This is not a silly question. Any of us that travel to South Africa – an incredibly violent and crime-ridden country – will notice immediately that the South African police do not walk the streets with automatic weapons. Ironically, it is the criminals that use automatic weapons. So why do the police in Zimbabwe need these, because after all we are a very peaceful country, and our violent crime rates nothing like South Africa. But, everywhere we go, we are faced with policemen holding automatic weapons, or walking along the streets (clearly not on duty) toting automatic weapons.
The reason for worrying about automatic weapons is not trivial. These should only be issued in times of war or extreme civil disturbances (when martial law needs to be declared). Otherwise, the police should rarely be armed, and, in Zimbabwe where violent crime is relatively rare, the police should usually manage without weapons or only revolvers, as is the case in South Africa.
Automatic weapons are a serious danger to people. Think about this little “thought experiment”. A man bursts into a bank, brandishing a long knife, and tells everyone to get on the floor and the tellers to give him the money. Or a man bursts into a bank brandishing an AK47, tells everyone to get on the floor and the tellers to give him the money. No bets as to which will be the successful robbery. It would probably be the same result even if the robber had only a revolver, but a weapon that can fire multiple bullets in quick succession, which can themselves pass through several people, is a significant threat. It is precisely because of the extreme dangers that automatic weapons pose to public safety that Amnesty International and many governments seek to control the sale of small arms, and especially automatic weapons.
In the aftermath of the Food Riots in 1998, human rights groups in Zimbabwe complained about the use of automatic weapons by the police, mainly because the police ended up killing innocent people. Subsequent civil cases against the police demonstrated very clearly that the weapons were used inappropriately and dangerously. Policemen fired their weapons in reckless fashion hoping to disperse the angry rioters, apparently unaware that the bullets fired into the ground would ricochet or bounce off walls, ending up killing or severely wounding innocent citizens. Forensic experts testified in court how dangerous automatic rifles were, especially when loaded with bullets designed for war.
Clearly, such dangerous weapons should be strictly controlled for public safety, but they proliferate around Zimbabwe, and everywhere we go we see policemen with these lethal instruments held casually in their hands. Why is this?
Are we at war? For sure we are not. Are we living through violent riots and extreme civil disturbance? Mostly we are not, but elections are pretty violent times as we learned in 2008. Are the weapons justified because Zimbabwe is an exceedingly violent society? We are not in general, but elections can be extremely violent, as we saw in 2002 and 2008. Perhaps the issue of these weapons is necessary for the protection of the state, which is under deep threat of being overthrown. This is laughable. Zimbabweans have committed to peaceful methods of regime change, using the ballot box (if they can).
So it seems that the only reason for the police being armed with automatic weapons is to protect a regime – ZANU PF – and, given that the police is without any doubt a highly partisan proxy force for ZANU PF, this means that the issue of weapons is for the intimidation of the ordinary citizen. And why does the Inclusive Government not stop this?