High levels of income inequality, rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation, high unemployment among the youthful population, poorly resourced criminal justice system, proliferation of firearms and ultimately a failed government have paved their path to discover and fully express themselves in the wave of crime that has swallowed up the country’s major urban cities, especially Lilongwe, the capital city, and Blantyre, the nation’s commercial hub.
The unprecedented rising spate of conventional crime (murder, robbery, burglary, rape) and organised crime (illicit drugs, arms, humans, timber, wildlife, and minerals trafficking) as well as the rising proportions of both grand and petty corruption as the infamous ‘cashgate’ would testify, speak volumes on how government has failed to address basic social and economic needs of its citizens.
Criminal activity in Malawi breeds more in urban areas than in outlying, rural settlements.
Symptoms that Malawi was criminally pregnant have for a long time stripped themselves bare in the guise of low household incomes, poor nutrition, high educational drop-out rates, unplanned pregnancies, orphanhood, single-parented households and substance abuse, a pack that has travelled without development planners suspecting their impact on crime.
The outcome of government’s neglected duty of care has fanned crime to the extent of exposing people’s vulnerability, extinguishing the entrepreneurial spirit, distorting economic values, robbing national budgets, discouraging foreign investment and promoting capital flight.
Crime has contributed to loss of productivity and family breadwinners. It has forced victims to incur medical costs in already overstretched hospitals that operate on a shoestring budget that ill affords to provide basic human and financial resources, drugs and equipment.
At national level, crime is squeezing out foreign and domestic investor confidence as much as it is precipitating capital flight.
A study by the Malawi government titled ‘Rapid assessment of the small arms situation in Malawi’ notes that “safety and security in Malawi is generally poor” as reflected in the proliferation of illegal factory made and homemade firearms as well as illegal use of licensed arms used in crime.
The report observes “a rapid growth in business and domestic expenditure on security, serious concern in the insurance industry as regards vehicle theft, alarming increases in violent crime are all indicators of a country and society where safety and security is in decline”.
Despite police records indicating a drop in crime in the first two quarters of the year as compared to last year, the truth is that some of the hideous crimes, committed in secret with victims suffering in silence, do not see their way into authoritative records and do not make it into news headlines.
Violent crime resulting in the loss of livelihood and deaths of citizens, the perpetrators themselves or security agents have recently shot into the front rank as the country’s major social, economic and political security threats, threats that the leadership knows to stem from mass poverty and underdevelopment.
The increased cases of crime, including corruption, has over the years especially after the introduction of multiparty politics, eroded and undermined democracy by destroying existing trust and relationship between the people and the state.
People now feel that the state has failed to fulfill its obligation to protect the lives and property of its citizens. Bad enough, people are not happy when the state is seen to be more prepared to protect selected groups of people and not others. This has only achieved to have the under-resourced police rated as the most corrupt government agency.
In 2000, the Lome Declaration of the African Union Assembly for African leaders acknowledged that “…crime, illicit proliferation, circulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons, drug trafficking, corruption and terrorism constitute serious threats to security and stability”.
This suggests that at its core, the fight against crime requires a strong political will and is a task for the political leadership.
To begin with, Malawi, as the fastest urbanising country in Africa with its cities struggling to contain growing informal settlements and overcrowded slums that do not have access to social services including law enforcement services, needs policies that effectively address and control urbanisation and illegal migrations.
“Illegal immigrants, runaways, drug dealers, and sex workers tend to congregate in urban areas,” says a report on Crime and Development in Africa by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The report points out that most people in urban areas rent, rather than own, their homes and are required to find cash regardless of their employment status, a situation which necessitates “alternative livelihood strategies ……inside or outside the law”.
It notes that to make ends meet, shrewd individuals engage in “business-like” activities such as sale of drugs, prostitution, gambling, loan sharking, sale of stolen property and official corruption, rackets that an un-proactive police would not be able to detect.
Organised crime too, has also found a foothold in the country. It involves enlisting and recruiting both former and on-job-police officers into the rank and file of crime syndicates and criminal markets to pay a blind eye to criminals and criminal activity.
Fueling the sad development is government’s reluctance to improve the justice system. Currently, government and the justice delivery authorities are locked in a battle of resources.
In the 2015-2016 National Budget, government is shying away from providing the justice system adequate funds to ensure police effectiveness through improved police to public ratios, reduced caseloads per police officer and ability to prosecute criminals.
As the case is, government may seem to be prepared to forego the cost of increasing the number of judges to speed up criminal cases, a situation that will see the country continue experiencing judicial inefficiency including court delays.
And if the situation is left at that, prisons will be infested with more inmates ‘awaiting trial’. Remandees, as inmates who have not been found guilty of wrong doing, do not participate in rehabilitation programmes but are, by virtue of their presence in prisons, entitled bleed dry state resources.
It, therefore, is imperative that political leaders, technocrats and development partners integrate and be influenced by crime prevention in all their development plans and projects in order to reduce poverty and address the socio-economic and administrative issues that plunge citizens into criminal activity.
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