A FEW days ago, we watched an action-packed video footage in which a group of raggedly dressed police officers were chanting protest slogans and provoking another group of anti-riot police officers. The scene turned chaotic when the protesting police started pelting stones at the other group, which remained steadfast and used protective gear while trying to disperse the unruly ‘protestors’.
For a moment we thought this was some sort of revolt from police officers who were probably demanding improved working conditions; which was quite strange we must say, because as far as we knew, police officers don’t have a union and such conduct is unheard of. It was not until we saw a caption that read: “Zambia Police crowd control practice” that we realised what was going on.
Training police in crowd control is a very important undertaking, especially as we go towards the 2021 general elections. Indeed, we need a police that is well equipped and well prepared, physically and mentally to deal with a frustrated population. So we commend the police service for taking our men and women under this important course in crowd control.
But we are here to express concern on the general conduct of our police officers and why this training may fail to make a difference in the policing of elections in this country. We are not trying to be pessimistic here; we just wish to share our observations so that the police command can see what we see in them.
There are two things that hamper professionalism in the police service. The first and biggest problem is political interference. Many Zambians do not understand why the police command takes instructions from cadres and ruling party officials. Some people are still wondering how a PF official called Jay Jay went away with a K150 fine for storming a police station with a gun and beating up police officers on duty before stealing from them. The reason why the police are afraid of ruling party cadres is simple.
Our people must understand that the Zambia Police is run by retired police officers who have sworn allegiance to the party in power. All police commissioners were first retired and reappointed. Police Commissioners don’t need to be loyal to the Inspector General; they have to be loyal to the people who surround the President. The police service in Zambia is run by political appointees, by retired officers who are on contract with the ruling party.
A lot of people don’t understand this and they expect the police to be impartial. It’s impossible! This is the law that we have in place and that’s where the political influence and the lack of professionalism stems from. We can complain all we want about the unfair application of the Public Order Act, but Police Commissioners and the entire Police Command know that once the party in power loses elections, the incoming government can never renew their contracts. Kuya beebele!
So how do we expect the police to police elections, to control crowds in a professional and impartial way? We can train them on what to do when it comes to handling violent situations but, in practice, these police officers will first look at the colour of regalia that the protestors are wearing. Until such a time when the provincial police commissioners go back to being civil servants, we should not expect them to treat the ruling party and the opposition the same way.
The second reason why we feel this crowd control training exercise may be worthless is the militant disposition by our police officers, whereby they favour confrontational methods of managing people. What we need to overcome this problem is a change of mindset. The reason why police attack civilians is not because they lack sufficient physical practice on crowd control. The problem is the mindset.
Police usually feel the need to show that they are very powerful and in some cases, they feel like they are the law unto themselves. When they are wearing the uniform, they look down on citizens. That’s why it’s very rare to find a police officer smiling on duty. They are always moody and on the defensive. When you approach a police officer to make an inquiry, they will respond like they are talking to a criminal, whose crime they are yet to establish. But the moment you make an inquiry that leads to a cash transaction, you will see the widest smile you have ever seen on a human being.
Some of our officers suffer inferiority complex. That’s why they treat civilians with such harshness even before they are provoked. Some police officers behave like they are hard core commandos returning from war. This is not correct. There is a difference between soldiers and police officers. Police officers are supposed to be nice and approachable, they should aspire to assist people in a caring manner. That is why the police fall under the Ministry of Home Affairs and not the Ministry of Defence.
So, the video we watched about the police training in crowd control is good, but those officers who were involved in that exercise cannot act like that in reality. In Zambia, you can’t pelt a stone at an officer without getting a life-threatening beating or a bullet. They are no longer arresting wrong doers, they beat or kill. This is why we shudder to think about what will happen in next year’s elections, given the high stakes involved and the volatile political atmosphere.