Big Saturday Read: How Zimbabwe’s police became a menace on the roads
In this article, I offer an explanation for the source of police misbehaviour on Zimbabwe’s roads. It is a reflection of a deeper phenomenon that has far-reaching implications upon the state and society.
By all accounts, regardless of political affiliation, most citizens and visitors to Zimbabwe complain against the conduct of members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), who have acquired a notorious reputation for generally harassing motorists in the name of policing.
The principal sites of contestation between police and motorists are the numerous roadblocks mounted by the ZRP across urban roads and inter-city highways. Members of the ZRP are accused of several things: they are said to be rude, petty, and corrupt, with a tendency to apply unorthodox means and excessive force. Their tools of trade include a device to which numerous spikes are attached, which they throw in front of passing traffic, with the intention of puncturing the wheels. Another favoured device is a truncheon, which they use to bludgeon the windscreens of passing vehicles. These acts of instant punishment are presumably designed as deterrents to motorists who might wish to evade police.
If a motorist is stopped at one of these many roadblocks, they are unlikely to leave without paying a penalty. The inspecting police officer will almost always find a fault with the vehicle or with the motorist’s driving. If they cannot find a problem, they will invent one. Sometimes a motorist is compelled to pay a bribe to the police officer. This has turned a large section of the motoring public into criminals, as by paying bribes, they are partaking in criminal activity. For police officers, roadblocks are rent-seeking opportunities. They use these sites to extract rents by way of bribes from motorists. This means a post in the Traffic Section of the police service is a much sought after opportunity.
Although the courts have ruled that the conduct of police is unlawful and this much has been admitted under oath by the head of police and the Minister of Home Affairs, the practice persists. In a recent survey, tourists coming into the country cited the problems at roadblocks as one of the most unattractive aspects of their trips. The Minister of Tourism has expressed concern at the roadblocks menace. The Speaker of Parliament also added his voice last year, pointing out how roadblocks were discouraging potential investors and tourists. It is important to understand why, against all reason and the law, the ZRP has continued with its unlawful and unreasonable conduct at roadblocks.
I argue that the source of the problem is structural and it is to be found in the manner in which the Zimbabwean state and its organisational structure has been evolving over the years. These changes have not been obvious to the ordinary eye but they are important and ought to be addressed by the political actors aspiring to lead Zimbabwe into the future.
Scholars have in the last couple of decades identified what is often referred to as the disaggregation of the state – a process by which in one sense, functions that were formerly executed directly by the central government are parcelled out to independent agencies, private actors, as well as local and transnational networks. Instead of the centralised state being the sole source of power, power is instead located in multiple points both within and outside the jurisdiction. There are many factors and processes that have contributed to this disaggregation of the state, including the privatisation of formerly public entities, so that service that used to be provided directly by the state would now be provided by private actors. In some cases, regulation which would have emanated directly from the state would now be provided by independent agencies, private actors and transnational networks. In the last two BSRs, we saw how indicators and networks are important technologies of governance, which fundamentally impact upon the role of the state.
Parallel governments and fiefdoms
The changes that have taken place in Zimbabwe over the past 37 years need to be investigated and studied critically to understand what has happened and what it means for the future. It will become apparent that we now have a situation in which there is a central government and numerous other small authorities which are effectively fiefdoms operated by the unelected or occasionally by Ministers. The one important public function of the state, which has been parcelled out to these fiefdoms is the power to collect and retain revenue. According to the Constitution all revenue that is collected by the state must be kept in the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This is what section 302 of the Constitution states: “There is a Consolidated Revenue Fund into which must be paid all fees, taxes and borrowings and all other revenues of the Government, whatever their source …”
The same provision allows for limited exceptions where there is legislation which sets up a specific fund for a specific purpose e.g. a Health Fund or where a law permits the authority to retain the revenue in order to meet its expenses. It is presumably under these exceptions that the role of central government as the keeper of public funds has been delegated to a number of public authorities, which include the ZRP, the Zimbabwe National Roads Authority (ZINARA), the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), among others so that they are able to collect and retain public funds. However, the constitutional limits must be observed to ensure legality.
