Hungry Zimbabwean police officers turn to corruption for survival

BULAWAYO - A burly police officer violently pushes two women into a corner at a busy shopping centre in Zimbabwe's second biggest city of Bulawayo.

"Mapositori munoda kuvhaira sitereki, basa nderekuparadza hupfumi hwenyika neblack market yenyu iyoyi. Manje matosungwa," the police officer bellowed in the local vernacular Shona language.

In brief, he was telling the two women that they were under arrest for destroying the economy because of their illegal foreign currency deals.

But the money changers, known as osphatheleni, in the other local vernacular Ndebele language, remained unfazed over their arrest as if nothing had happened.

After a few exchanges, one of the women digs deeper into her handbag and fishes out some cash that she discreetly hands over to the police officer. And with that, she buys her freedom.

"That is how we deal with them," says one of the women who only identified herself as Madawu.

"No one really gets locked up into the cells these days because the officers are underpaid, hungry and need to feed themselves and their families. They always ask for bribes from us when they arrest us," she added.

Faced with a crippling economic crisis, Zimbabwe's police officers appear too ready to do anything to receive kick-backs to make ends meet.

With the average police officer earning about Z$130 000 after this month's salary adjustment, the police officers say the money is way too little in Zimbabwe's hyperinflationary environment.

The new salaries fall way below the Z$364 000 that the consumer rights body, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe says an average family of five needs per month to survive.

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a severe economic recession that has seen inflation shooting to 1 281.1 percent, the highest in the world outside a war zone.

Police officers who are custodians of the law, have not been spared from the economic crisis forcing most of them to resort to crime to survive.

According to a High Court judge, the major culprits are officers in the traffic section as well as those in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Officially opening the High Court legal year for 2007 two weeks ago, Justice Maphios Cheda, said there were a number of officers who were openly consorting with criminals while discharging their duties.

"There are some police officers who openly consort with criminals for the sole purposes of sharing the loot or profits which flow from such criminal activities," said the judge. "Such officers damage the image of the police force."

Police officers who spoke to ZimOnline said while they were aware that taking bribes was morally wrong, they had no choice but to do so to make ends meet.

"My salary is just enough to buy a few groceries for one week and that is all. If I spend it, it means that I have to wait for payday again the following month to get that ridiculous amount.

"It's so ridiculous and that is why we end up doing things that go against our ethics - just to survive. Everyone has become so corrupt in the force and the reason is simple, we are underpaid," said a police officer who refused to be named.

"On a good day, I can raise Z$50 000 from bribes alone," said the officer who works in the traffic section.

Some officers who could not stand the rampant corruption in the police force have quit their jobs to look for work in neighbouring countries such as Botswana and South Africa.

One such person is Themba Msimanga.

Msimanga quit the police last year and now works as a security guard in Johannesburg where he earns abut R2 500, a fortune when exchanged on Zimbabwe's foreign currency parallel market.

"I earn about R2 500 a month and when I convert that to local currency I get something like more than a million. It's not much but I am managing and my family is now adequately catered for.

"I just could not stand the poor pay here and surely one cannot live on bribes. It's not good," said Msimanga.

Several police officers have appeared in court over the past few years facing charges of soliciting for bribes.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police admit that there are lots of rotten apples within their rank with the police chief Augustine Chihuri promising to weed out all the corrupt officers.

"We are aware of the rampant corruption that is going on, and we are doing everything in our capacity to bring the culprits to book," said Chihuri.

But until President Robert Mugabe's government substantially increases salaries and allowances for the police, corruption within the law enforcement agency will continue to run deep, compromising the integrity of Zimbabwe's battered police force.