When the cops are the robbers

The demise of the all-but-worthless Zimbabwe dollar and its replacement with foreign currency is being mirrored by a rise in violent crime, perpetrated particularly by police officers.

Rampant inflation, unofficially estimated at trillions of percent annually, saw the local currency withdrawn from circulation in April 2009 and officially replaced by foreign currencies, such as the South African rand, Botswana pula and US dollar.

A serving Zimbabwe National Army officer, who declined to be identified, told IRIN that junior soldiers and police officers were being driven to crime by desperation, as they suffered the same economic hardships as most of the population. However, unlike non-uniformed Zimbabweans - 94 percent of whom are thought to be unemployed - soldiers and police, like all public servants, enjoy a US$100 monthly wage.

"They have observed how senior security officers drive luxury cars, get free fuel for their multiple farms, and other benefits. Soldiers and police officers have no other skills which they can use to raise extra money - all they can do is to use guns, but when they get used to that lifestyle, they can easily become warlords," the army officer said.

"From a security point of view, what this means is there are underground armies, which can even be a danger to national security because nobody knows how many there are, and how many weapons are in their hands," he commented.

In late 2008, at the height of hyperinflation, soldiers embarked on a looting spree in the capital, Harare, over poor pay and non-payment. They were being paid in local currency, but maximum daily bank withdrawals were pegged at Z$500,000 (US$0.25). Soldiers also attacked Roadport, a regional bus station in Harare used by money changers, and robbed them of local and foreign currency.

Expensive goods

Political journalist Dumisani Muleya told IRIN that since the beginning of 2009, local newspapers have been awash with headlines like: "Four detectives face robbery charges", and "Bank Heist: Two cops in court", which illustrated the trend among security force personnel to resort to crime.

The dollarized economy has made goods and services more freely available, but at high prices, which was "causing some rogue elements within the security ... [forces] to use armed robbery as a way of raising extra income ... and that creates a climate of insecurity and instability," he said.

The numerous wars fought in the region, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Mozambique, have made it easier for criminals to access weapons, as have the policies instituted by President Robert Mugabe's government prior to the power-sharing deal that led to the formation of the unity government in February 2009.

Giles Mutsekwa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who heads the home affairs ministry with a counterpart from ZANU-PF as part of the deal, told IRIN that rogue elements were using government-issue guns to commit armed robberies, but the government was "getting on top of the situation, and there is no need for the population or visitors to get worried".

''We believe that when all the guns are surrendered, then we will be able to manage and control the upsurge of armed robberies involving serving and ex-servicemen and -women''

Handing out guns

During the violent 2008 presidential election period, guns were issued to government security personnel to intimidate people into voting for the ruling ZANU-PF.

"We have started a process to ensure that all guns that were issued are brought back, and that a completeinventory of the guns in the country is carried out. We believe that when all the guns are surrendered, then we will be able to manage and control the upsurge of armed robberies involving serving and ex-servicemen and -women."

Mutsekwa said there were also concerns about National Youth Service graduates, a pro-ZANU-PF youth militia who received "national values" education and military training, which was believed to include firearms instruction.

"We long identified the potential danger posed by former members of the youth service to communities if they continue to be unemployed while living in abject poverty, and those are areas that we are also looking into as a security ministry."