They roam around in the background, sometimes in the open, but are always on call.
Whoever you want: plain-clothed police officers, intelligence officers, military personnel, ruling party sympathisers, Malawi Revenue Authority agents, and what have you.
Malawi's shopping complex at Chichiri in Blantyre is safer than the country's airports and, perhaps, state residences.
Try it. Drive a vehicle [heavy goods vehicles are not allowed entry, by the way] with a foreign number plate into the open parking yard and, soon, you will be swarmed by officers and agents from Malawi's tax collecting body resking for this or that document. I have seen unsuspecting drivers being forced into vehicles with tinted glasses where, some of those who have been approached claim, they are made to pay something.
If the truth be told, Tips Anonymous initiatives, run by auditing who make a financial killing, have become the in-thing in Malawi. In fact, we have seen some of the biggest customers for the auditing firms, most notably parastatals such the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi, Blantyre Water Board, Lilongwe Water Board, pay out millions of Malawi Kwacha through Tips Anonymous.
Surprise! Surprise! One of the hunting grounds for those wishing to make quick bucks is the shopping complex at Chichiri Shopping Centre in Blantyre. Here is a hub, innocent as it appears, oiling the engine of tax collection, law enforcement, intelligence and counter-intelligence in Malawi's commercial city of Blantyre.
The unemployed, especially those who are clever, have found a way of making money at the expense of others.
So, it turns out, the Chichiri Shopping Centre [they prefer calling it a Complex] is probably one of the safest places in Malawi.
No wonder, it is not often, if ever, that you will hear of car robberies, car-jacking at the Complex. Criminal elements know how safe the place it, because, at any point in time, except from 9 pm to 08:00 am, the place is I filtrated by state agents of all kind, each of them doing their job unobserved. They watch over the 'world', for the world gathers at Chichiri Shopping Mall everyday. Maybe except on Sunday from 2 pm, as the place takes the shape of a museum during the school holidays, or a graveyard of a wife cleanser: deserted, isolated and forgotten.
Just that this condition does not last long.
Over the past three years, state agents have arrested 62 people, all of these suspected of doing one thing or another. Suspected car-jackers, unaware that the place is safer than Malawi's ramshackle airports, have been nabbed.
Those who have stolen vehicles elsewhere have been nabbed there.
But corruption is also commonplace. Those with fake foreign number plates get away with a slap after paying K20, 000. Those who are caught with vehicles that got into the country without following procedures are made to 'cough' K20, 000 and they take the vehicle back home, more free to do whatever they want to do with it than ever before.
No wonder, out-going British Ambassador to Malawi, Michael Nevin, said it loudly last week: "Corruption is getting worse in Malawi". By worse, he means the cases are on the arise.
But equally escalating are security measures being put in place. Go to Chichiri Shopping Centre.
So, the next time you go shopping and bump into some familiar, and often unfamiliar faces, do not be quick to smile: They are there for a purpose.
Often, only them know what the purpose is.
Please note that figures on thwarted criminal activities at Chichiri Shopping Centre have been obtained from Southern Region Police headquarters.