Last year, a riot by minibus conductors and drivers in Blantyre City left police units at Jumbe, Khama and Nanthoka in Machinjiri burnt down.
Pupils from the neighbouring Nkolokoti Primary School are suspected of torching and pulling down the three police units in retaliation for the teargas some trigger-happy police officers threw at their school.
However, the running battles, dating back to July last year, have smothered police services in the vast, densely populated township where the three police units lie in ruins with sluggish repairs underway.
Ever since, no police officer has returned to the area. Robbers have made it their hunting ground and the police openly state they have nothing to do with cases from the ‘no-man’s land’.
“Day and night, we live in fear of robbers. People walking from funerals or workplaces at night are attacked by thugs,” says Jane Phiri, from Mkwepu.
Since the police units went up in smoke, communities in Khama, Madulira, Mkwate, Jumbe, Makheta, Nkolokoti, Nanthoka and Chikapa now endure extra costs and travel almost seven kilometres to report crimes to Limbe Police Station.
After the long travels, they have to bear cheeky responses and cold shoulders from police officers who accuse them of deliberately burning the police establishment in their midst.
They endure uncertainties, lengthy waits, slurs and incriminating generalisations from audibly riled police officers who neither caught anyone torching a police unit nor arrested the arsonists after lengthy investigations.
Madulira-based businessperson Edward Ngunga, 51, was twice robbed last November.
When robbers broke into his shop at Mkwate one night, he complained to the police in Limbe who reminded him about the destruction of Khama Police Unit.
“Mesa munaphwanya ma police?”
When the law enforcers visited the scene of crime the next morning, they did little to help him other than more of the same.
The affected communities find the response insensitive and symptomatic of lax security and justice systems.
Frustrated citizens are gradually resorting to mob justice.
“This response is unfair. It is not all of us that torched the units. It was the children and some thieves who burned them to create security lapse,” argues Burnet Mayaya, a shop owner in Madulira.
To him, security is a development and human rights issue.
He wants leaders in the area, including the member of Parliament Noel Masangwi and councillor Songwe Kabaghe, to quickly engage the police and Machinjiri residents to end the stand-off.
On July 22 last year, about 15 armed robbers broke into the Area 9 residence of Lonjezo Private Secondary School director Emmanuel Mbale and stole assorted items and K300 000.
According to Mbale, the robbers drilled a hole in a fence and entered the compound. Once inside, they broke a window and sneaked into the house.
“I shouted for help, but the robbers threatened the neighbours. I told them to get whatever they wanted,” Mbale explains.
A neighbour called the police in Limbe, but they were away on patrols in Bangwe Township.
“That’s the disadvantage of not having a police station nearby. There is no rapid response,” he laments.
This lack of police has put pressure on Area 5 and Limbe police establishments, the nearest to the communities.
When residents go to Area 5 to report crime, they are turned away.
“These people are supposed to report to Limbe. These areas fall under Limbe Zone. We operate under Blantyre Zone,” officer-in-charge, Superintendent Edna Unyolo says.
A detective at the station said the number of cases reported has increased over the past nine months.
“We are now receiving a lot of complaints from people of these communities, especially robbery cases,” he says.
Limbe Police spokesperson Patrick Mussa said the station is not facing any challenges.
“Our job is to protect people and property. Rather, the situation is affecting the people from those communities who have to travel a long distance to Limbe for help,” says Mussa.
The station is notorious for turning back people from the communities once served by the gutted police stations.
National police spokesperson James Kadadzera says the police ought not to refuse to provide security in areas where police units were torched.
“It is not true that people living in communities where police units were torched do not receive police protection. If units are burnt, it is not that everyone participated in the burning. So we cannot punish many people for the sins of few misguided individuals,” he says.
Police have no excuse
Kadadzera reckons that it takes detectives long time to investigate and capture the culprits when police posts go up in smoke.
“It’s our duty to find those who torched the units. We have been investigating to catch the ringleaders and take them to court where they get sentences,” he says.
When asked about the collapse of security in Machinjiri, Kadadzera said Malawi Police Service has not abandoned the area.
“We have zonal vehicles from Limbe which still patrol the main roads and strategic places. But if a police officer answers that they will not come because the communities burnt their units, report them to their seniors,” he urges.
But people in Machinjiri and other troubled zone feel forsaken and being punished for crimes of criminals the law enforcers are failing to bring to book.