The impact of this delegation has been fundamental and unless it’s checked, it could have far reaching effects into the nature of the state and it also raises questions about transparency and accountability regarding public funds. The reason is that since they are financially powerful due to retention of public funds, these agencies have become autonomous zones which are almost running like parallel governments. The problem is that the political and legal models developed to ensure accountability were designed with a state which is more central and hierarchical. The current models of accountability have struggled to keep up with the changes that have taken place, leaving these public authorities with a lot of room to misbehave.
This development, in which these agencies of the state have been granted so much power but without the same mechanisms of accountability has to be understood in context. In the 1990s, government had a dalliance with neo-liberal economic policies, on the recommendation of the Bretton Woods institutions which were promoting economic reforms in line with the so-called Washington Consensus. In that time, there was a wave of privatisation of state-owned entities, mimicking similar processes that had taken place in Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. The likes of Dairibord, Cotton Company of Zimbabwe, Air Zimbabwe and others were either privatised or commercialised. The state was however reluctant to give up total control and therefore retained major stakes in the companies, although in some cases it opened up to private investors. ESAP did not live long and by the end of the decade it had been abandoned. Still the changes had contributed to a partial disaggregation of the state.
Independent institutions supporting democracy
The major changes actually happened in the post 2000 period, when constitutional reforms introduced the phenomenon of “independent institutions supporting democracy”. These institutions are supposed to enjoy autonomy from the executive. They include entities like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) among others. There are also other agencies such as the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) and the National Prosecution Authority (NPA). The creation of these independent agencies is an example of the law being the driver of the disaggregation. However, in practice, it has not worked out like that. The separation is diluted by the fact that these agencies are still at the mercy of central government for the funding of their operations. This is partly why political actors persistently complain that ZEC and ZACC are not independent from the executive.
Delegation of power over public funds
In recent years, there has been another subtle but even more effective form disaggregation of the state. It is, as we have already observed, through the delegation of central government’s power to collect and retain public funds. The agencies that have been granted this power have managed to carve out powerful zones of autonomy. They include the ZRP, POTRAZ, ZINARA, the Registrar General’s Office, among others. The fees charged by licencing agencies such as POTRAZ and ZBC, registration fees levied by the RG’s office, fines charged by the ZRP, toll-gate fees charged by ZINARA which would normally be payable to the Consolidated Revenue Fund managed by central government through the Treasury. They are state revenues just like other taxes that are collected by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA). However, in recent years, central government has allowed these agencies to have the power to retain for their exclusive use, public funds that they collect in their fields of operation. These agencies simultaneously compete and collaborate with central government or elements of it. This has a number of consequences and we shall see how it influences the behaviour of the ZRP and its officers.
Incentive for excesses
Firstly, the fact that these agencies retain public funds means they have a direct interest and an added incentive to collect revenue. This leads to an alteration of their behaviour and methods, to become more commercially oriented and vigorous in their operations. This is why they even resort to unorthodox and overzealous means to collect more revenue. They will probably deploy most of their human resources and investment to the revenue-collecting venture. This offers a plausible explanation of the overzealous and unorthodox methods being used by the ZRP. It has been suggested that members of the ZRP at roadblocks are given specific revenue targets which they must meet each day. These incentives drive what most people now regard as rogue behaviour of police officers. It is clear that for the ZRP, roadblocks are centres of a large-scale commercial operation at which they collect rents from motorists.
Raising costs and penalties
Second, in order to raise more revenue, not only will they resort to unorthodox means, but they will also have an incentive to raise fees and penalties. The higher the licencing fees and penalties, the higher their own revenues will be. POTRAZ’s revenue comes from the service providers in the telecommunications sector and ultimately from the consumers who pay for those services. They are funded by a percentage of the revenues generated by the regulated entities. There is, therefore, a mutual interest between POTRAZ as the regulator and the regulated entities to raise prices for their services. This mutual interest played a role in the controversy around the steep rise in internet data prices at the start of this year, although the regulator and the regulated entities ended up accusing each other of being greedy. Likewise, the recent hike in penalties for traffic offences finds explanation in the mutual interest between government and the ZRP as this is becoming the latter’s principal source of income.
