By: John Kamma, director of the Citizens Bureau in Logan Town, Liberia and an “accountapreneur” with the Accountability Lab. This blog post was originally published by HiiL Innovating Justice.

At the time of writing, there are more questions than answers regarding the recent death of Victoria Zayzay in a jail cell at the Zone 6 police substation. She had been detained on October 20, 2015 after another woman claimed she had caused L$3,000 (US$40) property damage to her business. A preliminary police report by Liberia National Police said the cause of death was attempted suicide. The father of the late Zayzay has challenged these findings, arguing that his daughter was sexually abused in the jail cell and then strangled to death. “We are demanding that the government tell us what happened to our daughter,” Mr. Zayzay said. The government of Liberia has reportedly performed two autopsies on the body but findings have not yet been made available to the public.

‘No money, no justice’

Rampant corruption and abuse of power in the police force and the court system is an all too common occurrence in Liberia. As one community leader said to me recently: “There is a common belief in Liberia: no money, no justice. It is widely stated that if one has money to bribe officials, criminally liable individuals will walk out of the courtroom with total impunity.” The lack of transparency surrounding police and judicial activity and the government’s frequent refusal to respond to community complaints has driven many citizens to take the law into their own hands. In the past few weeks alone, mob-violence resulted in the public beating of one man in front of a police station in Johnsonville and the burning of a home and vehicle in another community nearby. Both acts were conducted by mobs seeking to punish a perpetrator for alleged wrongdoing. These situations resulted from the community’s frustration with- and lack of trust in- the formal justice system. The Ebola outbreak only made things worse- as conflicts are still simmering and even emerging in relation to actions taken during the crisis.

Many citizens also face other challenges while seeking legal recourse through the formal justice system. Extensive bureaucratic red tape coupled with transportation and legal costs, lawyer fees, bond fees, and opportunity costs of foregone work make the justice system physically and financially unavailable to many. The combined lack of legitimacy, affordability, and accessibility of formal justice prevents many Liberians from obtaining feasible recourse for their legal challenges.

Citizens Bureau for Development and Productivity

Problems like these are the reason Citizens Bureau for Development and Productivity (“Citizens Bureau”) was formed. Our teams of locally trained mediators intervene in community disputes in order to bring nonviolent, equitable resolution to any number of conflicts between neighbors. Teams of mediators operate 24/7 in communities throughout Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The goal of our community justice teams is to create a safe space for transparent resolutions of conflicts between community members. The professionally trained mediators also interface with the police to intervene in situations that can be handled outside the courts.

Types of problems faced by residents of Monrovia

During a recent independent assessment of our intervention in Logan Town, Monrovia, residents were asked to rank the types of problems they face, including access to government services, lack of space, lack of hygienic facilities such as public toilets, mob-violence, rape, unpaid loans, teenage pregnancy, insult and so on. The organization keeps a detailed record of the status of all cases handled by its mediators. More than 64 cases have been resolved to date in Logan Town in 2015. The following stories are examples of cases that Citizens Bureau helped resolve through informal conflict mediation.

  • The Citizens Bureau mediated an attempted rape case involving juveniles. A 17 year-old boy was accused of rape but a nurse indicated the rape had not taken place. The boy’s parents, upon hearing this story, felt that the girl’s mother had over-reacted. As the confusion intensified, the police got involved and the boy was detained in police cell. At this point, our mediators were contacted, and the case was withdrawn from the police. At the Citizens Bureau’s office, under the guidance of our mediators, both parties openly discussed their understanding of the events, explained their reactions, and then saw reason to mutually resolve the conflict. The boy’s parents apologized for their aggressive reaction once they understood the mother’s action was not intended to cause harm. Both parents and mediators underscored the need to keep an eye on their children and advise them of appropriate safety measures and the law. Expenses owed to the police station due to the mother’s complaint of hostility from the boy’s parents amounted to L$5,000. The boy’s parents agreed to pay 50% of the fee, and the girl’s mother paid the rest. At the end of the process, all parties were satisfied with the resolution, recognizing the valuable work of the mediators.
  • In another incident, a man grazing his cow was confronted by local residents who claimed his cow had destroyed a lady’s sugarcane garden. As an increasingly hostile crowd surrounded the man and the argument intensified. Our mediator stepped in, announced his affiliation with Citizens Bureau, and interacted with the parties to make peace. The owner of the cow and the family of the lady accepted our intervention, which led to an amicable resolution. The lady agreed to a payment of L$450 to settle the costs of the damage to her sugarcane garden.

As these real life cases illustrate, it is possible to resolve parties’ differences before conflict escalates. The Citizens Bureau’s approach focuses on creating open dialogue to reward honesty and generate trust between neighbors. We are dedicated to developing community tools to increase access to justice, as part of a larger civil society movement for greater accountability and shared responsibility in Liberian communities.

Visit Accountability Lab’s GlobalGiving campaign to support the Community Justice Team’s work, here.