Some prohibited weapons, which only security agents and few licensed individuals are supposed to possess, are gradually finding their way into the public domain. Cases are relatively few but, in some districts such as Mangochi, reports of people being attacked or robbed using pepper spray dispensers or shock sticks are emerging. Just how safe or unsafe are we? YOHANE SYMON & PETER KANJERE go deeper in this Friday Shaker.
People panicked as they forced their way out of the dancing floor.
Some stamped on each other while others lost valuables as they forced themselves out of the bar after one of the patrons, who was in conflict with her girlfriend, dispensed pepper using spray.
The girl, who is a DMI University student in Mangochi District, fainted after being targeted by the pepper spray.
She was rushed to hospital by well-wishers.
For starters, a pepper spray dispenser is a restricted offensive weapon which is used by trained and registered security persons such as Malawi Police Service (MPS), Malawi Defence Force (MDF), the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services and Malawi Prison Service.
Unlike teargas, which is mainly used for scaring protesters, some security personnel we talked to say a pepper spray dispenser is only used by authorised holders to either paralyse or disable a suspect before making an arrest.
Pepper spray can either suffocate you or impair your vision when sprayed from close range.
But our investigations in some cities and districts, mainly those in the borders, has established that there are some unscrupulous Malawians who misuse pepper spray during armed robberies and when attacking their opponents during fist fights.
Apart from pepper spray dispenser, we have also established that more people own shock sticks, which are classified as protected weapons designated for registered use by security personnel only.
For instance, some people in Mangochi openly blandish and use pepper spray dispenser and shock sticks for personal use without the knowledge of security or licensing authorities.
Incidences of people being attacked using weapons are common in the district. In some disturbing cases, people use the spray in public places such as drinking joints, thereby affecting innocent people.
On the night of December 31 2018, some people celebrated the new year by spraying pepper inside a night club in Mangochi.
In other instances, people released electric shock sticks. This affected some people who were not aware of what was happening.
In the process, some people were robbed of their belongings such as mobile phones.
“I came with friends to celebrate the new year, but everything was spoiled because of what happened inside the club. We have lost our valuables and money. This is unacceptable. Police need to check these people before they kill somebody with their weapons,” Alex Kananji, from Chiponde in Mangochi, said.
Kananji believes that police are not doing their job properly to control illegal possession and use of pepper spray dispensers in the same way they are strict on people who possess guns illegally.
“We hear reports in the media of police arresting or confiscating guns from armed robbers and other people. Why can’t they do the same with these pepper sprays dispensers? Pepper sprays dispensers are easy to carry; hence they can affect more people than a gun,” he said.
In Mangochi and across the country, there have been isolated incidences where pepper spray has been used in armed robberies.
Recently, a motorist traveling along Mangochi- Golomoti Road was reportedly robbed after his attackers used pepper spray.
Last year, a woman in Mzuzu fainted at one of the bars after a man, who eye witnesses claimed was a soldier, used pepper spray to attack his opponents during a fight that had ensued at a drinking joint.
But despite there is proliferation of such weapons, there are no shops that sell them locally.
Our findings show that the weapons are imported from countries such as South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania.
A police officer, who refused to be named, blamed the country’s border immigration personnel for not being strict when searching people who enter Malawi.
The officer also blamed the police for not searching people at roadblocks.
“We are very concerned that some of these weapons are used during riots. Crowd control is becoming a problem because more people possess offensive weapons. This is dangerous,” the source said.
While police confiscate other weapons, the concern is that the police has not arrested on those found in possession of pepper spray dispensers.
“In part, we understand the reluctance to prosecute people that possess the weapons because some senior police officers give their wives or relatives these weapons as a way of empowering them for self-defence,” he said.
A local supplier of peppers spray dispensers in Mangochi revealed that he imports the weapons.
He said most of his customers are people who cannot afford a gun.
“Last year, I brought in over 15,000 pepper sprays dispensers which I supplied to politicians who, in turn, give them to their body guards.
“As we approach May 21 Tripartite Elections, most politicians are afraid of being attacked by their opponents; hence, they want to be well equipped,” he said.
