Jun 24, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Fearing the Police

There are a few golden rules for foreigners when walking in the streets of Maputo. Never stroll alone after dark. Don’t wear jewelry or bring large bags. And, most importantly, beware of the police. I have been warned ten times more about the police than about potential muggers in Mozambique, and in about two weeks I have been stopped twice (luckily, never alone).

Underpaid and badly trained, police officers in Mozambique are believed to complement their income with extortions and bribes. I took a ride with South Africans from Inhambane to Maputo (a six hour drive), and the only concern we had was whether or not we would pay bribes if/when we got stopped. The word in the streets is that they will certainly find a problem with your car, and if not, that they will charge you for speeding, regardless of the truth of the accusation.

Every single expat I spoke with had a similar experience. Some decided early on that they will not pay off; others just have the money ready to avoid the hassle. For the ones who refuse to pay bribes, the rule is to demand to be taken to the police station. There, they say, the bribe or fine will not go directly to the police officer’s pocket; therefore, with luck, they will not want to waste time with you.

In Maputo, I have been stopped twice at the same spot – Avenida Marginal, a long stretch of badly maintained road that leads to affluent neighborhoods to the north of the city, and to poor suburbs if you keep going. The first time it happened, I was in a taxi at night; a heavily armed officer told my driver to stop, but apparently changed his mind once we pulled over. We continued without having to open our mouths. The second time I was in a car with white Mozambicans (a tiny minority), and there was some discussion about documentation. My Mozambican driver argued for a while with the officer, who insisted that he needed proof of an annual mechanical review. The officer gave up when confronted with the receipt for the vehicle, which stated that it was less than a year old, and let us go.

I also went through Avenida Marginal in a “chapa”, a local form of public transportation consisting of a semi-destroyed van completely packed with mozambicans (including some souls hanging on the outside of the vehicle by their fingers). If you can endure the squeeze, it is very practical and very cheap – only 5 meticais (US$ 0.18). Every time I use a “chapa”, I am the only non-African there. Some expats are not even allowed to take one, such as the ones working for USAID. My “chapa” was not bothered by the police, although I saw them standing at the usual spot.

I have also heard about both locals and expats being stopped when simply walking around. By law, the police can require documentation from anyone at any time, and one may be brought in for questioning if failing to provide it. My tourist guide to Mozambique suggests we carry a notarized copy of our passports and avoid giving original documents to the police, but according to people living here, the police most of the time does not accept anything but the original. The rule is the same – ask to be taken to a station. I hope to avoid the “pleasure” of finding out what happens next.

There is a plethora of reports about problems with the police and the security system in Mozambique. According to Amnesty International, bribes are the least of their abuses: the organization claims there is widespread abuse of force and extrajudicial killings. They also point out to the lack of accountability of the system, with reported abuses very rarely being investigated.

The Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank that examines this field in the continent, states that the Mozambican “Judicial System is increasingly dysfunctional, corruption is rife, and the police have found it difficult to move from a political to an anti-crime role. Some senior officials and business leaders are believed to have links to criminal gangs, many of them internationalised.”

In “Policing and Rule of Law in Mozambique”, Bruce Baker, Professor at the Applied Research Centre for Human Security at Coventry University, states that “popular confidence in the police is low due to their inefficiency, bribe seeking, corruption, lawless conduct, human rights abuses and complicity with criminals. Police composition also reflects significant gender and regional biases.”

The list of deficiencies is endless. Apart from widespread corruption, there is the mere fact that there is not enough capacity to serve the country. There are very few police stations and due to AIDSs and expulsions the force has been shrinking considerably over the years. In addition, there is great political bias. Some of the most serious incidents of police abuse and brutality are related to the treatment given to members of the main opposition party, Renamo, many of which have been arrested, beaten and even killed during rallies in the past.

At least part of the problem is related to the history of the police in the country. During the civil war (1975-1992), the police was under-resourced in comparison with the military and acted with brutality against “enemies of the state”. The current police force was created at the end of the war and modeled as a paramilitary force with of 20,000 ex-military personnel. The military itself was hardly a model for respect for human rights, as they are charged with numerous atrocities committed against civilians during the war. To reform a body that worked under conditions of weak accountability and a near blank check for the use of force would be difficult under any circumstance, but even more so for the military officers who migrated into the new police force, about which they knew nothing. Both police and military were used to being accountable only to the State (i.e., the party in power, Frelimo), and not to the public.

Many argue that reforming and training police forces in post-conflict societies is much more difficult than military forces. That is due to a number of reasons, including closer and more frequent interaction with civilians, weaker enforcement of hierarchy, less supervision, and the very nature of the forces they fight against (common crimes versus external threats). According to Mark Shaw, author of “Crime and Policing in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, “there is as yet no clear case of any society in transition being able to build a legitimate police agency in the post-conflict phase”.

In Mozambique, the conduct of the new police force seems to reinforce this argument. There is certainly well-intentioned groups trying to improve conditions from within, but they fight against a very dire institutional context. And although there have been many international attempts to train the police, they have had only modest achievements so far. The UNPD, for example, has a technical cooperation program to improve the quality of policing in Mozambique since mid-1990s. The program started as part of the UN stabilization mission and at first was focused on training and reorientation of members of the police force, curriculum development, functional re-engineering and rehabilitation of training facilities. After 2001, it changed to emphasize community policing, stronger management at the central command, and technical support to the police academy. It seems fine on paper, but the reality on the streets proves that there is a long road ahead.

The consequences of the situation go far beyond the police force or the security system themseves. As Baker says, “there is no doubt that the quality of policing does affect other levels of the democratic system”: “(…) Democracy cannot offer a political system of equality without including equal standing before the law in respect of civic obligations and of individual and communal protection.” And, at least for now, there are few reasons to hope that the status quo will change in a foreseeable future.

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1 Comment

  • This is a common problem, as you note and it’s very difficult to change. In many countries, the police get their job through patronage networks and they need to kick money back to the people who hired them. Police aren’t paid very much in Africa, so the best way they can meet their patronage obligations is by abusing their power to solicit bribes. Police corruption doesn’t defy the model prediction in this scenario – it is the model prediction.

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