Protests against elections chief, Justice Jane Ansah, have exposed a new low in the ties between citizens and the police.
During the post-election marches convened to force the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) chairperson to resign, the law enforcers have been attacked by the people they are supposed to protect.
Since the dispute over the May 21 presidential election erupted, protesters have vented their anger on the police—torching some police stations and armored vehicles.
Some officers have suffered despicable humiliation, from a policewoman undressed in public in Lilongwe to burning and looting of their homes.
“I have a wife and children. Their lives depend on me. I am now in hospital and so many things have suffered. I am in pain. I can’t sleep. It is sad that things have reached this level that we are being targeted by the very people we sacrifice our lives to protect,” lamented a police officer in an interview from a hospital bed in Lilongwe.
Stones from irate protesters left him with a heavily swollen head.
In these running battles, citizens opposed to President Peter Mutharika’s disputed leadership have been targeted by petrol bombs.
On the street, Malawians are increasingly questioning how partisan the country’s ‘reformed police service’ is.
In Blantyre, the men and women came under fire for standing by indifferently while governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) youth cadets beat up protesters gathering for an anti-Ansah march convened by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC).
As the armed police look on absent-mindedly, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers have become the new police.
As they saved the marchers from the DPP youth wing’s reign of terror, the soldiers have stepped in to protect citizens.
Eugenio Njoloma, a security studies lecturer at Mzuzu University, says the police have themselves to blame for losing public trust.
“The problem, I think, is extreme political force exerted on police by the ruling power. Experience reveals how the institution has been used and abused by ruling regimes in furthering their political interests. This weakens the institution and drains its integrity before the masses” he states.
Njoloma says the soldiers are supposed to play a complementary role, but MDF involvement remains “quite key” until police regain public confidence.
Retired Brigadier General Marcel Chirwa’s book, Malawi Security Sector Reform: A Return to Regular Order, also faults the police.
In the book, the ex-soldier argues that security in Malawi is compromised because security forces direct their energy more in protecting the ruling elite at the expense of the vulnerable citizens.
It reads in part: “Protection is given to the elite who are in power and the institutions of the State that gave them such power….what is taken as State security or national security is really nothing but the regime security.
“It means that the security organisations are primarily looking after the interest of the regime in power and not that of the people.”
Chirwa runs the Centre for Peace and Security Management. He states that State monopoly in the security sector mostly disadvantages citizens opposed to ideas of the ruling elite.
This has reduced the police officers to political decoys—and many are times the men and women in uniform have acted suspiciously.
However, this is contrary to Section 153 of the Constitution.
It states: “The Malawi Police Service shall be an independent organ of the Executive, which shall be there to provide for the protection of public safety and the rights of persons in Malawi.”
Since the restoration of democracy, there have been programmes to reform the security agency which had been reduced to a weapon of repression during the one-party rule of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda. In their minds, the reformers envisaged the dictatorial regime’s police force being transformed into a people’s police service.
However, old habits die hard. The vestiges of the police brutality loomed large during the July 20, 2011 anti-government demonstrations in which the police killed 21 people.
The police’s selective approach to enforcing law and order perpetuates the negative perception an inquiry into the July 20 killings highlighted.
The Commission of Inquiry squarely blamed police’s indifference to panga-brandishing DPP cadets, who held an acrimonious procession in Blantyre on the eve of the blood-spattered demonstrations.
Its findings read: “The ‘panga boys incident’ was a sign of defiance and political intimidation which further raised the tension.
“Exacerbating the matter was the fact that the incident was never investigated to its logical conclusion by the police, which made people to speculate that the ruling DPP was behind the incident.”
The commission affirmed that the police service is “a public property” and “its independence must be respected at all times and must not be used as an arm of a ruling political party”.
Another commission constituted to investigate the death of The Polytechnic student Robert Chasowa in 2011 bemoaned the thin line between police and the party in power.
Its report names senior police officers, including acting inspector Duncan Mwapasa and his predecessor Rodney Jose, in connection with the death the police linked suicide.
It reads: “Political parties, politicians or individuals should not use the Malawi Police Service in the exercise of its functions, powers and duties to further their political agenda or to undermine those of others. They should not use the Malawi Police Service as a tool for intimidating, silencing or eliminating political opponent” reads part of the report.
Interestingly, even President Peter Mutharika experienced life in the hands of the police when he was detained at Lumbadzi Police Station in Lilongwe for allegedly conspiring to block Joyce Banda’s ascendency to presidency following the death of his brother—then president Bingu—in 2011. The incumbent accused Banda’s People’s Party of an attempt to assassinate him in a horrible police cell.
By accusing the police of the worst felony they are expected to stop, the President personifies the widespread vote of no confidence in the country’s police system. However, he has done little or nothing to change the situation
Human rights activist Makhumbo Munthali calls for dramatic changes in the appointment of the police chief, saying the President retains incalculable power although the appointee is approved by Parliament.
He says: “The President still has more power in the selection process because he limits the scope from which parliament can approve from.
“We have seen the President and the ruling party bringing their own people and often using their numeric advantage in Parliament to approve their stooge. As long as the appointing authority is retained in the presidency, we shouldn’t expect any serious reforms.”
Both Mwapasa and Jose faced opposition from HRDC, who accused them of being “DPP cadets”. However, they deny the tag, saying they are career police officers.
As MDF keeps doing police work, Munthali and Njoloma have a word of caution: While soldiers have legal mandate to support the police in enforcing law and order, their constant interventions send a wrong message.
Clearly, the police have an uneasy task to put a human face to their work and regain the confidence they need in their line of duty.