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Walking the African beat

The BBC's Focus On Africa magazine talks to three policemen in three countries about their lives.

BURKINA FASO

Traffic police in Burkina Faso
Adelaide Valea works as a traffic policewoman in Ouagadougou
Pierre Kazoni reports for duty on the busy streets of Ouagadougou with Burkinabe police officer Adelaide Valea.

At 0530 Valea and I go to Ouagadougou Central Police Station's parade ground - a vast compound where more than 200 dusty cars, mopeds and bicycles are parked.

It turns out they are all impounded.

"The owners of most of these vehicles and motorcycles did not have the necessary documents at police roadblocks," Valea says.

Her first assignment is to go to one of the busiest intersections in the city as the officer in charge of five lightly armed colleagues.

"My job here is to see to it that the traffic lights and other road signs are respected," she says.

Burkina Faso is one of the few African countries where motorcycles outnumber four-wheeled vehicles - and it is estimated that there is a moped for every three to four people clogging the roads.

To combat the problems the police face each day, the transport department has provided special pavements exclusively reserved for scooters.

Despite the police presence, some road users chose to ignore the laws of the road.

"When I see such people," Valea tells me, "I order my men to arrest them and the motorcycles or cars are seized and parked by the street side. I then send for a police van to come and convey them to the police station."

I asked her whether she is happy being in the service. "Yes, of course," she replies.

"I joined the police service as a vocation; therefore I find the conditions in which I work relatively good and acceptable - psychologically and materially," she adds.

"The salary I'm paid corresponds to my rank, so I'm satisfied."

When I ask her if she is intimidated by her male colleagues - there are 15 women out of 240 at her station - she looks surprised.

Crimes are committed often on the highways during daylight and late at night in the cities by armed robbers
Adelaide Valea
"We are all equal here," she says.

"It is only the ranks that differ, that's all. We had the same training and took the same test, so there's no intimidation whatsoever.

"My [male] colleagues in the same section consider me as an equal and I'm assigned the same tasks as policemen."

Even though traffic control seems to be one of the main tasks of a Burkinabe police officer, trying to contain the city's rampant crime is also a challenge.

It is especially violent these days - with victims often found butchered with machetes, knives, and shot with automatic rifles. Some officers speak of seeing decapitated bodies.

Abdoulaye Ouedraogo, the commissioner general at the police station, puts this down to a growing population and increasing unemployment.

"Crimes are committed often on the highways during daylight and late at night in the cities by armed robbers," he says.

At the end of Valea's shift at 1830, her team have confiscated more than ten cars and mopeds - and have had to deal with distraught drivers begging for their fines to be waived.

But the law has been respected and their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

MALAWI

Police van
Police in Africa often have to contend with very violent situations
Olivia Constance Chitalo is a sergeant in the police service in Blantyre.

There is never enough money to go around. But police work is a calling; you are serving your country. Money is important but secondary.

But I must say I feel that the government is taking care of us.

For example, the government has embarked on a programme to improve housing in the Malawi Police Service. So money is one thing, but job satisfaction is the most important thing.

Training is also a continual process. In any field one needs to refresh oneself because the world is not static.

As the country develops, everything - including the criminal world - follows suit.

For example, the world nowadays talks about terrorism. Although we haven't had a case here yet, we need to know how to react.

Initial training normally takes between six and nine months. It is intensive, from class work to practical work.

Later, one tends to specialise.

With regards to how we are seen, the general public knows we are their protectors; they respect us. Only the miscreants in society hate us.

GUINEA

Karim is a sergeant in the police force in Conakry, where he worked for over 10 years.

This city is a bit like hell.

There's too much work with very little pay, which explains why we are accused of blatant corruption, particularly those of us in the traffic division.

This is not out of choice but we can be seen taking little bribes especially from commercial taxi and minibus drivers in a bid to make ends meet.

I earn less than $50 a month, and this amount can hardly satisfy my basic needs: house rent, water and electricity bills and taking care of my four children.

So the wage packet of the average policeman in Guinea is nothing to write home about.

But I can assure you that there are some higher-ranking policemen who are even more corrupt than the rest of us. It is just that it is not out there for all to see.

I went into the police force soon after I left school - not out of choice, but because of the need to meet family commitments.

I was the first born out of a family of eight and needed to help my ailing mother.

To be honest the police do not face dangers on a daily basis here, but of course during the riots that followed the workers' strike in 2007, we policemen were targeted.

In my own case, my assailants came to my house and, but for the grace of some young men around where I live, the story could have been different today.

Are we respected? There are some individual policemen and women that are highly respected because the public sees them at work and are convinced that they are sincere and dedicated to their jobs.

But apart from that, and given the large-scale corruption associated with the police force, the police here have little respect from the public.


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