Inequitable allocation of resources
Third, it leads to an unfair allocation of resources between the different parts of government, making some more powerful and privileged than others. Those such as the ZRP which retain public funds will be better placed than their counterparts in government who do not have the same opportunity. A good point of comparison is between the ZRP, the NPA and the judiciary. The NPA and the judiciary are important parts of the law enforcement system, without whom the ZRP’s work would be redundant. Yet the ZRP has autonomy over its revenues, whilst the prosecution does not have the same facility. The judiciary has some opportunity through court fees but these are usually minor. The result is that there is a serious imbalance in the allocation of resources between the law enforcement agencies which is unfair. In fact, in order to compensate for their inability to generate revenues like the ZRP, members of the NPA and the judiciary might end up taking their own rents in the form of bribes from litigants and accused persons. One could also compare the situation of teachers, doctors, nurses, soldiers, prison officers and other civil servants, who provide equally important services but do not have the same power to collect and retain public funds like the ZRP. These differences will in the long run cause disaffection in the public service.
The whole point of having a Consolidated Revenue Fund is that resources are controlled by the central authority and are shared equitably within government and across the country. The Constitution mandates that national revenues must be shared in this manner but the current arrangement arguably undermines this constitutional objective.
Transparency and accountability
Fourth, it has an impact on transparency and accountability in the use of public funds. As stated, the Consolidated Revenue Fund exists for a good reason to promote transparency and fairness in the management of public funds. ZIMRA regularly publishes reports of the revenues that it collects and the annual national budget is an occasion to see how much the government is collecting and spending. However, with public funds being collected and retained by these agencies, there is creeping opaqueness in the management of public funds. The ZRP has been cagey and vague about the amount of revenue that it collects and retains. The government itself has not been helpful in providing these figures. The same applies to ZINARA, where it is said sometimes government “raids” these funds which are meant to fund road maintenance. There was controversy at POTRAZ last year when the Auditor General revealed that POTRAZ funds had been used to purchase top of the range vehicles for the Minister and his deputy and also to fund the acquisition of Telecel by government.
When I recently asked the Ministry of Finance on Twitter of the authority under which the ZRP was allowed to retain public funds, the response was that it was established under the Public Finance Management Act, a law designed to promote transparency in the use of public funds. When I asked who had set up the fund – whether it was the ZRP or the Treasury, they responded that it was the Treasury. This did not seem to tally with the earlier declaration that the fund was managed by the ZRP. When I asked for the set of rules and regulations regarding that fund as required by the Act, there was no further response. The opposition must be focussing on these issues of accountability. The legality of the ZRP’s retention of public funds is an issue that requires further investigation and scrutiny as at present, it is too vague.
Fifth, it has created structures parallel to central government and encouraged rent-seeking behaviour. These “rents” come in the form of bribes taken from the public by members of the ZRP. The zeal with which members of the ZRP execute their job at roadblocks is not in order to meet targets set by their bosses, but also to extract as much rents as possible in the form of bribes for personal benefit. The result is that there is now a culture of egregious corruption within the ZRP.
Effect on services
Finally, this situation affects service provision by these agencies as they tend to place excessive emphasis on activities that generate revenue. Here again the ZRP provides a good example: as a police service, the mandate of the ZRP is wide. However, the fact that penalties charged at road blocks have become an important revenue stream means the Traffic Section of the police service has become the most lucrative and most sought after branch of the service. It provides an incentive for the ZRP to deploy more of its officers to the Traffic Section. This undermines the work of the ZRP in other important areas of law enforcement. Over a period of time, it has a debilitating effect upon the effectiveness and efficiency of the police service and law enforcement.
What we see from this analysis is that the problems around the conduct of the ZRP and the roadblocks menace is a direct result of government policy. It might appear like a quick-fix to solve revenue challenges for the ZRP, but the long term effects are potentially fatal on the institution. It is also evident that the legality of these agencies’ power to retain and use public funds is at best vague and questionable. This is something for the opposition and public interest lawyers to investigate.
However, overall, there is clearly a big structural issue regarding the set up and running of the state. There is a level of disaggregation of the state, particularly in regard to these revenue-collecting and increasingly financially autonomous departments for which the traditional systems of democratic accountability and transparency are ill-suited. These are the kinds of policy issues that have a direct impact upon people’s day to day lives that political parties ought to seize and raise as the nation prepares for the next crucial elections.