However, Southern and Central region police publicists, Ramsy Mushani and Nollieti Chimala, respectively, downplayed the existence of the said weapons among civilians.
Mushani said pepper spray dispensers are only used by security agencies and not otherwise.
Despite giving her examples of cases is Salima, Mchinji and Lilongwe Urban, Chimala said there are no official records of people complaining about pepper spray and shock stick attacks.
“We haven’t received official reports regarding anything to do with such [items] in the Central Region. [However], we would like to encourage the general public to give us information concerning such issues,” Chimala said.
Northern Region Police spokesperson, Peter Kalaya, acknowledged that there are cases of such attacks but that there are very few.
“I have heard about people misusing pepper spray in one or two cases especially in Mzuzu. But often cases involve officers [from security agencies] who misuse these weapons. But, as I said, the cases are few,” he said.
Kalaya said most of the pepper spray dispensers found in Malawi are imported.
MPS national spokesperson, James Kadadzera, said possession of pepper spray dispensers, shock sticks and teargas canisters by civilians is illegal in Malawi.
He said the police have observed that some Malawians buy the weapons from South Africa.
“Everyone in possession of pepper spray and shock sticks needs a licence, as is the case with people who acquire guns.
“Police will act on those who acquire them illegally. These weapons are used for law enforcement and not otherwise,” Kadadzera said.
Recent records indicate that there are 10,000 plus civilians who are legal carriers of guns in Malawi.
Kadadzera appealed to the general public to tip the police on people who have such weapons.
“The biggest challenge is that these weapons are small in nature and it is easy for people to hide them. So, we depend on the general public to tip us about people possessing them illegally,” he said.
Theodora Thindwa, Mzuzu University security studies lecturer, said such weapons are not supposed to be in the public domain.
“If you have come across shock sticks with police emblem, then there is need to find out how people are accessing them. But, if not, maybe they are being imported,” Thindwa said.
In some cases, armed robbers are caught with licenced arms belonging to security agents.
The Daily Times report of January 29 2016 cited the proliferation of such weapons to the recent conflict in Mozambique, porous, feebly patrolled borders and weak policing.
The particular newspaper article quoted the then senior assistant commissioner of Police, Noel Kayira, who was also National Focal Point on Small Arms chairperson, as painting a picture of the problem.
“Our statistics show that AK47 and pistols are popularly used in gun crime. Malawi does not license the possession and use of AK47 assault rifles both by government or its agencies and the private sector or individuals.
“There is consistent pattern of confessions from suspects that most of these firearms were smuggled into Malawi through Mozambique,” Kayira is quoted as saying.
Statistics are chilling; pistols and AK47s were the weapons of choice in the 151 gun crimes recorded from 2009 to 2014.
In view of this, Kayira is quoted as saying Malawi’s Firearms Act of 1967 is outdated and not in line with regional and international obligations.
He called for a review of the Act to make it auger well with the Sadc Firearms Protocol.
He added that the 2012 Firearms Policy and the 2013 National Action Plan on control and management of firearms and ammunition need serious implementation to curb gun trouble.
Such incidents, according to human rights activist Timothy Mtambo, reflect that the country’s borders are porous. He, thus, urged the general public to also take responsibility in tipping the police.
“We are ready to work with the police to raise awareness on the dangers of possessing such weapons. In countries such as the US, where people kill each other using guns at one go, it is because of illegal possession of such weapons. This is a violation of human rights including the right to life,” Mtambo of Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation said.
The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi Section 16 stipulates that: “Every person has the right to life and no person shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her life”.
Section 19(3) provides that: “No person shall be subject to torture of any kind or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Chapter XV of the Malawi Constitution states that it is the duty of the police to protect “public safety and the rights of persons in Malawi according to the prescriptions of this Constitution and any other law.”
The Firearms Act is also clear on who is supposed to possess such weapons.
Some of the weapons such as pepper spray dispensers have health effects including blindness which lasts from 15 to 30 minutes, a burning sensation to the skin which can last for an hour and uncontrollable coughing.
All this suggests that something is wrong with the proliferation of these dangerous weapons. The sooner action is taken the better otherwise, we could be heading for dangerous time.
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