Police blitz ill-advised, ill-timed

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It’s highly probable that many people in Harare will have shelved their Christmas shopping and travel plans by today, two days before the big day.

A police blitz targeting unauthorised commuter omnibuses which started on Wednesday was still in full swing yesterday – this at a time the central business district was bursting at the seams with shoppers.

The result was that thousands of people trudged into and out of town under a hot, blazing sun as omnibus crews played hide-and-seek with the police with passengers being dropped and picked out of town as the crews sought to evade the cops.

Not only that, fares were quickly doubled as fewer and fewer omnibuses remained on the streets and crews took advantage of the worsening chaos.

Why subject people to such great inconvenience at the only time of the year they can let go?

Why turn a happy family shopping outing into a nightmare?

What have ordinary, law-abiding people done to deserve this?

Why wasn’t the operation activated well before the peak of the festive season?

Would the police rather have people stranded in town in their determination to deal with omnibus crews? Why?

Such situations are a pickpockets’ paradise and, as it gets darker, muggers’ too. Why should innocent shoppers and travellers and workers be caught up in this whole mess?

After all, police should be at the service of the people, not their disservice. What a time to spoil Xmas!

How many man hours have been lost during this peak business period? How much potential revenue will the government itself be deprived of?

All this and more should have been taken into account. Everything else must not grind to a halt just because of a police crackdown.

This traffic jungle did not mushroom overnight; it was in the making for years following the collapse of urban transporter Zupco whose large fleet of buses went a long way in catering for commuters’ needs.

It has spawned a breed of corrupt police officers who routinely extort money from motorists on city streets and highways under the guise of enforcing traffic laws.

These officers have contributed in large measure to the chaos that now reigns on Harare streets which has prompted the current clampdown as they take bribes from unauthorised omnibuses for “safe passage” and this is done in full view of the public. They have become brazen in their ways.

There is need to get rid of bad police officers. Those officers who mistreat the public and abuse their position must be descended upon heavily.

Police bosses should be concerned about the tainting this brings to the institution. Who polices the police?

There is urgent need for police chiefs to self-police the ranks. If they are really serious about taming this traffic jungle, there should be constant policing, not this stop-start business.

There is need to professionalise the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

That said, there is a tendency to overreact among the powers-that-be without the slightest consideration of the people’s buy-in or interests, the very people who are affected by these ill-considered decisions and actions.

This ill-timed operation has had the effect of worsening what was a manageable even though chaotic situation – like what happened at the National Sports Stadium in 2000 when 13 people died in a stampede after police unwarrantedly fired teargas during a football match between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Former England striker John Fashanu, who was in the stadium, said police crowd control was “very poor” and that officers “overreacted, stupidly”.

Wrote a South African journalist who witnessed the tragedy: “The response of the police, in my long experience of football as player and writer, was unprecedented. There was no real threat. A few bottles flung, nothing unusual about that. I’ve seen it happen in South Africa, Angola and Ghana. Eventually the crowd settles down and the match continues.”

One eyewitness blamed the police for aggravating the situation, the State-owned Herald reported.

“There were individual hooligans who could have been handled by individual policemen. But . . . the police simply fired the teargas and that worsened the situation as people tried to leave yet the exit points were blocked by other policemen waiting to fire more teargas,” the paper quoted Isaac Chimwi as saying.

This overreaction could be a manifestation of a deep-rooted problem: That of bad policing following bad political culture.

This heavy-handedness has been inculcated in the police, especially over the past 11 years.

After the parliamentary elections earlier that year (that is, 2000), when the MDC inflicted unprecedented losses on the ruling Zanu PF, MDC sloganeering became almost standard practice at public gatherings.

The MDC’s open-handed salute was given all over the National Sports Stadium during the singing of the national anthem on that tragic Sunday.

It could that the anonymity of being in a crowd in a stadium afforded people the chance and protection to express themselves as at that time – and up to now – MDC meetings were routinely prohibited or disrupted and its supporters could be attacked with impunity.

This was common practice during the Rhodesian era. That’s part of group dynamics and this happens anywhere under similar conditions.

Deprive people of legitimate means of expressing themselves, they will invent a thousand others. But overreacting by descending with a hammer – like the police did on that black Sunday – is no solution.

Now these bad habits have cascaded into what should be routine police operations, resulting in the chaos we have been witnessing in Harare this week.

The police should have used an educated, measured response instead of force per se as this has caused too many innocent casualties.

Though on a smaller scale, this reminds one of the so-called Operation Murambatsvina (Clean-Up), which directly affected
700 000 people through loss of homes or livelihood and another 2,4 million indirectly.

Similarly, the current police clampdown on Harare streets is ill-considered and ill-timed because it’s causing more chaos than order, making it unjustified.

What’s happening is no solution at all. They are making a bad situation worse.

Otherwise Happy Xmas to all!

ctutani@newsday.co.zw