The Sunday Mail
GOVERNMENT is concerned by the growing number of errant police officers who are moonlighting as commuter omnibus drivers.
Of late, there have been growing incidents of rogue police officers who are using their respectable stations in society to do that which the public is being discouraged from doing.
Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) officers, who have smelt a business opportunity presented by the recent ban on private transport operators, are allegedly swapping handcuffs for the steering wheel of pirate — and often unlicensed — commuter omnibuses and taxis knowing full well that they can easily navigate through security checkpoints.
“As law enforcement agents, they should be maintaining order, but they are acting otherwise. No one is above the law, thus culprits need to be brought to book. What they are doing is illegal,” Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister Kazembe Kazembe told The Sunday Mail Society.
He said his office was inundated with reports of these growing infractions.
“We need the community to help us: take pictures or videos and send them to us. We need evidence to be able to make arrests, so this automatically means collective effort is crucial.
“The Covid-19 war is for everyone. We need to arrest and punish offenders to save lives,” he said.
Police officers are ordinarily expected to be exemplary sticklers for the law by not only upholding it, but also using it to protect the public and safeguard property.
Well, that is not always the case.
But there is one huge problem: There are now growing fears that in their pursuit for easy money, the officers could be putting the commuting public directly in harm’s way through offering a service that could be a super spreader of coronavirus.
An operation to account for the unscrupulous members of the force is now underway, according to ZRP spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.
“Members of the public should report and give specific, credible evidence so that action can be taken against these officers,” said Asst Comm Nyathi.
Currently, Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) buses and commuter omnibuses, including franchise holders, which are the only service mandated to provide mass public transport, follow strict health protocols on disinfecting vehicles and social distancing.
But the public transporter’s fleet is overwhelmed by demand for the service, especially following the recent relaxation of lockdown measures for formal businesses.
This has created an opportunity for the rogue officers.
The Sunday Mail Society has on several occasions bumped into some of the officers that are moonlighting either as drivers or conductors of the banned kombis.
In one of the incidents witnessed by the crew, a ZRP officer used his work identity card to breach two security checkpoints, while he was granted easy passage on the third security checkpoint ostensibly because he was in police uniform.
There are also rogue elements that allow passage to those without exemption letters for a fee.
For local routes in the capital, Harare, they charge between $20 and $30, or higher in some cases.
Our crew was last week asked to fork out $10 after pretending not to have an exemption letter.
But health authorities fear the cost in human lives could be even more as the virus spreads among commuters.
As most security checkpoints do not operate round-the-clock, kombis are using the window during peak periods before the checkpoints are mounted or after they are dismounted to transport desperate commuters.
Unlike the formal Zupco buses where face masks and hand sanitising is mandatory, pirate kombis care less about life-saving health protocols.
Some of the police officers opened up last week.
“Some of our workmates, mostly the senior officers, own these kombis. I realised they were making extra money through these operations, hence I decided to offer my services to them since I am a licensed driver,” revealed one of the officers, who elected to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Often, the time and energy is never enough for one to take up two strenuous shifts in a single day, so how then are they managing?
“I drive this kombi, two or three local trips per day; it does not pay much but at least you can put something on the table for the family. Others actually take some days off or go on leave to be on the road,” he said.
Jimmy, a Chitungwiza-based commuter omnibus operator who recently joined the Zupco franchise, complained against unfair competition that is coming from rogue police officers.
“Some of us had to grudgingly take the Zupco franchise deal as there was no way out.
“Three of my kombis are now operating under Zupco. However, it is disheartening to note that some of my colleagues and competitors who happen to be police officers are still operating as private kombis,” he said.
“It is very unfair, these guys consider themselves immune to the law and they do as they please. Some are even doing inter-city trips. At some point, I was tempted to do likewise.”
Another kombi driver, Guidance, said under the current circumstances, where some commuter omnibuses were allowed the carte blanche to continue simply because there are operated by police officers, it is tempting to conclude that the ban on private
operators was solely effected to punish them.
“It is very unfair for the police officers to be operating when we cannot because the ban is for everyone. No one is immune to the law, but they pass so easily at roadblocks and nothing is done. One wonders though how the police officers are breaching checkpoints . . .” queried Guidance.
“These officers are employed and yet still proceed to illegally operate kombis. The law should not be applied selectively. Responsible authorities need to act on this,” said another Gweru-based private transport operator.
The local death toll from the virus stood at 23 on Friday from more than 1 300 infections.
Worryingly, the number of local transmissions had risen to 346 by Thursday.