“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This sentiment, taken from George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm, mirrors what is happening in the country’s public transport sector.
It is an unwritten rule commuter omnibuses owned by policemen enjoy “special” favours although in most cases their condition is far worse compared to others owned by civilians.
“They can pick and drop people as they wish, even at undesignated places. They are not harassed. They do what they want and they get away with it,” said a kombi driver, Runyararo Mamvura.
A snap survey by NewsDay showed kombis owned by police officers are on the increase, with some, especially those that had been on UN peacekeeping missions, reportedly owning fleets of up to 15 vehicles.
Some of the kombis are, however, not properly registered and do not have route permits, but are neither stopped at police roadblocks nor impounded.
“The law is like a web. It only catches small insects like cockroaches and flies leaving big animals like rats and mice. This also applies here. How can I arrest my boss’ kombi?” said a junior traffic policeman who declined to reveal his name.
At one of the police roadblocks that have become more like tollgates along Bulawayo Road (as kombi drivers only pay a dollar or two for their passage), an “overzealous” traffic police crew arrested a kombi driver for not possessing proper documents.
The driver openly said to the police officers that they were “playing with fire” and upon making a call to his boss, the kombi was freed.
Most drivers now prefer to work for public transport companies owned by police officers as there would be less hassles at police roadblocks.
“I would really want to be employed by the new bosses in town, the police officers. I know I can easily meet the target because I don’t have to pay a lot of bribes and I can pick and drop passengers wherever I want,” said one driver.
Police officers-cum-transport operators have been blamed for charging $1 for a R5 trip during peak hours and they get away with it. Their drivers are unfazed by passenger grievances.
“You can report wherever you want. Do you know who owns this kombi? I said I want a dollar for the trip,” threatened one driver plying City-Kuwadzana route.
Police officers from the traffic section who patrol the city centre, popularly known as vakomana vemamboma (the boys with menacing baton sticks) — because they move around with baton sticks — have been smashing windscreens of commuter omnibuses parked or picking up passengers at undesignated points, but kombis owned by police officers have been spared.
A newly-recruited police officer, who only identified himself as Moyo, said he hit the front windscreen of a kombi with a baton stick not knowing that it belonged to one of his superiors and got into trouble at work.
“I had to buy another windscreen because the officer threatened me with unspecified action,” said Moyo.
Members of the public also blamed policemen who owned kombis for not following proper registration and certification procedures.
“Human life is very sacred. If police officers want to own kombis they should abide by traffic rules. They should also make sure that their vehicles are roadworthy,” said Edmore Godzongere, a traffic instructor.
Some police officers have been blamed for letting their children without driver’s licences drive commuter omnibuses.
A senior police office who spoke on condition of anonymity said there was no law which forbade police officers to venture into business, but they should abide by the law.
“We encourage our police officers to be enterprising as long as there is no conflict of interest. They are not above the law and we urge members of the public to report any kombi which they see breaking the law. It does not matter if the owner holds high office in the police force,” he said.
Zimbabwe remains one of the countries in the world with high accident rates. The statistics show that 75% of accidents involve commuter omnibuses.
Last year, more than 21 440 road accidents, which claimed 1 390 lives, were reported. Police spokesperson Andrew Phiri, however, said no one was above the law, but said they had not received complaints from any of their officers manning roadblocks.
“We haven’t received any such complaints. In any case, that complaint does not hold water because it is not the duty of any kombi operator to raise such a complaint, but that should be done by officers manning roadblocks. The law applies equally to everyone and nobody is supposed to interfere with the due process of the law,” he said.