Friday, March 25, 2016

Who Will Control The Police?

In one moment, the place was buzzing with activity. In the next, it lay in a mist silence, forced into this corner of silence by heavily-armed police officers who had invaded the place from Lilongwe Police Station.
Some people hid in the washrooms while others were being forced to palm-oil some of the police officers who were demanding K2, 000. In one corner, a police officer was beating a woman whose sin was, apparently, to be found in a place duly licenced to operate in that hour. By the way, the time was 01: 18 am. It was Thursday, March 3 this year.
I wanted to join the others and run away, too, but I quickly realised that although I entertained thoughts of running away, I could only go as far as [or run away into] my own mind. I also realised that I could not desert my two Zambian friends who had invited me to this place because they wanted to sample life in Lilongwe.
The scenes I am describing played themselves out at Culture Club [Chigwirizano] in Lilongwe on March 3. It is this month but it looks like yester-year. I had gone to Lilongwe to fulfil some assignments on February 29 and was supposed to travel back to Blantyre on March 3, in time for what remained of my assignments there.
My plan was to travel to Blantyre during the night of March 2 [Wednesday] but my plans were foiled when we arrived in Lilongwe very late. One of our crew suggested that we visit the City Centre and it was there that I bumped into some two Zambian journalist-friends I first bumped into in 2008 at a World Bank-funded Business Reporting Workshop held in Blantyre.
As it were, the two Zambian journalists were in the country to cover food security issues. I told my two friends that I was travelling back to Blantyre the next day, in time to finish the assignments I was remaining with.
Well, from the look of things, the two friends invited me to join them at Culture Club, where they “will shower you with soft drinks all night”. Reluctantly, knowing it had been a long time since 2008, I accepted.
We arrived at Culture Club around 10 pm and the two friends really showered me with soft drinks till my stomach ached.
Then, around 01: 18 am [March 3], all hell broke loose as uniformed police officers stormed the scene and started arresting people and beating unfortunate ones. They said the people on the premises had been arrested for rogue and vagabond. In fact, they even arrested some workers at Culture Club on the same charge: Rogue and vagabond.
I counted the police officers and I came to a figure of 16. Their leader came towards where we were, handcuffs in hand, and commanded us to stand up. They said we were under arrest for being found at Culture Club during that ‘ungodly’ hour.
Two more police officers joined him, and asked for K2, 000 if we were to be left untouched. I could see some imbibers ‘paying’ K2, 000 to buy their freedom while the unfortunate ones were bundled to waiting police vehicles parked just outside the club.
Together, the three police officers demanded that I and my Zambian friends pay K2, 000 per head “for us not to arrest you; otherwise, we will take you to Lilongwe Police Station”.
I knew deep down my heart that I would not pay that amount. This is because, in my understanding, Culture Club is supposed to operate from 8 o’clock in the evening to the early hours. During the day, the place is closed for business because, in my understanding, the Lilongwe City Council issued a license to the owners to operate from 8: 00 pm to the early hours of the morning. In fact, they can operate up to 6: 00 am if they choose to.
And, in line with my line of thinking, one of the managers challenged the police officers, telling them what they were doing was contravening the very rules they are supposed to enforce. He even rushed to one room, got a Lilongwe City Council certificate and another certificate permitting them to sell the kind of stuff they sell, but the police officers had none of it.
In fact, in defiance, they arrested one more worker from Culture Club, saying they were mandated by law to arrest those found loitering aimlessly.
I joined the manager in arguing against the action of the police who, in my view, were doing what they were doing out of ignorance and, for lack of a better word, due to unprofessionalism.
For a moment, stood up and followed the police officer who was leading his colleagues to tell him that what they were doing was unprofessional and uncalled them. I told him there was no way they could arrest people on premises that were duly licenced to operate from 8: 00 pm to the early hours of the next day.
Instead of listening to the voice of reason, he ordered his friends: “Arrest this one, too. Rogue and vagabond”. I could not imagine myself in a police cell for being found at the right place at the right time and, so, I rushed to the washrooms and locked myself there until an hour later.
I do not know where my Zambian friends went. Worse still, I did not have their phone numbers. Maybe they were picked. But I am sure they ‘bought’ their’ way out.
This experience has taught me one thing. We still have bad apples in the police. Otherwise, how on earth could they violate the right of business persons duly licensed to operate a night club, and get away with it?
It is a shame that the police officers behaved as if Malawi were a police state and this should not be allowed to happen in a free country like ours. I am sure the club lost out [in terms of money] that night and, yet, the police officers who did this were, probably, not even reprimanded by their bosses.
I think the police believe that they own this country, and that is why they sometimes behave contrary to citizens’ expectations. But, in an ideal world, such excesses need to be checked!

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