It took officers from the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) to impound a truckload of 109 bags of Indian hemp (chamba) at Lirangwe roadblock in Blantyre north in January 2016.
The drugs—which presumably originated from Nkhotakota—were destined for Blantyre city and only the timely interception of the tax officers put a stop to a huge consignment that had eluded officers at a number of police checkpoints in between the two areas—which are almost 400km apart.
Southern Region police spokesperson James Kadadzera expressed surprise at the efficiency with which the syndicate transporting the drug had managed to elude several police checkpoints until it was stopped by an unlikely agency.
Questions have been asked regarding the effectiveness of police roadblocks in the wake of high profile breaches where huge volumes of the illicit drug—which is mainly produced in Nkhotakota and Mzimba—has found its way into the country’s major cities, causing both security and health concerns.
But amid questions over the law enforcers’ ability to nip drug trafficking in the bud, Malawi Police Service national spokesperson Nicholas Gondwa has backed police officers for their diligence and alertness, but he blamed the country’s road network as the chief cause for such lapses.
“We are doing everything in our powers to stop drug cartels from trafficking chamba into towns and cities. Unfortunately, our efforts are being hampered by the country’s road network. There are a lot of unchartered routes from Nkhotakota to Zalewa routes which these people use. Normally they get caught closer to Blantyre where their options are few and far between,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Gondwa said police had information that drug peddlers branch off into earth roads before Sharpe Valley in Ntcheu and use roads that skirt the mountains all the way to Mtonda—beating three roadblocks at Sharpe Valley, Salima turn off and Chingeni.
He, however, insisted that the police are containing the situation through mounting ad hoc roadblocks on the country’s roads.
“People should know that those roadblocks are mounted based on intelligence. Currently, all police station management officers have been encouraged to use this method and it has been very effective in dealing with crime,” Gondwa said.
While acknowledging the strides the police are making in arresting chamba traffickers, executive director for Drug Fight Malawi, Nelson Zakeyu, blamed the opening of new markets for chamba.
“We appreciate that the police are doing their part under difficult circumstances. They do not have enough resources in terms of equipment and personnel.
“But we have seen an escalation of drug trafficking especially chamba of late. We believe the influx of foreign artists who drum up support for its legalisation is creating a bigger demand for hemp in the country.
“This is dangerous especially to people under the age of 21 who might have their brains permanently damaged when they take the drug,” he said.
Some stakeholders, such as ministries of Home Affairs, Health and Education and civil society organisations, have raised concerns over the escalation in the uptake of illicit drugs by young people in the country. The police have been held responsible for the failure to get things under control.
Martha Savala, a parent from Traditional Authority Khombedza’s area in Salima, said it is high time the government put up serious measures to deal with the chamba network.
“It is always mind-boggling that the police always want to arrest the situation at the end of the distribution chain. No wonder they are failing to control the trafficking of chamba. In fact they should have addressed the problem from the source by blocking production. They [police] know exactly where chamba is produced, how come they do not arrest the growers?” she queried.
While Gondwa blamed the country’s road network for the proliferation of chamba traffickers escaping the police dragnet CaananNyirenda, a transporter based in Mzuzu, said the law enforcers should find another excuse.
“It is not easy for chamba traffickers to use side routes to escape from drug enforcement agencies as it is being claimed. One only has to look at the country’s state of roads to realise that it is quite a tall order for those that transport chamba to divert to unchartered routes. The police needs to tighten the screws within its establishment to ensure corruption among officers manning roadblocks is eliminated,” said Nyirenda.
According to Maziko Matemba, executive director at Health Rights and Education Programme, the question of infiltration in the police rank and file should be a priority area the law enforcers have to work on.
“The health challenges that chamba causes are so enormous and they eat up a portion of the country’s health budget. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to stop being defensive and start addressing the problem by increasing drug enforcement efforts. They do not have to leave this job to police alone, different agencies such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) should also be roped in,” he said.
But commenting on why there is a veil of secrecy when disposing off of large consignments of chamba which has already been used as evidence by the courts, Gondwa said the laws of the country are used to determine how this should be done.
“Whenever the courts have used the drug as evidence they release it to be destroyed and the police, Judiciary and the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services all witness this exercise. That is what the law demands. Nowadays, whenever possible, we invite the media to be part of the team but that is not mandatory. All the hemp is destroyed when released by the courts,” he said.