NOTHING has really changed at Harare Central Police Station since the last time I was a guest there in January 2004.
It is still the same dark alleys and passages that take suspects and police officers up and down a maze of steps that eventually open in front of a well-maintained small garden.
The badly lit offices, like they were five years ago, are still littered with rickety chairs and Olivetti typewriters which should have been retired more than a decade ago to rest in peace in antique shops or museums. Police officers on duty at the Law and Order Section dutifully typed the charge against us on these ancient inventions.
Together with our News Editor Constantine Chimakure, I was this week charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state. For our alleged crimes, we spent a night at Harare Central Police Station.
Police at the little reception area were pleasant and professional. They welcomed us to the â€œhotelâ€. This one does not require Kogaâ€™s perception management projects to attract customers. It is well patronised.
Since my last visit, the authorities at the police station have done something on the plumbing as sewerage has stopped dripping close to police officersâ€™ desks and in passageways. I also noticed piles of breadcrumbs which I am told now constitute part of the meal for prisoners. The pleasant smell of the bread confirmed its freshness. These are damaged loaves from bakeries.
I introduced Constantine to the check-in routine of peeling off layers of clothing, belts, shoes and socks and surrendering them to officers in the inventory room. This is when reality then set in. We were in for a long cold night.
For company, we had a young banker arrested on charges of defrauding a bank of â€œa lot of greensâ€. He appeared unperturbed by the allegations; neither was he complaining about his detention from the previous Friday.
There were truck drivers whose crime I could not understand. They had been arrested after being robbed of their truck at gunpoint in South Africa. Dumbfounding? But that was their story.
There were also two CID police officers who were not very keen to talk about their crimes. A shake of the head and deep sighs defined the gravity of their charge.
Then there was the usual potpourri of vendors, touts, pickpockets and a triumvirate that was constantly in deep conversation about cars and how to talk nicely to the PPs (public prosecutors).
Amid the acrid smells of urine and faecal matter from the toilets, and the cold floors thick with gooey black grime that covered our bare feet, the setting appeared complete for a dreary long cold night. But for four hours we were to be treated to an unexpected comedy show from a most unlikely character.
He was brought to the cells in full military fatigues minus his hat but in an advanced state of inebriation. The few intelligible things he said suggested that he had refused to pay bus fare. His reason; Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana paid bus fare for all soldiers before she died.
This statement was repeated severally as â€œGunnersâ€, his adopted name now (apologies to Arsenal fans), propped himself against the wall. Later his show focused on the big bag he had surrendered to the police manning the inventory office.
He wanted it back because it contained â€œperishablesâ€ for his wife Mai Lucy. Intermittent questions from fellow inmates revealed that he had been drinking gondo (Eagle lager) since morning but was arrested in town by fellow soldiers around 7pm.
He was booked in for disorderly and drunken behaviour. His embarrassing state provided comic relief but also got me thinking about why I was being detained. I was being accused of communicating falsehoods, and causing disaffection among members of the uniformed forces.
The state of â€œGunnersâ€ did not portray the military establishment in good light. It raised the question of how Gunners managed to get so drunk in uniform and while on duty. Where were his superiors when he was drinking on the job?Â Are there other men in uniform drinking on the job?
A man or woman in uniform who misbehaves in public sends the wrong signal to the public on what the security establishment represents. This also includes policemen openly demanding bribes from kombi drivers at roadblocks, or soldiers harassing transport operators at bus termini.Â Journalists reporting on the bad conduct of security officers are not causing disaffection to the establishment but simply articulating societal concerns.
But our rulers appear to have a resolute stance that military establishment are a sacred lot whose excesses should escape the glare of the media. Â
It is not the role of the media to launder the image of the security establishment. A professional police force or army does not need the media to praise it for the public to celebrate its professionalism. There is serious need for introspection in the security establishment in this country.
The men in uniform must find out from the public what they think about the conduct of the security establishment. We would be very keen to publish the findings of such a survey.
BY VINCENT KAHIYA