Now’s the time to sweep police cells

Honourable Folks, listening to Nicholas Dausi the other day describe the terrible cell conditions at Lumbadzi Police Station in the outskirts of the capital city, I quickly remembered my own cell experience at Mulanje Police Station two years ago.

I was only there for about 45 minutes of one unfortunate Saturday evening after getting involved in a fatal road accident but it was an experience that haunts me every time a member of my family goes out by car.

I always pray, pleading with God, to let nothing happen to them on the road, lest they end up in a police cell. The stench alone was nauseating. It was fairly cool outside but inside the cell, it was so terribly hot that I was soaked in my own sweat in no time at all.

The place is deliberately made to look like Gehenna: no bulb, no windows—save for a very small opening above the cell door to let in some air and a flicker of light from the OB (occurrence book) counter.

Inside, my cellmates—there were five or six of them—were friendly and I really wished I saw their faces. Unfortunately I couldn’t see anything because although it was just early evening, the darkness inside was haunting.

I was told they keep police cells like that for some inexplicable security reason. The policeman who took me to the cell simply opened the door, let me in and bolted it behind me. Later, when it was time to go, he simply opened the door, called my name and bolted it again after I got out of the dungeon. 

When I shared my experience with a friend in Blantyre, he just laughed it off, saying compared to his experience at Blantyre Police Station cell sometime back, mine was like a night at a holiday resort.  

He talked about a crammed cell with its own cell “president” (a hard core criminal) who sold a place to sleep on. New comers who were broke slept near the soiled chambers and those with money bought ‘deluxe’ floor-space near the president himself, a distance away from the stench. 

Dausi and his party boss, Peter Mutharika, were powerful figures in government only last year. Their cell-mate, Bright Msaka, was, until Monday this week, Chief Secretary to the government, the top most position in the civil service.

Goodall Gondwe, another cell-mate who collapsed under the weight of the despicable cell condition and ended up in hospital, was until his arrest on Monday, Minister of Economic Planning and Development.

Did these powerful men ever think about improving conditions in prison and police cells? Dausi said on radio this week that should his DPP win elections in 2014, they will make it a priority to improve conditions in prison and police cells.

Maybe his counterparts in government, who spend nights on king-size beds at Area 10 or in four-star hotels, simply laughed it off and dismissed it as a cry of an ‘enemy’ languishing in a man-made hell.

But, come to think of it, if past trends are anything to go by, those in government now are more likely than their counterparts in opposition to end up in police custody should PP lose the elections next year.

The pattern has consistently been the same: when UDF became the ruling party in 1994, it was those in MCP—from Kamuzu Banda himself—who were being hounded for whatever real or imaginary crimes. In the name of serving the government of the day, no arrests were made within the UDF itself! Likewise, leaders of parties in good books with President Bakili Muluzi also enjoyed some sort of above-the-law status.

When Mutharika assumed power in 2004, it’s those in UDF, starting with Muluzi himself, who were hounded by agents of the State for various crimes, real or imaginary. Some clever fellows who defected to DPP were never touched, not by the police or the Anti-Corruption Bureau.

Until now, when fate cut short Mutharika’s second term and ushered in Joyce Banda and her PP. Within a year of JB’s reign, the powerful Peter Mutharika, who could fly in a presidential helicopter and whose motorcade had police escort even when he was a mere Cabinet minister in his brother’s government, also languished under the same police that once revered him.

As long as acrimony continues to define relations in our multiparty system of government, those enjoying Executive power now should not forget to sweep police and prison cells. Like the posh houses in Areas 10 or 12 in the capital they now call home, the police cell, too, could become home, sweet home, some day.

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