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Police’s ‘unrighteous’ dominion

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CHINGANA—We were
teargassed at night

Police’s role is to arrest people suspected of wrong-doing, refer them to prosecutors, who argue their case in a court of law so that justice can take its course. But, as THOMAS KACHERE writes, Malawi Police Service (MPS) officers wore the garb of darkness in Blantyre recently, took the law into their hands and left a Blantyre City resident helpless and hopeless.

Law enforcers are supposed to be the epitome of discipline; bringing those suspected of breaking the law to justice without taking the law into their own hands.

However, this was not the case on July 28 this year, when MPS officers decided to mete out instant justice to teach one small-scale trader a lifelong lesson.

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“Police destroyed my business building at mid-night on July 28 this year for reasons better known to themselves,” Martin Mchenga explains.

The father of six runs DRC Pub in Blantyre’s BCA Township, where he employs about five members of staff, including guards, to help him run the business.

Now, instead of being preoccupied with the task of counting banknotes, Mchenga has fallen on bad times, a development he blames on the moment police officers decided to play the role of prosecutor and judge instead of letting the law, if ever it were broken, take its natural course.

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“I was not even given a chance to be heard. It seems that rules of natural justice, where one’s side has to be taken into consideration, are applied selectively by some agents of the State,” he says, while suppressing what was apparently a fountain of tears.

He is one of Malawian youths who, tired of standing on the unemployment queue waiting for white-collar jobs, decided to be the determiner of his own destiny by establishing a small-scale business.

And, for a time, he began to believe that he made the right decision as the business venture became his reliable source of income.

According to a Small and Medium Enterprises Development Institute (Smedi) report titled ‘Small and Medium Enterprises Financing Economic Growth in Malawi: Measuring the Impact Between 1981 and 2014’, “small and medium enterprises account for 90 percent of all businesses globally. In addition, MSMEs [medium, small and micro-enterprises] were reported to generate 60 percent of employment worldwide and provide jobs to roughly 80 percent of workforce in the developed world”.

However, despite the Government of Malawi over the years facilitating the establishment of institutions, notably Malawi Rural Finance Company, Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre, Malawi Investment Promotion Agency, Small Enterprises Development Organisation of Malawi, Development of Malawian Entrepreneurs Trust, Malawi Entrepreneurs Development Institute, Youth Enterprises Development Fund, Malawi Rural Development Fund and Malawi Enterprises Development Fund and Smedi, challenges abound, suffocating Mchenga and the like.

The report puts this in context: “Despite wide recognition of SMEs as springboard for a vibrant private sector and anchor of growth and development in an economy, small-scale businesses remain dodged by myriad bottlenecks, emanating from both within and without”.

In the case of Mchenga, who, for years, has been operating from Msika wa Njala in Blantyre District, the bottleneck came in the form of police’s heavy-handedness in handling his issue; demolishing his structure instead of letting the law take its course.

“My dream of making poverty history was shuttered when they demolished my structure.

“To make matters worse, they arrested some of the guards I employed to keep an eye on the place. What law did guards break?

“I invested over K25 million in the structure as well as merchandise that was in it when they were demolishing it. They demolished it, along with refrigerators, television screens and bottles of beer that were in the building,” he said.

BCA’s Msika wa Njala Chairperson Stanford Chingana said what he knows is that people believed to be police officers stormed the place at night and, worse still, threw teargas canisters around.

“This was late at night. The teargas canisters they threw around affected innocent people in their houses. Actually, we also heard loud screams from people who were shouting: ‘Thieves! Thieves! Thieves!’ Before long, teargas canisters were thrown around, choking people who were sleeping in their houses. The teargas affected most of us.

“In the morning, we learned that Mchenga’s property had been stolen. We also discovered that the structure he used as a bar had been pulled down. We did not see the people who had done that and some people even speculated that they were thieves who wore police uniform,” Chingana said.

While claiming that he knew nothing about the demolition of Mchenga’s bar, Namiyango Ward Councillor Raphael Mzimu said it was “worrisome” that people had tampered with someone’s property and, by extension, source of income.

“I can’t say much because I understand that the actions were taken by the [Blantyre] City Council (BCC). All I know is that the place they targeted is next to the spot we were allocated to construct a police unit. The police unit is being constructed.

“Otherwise, I don’t know what happened for them to demolish a well-constructed building, leaving shabeens in operation,” Mzimu said.

However, South-West Region Police spokesperson Ramsey Mushani dismissed reports that police were responsible for the heinous act.

“My response is that police were only hired to provide security backup. Otherwise, demolishing of the structure in question was done by Blantyre City Council [people],’’ Mushani said.

Asked why its workers demolished Mchenga’s structure, leaving shabeens untouched, BCC spokesperson Anthony Kasunda said he could not say much on the issue.

“For the safety and security of [City By-Laws] enforcement personnel, I will not say much. Suffice to say it is an ongoing operation,” Kasunda said.

BCC’s actions come at a time small-scale business owners are reeling from the impact of Covid. The Central Government has had to intervene and, in January this year, rolled out a K20.9 billion Emergency Cash Transfer programme targeting 199,640 people in the country’s cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu.

Secretary for Economic Planning and Development and Public Sector Reforms Winford Masanjala indicated that the intervention sought to cushion livelihoods of vulnerable and low-income households from the socio-economic impact of Covid.

“The cash transfers target those who primarily derive their livelihoods from the informal sector, especially those who depend on piece-work, petty trading or those who may have been laid off from work. The programme is being implemented in geographically targeted poverty hotspots based on the cities’ social-economic profiles and household vulnerability assessment,” he indicated at the time.

Through the cash transfers, a beneficiary was getting a cash payment of K35,000 over a period of three months from January to March.

Meanwhile, Black Economic Empowerment Movement Chairperson Robert Mkwezalamba has warned that demolition of small-scale traders’ structures could worsen levels of poverty in the country.

“Most importantly, this impinges on the right to engage in economic activity as enshrined in the Republican Constitution. Malawians have a right to own property and to trade anywhere in this country. We, therefore, find it unfortunate that the authorities have demolished the structure of a citizen who was running a pub,’’ Mkwezalamba said.

Whatever the case, Mchenga still visits his demolished sbar every morning and afternoon, hoping, perhaps, to find answers to his predicament in the rubble.

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