took the helm of Government some four years ago, we have a constitutional expectation four years later, to seek for and to expect to find verifiable improvement in the lot of the people. It is not too much, we think, to ask for basic protection under the law. The Government must assure protection of human rights, enforcement of the rule of law and protection against abuse of police power, to name a few. The killing of John Kpannah by a police officer, and the circumstances surrounding his death belie the presence of these basic rights of life.

Emerging from an era that saw them crowned as child soldiers, exposed to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man, and robbed of their childhood, the children of Liberia came face to face with an education system that has been demolished. We have seen their education hijacked for nearly two decades and their standard of living plummet to indescribable status compared to modern standards. Therefore, the news of the shooting death of a 4th Grader, John Kpannah, by Police is extremely unsettling and raises justified annoyance in the hearts of people. We demand an end to this culture of violence against the people of Liberia, especially those who are the most defenseless of our society, the women and children.

News from credible sources in Bong County reaching this Association indicate that Police in Gbarnga shot and killed John Kpannah, a 4th Grader, of St. Peter’s Episcopal Elementary and Junior High School in Gbarnga. Our sources specify that student Kpannah was shot by Police and his body dumped in a swamp. The late student reportedly was shot several times and also suffered a broken limb. Speaking to a local radio talk show, Bong County Police Commander Isaac Railey acknowledged and defended his shooting of the lad as shooting an armed robber. Our sources, who prefer to remain anonymous, paint a chilling picture of the circumstances surrounding the murder of student Kpannah. Despite repeated pleas for his life, the Police shooter showed no mercy for his victim. Contrary to Police account that the late student was an armed robber, our sources indicate that John was returning to Gbarnga with a chicken from his village. He had hoped to sell the chicken to raise fund to pay his tuition. He was killed while carrying the chicken. The only weapon with which John Kpannah was armed was a chicken, according to reports.

Adding insult to murder, the Police are said to have manhandled the elder brother of the victim. James Kpannah, a student at Gboveh High School, carried a photograph of his deceased brother. He had hoped to inquire of the Police the reasons for his brother’s shooting. Thankfully, he was not shot since he was armed with only a photograph.

During a protest demonstration staged by Gbarnga citywide students for the killing of fellow student Kpannah, Police are said to have shot and killed Morris Johnson, another student. Surely, the way to quell, lawfully, a student body rightfully angered for the killing of one of their own is not to kill another. Is this problem existing only in Bong County? Of course not. Almost daily, the cries of our people, because of this widespread disregard for human life by people in authority, are heard loudly throughout the land.

Having reviewed carefully the facts in this matter, this Association expresses a deep concern for the plight of our fellow citizens. It is the position of this Association that the killing of students in Gbarnga goes beyond the local Police Department. The action of the Gbarnga Police has a bearing on the overall enforcement of the rule of Law in Liberia. If the Government sets the standard of governance by the constitution, as is required, and if the Government enforces those standards, the rule of law and the protection of human rights will be maintained. Police and other law enforcement officers will not be trigger-happy when they come up against a 4th Grader carrying a chicken. They will be conscious of the fact that every action has a corresponding consequence. It seems reasonable to conclude that after about a decade of civil strife, Police and other security forces, most of which were once fighters, would prefer to shoot first and then investigate later. It is a sad commentary on our society. But to express an understanding of this deplorable situation is not to favor it.

As a constitutional Republic, Liberia has rules of engagement clearly written in the Constitution. We welcome the news that the accused officer has entered the criminal justice system. We therefore call upon the Taylor Government to ensure fair and speedy trial of the accused and to ensure that justice is upheld according to the law. Further, we call upon the Taylor Government to ensure proper training of the Police and other law enforcement officers and to emphasize respect for human rights and the rule of law. In the end, the officers would have been given the very benefits they denied their victims. Their fate, whatever it turns out to be, brings no comfort to the victims who had no chance and little hope for families who have lost loved ones.

Meanwhile, we are alarmed and perplexed at news that the person named as acting Police Commander of Bong County, Ricks Cooper, was allegedly in the car when former Commander Railey allegedly shot and killed John Kpannah. We are extremely concerned about the transfer of the controls of the Bong County Police Department to Officer Cooper. We have some real and legitimate concerns. If the acting Commander was in the car when his fellow officer shot, killed and dumped the body of a citizen into a swamp, what did he do about it? What stand did he take? Did he report the incident in keeping with his oath of office? If citizens did not discover the body, would he have remained silent? What does that say about him as a citizen and, most importantly, as a police officer? Now, as acting Commander of the Department, how are we to gauge his future action if a similar event occurs or if any citizen’s human and constitutional rights are violated by another police officer or by a private citizen? These are burning questions that beg for credible answers.

We urge the Taylor Government to (i) cause the speedy investigation and trial of, as well as bring to justice, those persons involved in the John Kpannah and Morris Johnson killings and (ii) provide the citizens of Bong County with a Police Commander whose background is above reproach. Ricks Cooper, instead of being Police Commander in Gbarnga at present, should himself be in prison with the others who participated in the killing of Kpannah and Johnson.

Done in the City of New York, New York, United States of America, this 4th day of January, 2001.


Garnett Y.K. Gbamokollie
Chairman, Public Affairs Committee

Dennis B. Garsinii

Decula J. Endee
Chairman of the Board of Directors

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