Despite a clear pattern that the relationship between some sections of the public and the Malawi Police Service (MPS) has reached an all-time low after the May 21 elections, especially in trouble spots, the police believe it is criminal elements that are responsible for the “wrong perception”, a view not shared by security experts.
Security experts worry that if not nicked in the bud—the current scenario that has seen MPS losing two of its officers to violence— threatens to further polarise the public and the police, leading to more incidents of lawlessness.
One officer died days after demonstrators attacked him during demonstrations Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organised to force Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson Jane Ansah resign on accusations that she mismanaged the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections that saw President Peter Mutharika declared winner on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket.
In the past week, another officer, Superintendent Usumani Imedi of the Police Mobile Service died after he was savagely attacked by a stone-throwing and road-blocking mob on the Lilongwe-Mchinji Road when he was trying to restore order during a protest.
But evidence of public mistrust of the police was seen during anti-Jane Ansah demonstrations where the police were chased or stoned in some cases, only for the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) to restore sanity while in some trouble spots, such as Msundwe in Lilongwe, police visibility was non-existent after the public burnt police units.
The police have also come under scrutiny after an Afrobarometer report of April 2 2019 rated Malawi poorly, at 14 percent, on timely assistance of the police.
And an online poll Nation on Sunday carried from Wednesday to on Saturday) on Facebook and Twitter, though not scientific in terms of sampling, gives an anecdotal evidence that the perception of the loss of trust in the police is real.
On Facebook, where the respondents were asked if they still had trust in MPS, only 856 respondents said ‘yes’, representing 19 percent, while 3 700 respondents said they lost the trust.
On Twitter, 22 percent vouched their trust in police while 78 percent said they lost it.
An expert on security issues, retired brigadier Marcel Chirwa, observed in an interview that the pattern has shifted because security institutions have resorted to protecting those in leadership and not the citizens.
He said protection was being given to the elite who are in authority and not citizens because heads of State institutions are appointed by the ruling party.
“This is the hallmark of regime security that:-Protection of the DPP government not the citizens, criminalisation of political opponents, reliance on special security units (Cadets), [as was the case with Young Democrats), rather than the professional police service, political policing, infiltrators into the security systems by the ruling party and finally, heavy involvement of the military in the domestic security,” said Chirwa, director of Centre for Peace and Security Management and a former diplomat.
Another security analyst Alex Chisiano, a former assistant commissioner of police, observed that police were under heavy pressure from political masters to favour ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cadets against innocent demonstrators.
His sentiments followed police’s swift arrest of over 40 Msundwe community members for being suspected of stoning to death Imedi while two weeks have now elapsed since DPP cadets severely attacked human rights activist Billy Mayaya in their full view in Blantyre, but no one has been brought to book.
MPS has said it is working ‘very hard’ to restore its image severely damaged by a growing perception that it favours political parties in power.
Chisiano said government, through the office of the Attorney General (AG), was doing its best to stop the demonstrations, citing violence “yet the same government is encouraging violence indirectly by engaging cadets to confront demonstrators”.
“This is dangerous as it is breeding a class of citizens earning a living through crime. Political crime is being normalised.
“With unemployment escalating, we are creating a ruthless generation. Even those not directly involved in politicking may take advantage of the lawlessness,” observed Chisiano, a partner at Private Investigations Consultancy (Pics).
National police spokesperson James Kadadzera said, in an interview on Friday, that recent incidences where police officers have been killed, injured, or chased away from controlling demonstrations, is a calculated move by few criminal-minded individuals who are always after looting property of innocent Malawians.
But Kadadzera said the few criminal-minded individuals, also coupled by few individuals with partisan political interests, have not helped matters as they have fuelled violent demonstrations to make Malawi lawless.
However, Kadadzera warned that the police will use the law and authority vested in them to bring order.
“We want to warn these few individuals that the law will take its cause. We will do everything within the law and within our power to bring peace and make every Malawian safe.
“Our image has been severely dented, yes, but I can assure you, it is only a few individuals that have made this damage. If you go in our police units and stations, you will find people queuing for our services,” Kadadzera said.
As police, he said, they have also arrested a number of people— some of them have already been convicted of crimes committed during the post-election violence and demonstrations.
Kadadzera said there are few hotspots synonymous with violence, explaining that criminal-minded individuals literally plan which shops to loot. He said this is the reason they do not want their presence because they would be arrested.
“We will not tire to continue several of our programmes to sensitise the public of our role in the society. They must realise that they need us more. We also have intensified our patrols in the communities.
“We cannot allow lawlessness to continue. We are there to serve the public, not a particular political party. People that break the law would be arrested, and nobody will be spared,” Kadadzera warned.
He disclosed that during the post-election period, they have arrested 249 suspects in relation to looting and assaults during demonstrations.
Junior police officers we have confidentially talked to on the loss of trust blame the status quo on the top echelons pandering to the whims of politicians, unlike the Army that has been perceived independent and professional.
The officers told Nation on Sunday that they were living in fear and their already risky job has become a real life risk that they leave behind their families in utter fear every time they go to control demonstrations.
“Sometimes we literally get phone calls from our parents, relatives, cautioning us that there is nothing worth dying for. During the demonstrations, some relations literally keep checking on us hourly.
“This is not the life we want. As MPS, I think we have a room to do better. Let us self-critic ourselves and see if we have acted professionally. Personally, we’ve not sometimes, but it is our top brass that have a big role to play and make truly police independent,” said one officer in Blantyre.
Another officer from Lilongwe said: “There is something bad we have tolerated from political parties in power, hence the talk of selective justice. Those in power have been spared whenever an offence has been committed, but we have always rushed to penalise those in opposition.
“This has not started with this government, but from all past administrations. Those in power become untouchable. As police, we can do better, but this can only happen if our bosses can be bold enough to make changes, otherwise this pattern will forever be there,” said the officer.
But Kadadzera said it was misleading to conclude police were under pressure from any individual or grouping to favour or only defend a particular section of people.
“We protect each and every Malawian regardless of their political or tribal attachment.
“It is our mandate, as police, to ensure we safeguard every citizen. However, it is regrettable that some people have such perceptions to the extent that they now view a police officer as their enemy instead of a friend,” he said.
The political violence that characterised the post May 21 elections and the manner the police have tried to maintain law and order in the country’s hot spots have further fractured relations between the police and the public in the trouble spots.