Zimbabwe Traffic Cops: Custodians of the Law or a Law unto Themselves?

On October 12, 2012, commuters from Chitungwiza, a small town about 40 km out of Harare, were left stranded when commuter omnibus operators — know locally as “Kombi Drivers” — staged a protest against “hefty bribes” that the traffic officers were allegedly demanding from them. These bribes have been cutting into the profit and making it very difficult to sustain Kombi Drivers’ businesses.

As reported by Voice of America, one could encounter as many as five roadblocks (read: bribe requests) en route to town.  

This is not the first time Kombi drivers have staged such a protest, nor is it unique to this route or to Commuter Operators. The 2011 survey by the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa ranked the Zimbabwe National Traffic Police as the most corrupt institution in the region.

Roadblocks are meant to be in the best interest of road users, but in most cases they are viewed as a way to fleece money from motorists.  As Erich Bloch, an independent political commentator noted, “All too frequently, one hears of spurious charges being imposed at road blocks (mainly on national highways) for specious offences. Those range from demands that drivers have reflective vests — whereas no such requirement has been gazetted, in contrast to the valid gazetting of the requirement every vehicle must have fire extinguishers and red warning triangles, to allegations of over-speeding, or traversing continuous center-lines where no such lines exist. Not only are spot fines unlawfully imposed, but the payment of those fines is pocketed by the police officer, without the issue of a receipt.” In addition spot fines open up an avenue for corruption because in the event that you have no cash or you don’t have enough one should be issued with a ticket payable to the traffic department. This is not happening so in most cases people will then pay a bride to can quickly proceed with their journey rather than be detained at the roadblock or their car impounded till they can come back and pay. This is especially problematic for Kombi drivers whose income is dependent on the number of trips they make in a day.

What seems more alarming is the fact that this disregard for the rule of law is not limited to the traffic police manning the roadblocks, but also extends to the leadership of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). The Minister of Finance has repeatedly called on the ZRP to remit all the revenue from traffic and other fines back to the National Treasury. ZRP argues that the Treasury has been deliberately cutting its budget and therefore withholding revenue that enables them to pay for their operation costs. Some of these “operation” costs apparently include buying luxury cars for senior police officials and undocumented rewards paid to traffic police for bringing in revenue from the traffic fines, which in some cases amount to more than 3 times their salary.

Unless the Minister and ZRP want motorist and other road users’ pockets emptied and commuters left stranded 40 km outside of Harare on a daily basis, they must resolve the issue of the unrealistically high number of checkpoints which fuel corruption and victimize ordinary citizens into paying bribes. Additionally traffic laws should be published and disseminated widely so all road users are clear regarding what is within the bounds of the law This will help put an end to the spurious charges that are often imposed on unsuspecting motorists. In a country were corruption has become endemic and one of the significant factors contributing to the economic turmoil it is paramount that government institutions, especially the police, who are meant to be custodians of the law, are above reproach. The fight against corruption should be lead by the government, and especially the police, and for them to gain some credibility they need to show leadership and commitment in this regard.

— Dadisai Taderera

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