Police versus Army

Hon Folks, Malawi Army soldiers once again played a key role in ensuring that the demos held across the country on Wednesday were as peaceful as possible. They really deserve our salute!

It’s not their job, really. Primarily the army is there to protect us from external threats. Internal security is why the Police are there.

Yet, virtually in all other places where the demos were held, the police appeared to be playing a support role, observing the procession from the periphery.

Is the army any better equipped than the police for crowd control?  Personally, I don’t know. What I know is that since the demos started in the aftermath of the disputed May 21 presidential polls, the army have not found much use for teargas canisters, handcuffs, button-sticks or bullets.

As journalists covering the demos can attest, the army’s most powerful weapon during the demos has been the trust and respect it commands among the people of Malawi. Their presence is assuring enough.

These are times when rowdy folks try to take advantage of the friendliness of the soldiers to cross the red line but the finality from the boys in uniform has never been ambiguous.

Criminals know better that the soldiers are out there to defend the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens and not to brook any nonsense from crooks from whichever side of the political divide—governing or opposition—they may align themselves to. Those who crossed the line have seen the other side of the same army.

By contrast, there’s little, if any, trust between demo organisers and participants on the one hand and the police, on the other. By their own admission, the Police say they meet with hostility when they turn up to provide security during demonstrations.

A good example is the incident on August 6 2019 when the anti-Jane Ansah demos degenerated into a nasty showdown between the demonstrators and the police, resulting in the setting ablaze of a police vehicle. A policewoman was also roughed up and stripped half naked and private property was destroyed at police lines in Lilongwe.

The perception of the police being partisan was what former Inspector General Rodney Jose was at pains to shed off, without success. It’s a view commonly shared by the opposition, the media and non-governmental watchdog institutions emanating from the different treatment the police give to those aligned with the ruling party and the opposition.

The one thing that received much attention and funding soon after the transition   to the multiparty system of government was the “polishing and scooping” of the police image. The name changed from Malawi Police Force to Malawi Police Service.

There was also a formidable campaign to sell the “human face” of the reformed police service to the public traumatised by old image of the police as Kamuzu Banda’s tool for oppression. The trend of thought at the dawn of the multi-party government was that community policing required a strong partnership and mutual trust between the police and the public it serves.

Has political mediocrity of the post-Banda era wasted the gains made (with the help of donors, of course) in restoring public trust in their police?  

A discerning mind would see that it’s not only the police that appears alienated from a bigger part of the population with leanings toward the opposition. MBC and Macra are some of the public sector institutions perceived as personalised, so to speak, by those who see themselves as forming the government of the day.

Now the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has entered the fray of public institutions people don’t trust. Since the disputed May 21 presidential election, there have been no less than seven demos across the country in protest against the continued chairmanship of Jane Ansah at MEC. She is believed to have presided over a fraudulent election.

Why is our democracy appearing to be getting weaker with time? We mesmerised the world when our transition from deep-rooted dictatorial regime of Kamuzu to multiparty democracy happened smoothly without any loss of blood or property. That was way back in 1993 and 1994.

Yet today, 25 years after the first multiparty general elections, we can’t even resolve electoral disputes five months after the May 21 polls. Instead, we are a nation shredded into political, ethnic and regional rags that can’t even be sewn into a “coat of many colours” by our political leaders.

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