, Harare, Zimbabwe, Nov 23 – As Robert Mugabe’s regime tottered and fell, one immediate benefit that Zimbabweans celebrated with glee was the sudden absence of bribe-extracting police who were a symbol of life under his rule.
Endless police roadblocks were a notorious feature of every journey in Zimbabwe, with drivers reluctantly paying frequent bribes to evade long questioning over minor alleged offences.
But across Harare and along major national routes, barely a single police officer has been spotted since the military took over on November 14 and forced Mugabe to step down after 37 years in power.
During the turmoil, the absence of police — and the presence of the occasional armoured military vehicle on the streets — shed light on the dramatic political struggle that was fought behind closed doors.
Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri remained a key supporter of Mugabe and his wife Grace until the end — while army chief General Constantino Chiwenga led the military effort to unseat the president.
For ordinary Zimbabweans, the future under incoming president Emmerson Mnangagwa may be uncertain, but the disappearance of corrupt traffic officers has been a daily cause to relish Mugabe’s exit.
“I was paying bribes two or three times a week,” Norman Manzini, 35, a self-employed brokerage dealer who drives a 2004 Nissan March hatchback, told AFP.
“It is amazing, now my route is clear every day.
“Even when everything about your car was perfect, they could pull you over about some silly thing and claim there was a fine to pay. To get away, you had to pay $5 (4.20 euros) or even $10.”
– ‘All about cash’ –
Manzini dismissed fears that crime might rise with the police apparently confined to their stations.
“The army are not dangerous or corrupt,” he said. “They let people go about their daily lives.”
For everyday transport, many Zimbabweans rely on privately-run “kombi” mini-bus taxis — favoured targets for bribe-hungry police.
“There used to be so many police roadblocks, with the driver having to pay $1 or $2,” said kombi passenger Spiwe Azvigumi, 31, an unemployed mother of three.
“It was never about speeding or whatever, it was about them collecting cash. It was impossible to escape. Some kombi owners even arranged to pay their fines in advance.
“With the police off the roads, crime is actually down — they were so corrupt and now we are living free.”
– Faster commute –
Encounters with the police were often polite but lengthy, and anyone who tried to swerve around a checkpoint faced having their tyres deflated by spikes thrown across the road.
In recent days, traffic flow at key junctions in Harare where officers normally lurked has been smooth.
Many Zimbabweans say the police were under pressure from their seniors to bring in bribe money — and were set monthly targets.
Zimbabwe’s political crisis has so far been peaceful ahead of Mnangagwa’s inauguration on Friday.
Whether the police will soon return to streets under his new adminstration is unclear.
The political upheaval could also worsen the dire economy that has left Zimbabwe often unable to pay army and police salaries on time.
For Paddington Chichiri, 24, the historic developments for his country have also meant a much easier 18-kilometre (11 mile) commute by kombi bus from the suburb of Glen View.
“Even if you weren’t always pulled over, it used to take over 40 minutes to get through six or seven roadblocks,” he said.
“The police have just disappeared and now it takes less the 20 minutes.
“We don’t mind the army for now. They’re ok.”