The recent killing of television journalist David Mwangosi has thrown the issue of police brutality into unprecedentedly sharp focus, mainly because of the very public nature of the slaughter and the gory images that came out of the scene and travelled the world.
It was a long time coming and — however utterly reprehensible and revolting it may seem to us today — it may yet be only the beginning of worse things to come, the harbinger of a looming cataclysmic explosion waiting to happen when all the ingredients of greed and gluttony, arrogance and foolish pride, cluelessness and obstinacy… all confluence to teach us once again that those who doubt the truth of death ought to look upon the grave.
And yet, even then, we may still not learn our lesson because, you see, we elected long ago not to be a learning community, preferring the comfort zone of the ignoramus to the irksome terrain of those who will draw inferences by taxing their brains or by educating their sensibilities.
For, what makes policemen killers when they – unlike the military — are not trained to kill whenever on a sortie of duty?
When in trouble – we are told they are taught — they take precautions to preserve themselves without killing their target; so they will shoot or otherwise act to dissuade, disable, maim or otherwise impair and render innocuous their quarry. When they shoot to kill it should be because all other means of restraint have failed.
This is the norm when the Tanzanian police are doing police things, keeping the peace by patrolling our streets, pursuing burglars or sniffing out street level drug pushers.
In fact, of late the police have embarked on a charm offensive to loop in the general public in a participatory security programme that relies heavily on civilian awareness, commitment and participation in policing work. For this our police have won genuine plaudits.
So, where is the problem? Why is it that the benign civility demonstrated by these guardians of the peace when employed in purely police work seems to suddenly desert them and leave in its place the granite fist of a brutal machine every time they are dealing with the political opposition? What is the cause of this Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality of our police force?
The answer is, as it is almost always the case in all our troubles, politics. The police force tends to do a great job when it’s doing what a police force is supposed to do.
It is when it is thrust into political issues that it behaves like a bull in a china shop because, simply, that is not its job. It is not the job of the police to answer opposition politicians on behalf of the ruling party, but, sadly, that is what our police force has been reduced to doing, and it’s doing it horribly badly.
Having run out of answers at a time when questions have multiplied, our rulers have resorted to trotting out the police to go and answer for them, that is, by disrupting opposition rallies that keep asking unanswerable questions.
It’s a throwback to the colonial era where, clearly, there was no way the foreign ruler could have found answers to the natives’ demands of independence, so he found his answer in police clubs crashing over nationalists’ skulls amidst tear gas fumes.
Just as the colonial authorities found no reason to apologise for whatever injury or death occurred during those incidents, our government finds it hard to offer an apology because, in a frightening sense, the police are simply delivering a political response from the rulers to the opposition and those who dare give them coverage: The media. The police have taken over.
If this impunity has installed itself so comfortably that officers go nonchalantly about their macabre business while knowing they are being filmed — even when they are disembowelling one of the cameramen – it speaks to a catastrophe yet to come, in 2015.
I am no Cassandra, but, mark my word, people will die.
Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political comentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]