Blantyre — Of the policies President Joyce Banda of Malawi has abolished since taking over from the late Bingu wa Mutharika, the most controversial has arguably been her lifting of the police's shoot-to-kill policy.
Crimes such as armed robberies have reportedly risen in Blantyre and other areas of the country recently. Some claim the change of policy has created a sense of disempowerment and fear amongst the police force who feel unable to deal with criminals, but others insist the police still have the tools and training necessary to act effectively.
Robberies on the rise?
Since becoming Malawi's head of state this April, Banda has reversed many of the repressive laws set up by Mutharika, including ones limiting freedom of information and gay rights. Last month, Banda also revoked the police's shoot-to-kill policy for criminals resisting arrest, which Mutharika had claimed was necessary to curb crime.
The police implemented Mutharika's directive during the July 20 anti-government demonstrations last year, where 19 people were shot and killed. Local and international human rights groups strongly condemned the police's actions, and the episode contributed to the Millennium Challenge Corporation's decision to suspend a $350 million grant to the country.
Joyce Banda's administration revoked the policy, arguing that it contravened the country's constitution which protects the rights of suspects. This move has helped Banda further mend fences with international donor partners, but some believe her decision has resulted in a breakdown of domestic security and led to police discontent.
Blantyre and other parts of the country have been experiencing a spate of armed robberies. Two weeks after the reversal of shoot-to-kill, for example, armed criminals robbed the Malawi Savings Bank in the southern district of Thyolo. Around the same time, robbers attacked an Indian businessman in the Limbe area. Limbe police also reported that a team of armed thugs had recently broken into a number of homes in Blantyre stealing electronic appliances and money.
"People are being killed and macheted, and people's money is being stolen", Blantyre resident James Kayombe told Think Africa Press. "Only a few days ago in Blantyre, ten houses were broken into, one belonging to the member of the ruling party. We are really living in fear."
Use the force
Some police officers are reportedly demoralised and fear being shot at by armed criminals. At the bank robbery in Blantyre, for example, armed police officers put up little resistance and allowed the robbers to escape.
Loti Dzonzi, the new Inspector-General of Police, told a press conference in Blantyre that such fear amongst police was baseless because the shoot-to-kill policy was never a protective measure for the police to begin with.
"Shooting-to-kill does not safeguard the life of the police officer" he said. "What police officers should be advocating for is that government should provide them with bulletproof vests and not to allow them to shoot to kill before somebody has been given the opportunity to prove their innocence."
Davis Katsonga, leader of the opposition party Chipani Cha Pfuko, said to Think Africa Press that police officials are mature enough to deal with issues of security without the need for instruction from politicians.
"These people [police] go through very intensive training; they don't need a politician to tell them what they need to do" he explained. "I think it's wrong to pretend that we politicians know everything because we don't. Let's allow the police to do the job as they trained professionally and make sure that the police are indeed given the tools which they need in fighting crime in this country."
Katsonga, the Foreign Affairs Minister in Mutharika's administration, added that the shoot-to-kill policy was tantamount to extra-judicial killings, but that its reversal should not affect the police's ability to tackle crime. "If a policeman illegally shoots anybody, whether that person was stealing or doing whatever, they are accountable and answerable to the laws of the land but the reverse of that is not to say that police should not react, to the situations as they are trained to do", he said.
In her speech on July 6, at an event marking 48 years of Malawi's independence from the British rule, Banda addressed concerns and said that her government has drawn up vigorous measures to counter the recent crime spree.
"The government is going to be very serious in handling issues of breakdown of law and order or indeed issues of the perpetration of criminal offences in this country. In this regard, the government is seriously looking into the issue of the proliferation of armed robberies which is being noticed in our urban centres. And we know those people who are behind the spate of lawlessness in the country and I am assuring you that we will deal with them", Banda said.