HomeCommentEditor's Memo: The Police We Want

Editor’s Memo: The Police We Want

HOME Affairs minister Kembo Mohadi this week presented us with a rosy picture of policing which does not necessarily identify with law enforcement in Zimbabwe.


Addressing military personnel at the Staff College this week, Mohadi said the police should “uphold its primary role of dealing with civil disorders with no political overtones as well as riots with revolutionary intent. In all these actions, minimum appropriate force must be used.”

The deception in the minister’s statement resonates with statements from police chiefs whenever local police officers go on United Nations duties. Deputy Commissioner-General Godwin Matanga last year said this about professionalism in the force: “Without doubt, it is a clear indication that we are and have always discharged our duties professionally and in accordance with international police standards, for had it not been for that, the United Nations would not have invited us to provide personnel for peacekeeping duties.”

But to an average Zimbabwean, the professionalism of our police force is not measured by the number of peacekeeping missions ZRP officers participate in. No one really expects officers on duty in Kosovo or East Timor to attack demonstrators with truncheons and booted feet or to beat up the leaders of an opposition party at a police station. The police Zimbabweans have known lately will use a hammer to swat a fly.

In May last year the world was confronted with gruesome images of brutalised leaders of the opposition and the National Constitutional Assembly. They were victims of police brutality which was condoned by the highest office. President Mugabe at the time disingenuously defended the beating up of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in police custody saying “chakadashurwa (it was thoroughly beaten)”.

“Of course he was bashed,” Mugabe told a rally of Zanu PF supporters. “But he and his MDC must stop their terrorist activists. We are saying to him, ‘Stop it now or you will regret it’.”

The instruction to the police at the time was clear –– crush dissent! Six months earlier Mugabe had also defended the police’s heavy-handedness in crushing a planned workers’ march. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was forced to abandon plans for a series of anti-government protests after the organisers were beaten up and arrested while gathering for the march in central Harare.

“Police were right in dealing sternly with ZCTU leaders during their demonstration … because the trade unionists want to become a law unto themselves,” Mugabe said.

“We cannot have a situation where people decide to sit in places not allowed and when the police remove them, they say no. We can’t have that. That is a revolt to the system. When the police say move, move. If you don’t move, you invite the police to use force.”

The handiwork of the police –– bandaged skulls and limbs, bruised buttocks and thighs and swollen faces –– was given extensive coverage around the world. There was no remorse for this bloody episode. It was considered the right way of policing, especially after receiving presidential endorsement.

But the authorities are aware that a police force does not gain respect by beating up political opponents and inconvenient civic leaders, including lawyers. They are also aware that the police force is more effective in its duties if it forges alliances with the general public and not when officers run personal errands for the powerful and the privileged. Many victims of police brutality will find it difficult to reconcile Mohadi’s statement with reality on the ground.

Mohadi’s sentiments without doubt are designed to fall in sync with the power-sharing agreement between Zanu PF and the two MDC formations. The agreement clearly states that “recruitment policies and practices (of uniformed forces should) be conducted in a manner that ensures that no political or other form of favouritism is practised”. It also says that state organs and institutions should “observe the principles of the rules of law and remain non-partisan and impartial”.

This is easier said than done. In post-conflict societies, reconstruction efforts must focus on rebuilding and strengthening institutions. The key to this process is not just institutional reform during the democratisation process, but public perception of state organs as well. Our police force has not only been accused of battery and heavy-handedness but of demanding bribes and of sloppiness in carrying out investigations.

In essence police performance is not necessarily improved in the democratic transition, on the contrary, it tends to deteriorate. Violence and arbitrariness are also not reduced but can grow with its inefficiency. The bad image that the public has of the police is sustained by the police force’s poor performance, by its violence and arbitrariness and by the lack of prudent controls. There is also an absence of institutional channels for people to voice their complaints about police behaviour.

The public is often torn between the need for public security that should be provided by the police and the lack of confidence in it and even fear of it. Lack of trust does not translate into demands for improvement of police performance or in demands for control over it. To the contrary, mistrust often goes hand in hand with an acceptance of arbitrary behaviour and inefficiency.

To build trust, it is important for the police to perform routine duties efficiently: that is making an arrest without resorting to force and attending to incidents expeditiously. That’s the police we want. Not the make-believe force Mohadi has conjured up.

By Vincent Kahiya

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